Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Live stream viewing motivation
What motivates people to view and participate in live streams?
- 1 Overview
- 2 Live Streaming
- 3 Use and Gratifications Theory
- 4 How People Engage in Live Streams
- 5 Why People Watch Live Streams
- 6 Review questions
- 7 Conclusion
- 8 References
The use of live streaming websites to watch other people playing video games has become increasingly popular since. Due to the relative newness of the phenomenon, it has yet to be academically explored in great depth, but using the basic principles of use and gratifications theory we can see how the same underlying motivations that drive the use of other media also apply to live streaming.
Someone comes home after a long day of work, and settles down in front of a screen to relax by playing video games. It’s a familiar story, with gaming becoming increasingly entrenched in ourculture and way of life . But as gaming as a whole has grown, and as the internet has become more integrated in every part of our lives, a new way to relax has emerged – watching and participating in live streams.
Live streaming websites such as Twitchallow a user, known as a streamer, to broadcast video and audio directly from their computer to other users, the viewers. In this way, the streamer can broadcast the game they're playing to the world, allowing the viewers to watch along and enjoy a spectator's view of the action. Streamers usually also use webcams to show their faces and speak to their audiences as part of the stream, allowing them to give play-by-play commentary as they go.
For the purposes of this chapter, “live streaming” will be used to refer to the live streaming of video games, but there are a number of other things live streaming websites are used for. Board games or card games and talk shows are also frequently live streamed through websites such as Twitch. Some people even stream their everyday lives, wearing webcams so an audience can watch them 24/7. One can imagine how viewing of these other forms of live streaming would be motivated by many of the same factors as video game live streams.
Naturally, live streaming of video games is a very recentphenomenon that has yet to be academically researched in the same depth as more traditional forms of media consumption. However, the same underlying theories that are used to analyse watching TV or reading the newspaper can still be applied to live streaming. The most important of these theories to the study of live streaming is use and gratifications theory.
Use and Gratifications Theory
For a time, models of media consumption portrayed the media itself as the active force, choosing which people would consume it and how they would do so. People, in these models, were passive forces that only existed to be sculpted by external media. The emergence of use and gratifications theory, posited in 1973 (Katz, Blumler & Gurevitch), turned this paradigm around.
Use and gratifications theory, or UGT, argues that the consumer is an active force with specific wants and need that predate the media that they consume. The consumer therefore chooses which forms of media to partake in, based on which ones best fit those various wants and needs. Hence, use and gratifications – media is selected based on what is useful, in a pragmatic sense, and what is emotionally gratifying. There are five primary ways under UGT in which a form of media can satisfy a person’s wants and needs.
A cognitive need is one based on a desire to learn particular useful pieces of information. In terms of traditional media, a person might look through a newspaper out of the cognitive desire to know what’s happening in the world around them, or watch a cooking show on TV in order to learn from the host how to prepare certain dishes. A cognitive need is a more pragmatic one, compared to the others that are described by UGT.
A cognitive need can be surface level or involve a deeper understanding. Checking the news to see what the weather will be like tomorrow is expressing a cognitive desire just as much as watching a highly detailed and technical documentary.
An affective need is a desire to be made to feel certain emotions by the media in question. When a person listens to a happy song to cheer themselves up, or conversely chooses to watch a sad movie with the intention of feeling that sadness themselves, they are expressing an affective desire. An affective desire doesn’t have to match what the media itself was trying to evoke – some people, for example, will watch badly-made movies that were intended to be serious, and derive comedic enjoyment from them.
A personal integrative need is one based on a desire to feel better about one’s self – to be made to feel important or useful, or to be given a role model to look up to and emulate. A personal integrative need may also involve reinforcing a person’s values, such as a political talk show where the listener agrees with all the opinions being expressed, or an affirmation of status, such as someone who wishes to project a cultured and refined image reading classical literature to support that image.
Social integrative needs are based around satisfying the need for social interaction. This may come in the form of substituting imagined social interactions for real ones, such as identifying with a group of fictional characters in a book and enjoying their "company" while reading it, or might involve using the media to facilitate actual social interaction. For example, a person might watch a certain popular TV series specifically to talk about each episode the next day with their friends, rather valuing that reason to start a conversation more than the experience of watching the show itself.
