Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Screenshot from animated video game. Two pixelated birds at the beach.

Roundtable: Voyeur Gaming

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Screenshot from animated video game. Two pixelated birds at the beach.
Nathan Wildman plays A Short Hike

Voyeur gaming is the phenomenon of watching, reading, or listening to others play (video) games. It has been around for as long as games have. Many of us have fond memories of sitting on the couch with friends or siblings, being wowed by someone else’s (lack of) skill. But the internet turned voyeur gaming into a proper phenomenon. From humble beginnings as a thread in the Something Awful forums, voyeur gaming is now a full blown industry, with millions upon millions of people eagerly awaiting the next video from their favorite YouTuber or Twitch streamer, some of whom earn over $18 million a year. Meanwhile, game companies are paying streamers to play (and build hype for) new releases, and are specifically designing their games with voyeur gaming content creation in mind.

With the rise of Twitch and esports, it is fair to say that voyeur gaming has become a significant part of our culture.

But, for all that, little has been written about the aesthetic aspects of voyeur gaming. The following collection of posts set out to partially address this lacuna.

Our Contributors:

  • Nathan Wildman, Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Tilburg University
  • Javier Gomez-Lavin, Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Purdue University
  • Brandon Polite, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Knox College
  • Shelby Moser, Senior Adjunct Professor of Games and Interactive Media at Azusa Pacific University and Part-Time Assistant Professor at Rio Hondo College
  • Rissa Willis, PhD student at the University of Georgia
  • Nele Van de Mosselaer, Postdoctoral researcher in Philosophy at the University of Antwerp
  • Anthony Cross, Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Texas State University

Nathan Wildman

Nathan Wildman is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Tilburg University. You can follow him and his work via his website and on Twitter @nwildman117.

But you’re not even playing! The anti-voyeur objection

Confession time: I spend *way* too much time reading, watching, and listening to Let’s Plays (LPs, for short). Sadly, attempts to share this passion are often met with disdain. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard something like, “Why would you want to watch someone else play a game?!?”

There’s one sense in which this is just a way to express anti-game sentiments—it is a roundabout way of saying something like, ‘games are stupid, and watching someone play them doubly so’. If that’s all that’s behind the dismissal, then I don’t have much to say other than: ‘Go play Journey and tell me games are stupid’.

But there’s a more interesting complaint, based on the inherently interactive nature of games. Because games are interactive, proper appreciation requires playing them. If you’re just watching someone else play the game, you’re not engaging with it in the right way. Seeing ain’t doing, and proper critical engagement with a game requires some doing. For example, if you only ever watched LPs of Celeste or Getting Over It without playing them, then you are missing out on the aspects of overcoming adversity that are key parts of these games.

I think this version of the objection has some teeth. But what should someone like me say in response?

One reply is to appeal to accessibility issues, broadly understood. For example, my arthritis makes it hard for me to play fast-twitch run’n’guns like Steel Assault, but I can watch a no-hit LP to have a vicarious playing experience. Similarly, a single parent who doesn’t have 40 free hours to invest in Final Fantasy Legend can (indirectly) engage with this amazing game by reading a screenshot LP.

Screenshot Let's Play from Final Fantasy Legend shows player defeating an enemy in a Pokémon style animation.
The saw is family

This accessibility reply undercuts some of the objection. And it also concedes some ground to the objector, leaving space for saying that directly playing the game would be in some sense better (though it doesn’t have to!).

A second response is to say that, in many cases, engaging with the game isn’t the real point. To make sense of this, let’s distinguish between four broad LP types.

Performances highlight players’ (lack of) ability or game knowledge. Watching one of these is a bit like watching someone playing a sport—we are in it to see feats—and sometimes, feets—of skill, competition between adept players, or someone trying (and failing!) to overcome a challenge.

Screenshot of video game. Mario dives after a bomb
Vicas playing Super Mario 64 with his feet

Commentaries are often only loosely structured around the captured gameplay, which takes a backseat to banter, critical analysis, or social engagement. In my experience, most YouTube gamers and Twitch Streamers fall into this category (for better or for worse).

