I don’t like it when people watch me play games. I guess that means I’ll never be a Let’s Player. It’s a longstanding thing – I get embarrased, I get awkward, I become acutely aware of not just what I’m getting wrong in the game, but of its game-ness. The all-encompassing fantasy in my head, that immersion, shatters in an instant, because that other person is there. Even if they’re silent, I know they’re watching, and that means I censor my grunts of annoyance, my smirks of triumph, my vulgarities of frustration.
It’s not that I’m putting on a performance, but I am biting my tongue, keeping my expression neutral, leaving a safe bubble. I am turning my world into a shared one, and because that person is not also playing it does not have the same importance to them. How can I possibly vocalise how important it seemed to get that sword or reach that door a few moments ago? How can they join in with my determination to reach some goal which existed only in my head.
Almost everything I do in a game is with the intention of some pay-off: be it an actual reward or some sense of closure and satisfaction. But if I play in front of someone else, the game becomes instead about the moment-to-moment actions; they see what I do, rather than what I aim for. To some extent, that is only correct: I am definitely guilty of not stopping to smell the roses.
The presence of another means I pay more attention to how a fight looks, how dialogue reads, how pretty the scenery is. I look at what’s right in front of me rather than some pay-off further down the road. I don’t think, for instance, that I would have spent quite so much time scouring Fallout 4’s wasteland for specific items of junk with which to craft minor armour upgrades had someone else been observing me. I would have headed for the most spectacular scenery, sought out the biggest fights, thought about what was there rather than what I didn’t have yet.
But I resent that it’s not my game anymore. It’s become someone else’s spectator sport, and worse, it gives them a window into my private world. This is true of even those closest to me; my partner does not play games at all so does not understand why I would spend so much time to them. When she watches, she sees the silliness, the wanton violence, the empty tap-tap of buttons that we have all long ago taken in our stride, for better or worse. She sees me as I am. How much I enjoy these things. It’s embarrassing.
So I alt-tab or turn off the screen when someone enters the room. Walk away, keep it mine. Seconds after they’ve gone, I’m right back there, as though the interruption had never happened, my thoughts thoroughly taken up again by wherever I was, whatever I was doing. No matter how embarrassed or scrutinised I felt, I can always go back.