Tension release is simply an escape from the stresses of everyday life. A person with a desire for tension release seeks media that they can use as a distraction, or focus on completely enough that they stop thinking about the real world for a time. This can involve a small diversion, as a chance to relax and de-stress after a hard day, or a lengthy escape from the world as someone binge-watches a TV series for days on end.
How People Engage in Live Streams
Before we can try to understand what drives people to participate in live streams, we need to know how they do so. While some of the fundamental concepts are familiar – people tune in to a broadcast at a certain time to watch along – there are other elements of a live stream that are substantially different to other forms of media, which form an important aspect of what motivates people to watch them.
The most familiar form of engagement, watching a live stream is just the same as watching a television show live. While the stream is ongoing, viewers tune in to watch it. Streams are also often recorded, so people who missed the live broadcast can watch the recording later, though watching them live is the expected and most common way of watching.
One of the primary differences between a live stream and a television show is the ability to chat with other viewers. Twitch and other popular live streaming websites have live chat windows which viewers, and the streamer, can use to converse with one another in text during the stream. This allows viewers to discuss the content of the stream or unrelated topics while they watch.
Twitch offers viewers the ability to subscribe to streams they enjoy, paying a monthly fee, part of which is paid to the streamer, to gain certain subscriber privileges. Subscribers are marked by a special badge in the chat of the stream they have subscribed to, and have access to customised emoticons set by the streamer, such as a picture of the streamer making a particular amusing expression, that they can use in chat. Streamers often offer other, tailored rewards to subscribers, such as personally thanking them on the stream for their subscription or giving them the opportunity to play games alongside the streamer.
Donation, unlike subscription, offers no direct rewards. Viewers can choose to donate money to the streamer directly, or they can choose to gift subscriptions to other viewers, purchasing a month’s subscription on that viewer’s behalf. This is commonly used as a form of donation to the streamer rather than as a personalised gift to the recipient, to the point that Twitch introduced a feature that allows for gifting up to 100 subscriptions at once (a $500 USD investment) to randomly assorted users who are viewing the stream at the time (Petrosyan, 2018).
Why People Watch Live Streams
There is one more piece of the puzzle that needs to be mentioned before we can see why people watch live streams – type of stream. Two main factors determine how people are likely to engage with a stream (Sjöblom, Törnhönen, Hamari & Macey, 2018). The first is the genre of game being played. Naturally, the many different genres of video game attract difference audiences looking for different things.
The second factor is the type of stream. Even within the context of video game streaming, there are a number of different stream types that appeal in different ways. These types, as outlined by Sjöblom et al. (2018), include let’s play streams, in which the streamer plays a game (typically single player) for the first time, learning the game along with the viewers, competitive streams in which a usually highly skilled streamer plays against other people, and how to play streams in which an experienced streamer gives viewers a live guide on the fundamentals of how a certain game is played or gives detailed strategic advice.
The most straightforward reason people watch live streams is for the entertainment value – in other words, for affective and tension-release purposes. The combination of the game itself and the streamer’s personality provides an entertaining show for the viewers. Entertainment is the primary factor that contributes to people spending their time watching live streams (Hilvert-Bruce, Neill, Sjöblom & Hamari, 2018, Chen & Lin, 2018).
This raises the question, then, of what makes live streams in particular entertaining to watch in comparison to other forms of media. One reason is the content that live streams provide. Streaming services have a near-monopoly where it comes to watching other people play video games in the first person. They are also heavily associated with eSports, competitive video games played at a professional level. While there have been some forays into offering eSport coverage on television, live streams are by far the most common and popular way to watch these events (Nguyen, 2018).
This choice in content plays a major role in how live streams are viewed and enjoyed. Even within the context of live streams, different kinds of stream are viewed for different purposes. Viewers seeking to find entertainment from their streams tend to watch very casual streams or very competitive ones, as opposed to seeking a middle ground (Sjöblom et al., 2018). This is especially apparent in regards to tension-release, where viewers either want a light distraction in the background from a very casual stream, with a streamer providing background noise and some sense of company in much the same way as people might leave the TV on while going about unrelated activities around the house (Chen & Lin, 2018), or wanting to completely immerse themselves in an exciting competitive match, without any of the tension of having to play a difficult and often stressful game themselves.
