Don’t Watch Me Play

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.

63 Comments

  1. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Yes, I know what you mean, recently got a living room based game box and the new scrutiny this has given the games I play does make my toes curl. Find myself trying to explain “not all games are like this! This is just a shooty bit, there’s some story coming up…” etc. Definitely makes me acutely aware I’m a 30-something grown man playing silly games, the immersion is completely gone.

    That said, I do have some very fond memories of playing games with friends when we were young, watching over each other’s shoulders and taking it in turns to play stuff, providing back seat driving tips all the while. Guess it depends on the audience.

    • SquidgyB says:

      “Guess it depends on the audience.”

      Very much so!

      I have a couple of friends and family who will actively comment on what you’re doing (stating the very, very obvious, like “oh, you’ve died again!” while playing Dark Souls… even waiting until I’ve taken my headphones off as if they’ve been waiting to release that particular comment for 20 minutes), or commenting on how those leaves don’t look particularly “realistic” so “why do they bother trying to go for such realism and not just stick with WoW graphics”, because “WoW is so pretty”.

      Same with music too, to a certain extent. My mate likes 80’s metal, me; not so much. But I’ll bite my tongue and keep quiet if he’s listening to it out of politeness. Even if he is listening through his tinny phone speaker.

      But the second I put on some electronica on a nice amp/speaker set up, I get grilled on why “it’s not really *music* is it?” and “why do you even listen to the stuff, it’s just random bleeps and bloops”.

      I guess some people are more sensitive to other’s comments, but I really find it grating when someone stands just over your shoulder and picks apart the very thing you’re sat there enjoying…

      Ahem. Rant over. Apologies.

      S’been on my chest for a while this one.

  2. mukuste says:

    The sad truth is that being a grownup who still plays video games is a little bit embarrassing. Being watched while doing it just makes us more aware of it, I guess.

    • crowleyhammer says:

      Why is it embarrassing?

      • Shadow says:

        In truth there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, but depending on the social context, gaming is still not a fully understood hobby for adults, and it’s often dismissed as a kids thing. So one might feel embarrassed by the threat of social judgment.

        • Psychomorph says:

          What about all the games that are not made for Kids?

          Games are adult entertainment also.

          • BooleanBob says:

            Not in the minds of Johnny Spouse or Rachel Public, I think he meant.

      • Monggerel says:

        It is a signal for nerddom, which means low status.

      • Ross Angus says:

        Unfortunately, comparing plot, dialogue or acting between a game and a random television program, and one of the three might be found wanting in the game. We still have far to go.

      • Stellar Duck says:

        I mean, have you played any games? They’re pretty cringe worthy on average.

        Aside from internet people and a few select friends I don’t tell people I play games. It’d be like saying I read E.L. James (I don’t!) or something. Nothing wrong with it but I don’t want to bring it up in polite company.

        • Michael Fogg says:

          But this attitude only perpetuates the problem, doesn’t it? I make it a point to bring it up to EVERYONE, and I work in a fucking law firm…

        • jrodman says:

          I kind of feel like this too, and respond to it by acting snobby about the games I enjoy. I talk about how I like experiences, and thought and exploration.

          All those things are true: I find games like Trauma or Proteus delightful, and find many of the big hits unineresting. But I think I’m also holding the stigma at arm’s length.

    • klops says:

      This most likely is true sometimes, but I didn’t feel that Meer felt embarrased because playing games as an adult is considered shameful.

      I have a job (teacher) that required people to watch me as I trained (taught). I hated that. Meer’s words: ” I get embarrased, I get awkward…” described me perfectly. Of course one part was that I was inexperienced and clumsy and was a bit embarrased for that. But if people walked in my classroom to watch me now, I’d still get embarrased and awkward.

      Ths has nothing to do with me being ashamed for something embarrasing. I just hate being watched (for watching’s sake – teaching is fine). I become self aware, which is harmful for the general flow of the class.

      I also don’t think a grownup playing games is considered embarrasing any more – and if it is, I tend to compare it to watching/playing football or opera or tv soaps and ask the geniuses why that’s less embarrasing.

      • Sarfrin says:

        Not a teacher in the UK then. We still get watched every term.

    • silentdan says:

      As a grownup who still plays video games, still reads books, still watches TV, still listens to music, still eats pizza, and still wears jeans, I feel no shame whatsoever in continuing these practices that I began before entering adulthood.