Creations use captured gameplay elements to produce some new work—e.g., Chewbot’s The Terrible Secret of Animal Crossing uses Animal Crossing screenshots to tell an original story about an animal-mask-wearing, child-abducting cult, and Ross Scott’s Freeman’s Mind, based on him playing through Half-Life.

Fan-made poster of Animal Crossing designed to look like a horror movie. NPCs from the game loom over the player with red in their eyes.
Image by Demon Allie on the Something Awful Forums

Finally, Curations aim to direct focus onto (elements of) the game itself by providing a curated, complete playthrough, like with Supergreatfriend’s Deadly Premonition or Zen’s Gods Will Be Watching. Here the LPer is showing off the game, often warts and all.

Distinguishing the types makes it clear that many LPs aren’t even strictly about the games that they feature; instead, they are about displaying players’ skill, the fun banter, or presenting a novel work. So, when it comes to performances, commentaries, and creations, the objection looks misplaced.

Of course, there are still some LPs—namely, the curations—that are about the games. Nothing I’ve said here gets them out of Dodge. And that’s a problem for me, because these are without a doubt the LPs I like the most!

Still, this blow can be softened a bit by noting that it is extremely rare to find a pure curation LP. In fact, most LPs are combinations of the above. For example, Chip & Ironicus’ Uncharted 2 is a blend of performance, commentary, and curation, as is voiceofdog’s LISA: The Painful. And perhaps the best LP I’ve ever seen, Bacter’s Laura Bow: The Colonel’s Bequest, synthesizes all four types. (Seriously: go watch this, it is amazing!). And, in the case of hybrids, we can appeal to their non-curation aspects to justify engaging with them.

The upshot is that watching LPs can (often) be vindicated, either in terms of accessibility matters or by comparison to watching sports, listening to stand-up comedy, or engaging with some net.art. Now excuse me, as I have to go and rewatch MyNameIsKaz’s “no click” Necromancer Diablo 2 run….


Javier Gomez-Lavin

Javier Gomez-Lavin is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Purdue University. For more, visit his website at https://jgomezlavin.com or follow him on Twitter @jgomezlavin.

What virtuoso gamers show us about the instrumentality of videogames

There are lots of reasons motivating folks to watch other people play games. While each of them is worth a deep dive, I’m going to focus on one that reflects my own experience as a devoted 90s and early-aughts gamer. Namely, the kind of aesthetic pleasure one can derive from watching a virtuoso excel when engaging with a site for skilled action. Put more simply, it’s fun being blown away by an absolute master skillfully interacting with their instrument or artform of choice.

Philosopher and former professional ballet dancer Barbara Montero has written about how awareness of one’s body and movements in dance (and perhaps in other expert “performances”) may be an “aesthetic sense” in itself and may explain why we’re drawn to watch others dance. Moreover, it appears as though avid spectators of ballet—though not expert dancers themselves—can “covertly” mimic those movements which they’ve seen time and time again. As a result, the aesthetic qualities of a dancer’s movements are available to spectators and not just to the dancers themselves.

It’s clear that the dancers’ bodies are the sites of skillful action we attend to when watching others dance. The sites for skilled action when watching others play videogames, I argue, are the motions of hands and fingers (or at times legs and feet) on a controller. It’s through a concerted series of continuous (e.g. joystick, mice, and analog triggers) and discreet (button tapping) inputs that the program running on the console or computer directs those downstream aesthetic properties we associate with gaming (the sounds and pretty animations). A focus on these physical sites for embodied action, which has been missing from earlier accounts of videogame ontology, helps redirect a conceptual emphasis on the embodied and gestural practices that determine the aesthetic qualities of the player’s playthrough.