One of the primary aspects of streaming that sets it apart from other forms of media, social interaction, the social integrative aspect of streams, is the second largest motivator of live stream watching (Chen & Lin, 2018). In fact, while other factors do play a role in live stream viewing motivation, entertainment and social interaction are the two aspects that directly correlate to increased time spent watching streams, making them the clearest motivators of participation in live streams (Hilvert-Bruce et al., 2018).
This is consistent with the manner in which virtual communities are frequently used not just as resources but as social groups, with people forming friendships with other users and growing attached to the community as a whole (Chiu, Hsu & Wang, 2006). Unlike social networking websites such as Facebook, which offer a similar online community, live streams are most popular for social interaction when the community is moderately large (500-10000 viewers), where social networking sites grow more and more popular as their user base increases (Hilvert-Bruce et al., 2018, Ku, Chen & Zhang, 2013).
The differences in how social interaction is approached with streams versus social networking can perhaps be explained by the differences in format, as a live stream offers a single, shared real time chat. As a stream grows especially large, individual voices are drowned out as thousands of different viewers try to talk at once. This is supported by data indicating that those who prefer especially large streams are less motivated by social interactions than other stream viewers (Hilvert-Bruce et al, 2018).
An aspect of social interaction and community particular to live streams is the streamer, and by extension the stream itself. The streamer acts as the focal point of any live stream’s community, and viewers can gain validation and social affirmation by placing themselves closer to the streamer. This may involve being recognised and responded to by the streamer while in chat, but primarily revolves around subscription and donations.
Subscriber badges and custom emoticons mark those who have subscribed to a stream as visibly separate from, and presumably superior to, all viewers who have not subscribed. Some streamers go so far as to bar all non-subscribed viewers from participating in chat at all. They can still view the chat, but are only able to comment if they choose to subscribe.
As well as these built in features of subscription, streamers typically use automated programs that display prominent notifications on the stream when somebody subscribes to the stream, alerting the other viewers as well as the streamer themselves. This public acknowledgement, sometimes accompanied by a personal thank you from the streamer as they are notified, serves to socially reinforce the act of subscribing. Donations are typically broadcast in the same way, and many streams prominently display which members have donated the largest amount, or donated most recently.
All these features might seem to satisfy personal integrative desires, as ways of positively affirming subscribers and donators, and placing them on a pedestal above other viewers. However, these factors have instead been found to be associated with a desire for social integration (Sjöblom & Hamari, 2017), indicating that the desire to be part of an exclusive social clique and interact socially with the streamer is the primary motivating factor behind subscriptions and donations, rather than a desire to see oneself placed above others.
The correlation between spending money on a stream, either through subscription or donation, and a desire for social integrative fulfillment may also be associated with a general human tendency to give more freely to people who are perceived as friends or known well (Bekkers, 2010). This would indicate that people who feel a desire to socially connect with others are more likely to watch live streams so they can forge an emotional connection towards the streamer, which then leads to an increased interest in subscribing or donating, both due to those feelings of friendliness and in order to be noticed by the streamer and thus make the bond more reciprocal.
Impact on Stream
Given that personal integrative desires are not linked to subscriptions and donations, as one might intuitively expect, what are they connected to? As shown by Sjöblom et al. (2017), the answer is impact on the stream. People who are especially motivated by personal integrative needs feel a desire to have a direct impact on the content of the stream itself, often offering suggestions to the streamer about what to do next in the game or trying to establish a rapport with them through the chat.
To make it possible to have such an impact on the stream, people with personal integrative desires tend to focus on specific genres and stream types, tending towards more open-ended games and casual streams. The level of focus required by a streamer playing competitive games makes frequent interactions with the viewers less practical, and as the streamer in such situations is frequently a highly skilled player they are likely to have a better grasp of the game’s strategy than the viewers. The competitive nature of such a stream also makes idle experimentation, or following a viewer suggestion just for fun, less appealing to the streamer.
