Runners on stage during Games Done Quick Express at TwitchCon2018 (original source)

What matters more, the speedrun or the stream? The origin of inclusivity on Twitch.

In September, I started conducting interviews with streamers who had managed to create inclusive spaces in their chats on Twitch. After having spent nine months observing how diversity was being manifested and negotiated, I had been struck by how, in contrast to esports, the retro speedrunning community seemed to be rather welcoming to marginalized folks. A quote from the former Twitch community manager was resonating deeply with me as I reached out to the first wave of potential participants:

“What speedrunning on Twitch does, and what watching these types of events live does, is it humanizes inhuman abilities” –Jared Rae (source: The Verge)

I had begun to hypothesize that the speedrunning community might be predisposed towards inclusivity because, on the one hand, its members were accustomed to bonding over their uncommon capacity to cultivate a seemingly superhuman ability, and on the other, the act of performing a marginalized identity and gaining acceptance from one’s peers is not unlike the act of humanizing a skill that laypeople might previously have misunderstood or maligned. I was eager to see if my hunch had legs. And, in the predictably unpredictable fashion of social science, I was surprised by what I found.

After talking with several highly talented gamers, I realized I had been missing a significant part of the picture. The first clue came as the streamers I spoke to reflected on the evolution of speedrunning.

“If you look at the history of speedrunning and put it up in a timeline compared to the history of streaming technology, the world record times for top level speedruns drop when streaming becomes popular and accessible, because its so much easier, and so much more fun, to put hours upon hours into grinding your game when you have even just a couple friends watching you, saying ‘hey,’ ‘good luck,’ ‘nice jump,’ ‘oh no, that run died!’ etc.”

The camaraderie of streaming clearly had a transformative effect on speedrunning, and it was obvious that the inclusivity I was initially struck by had more complex origins than I first theorized. I began to see some of my earliest observations in a new light. For example, after watching hundreds of hours of live speedruns, it seemed nearly universal that streamers and chatters alike almost exclusively used the first person plural when referring to in game activity and accomplishments (e.g. “our last run was a failure,” “we just got world record!”).

Originally I assumed this linguistic trend began with streamers who were trying to draw their viewers into the experience. However, after having spoken to many speedrunners it seems that this “we” not only reenforces the bonds between the individual members of a streamer’s chat, but it also simultaneously unites those viewers (be they speedrunners themselves or not) into a broader community of participation.

Strikingly, that speedrunning supercommunity defines itself in large part through its collective accomplishments. While at any given moment you can consult speedrun.com to see who holds the current world record for a particular game, every streamer I spoke to thus far emphasized the fact the “strats” (strategies) which enable runners to beat these games ever more quickly are the product of an ongoing group effort.

Streaming fundamentally altered speedrunning by creating a space which not only rendered a once solitary experience into a shareable one, but also unlocked fundamentally new patterns for knowledge creation and sharing. Rather than inventing strats and discovering glitches by themselves, Twitch chats opened up an entirely new venue for community learning to take place. I was genuinely surprised to see how acquiring the knowledge necessary to speedrun had become a primarily on stream affair for the folks I spoke to.

“I get most of the ideas [for strats] from people who are helping me in chat. They’ll tell me exactly why things work, what I could be going for. I really feel like when I learn a new game it’s mostly from people who are helping me in the chat.”

At the same time I was beginning to grasp how fundamentally important the participation in knowledge sharing was to members of the speedrunning community, I was also trying to make sense of exactly where the borderline between streamers who speedran, versus those who broadcast other types of content, should be drawn. The neat boundary line I had demarcated for myself about the culture I was studying began to truly disintegrate when asking the first folks I interviewed to recommend other inclusive streamers I should speak to. Notably, several of the streamers that were suggested to me had little to no affiliation with the speedrunning community.

Following these leads, I ended up observing casual gamers, varietycasters, and a host of creative streamers like cosplayers, artists, crafters and musicians. At this point, it was clear that I had opened up the next level of the inclusivity fractal. There was way more going on than I had realized. And increasingly I was beginning to suspect that speedrunning itself wasn’t a secret ingredient for fostering inclusivity, and that instead, the desire to engage in cooperative learning was the more salient characteristic that these streams shared.

The more I looked, the more it seemed that the drive to engage in informal learning, through shared communal experience, underpinned a wide range of the interesting behaviors I had first observed while watching speedrunners. I started to wonder if this inquisitive cultural mindset might actually be a prerequisite for inclusivity. And I began to see the the depths of the significance of a reflection one of my participants shared with me:

“I think I might have one of the most educated chats on Twitch. It’s strange, we’ll be talking about genitalia and then suddenly we’re talking about deconstructing the panopticon. Or sometimes it can just be a person talking about their job at a coffee plant. That’s when I’m having the most fun, when I’m learning from the chat about something. And apparently, for some people the most impressive thing about the stream to them is that I can be explaining, like, abstract queerness versus sexuality and gender queerness while playing a really hard Mario level.”

Streamers and viewers are co-creating communal spaces where new knowledge is explored and generated, and it’s clear that the scope of inquiry is not limited to speedrunning strats and high difficulty tricks. The learning taking place in these inclusive streams often takes the form of cultural exchange as folks from around the world share their life experiences with one another. While a drive to learn how to speedrun often drew my first batch of participants to the Twitch platform in the first place, a thirst for knowledge sharing clearly motivates the new crop of streamers I had begun observing as well.

Stepping back to make sense of what I was seeing, it was now obvious that if I truly wanted to understand the phenomenon I had first glimpsed a year ago, I would need to widen the purview of the study to fully embrace an exploration of inclusivity in its myriad manifestations on Twitch. In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say.

To dive straight into the deep end and immerse myself in this expansive culture, I decided to head out for TwitchCon last month to see how influential and intersectional the inclusive communities really were. IRL. And while I started this post with the intention of sharing the insights I gleaned from that expedition, instead of writing a quick paragraph to explain my motivation for going to TwitchCon, I ended up with an entire article. Suffice it to say, that I’m increasingly convinced that something revolutionary is happening on Twitch and that the rabbit hole is much deeper than it appears.

Interested in (joining) the study?

Read: an overview of the research.
Fill in: the participation request form.
Reach out to: johanna@netasnook.com.