It happened by accident. I'd been playing Alien: Isolation and Xenomorph had once again seen fit to rip my face off. Game over, man. Game over. I rage quit and returned to the PS4 home screen. My console presented me with links to other people's live streams of the game, and I decided to see if anyone had a better approach.
That was my initiation into social gaming. Before then, when it came to video games, I'd always been a loner – preferring to work my way through a well-crafted single-player story at my own pace, rather than play online and endure insults from shrieking prepubescent boys. I scoffed when Sony announced that they were adding a "share" button to their PS4 controller, enabling users to upload screenshots or live stream their gaming sessions. Really, mate? What sort of audience is there for watching other people play games?
A big one, it seems. In August last year, Twitch, one of the biggest game streaming sites, was acquired by Amazon for $970 million. YouTuber Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, has been uploading videos of him playing games since 2010 and now has more subscribers than any other channel. The Wall Street Journal reported that, in 2013, Kjellberg earned more than $4 million. Shows what I know.
While their online security might need some work, Sony aren't stupid. They have incorporated social gaming into the heart of the PS4 experience.
Having looked at a few Alien: Isolation streams and discerned that the game is more difficult than attempting a self-appendectomy, I started browsing the other broadcasts out there. Only some of the things I ended up watching didn't look like video games at all. Instead, they featured ordinary human faces peeking out from very normal-looking living rooms, like Gogglebox with even lower production values. The users weren't filming the games at all – they were filming themselves.
I clicked on one, and that's where my obsession began.
The PS4 comes bundled with a game called The Playroom. If you have a PlayStation Camera, you can use the game to interact with little Augmented Reality robots that dick about in your front room. Clever use of tech, but it quickly runs out of novelty value. What it also does, though, is to allow players to broadcast what's going on in their living rooms to an audience of perfect strangers.
This is what intrigues me. In an age where we are becoming fiercely protective of our right to privacy, why would we choose to invite anonymous strangers into our living rooms? It felt different from posting something on Facebook, Instagram, or even uploading a vlog on YouTube. This is unedited, stream of consciousness stuff. You can see and respond to comments in real time. Often, they're not very nice.
Unless the broadcasters have explicitly agreed for me to use their faces and Gamertags, I've blurred them out. I usually didn't interact with them, I just watched – it was addictive. I felt like James Stewart in Hitchcock's Rear Window, or Bart Simpson when he breaks his leg and spies on Ned Flanders. While most of the streams consisted of people sitting in their living rooms and reacting to trolls, some of them were interesting.
There was the guy who decided to broadcast himself rolling up a joint.
Some of the streams were more concerning, like the couple with the eye-wateringly large dildo.
What people should and shouldn't do in their own homes in front of a consenting audience is up to them. But the possibility of it being screenshotted and reposted would give me pause for thought. (My hairy glutes might not break the internet like Kim Kardashian's oiled globes did, but they might cause literally tens of people to reassess their life choices.)
Reposting happens, too. It probably won't surprise you to learn that there is a NSFW subreddit dedicated to this very quest – and they don't blur the faces. Redditors will spend hours scouring the streams, thumbs poised over the Share button, ready for the slightest hint of action. It's not surprising that Twitch has banned streams of The Playroom altogether, while the other service, USTREAM, is constantly shutting down users for breaking their content guidelines.
The Playroom's reputation is likely why a lot of the viewing community treat these broadcasts like they're Babestation. If there's a hint of oestrogen in the broadcast, you can expect its viewing figures to be several times greater:
But what do you reckon are the most common questions posed by their anonymous audience members?
"What's it like in your country?" Nope.
"What do you think about that anti-austerity party being elected in Greece?" Nah.
I was keen to hear a female broadcaster's thoughts on the misogynist catcalling, but most I approached didn't get back to me, probably quite rightly thinking that, "I'm writing an article," was some lame pick-up schtick. I did manage to speak to Katie, though, who was pretty nonchalant about it all. When I saw her live stream, she was playing an acoustic guitar. The guitar wasn't the focal point of the comments section, however.
Katie has been broadcasting for a week and considers it to be a giggle. She dismisses the trolling and pervy comments, and, in her own words, "loves the banter".
Another user, though (who wished to remain anonymous), was ambivalent. She's been broadcasting for two days and it's been quite a mixed experience. "There are a few viewers I've actually become friends with. There's just a lot of negative encounters like one I encountered yesterday... he first requested me to remove my clothing, then kept threatening to commit suicide if I refused to listen to his demands," she told me. "And of course I have a handful of men who claim to own me or ask me to marry them." All this, in two days.
Most of the broadcasters I contacted didn't respond, regardless of gender. Except for Travis, a self-taught portrait artist who was thrilled at the prospect of getting his paintings out to a wider audience – most others were reluctant. I suppose that putting yourself in front of an anonymous group of people is one thing, but to then have someone say they'd like to ask you questions and feature you in an article? That makes your audience far less abstract.
With facial recognition technology becoming increasingly effective, audiences could soon become a lot more real for broadcasters. Last year, the FBI were able to use facial recognition software to capture a fugitive that had been on the run for 14 years. Facebook have been working on a set of algorithms called "DeepFace" , capable of matching faces with a hit rate of 97.25 percent. (Humans, by comparison, get this right 97.53 percent of the time.)
Before Google canned its Glass initiative, one of the more interesting (read: fucking terrifying) developer projects was NameTag – a tool that would enable strangers to find out more about you just by taking a photo. The tech is almost there, and it doesn't take a conspiracist to realise that we are probably not that far off someone being able to screenshot a live stream, use facial recognition to discover the identity of the broadcaster and then use online directory inquiries to discover their address.
Maybe I am being paranoid. But think about it – if you give the wrong anonymous person that kind of power, the possibilities are endless. Several game streamers have already been SWATted, a practice where an anonymous tip-off leads to armed police raiding the victim's house. The more that broadcasters open themselves up, the more exposed they are. "This person likes to do nasty things on camera, why not visit them at their address...?" or, "Check out the 50-inch TV and PS4 in this person's living room! Want to go see it in person?"
It's becoming increasingly difficult to compartmentalise our numerous online personas, let alone keep our online lives distinct from our private ones. What seems like a good idea at 2AM one morning might not seem so clever a week later, but by then it could be too late. Hiding behind a Gamertag won't always be enough to protect a broadcaster's anonymity, and I wonder if they will welcome the attention. As for me, I'm going back to isolation.
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