On the other hand, the casual streams that people wanting personal integrative satisfaction are more motivated to view tend towards a slower pace, with no lasting consequences for any decisions. The streamer is free to take breaks to read and respond to the chat, even having extended conversations with viewers while playing, and the less competitively demanding atmosphere of the stream makes it easier to experiment with following the suggestions given by viewers.
This view of personal integrative needs is supported by data indicating that such viewers also prefer smaller streams, where each person’s voice is more easily heard and recognised by the streamer, and they tend to watch a smaller number of different streams overall (Sjöblom & Hamari, 2017). Jumping from stream to stream makes it more difficult to make an impact on each individual one, making that form of engagement with live streaming less appealing in this regard.
Finally, people watch streams for cognitive purposes, seeking information about games in various forms. Live streams offer many things to learn about games, through different kinds of stream. Watching a let’s play stream can be a useful way that someone interested in a certain game but unsure of whether to buy it can learn more about the experience of playing that game, getting a first-hand review to help make that decision. On the other hand, a person trying to improve at a difficult game can watch competitive streams, watching and learning as an expert plays in order to learn how best to play that game themselves.
Consequently, the kinds of stream people are most motivated to watch for cognitive purposes are streams showing people playing recently released and high-profile games, which tend to be particularly expensive and therefore hard to justify buying without being sure it will be a worthwhile investment, and highly competitive eSports titles, which feature large skill gaps between average players and competitive streamers, and which players are highly motivated to try to improve at (Sjöblom et al., 2017).
A desire for information about games is associated with spending more time watching live streams, but only to a small degree (Hilvert-Bruce et all., 2018, Sjöblom & Hamari, 2017), and it is not associated with other forms of engagement with live streaming such as subscribing or donating to streams. This makes it one of the weakest forms of motivation to view live streams, though still a significant one.
The comparative weakness of cognitive needs as a motivating factor may be explained by the more pragmatic nature of that motivation. A viewer who wants to see a skilled player’s strategy only needs to tune in to the stream and watch a few times to witness it in action, and can then stop watching. There is no benefit, on this pragmatic level, to spending money to be recognised as a subscriber, or continuing to watch streams after all the necessary information has been obtained.
- A streamer of a highly competitive, team-based eSports game wants to encourage more people to subscribe to their stream by offering extra rewards to subscribers. Which is more likely to be successful: sending detailed notes on strategy to people who subscribe, or randomly selecting subscribers to serve as the streamer's teammates during streamed games?
- Which form of motivation is most likely to lead a viewer to seek out streams with especially large numbers of other viewers?
- A streamer followed by a small group of viewers embarks on a new streaming project, in which they will play through an open-ended sandbox game renowned for its great length from start to finish, discussing the experience with their viewers. What kind of motivation is most likely to lead somebody to follow this streamer for the length of the project?
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Hilvert-Bruce, Z., Neill, J. T., Sjöblom, M. & Hamari, J. (2018). Social motivations of live-streaming viewer engagement on Twitch. Computers in Human Behavior, 84, 58-67.
Katz, E., Blumler, J. G. & Gurevitch, M. (1973). Use and gratifications research. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 37, 509-523.
Ku, Y., Chen, R. & Zhang, H. (2013). Why do users continue using social networking sites? An exploratory study of members in the United States and Taiwan. Information & Management, 50, 571-581.
Nguyen, M. (2018). Where to watch eSports live online or on your TV. https://www.businessinsider.com/live-streaming-esports-online-tv-2018-1/?r=AU&IR=T
Petrosyan, A. (2018). New Twitch 'community gifting' feature allows users to gift up to 100 subs at once. https://www.dexerto.com/general/twitch-introduces-new-community-gifting-feature-that-allows-users-to-gift-up-to-100-channel-subs-at-once-137035
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Sjöblom, M., Törnhönen, M., Hamari, J. & Macey, J. (2017). Content structure is king: an empirical study on gratifications, game genres and content on Twitch. Computers in Human Behavior, 73, 161-171.