While we can be wowed by a virtuoso gamer’s interfacing with a controller—think back to the shear physicality of a Dance Dance Revolution competition (or in any other rhythm game from Guitar Hero to Taiko no Tatusjin, a take on traditional Japanese drumming)—this only scratches the surface of a virtuoso’s potential range. Just as we can be mesmerized by a pianist’s dexterity pulling off a Rachmaninoff number (the YouTuber Rousseau’s renditions that echo the rhythm game format are worth a watch), it’s only by pairing the physicality of the inputs with their downstream aesthetic properties—the sounds and sights produced—that we can begin to capture the intuition of an aesthetic virtuoso.

The preceding points allow us to give a plausible (and empirically testable) narrative explaining why I and countless others enjoy watching expert, or virtuoso, playthroughs of videogames: experience with videogames gives us access to an aesthetic sense of the embodied action that comes from repeatedly engaging with these sites for skillful action. Though I’d argue that this usually happens by physically playing the videogame with a controller, the study of dance spectators suggests—and here I think it’s crucial to acknowledge the experience of differently abled people—that this may occur with spectation alone. In other words, we don’t just see what the players are doing on screen; we also feel some of what they’re doing with their hands. Along the same lines, we can feel some of what the pianist playing Rachmaninoff is doing by watching them play. This leads Jerrold Levinson to argue that a complete understanding and appreciation of musical expressivity requires an understanding of the corresponding gestures that stem from a musician’s embodied playing of their instruments, in addition to hearing the auditory results of their playing. This aesthetic sense of the player’s embodied activity can, in turn, drive people to seek out and appreciate virtuoso playthroughs of both pieces of music and videogames. In this way, there seems to be a strong parallel between videogame controllers and musical instruments, as both are sites for skilled action that have been too often ignored in the philosophical literature surrounding their respective artforms. To extend Levinson’s insights to videogames, it may be that a complete understanding of the aesthetic properties and virtues of a videogame playthrough requires an ability to perceive the gestures involved.

What does this player based account of the instrumentality of videogames buy us? Well, I think it helps us explain why folks are fascinated with players like Peco, who is renowned for their Zelda Breath of the Wild playthroughs. Some of my favorites capture Peco’s hands on the controller in real time as they play (poor quality screenshot below), which I think helps illustrate just what I mean when I say that videogames are paradigmatically sites for skilled action. 

Screenshot from Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Link attacks a Lionel in a field. Lower left corner shows players hands holding the controller.

But also I think it helps explain why gamers are dazzled by players who use unconventional control schemes, such as bearzly, who beat the notoriously unforgiving Dark Souls with only a series of voice commands; or “Greg,” known as the virtuoso “piano man,” who competitively plays the fighting game Dragon Ball FighterZ with a mini-keyboard (screenshot below).  

Greg "The Piano Man" sitting with an unknown person at a gaming convention playing using a mini-keyboard.

Shifting our focus away from what’s happening on the screen and toward what the players are doing with their hands (or bodies) draws our attention to a fundamental fact about videogames that has been hidden in the background in a lot of philosophical work on them: namely, that videogames are things that players play.


Brandon Polite

Brandon Polite is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He is also host of the YouTube series “Polite Conversations: Philosophers Discuss the Arts.” Follow him on Twitter @BrandonPolite2.

Game Spectation as Shared Experience

Game spectation can take many forms, and there’s a good chance you’ve engaged in a variety of them. Maybe you would watch someone play Pac-Man in the arcade while waiting to play it. Or maybe you’d hang out with a friend each weekend as she made her way through all three discs of Final Fantasy VII. Perhaps you’ve attended Street Fighter tournaments, or enjoy watching Space Quest Let’s Plays on YouTube. Or maybe you’re among the millions who tune in live to watch famous Twitch streamers like Pokimane or Myth play Fortnite or League of Legends. What I’m interested in here is the extent to which those participating in these activities can share aesthetic experiences with one another. 

