Sitting Idly By: Watching People Play Games

Going brain-dead can have its advantages. For instance, when you come home from a long day at work at your 8-5 and you just want to pop on the TV, forget that there’s an outside world, and soak in the fact that you don’t have to think about anything for the next 15 hours, it’s helpful to be able to be completely devoid of all thought and emotion. It’s basically voluntarily engaging in the catatonic state normally induced by watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which works in this case. You don’t need to execute or comprehend critical analysis; you just need to keep your eyes busy with all of the lights.

Watching video games, however, is not that.

I remember spending summers in elementary school just watching my sister, being older and thus more apt to handle things that require more advanced hand-eye coordination, play video games, namely Super Mario Bros. 2 on our SNES via a Super Mario All-Stars cartridge. It would have been easy to sit idly by and let the odd scenes unfold before me (I mean, fuck, guys, vegetables were pretty much immune to physics), but somehow I was wholly engaged. I felt as though I was playing, just without having to move my fingers.

Watching people play video games has never been a wasteful activity for me. I can cop to turning on the Food Network and tuning out or throwing on some random Pandora station and staring off into the distance, but not video games. When it comes to video games, I have to pay attention. I have to critique and appreciate the varying techniques and strategies I’m watching. I have to engage.

It comes down to, I guess, rooting for the underdog. It’s something everyone can identify with. I mean, who doesn’t like to watch Rudy, Miracle, or really any sports movie just for that reason alone. When I watch professional gamers play in tournaments or whatnot, there’s a bit of that element there, too, but those scenes are more about appreciating nuance and finesse. No, the type of gaming I’m talking about is watching the average person, the everygamer, struggle and overcome.

And it’s precisely because I know this particular person or group of people hasn’t mastered a game that I watch. Because you can identify with the Mighty Ducks or the Average Joes in that they are facing the unknown in hopes of eventual success, you watch and live at least a little bit vicariously through them and their victories. When I watch the Giant Bomb Endurance Run, I get the greatest joy in watching them struggle simply because I know later they will succeed.

Or at least I hope they will succeed. Watching in the face of the unknown is the compelling part. If I knew that someone was going to beat a particularly hard level or boss, I probably wouldn’t watch them play because then they cease to be the underdog. The favor switches to the player and nobody really wants to root for a video game to beat someone (that robot rebellion is not going to go over well). When they make a jump and you can hear—almost see—them straining and leaning to clear a pit or land on the next platform, I also am straining and leaning to make that jump. With every fiber of my being, I am pulling for you.

That’s not to say, however, it doesn’t get frustrating. Watching people get stuck on a puzzle I’ve solved by not even laying hands on a controller can be infuriating. Witnessing the seemingly endless deaths of Brad Shoemaker as he attempts to beat the Mile High Club of Call of Duty 4 on Veteran would drive just about anybody crazy. Of course it eventually pains you to watch the trials and tribulations of uncertain success, but that’s why the real stuff sticks with you so much harder than Hollywood. Yes, Hoosiers was a great movie and I’d like to watch it even now, but despite watching Gene Hackman & co. multiple times compared to watching the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup just the one time when it was broadcast live, that moment when Brandi Chastain hit the last goal of the shootout, dropping to her knees in celebration, is forever etched in my mind. The reason? Because they succeeded despite my deepest fears (and a bit of belief) that they wouldn’t.

The same goes for watching people play video games. Last night, a friend of mine and I were testing some streaming/recording options so we could record some Let’s Play-style videos (he’s in Tennessee, and I’m in Texas). What started out as us just checking if his computer could handle streaming, recording, and playing a video game all at once quickly turned into me just watching him figure out how to S-rank level 48 of EDGE and discovering how to get the cube out of the madness of the wavy green hills screen in Windosill. I had faith he would accomplish both, but the fact that I’d yet to see him do either was compelling to me. Watching him fail hurt me almost as much as it hurt him. His falls became my falls, his stumbles mine.

But his success also became mine. A victory for him would be the same for me. We failed together and we won together. It was us against the unknown.

I wonder what will happen today.

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