Last Friday I was totally buried and couldn’t make it to the Scholar’s Play stream. So, chained to my desk, I logged in to the stream while wrestling with Programming Language formalisms, figuring I’d listen in while I worked. The games turned out to be much more fun than mathematically proving the denotational semantics of while-statements, and before long the stream had my full attention while the math sulked from the bag at my feet.

I logged into chat under a familiar gaming handle, figuring friends would recognize it and the small number of fans who occasionally join probably wouldn’t. This sort of selective disguise is something I had forgotten the joy of: the games I play today are almost entirely with friends I actually know, and anonymous forums are totally anonymous. In the age of Facebook—or maybe it’s the age of constructing a unified brand for one’s real life on social media—partial anonymity, the thrill of recognition through an alias, is not something I feel in the way I did gaming online in the 90s or early 2000s. Maybe I’m not playing the right games anymore. Or maybe my tastes have moved past seeking that particular thrill.

In any case, my selection of handle worked. I could tell in interacting with the streamers, in something in the way they carefully said “someone in the chat asks” that they knew. And that they were carefully avoiding outing me. I smiled the whole time.

The streamers played hypertext games from the TwinyJam. They joked and laughed with one another. Sometimes they fell silent, and I wished I could see their faces, to understand if their silence was awe, confusion, pensive consideration. So far we haven’t been streaming with a camera on us, but I realized we probably should be.

There’s a solid 5 – 10 second delay in the stream, so chatting with the streamers in real-time is hard. Besides, the streamers were often too busy playing to notice comments. But the other chatters and I had lively conversations about the meaning of different hypertext structures and the history of hypertext traditions. We talked about which link structures felt more “game-like” and if it even mattered that we called things games. We talked about the language, which was often ethereal and poetic. We talked about glitch aesthetics, and speculated about decisions the authors made to stay within the word limit. It was the geekiest kind of fun.

For the first time I really understood why people watch other people play games, something I hadn’t even really figured out when we started the stream. Much like sports, the games and our commentary of them is just the backdrop for viewers to start their own conversations. Did the ref make a bad call? Is this commentator showing his bias for the underdog?  The pleasure of pretending that I could coach this game better. The pleasure of watching a sport I don’t know on TV and learning about it from the commentators.

The fact that the audience can interact directly with the streamers is just an added bonus. If I yell at the coach to put in the second string, he probably won’t listen. But what if the coach turned to the crowd and said “what do you think?”

Mostly, being in the audience made me miss streaming. That’s something I never thought I would say.

Toward the end of the stream, the scholars played my own TwinyJam submission, “Elsewhere”. I watched in real-time as they played and replayed my game, commenting on how much was being said in only a few words, picking apart the opening passage. I watched them comment on the title and its effect on their reading, analyzing the mechanics in the context of the themes of the piece.

Criticism is a great compliment, and experiencing thoughtful criticism in real-time was an amazing experience—one that probably would not have happened if I hadn’t missed the stream.