Arcade with several Pac-man cabinets. Two children crowd around one to play/watch the game.
Image source: kottke.org

I’ve argued elsewhere that to share an aesthetic experience with others we all must attend to the same aspects of a given object. Those aspects are the object’s aesthetic properties: the hauntingness of a singer’s voice, the delectable spiciness of a curry, and so on. The more our individual responses to those properties align (the more closely haunted or delighted we are by the singer’s voice or the curry’s spiciness), and the more we’re all aware of this, the more deeply we’ll share the experience.

It’s clear that we can share aesthetic experiences as game spectators. This is because there’s a lot we can do to coordinate our individual experiences so that we’re co-experiencing the game being played. Most importantly, we can talk about the aesthetic qualities of the game (its visual and sound designs, its narrative, etc.) or of the gameplay (the beauty of a player’s actions, the coldness of their strategy, the deftness of their skill, etc). But we can also cheer or groan in response to the same in-game actions, slap five after rad moves, etc. This sort of co-experiencing can happen both in person (hanging out with friends or at a tournament) and online (in a chatroom or over Zoom). Indeed, one of the main reasons that so many people watch others play games is that we find real value in sharing experiences within a community of similarly-interested others.

It’s less clear, though, whether players can share their aesthetic experiences with those watching them play. First, players may not be attending to a lot of what grabs the aesthetic attention of those watching them, such as how they look while playing the game or the game’s visual aesthetics. This is because their attention is otherwise occupied with playing the game: carefully moving the pieces on the board, frantically pushing the buttons on the controller, intricately moving their bodies (as with DDR), anticipating their opponent’s next moves and planning their responses, and so on. Second, since players experience the game from the inside, they may have access to aesthetic qualities that aren’t available to those merely watching it: the delicacy of a seemingly simple move, the sting of being narrowly defeated in a particular way, and the like. (This is something that C. Thi Nguyen has argued for in his book Games: Agency As Art.)

I’ll grant that players sometimes won’t pay much attention to what the spectators are focusing on in the game. But over the course of a playthrough there will be many moments when players and spectators are attending to the same aesthetic properties. (Even while performing a complicated task, a player may still notice how the game looks or how its music feels.) This just means that the degree to which players and spectators share the experience will fluctuate over time, which will also be true of any two spectators watching the game being played. I’ll also grant that many of a game’s aesthetic properties are only available to those playing it. However, this won’t be true of all of them. For one thing, those spectators who have played that game before will have a good sense of what the player is going through. For another, players can talk to spectators about what they’re thinking and feeling while playing the game. 

Four seniors playing Wii on a couch
Image source: Mental Floss

This latter sort of interaction is common when you’re on the couch with the player because you’ll often talk through the game with them: pointing out things they may have missed, offering tips, helping them figure out puzzles, etc. It’s also common on Twitch, as streamers will often ask you for specific strategies to follow or other forms of help. In either case, you’re directly contributing to the gameplay; so, there’s a sense in which you’re co-playing the game and thereby co-experiencing it with the player. This can only happen with synchronous playthroughs: that is, when watching the people play live. It can’t happen with asynchronous ones, such as Let’s Plays, since what you’re watching happened in the past.

Recognizing that game spectation can be a valuable site of shared aesthetic experience for both spectators and players helps to explain why millions of people regularly engage in the activity.


Shelby Moser

Shelby Moser is a Senior Adjunct Professor of Games and Interactive Media, Philosophy and Art at Azusa Pacific University and Part-Time Assistant Professor at Rio Hondo College. She mostly writes on the philosophy of games and interactive digital art.

