Twitch Plays Game Design: Audience Participation in Games

September 20, 2016
Students on computer

To anyone who has played a family board game or turned on a video game with a group of friends in the basement, the idea of watching games can be as common as actually playing them. In some cases, watching is the inevitable consequence of a game's player limit. Players choose to watch, but only while waiting for their turn to play. In other cases, it might be a personal preference to observe the game, rather than play.

It's this growing preference to participate in games through watching that has caught the interest of game designers at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII), and they are doing more than just observing this trend. From new classes to an interdisciplinary research project, faculty members at the HCII are delving into this new field of audience participation with vigor.

Experiencing pleasure through observation, rather than play or direct interaction, is not an inherently new phenomenon. Just ask any of the thousands of sports fans flooding into stadiums (or tuning in on television) for any given sports event, especially here in Pittsburgh. However there is still little research dedicated to the audience or crowd involved with online gaming.

The recent surge of interest in participation through observation in games comes with the rising influence of cloud technology. An audience no longer means your friends huddled around you while you play; it can now mean a massive number of viewers thanks to online streaming technologies like Twitch or the Let's Play communities on YouTube.

What researchers like Jessica Hammer, an assistant professor jointly appointed between the HCII and the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), want to know is how the influence of the cloud and the crowd affects game design innovation? What is the future of audiences in games? Who better to ask than students at Carnegie Mellon University?

Both Hammer and HCII Associate Professor Jeffrey Bigham are teaching a new class this fall in the HCII, informally known as "Twitch Plays Game Design." The class is designed to look at foundational game design questions around audiences in games. Students will build on existing research and technical approaches to develop solutions for questions like how to scale games for massive audiences, how to make games that allow audiences to meaningfully participate, and how to enhance the pleasure of game-watching itself.

The class represents one of the unique aspects of studying and working in such an interdisciplinary space as human-computer interaction. "It's the classic HCI tripod," said Hammer of the class, which offers students in multiple disciplines numerous ways to get involved in portfolio-worthy work.

"There are wonderfully interesting and difficult problems for students to master in game design," said Hammer. "I don't believe that every student who takes this class will end up as a game designer per se, but for both designers and technical students, this class is the opportunity to create portfolio pieces that will help them in the future."

She adds that for behavioral or social science students, games are the ideal place to observe human behavior.

"This is one of the most interesting laboratories to watch human behavior. You control the environment and get to watch how people react."

While the class has practical applications for technology, behavioral and design students, Hammer explains that she is most excited about the opportunity for the outcomes of the class to extend beyond the end of the semester. Hammer is currently working on a two-year research project with Bigham and ETC faculty Chris Klug. The project, Audience Participation Games Project, explores large-scale collaboration in gameplay as enabled by the emergence of crowd and cloud technologies.

Thanks to the novel nature of this research, students in Hammer and Bigham's "Twitch Plays Game Design" course will have an opportunity to apply their student work outcomes to a greater project, and in some cases, possibly stay on to continue their research.

"Students will be designing for a future that isn't realized yet," explained Hammer. "By the end of the class, I expect that they are going to be teaching me things I never knew."

Hammer goes on to say that students have a real chance to make a difference in this space, even just from the class. Students in the class may not only have the opportunity to stay involved in the subject matter by joining a research project after, but there is also the chance that a student's work may live on after being submitted. Hammer explains that a Twitch player might take up an interest in students' work and representatives from industry will be attending class presentations.

"Nobody really knows how to do this yet," she said of audience participation design. "So students have a real opportunity to make a mark in this space."

While Hammer believes this is a great reason alone to motivate excitement for game design, it's certainly not the only reason.

"There are two different reasons this space is important right now," said Hammer.

The first, she explained, is the opportunity students will have to test their technical, social/behavioral, or design skills. The other reason is the implications the research has to a larger degree on the game design sphere.Co-researcher Bigham, who has contributed significant work in accessibility, and Hammer were both surprised by the larger implications of their research.

"Not everyone has equal access to game play," Hammer said of their initial research results.

The naissance of communities like Twitch means a space is emerging for people who aren't comfortable playing online or who gather more enjoyment from observing than playing themselves.

Players who have difficulty with one part of a game might be able to hand that off to someone else, while still playing the rest. Research into the watchability of games is also about creating more equal access to games for those who would prefer a different participation level than holding the reins…or game controls.

"What we are seeing is games becoming a space to connect around real-world challenges," said Hammer.

This includes those with disabilities who enjoy the gaming space as a place where they feel a sense of belonging and acknowledgement. Chronically ill teenagers take to environments like Twitch for support. The online game becomes a space to watch other teens play and to communicate with other observers and teens via the chat functionality.

At the end of the day, said Hammer, play is for everyone. The goal of the class, the project and their research work is to create new opportunities for play that include even more people in different levels of participation.

"Play is for everyone. Working on audience participation games means that 'everyone' just got a little better," concluded Hammer.

For more research on the HCII and games, see game research.