Appreciating Role-Playing: Gaming as Performance

HarmonQuest (Harmonious Claptrap 2016-2019) and Critical Role (Critical Role Productions 2012-present) are popular shows that feature professional entertainers playing fantasy roleplaying adventures. The success of these online shows, and others, has made the players (and their characters) relatively well-known. But if names such as Dan Harmon (Fondue Zoobag), Erin McGathy (Bear O’Shift), Matthew Mercer (Dungeon Master), and Ashley Johnson (Yasha Nydoorin) aren’t familiar to you, names of their guest players, like Aubrey Plaza (Hawaiian Coffee) and Joseph Manganiello (Arkhan), most likely are. According to their website, Critical Role amasses over half a million viewers each week so, given the success of these shows, there’s no denying Table Top Role Playing Games (TTRPGs) are enjoyable to watch – even if we prefer playing them. But are spectators watching these shows as ‘a game’? It’s my view that, regardless of how we intend to watch TTRPGs, our enjoyment often becomes less about the game and more about performance.

Illustration shows characters from Harmon Quest walking up a medieval stairwell.
Illustration of Hawaiian Coffee, played by Aubrey Plaza, in the Harmon Quest series | Image Source: IMDB

Clearly, to make the point above, I’ll need to make some distinctions between how I’m using the terms ‘game’ and ‘performance’. 

Games are comprised of, among other things, rules, interactivity, and obstacles. Interactivity is a defining feature of most games and distinguishes gameplay from many other performative activities. Importantly, interactivity allows variable outcomes from a single game because TTRPGs, unlike a movie that will always end in the same way, can support vastly different outcomes, even more so than standard games. For example, TTRPGs can be wholly tragic, happy, horrific, and more, depending on how it is played each time. 

Performance works are not typically interactive and, therefore, don’t normally entail different outcomes. Like players, performers also follow rules (e.g., musical score or dance choreography), but they generate set outcomes. Romeo & Juliet, for example, cannot end tragically at one time and happily at another. Additionally, unlike games, performance works prescribe artistry, so, while a dancer cares about achieving a particular skill just as a player does, she also cares about how that skill is executed and, in principle, that it’s viewed artistically. 

Although games don’t normally prescribe audiences or artistry, they can and do allow performative moments because, in addition to following rules to achieve goals, players can also interpret certain rules of a game. Players’ choices and actions are constrained by the rules of TTRPGs, which are often determined by dice and character class abilities. Rule interpretation allows players a degree of performative creativity, which might be in how a player role-plays their character or in how they uniquely use their relevant weapons and abilities or creatively use established lore of the TTRPGs for their benefit.

Because TTRPGs allow for strong degrees of player interpretation, they can be especially interesting to watch. However, it’s my belief that spectators attend to the performative features significantly more than the gameplay features, to the degree they’re no longer appreciated as games. Consider this famous clip from Critical Role featuring Joe Manganiello, Arkhan Steals the Hand of Vecna.

Youtube thumbnail showing Joe Manganiello against a D&D-style character background.
How Joe Manganiello Stole the Hand Of Vecna and Became Canon | Image Source: Bell of Lost Souls

Although this clip doesn’t show dice rolls or ability checks, we can presume some degree of rule following occurs, such as players making sure their character has the abilities, tools, and stats needed to try and make certain actions (players can’t create them out of thin air). That means we can presume Arkhan has knowledge of the goddess Tiamat in order to pray to her, an accessible axe, enough healing to cast, and an ability to teleport. Manganiello’s move exemplifies a highly interpretive and performative moment in the game where he combines presumably authorized abilities and tools in a unique way. In other words, like a dancer or musician, Manganiello seems to care about how he achieves an outcome, not just that he achieves it. His interpretation is clearly appreciated by the other players and, judging from the number of times it’s been viewed on YouTube, continues to be appreciated by a broad audience.

Animated dragon with 5 heads breathes fire.
Original illustration from the 1980s animated series Tiamat rocked! | Image Source: Basement Rejects 

So, do spectators watch TTRPGs as games or as performances? TTRPGs are interactive, are (lightly) rule-based, they can be performative, and can certainly be entertaining to watch. It is my view that when an TTRPG strikes a balance between gameplay and performative play, it is possible to watch it as a game. Perhaps this is more easily achieved while watching video game RPGs such as Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios), because the computer automates and maintains a balance (to some degree) between gameplay and performance. TTRPGs run a greater risk of being watched as performances–especially ones featuring celebrity actors and entertainers–if the gameplay features are drastically minimized. So, while TTRPG shows like Critical Role remain highly popular to watch, I suspect they’re predominantly enjoyed as performances rather than as games.


Rissa Willis

Rissa Willis is a PhD student at the University of Georgia whose work focuses on storytelling and interactive fiction. You can follow them on Twitter @Just_Rissa_

It Hits Different: How the Variability of Playthroughs Makes Each Unique

The game I’ve probably spent the most time watching other people play is Hitman. It’s a game with seemingly infinite different ways to play, and while I’ve spent many hours playing Hitman myself, I also love watching other people play the exact same missions that I’ve already accomplished, whether it’s my friends or strangers online. But why would I want to spend even more hours watching other people pilot Agent 47 around the exact same levels, when I’ve already done them? I would suggest that it’s because each time someone plays a game like Hitman, what they’re doing is generating a unique work of art. Now, even those who are more than ready to call games themselves works of art might be somewhat hesitant to call each individual “playthrough” of a game a work of art, but this is exactly what I mean.

Loading screen from Hitman shows assassin's tools organized on a table
Screen cap of loading screen from Hitman taken by the author

For comparison, I would ask: Why have I watched Much Ado About Nothing so many times? I’ve seen at least five different productions of the play – some on stage, some on screen. They’re all the same play, but they’re also different each time. Now, it may be that there is value in re-watching anything (for instance, I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve watched the Lord of the Rings films). But with films, what we’re actually watching stays the same every time. You might notice different things, but the input, the fictional content, is the same. Theatrical productions, on the other hand, can change each time not only from production to production, but even performance to performance. One night Benedick may say “I shall die in thy lap” as a dedicated, passionate vow, and the next night the same Benedick (the same actor) might deliver the same line, “I shall die in thy lap”, in the tone of a suggestive joke. It’s the same play, but the “input” to our imaginations changes.

In Mimesis as Make-Believe, Kendall Walton says that there is a difference between what is “fictional” and what is “imagined” (pp. 39-43). This means several things, but we might say that when I rewatch a film, what I imagine might change, but what’s fictional stays the same. But with each performance of a play, what I imagine and what’s fictional can both change. The same is true for games (This comparison is reflective of Aaron Meskin & Jon Robson’s work here).

Each time someone plays a game they generate a unique “playthrough.” Each playthrough is an instance of its respective game in the same way that each performance of Much Ado is an instance of the same play. In some games, playthroughs can have a similar structure but still differ wildly from each other – games like Skyrim or Hitman. In more linear games like Tomb Raider or BioShock, each playthrough looks much more similar to its counterparts, but each can still have variations, like what weapon is used when. But no matter the scale of change, my playthrough contains different fictional content than yours, and so, at least by Waltonian standards, may be said to be a unique work.

Because of the variable nature of games, watching other people play games can show me new fictional content from the game that may not have featured in my own, like secret collectables I never found or branches of dialog I didn’t take, or even just different styles and approaches to gameplay. Sure, I’ve taken out the targets in Hitman’s Paris level before, I used the fireworks as a distraction and got them both with a sniper rifle from the pier. But you did the whole thing with nothing but an exploding rubber duck and a fire axe, all while dressed as a clown? That’s an approach I haven’t seen before, and a very different fiction than my own.

Because of this, we may say that watching someone else play a game, whether we have already played the game ourselves or not, has a similar value to watching more than one performance of a play. If I heard that my university was putting on a production of Much Ado About Nothing, I wouldn’t object to going simply because I’ve seen the play before. Just so, I’ve played Hitman before, but still enjoy watching other people play it too. Their playthroughs are unique works of art, with different though related fictional content to my own. And so, if we can say that witnessing the individual instances of any work of art with multiple instances of variable content has value (a play, a symphonic performance, a band’s live show), we ought to conclude that watching other people play games has value too.


Nele Van de Mosselaer

Nele Van de Mosselaer, postdoctoral researcher in Philosophy (Research Foundation – Flanders) at the University of Antwerp.

Let’s Play Wrong: Behind the Scenes of Digital Games

Watching someone play Grand Theft Auto IV might be fun, but have you considered watching someone play Grand Theft Auto IV all wrong? Someone who, for example, keeps deliberately driving their in-game vehicles into a swing set and being catapulted away?

As C. Thi Nguyen writes, playing a digital game involves encountering its software and relevant hardware in a specific way, that is, according to rules and prescriptions fixed by its developers. Yet, nothing stops players from ignoring such prescriptions and instead engaging with digital games as flawed and manipulable digital artifacts. Indeed, the ‘let’s plays’ that interest me most are those where people play wrong. These videos have a doubly voyeuristic appeal: besides displaying other people engaging with digital games, they also reveal game aspects that developers never intended players to see. They allow us a look behind the scenes of games, by exposing malfunctions and ways to exploit them, or uncovering what is outside of the gameworld’s boundaries. Moreover, I think the interactions and game aspects that are highlighted in these videos, even though they were never intended to be part of the game experience, have specific aesthetic value.

When playing games right, players experience modes of agency that game designers have crafted for them. When playing wrong, players actively rebel against the designed game experience and create alternative agencies. Players of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, for example, found a way to leverage a glitch and trick the game into thinking that the player-character is always underwater. This effectively made it possible for this character to swim through the air, as shown below.

The player-character in Sekiro, airswimming several meters above a lake.
Fragment taken from Djxyz0’s “Sekiro – Fly Anywhere Glitch”

This practice presents players with a whole new perspective on the fictional world of Sekiro, as well as new strategies to tackle its challenges. Game-practices like ‘airswimming’ are not possible by design, but shaped by obscure and accidental possibilities for interaction that the game offers as an imperfect piece of software. This means that playing wrong can be incredibly hard to pull off, as it might involve motoric or technical skills that designers would never dream of requiring from players. This makes ‘let’s play wrong’ videos ideal contexts for showing off virtuoso button-pressing and creativity.

This skill requirement might explain why people often don’t play wrong themselves, but rather watch other people do it. The practice of ‘super swimming’ (using a glitch to swim extremely fast) in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, for example, can only be initiated by flicking the control stick back and forth fifteen times per second – a feat few can accomplish. Moreover, it is not only easier, but often also far more fun to watch someone else struggle to break a game than to do it yourself. Watching Stryder7x’s sped up footage of him skipping a level in Paper Mario by pushing a non-playable character (NPC) to the edge of the map, one pixel at a time, for 78 minutes, is likely more entertaining than going through this excruciating process yourself. Stryder7x himself seems to agree, ending his video with the words “Why do this? I don’t know. But it is possible.”

Indeed, playing games wrong can have aesthetic value because of the sheer comedy involved. By emphasizing and abusing contradictions between the fictional events a game is intended to present and the underlying coding of these events, ‘let’s play wrong’ videos can reveal how games are inherently comic technologies. HelixSnake, for example, highlights the odd behavior of fictional objects and characters in Skate 3 by manipulating the rigid computer-logic that governs it. Similarly, LimitBreakers’ video “Is it possible to LIVE in LAVA?” shows how the player-character in Dark Souls III, who would normally die within seconds of walking into lava, can simply hold up a shield to block lava damage, standing knee-deep in a fiery pool without a care in the world.

Lastly, game-breaking practices, even though they specifically target unintentional aspects of games, can be used to learn about games’ fictional worlds. This is illustrated by Lance McDonald’s investigations of games’ coding, earlier versions, and cut content, which often play a decisive role in arguments about what is supposedly ‘canonically fictional’ in games. At one point, McDonald changed the camera angle in the last cutscene of one of Sekiro’s endings revealing an object that normally would have remained outside of view: the severed head of Genichiro, one of the game’s antagonists. Although McDonald unearthed this information not by playing through the game but by engaging with its code, it could be (and often is) considered proof of Genichiro’s death within the game narrative.

‘Let’s play wrong’ videos can thus be aesthetically valuable as demonstrations of (skillfully executed) alternate agencies, as comic entertainment, or even as research that contributes to reconstructing game narratives. More generally, these videos illustrate that we should not automatically exclude elements of a work from aesthetic appreciations just because its creators did not intend these elements to be experienced. After all, can one truly claim to have fully appreciated the gameworlds of Paper Mario, Sekiro, and Dark Souls III without knowing about the hidden practice of NPC-pushing, Genichiro’s head, and how to safely live in lava?


Anthony Cross

Anthony Cross is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Texas State University, where he will be an Assistant Professor as of Fall 2022. His research in aesthetics focuses on the ethical significance of our relationships with artworks and other cultural objects. He has further research interests in ethics and the history of philosophy, and he also spends way too much time on the internet.

Everyone’s a Critic: How Twitch is Like Art Criticism

The first time I played Dark Souls, I remember a feeling of complete disorientation: what am I supposed to do about that massive demon that just dropped from the sky and seems intent on crushing me with a hammer? How am I even supposed to stay alive, instead of just endlessly dying? People think that playing this game is fun!?

I’d love to say that this was the start of a Rocky-style training montage leading to complete game mastery—but it’s just not true. I’ve played enough now to be serviceable at the game, but I’m by no means great. What’s important is that feeling of disorientation—of having no idea what you’re doing, let alone how you’re supposed to make the experience worthwhile. I think that this kind of experience isn’t unique to gaming; it’s an experience that often accompanies our first encounters with art. 

Think about seeing a Donald Judd box for the first time, or trying to read Ulysses: what do I do with this? Quite often in these circumstances we turn to criticism. Stanley Cavell writes that “criticism has as its impulse and excuse the opening of access between the artist and his audience, giving voice to the legitimate claims of both.” In criticism, we look to critics to open such channels. As I’ve argued elsewhere, good critics model modes of engagement that both meet our needs and which are responsive to what’s there in the art. They show us how to look, listen, or read. They do this in different ways: think of Dave Hickey’s personal memoirs, James Woods’s guidance on reading literature, or Artur Danto’s philosophical musings. In their own way, each of these critics shows us what we can do with what’s in front of us. 

I think we turn to playthroughs in the same way, and that watching a Let’s Play video or a game stream on Twitch can have the same kind of value for us as reading criticism. When I watch someone play through a game like Dark Souls, I see them modeling a way of engaging with the game. Sometimes, this can be useful simply as an instructive walkthrough—I can learn what to do just to stay alive and have fun. At other times, I might value watching a playthrough to see what kinds of play is possible. Speedrunning bends a game to the point of breaking, exploiting skips and glitches to complete a game as fast as possible. Flawless no-hit runs demonstrate technical virtuosity and mastery over a game’s mechanics. Playing only with voice commands or playing modded versions of the game showcase completely non-standard—and hilarious—ways of playing.

Now, I’m not arguing that Twitch streaming or Let’s Play videos actually are instances of art criticism—something that would no doubt be a major surprise to their creators! The point I want to make is more modest: in a world of culture, none of us can go it alone. Sometimes, this is because we’re clueless in first encountering a new aesthetic object or practice. At other times, we recognize our limitations as individual agents. Looking to the way that others engage solves the first problem by offering guidance, and the second by giving us a sense for what’s possible in our aesthetic lives. 

2 Comments

  1. I live streamed my analysis of your roundtable on Twitch. Here is the vod/ Youtube Link: https://youtu.be/EmfPQlhRw-M

  2. So cool :D! I loved reading this. I have been into gaming a lot since the pandemic hit. Reading other great players’ experience is really great for newbies like me. Thank you for sharing these. Keep posting more!!

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