      “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” — C.S. Lewis.

      • SquidgyB says:

        That’s a fantastic quote, I’m going to use that to my advantage. Thank you.

    • Blastaz says:

      I just ballsed it out, until I discovered my wife loved metal gear.

      Now while I’ve played my pc games openly after supper she has re/played her way through 1, 3, peace walker, 5 and now for the first time 4. All the while apologising because playing games is obviously geeky and un femme.

      Couldn’t be happier.

    • thelastpointer says:

      Eh, you’re wrong. Games are the coolest thing in the world!

      There are some pretty stupid, childish ones, true; but if you find enjoyment in them, at least it makes a cool story. “Hey, did you saw that stupid game for kids? I’ve tried it because I was curious and turns out it’s awesome!” And from then on, it’s not a stupid game. If someone finds your game stupid, tell them about the coolest part of it. I mean, did you ever drive a 120-ton mech? Or a space fighter? This is the very definition of cool!

      The only thing I find mildly disturbing is when people take it too seriously. That usually happens with “realistic” FPSs, Japanese games and LOTR.

    • horrorgasm says:

      Speak for yourself. Not everyone is so insecure that they’re ashamed of their own favorite hobbies.

  3. Faxmachinen says:

    I watch Let’s Plays mostly for the reactions of the person playing, to compare and contrast with my own. Poker faces are not worth watching.

    • Psychomorph says:

      I watch Let’s Plays of games that I want to experience (interesting story), but not actually play (horrible console port with abysmal gameplay mechanics).

      *cough, Mass Effect, cough*

      Given how games are made today, I find myself watching Let’s Plays more often than I play those AAA games.

      • jrodman says:

        The thing is when I watch a Let’s Play, I want to see someone playing through the game for the first time, with their honest reactions to it.

        I don’t want to see a lot of inept hamming, and I find people who have played a game four or five times do a terrible job introducing it, or allowing the viewer to care about anything, or organizing their information so it will make sense to someone who hasn’t also played a game four or five times.

        People who have played a game 500 times are often more interesting. They’re no longer wrapped up in their half-baked underestanding and lingo, and are usually speedrunning experts who actually have interesting nooks and crannies to point out.

  4. Damn Rookie says:

    Blimey, this article resonates uncomfortably strongly with me.

  5. sfoumatou says:

    Hah. I know the exact feeling. There’s something there about the way we watch and experience things. It’s like going to the movie theatre; in the darkness and silence of the room, you experience the movie in your own little bubble. If you watch the same movie with your buddies in a living room, everyone’s comments and interjections will color your experience accordingly.

    If I want to show something to someone in a game, I usually hand them the controller and get them to do it instead. This way, they get the immersion and I get to be the guide. It works a lot better than doing both at once and they usually get the point more than if I was just going to show them.

  6. rmsgrey says:

    I’m very different – I don’t have a problem with people watching, and a good navigator/wingman/back-seat driver can be a real blessing – it changes a single-player game from a solo experience to a shared one.

    What I do have a minor problem with, and try to avoid, is people coming in midway through and wanting to have things explained (or wanting me to pay attention to something else) when I’m in the middle of something. Actually, that applies to watching DVDs as well as playing games – I’m happy to have someone around from the start, and I’m happy to have someone drop in if they’re happy to pick things up by observation rather than needing me to tell them what they think they need to know.

    There have also been times in the past where I’ve played a game specifically for someone else to watch – sometimes as a live Let’s Play; sometimes as a way for them to “play” a game that they lack the skills for.

    • Kitty says:

      I can relate to the last point – when Dragon Age had come out, I had a friend over to visit. He’s a big fan roleplaying and the like, but he wasn’t very good at games at the time. So he ended up requesting that I play Dragon Age and the actual game, while he made the character and made all the choices in the game. It was a good time.

  7. Prolar Bear says:

    Same here, quite frankly. Don’t watch me play.

  8. Baring says:

    heh, it’s good to see that i’m not alone in this aspect.. I almost always alt-tab out of games, stop music and videos when i have people in my room. I’ve found that what i play, listen to and watch is a very personal part of myself that i’d like to keep private if at all possible.

  9. Viral Frog says:

    I don’t mind people watching me play games at all. Usually the only audience I have are my sons and wife. When my friends are over we’re usually enjoying brews and are far removed from the gaming station. As for being an adult gamer, I quit caring what people think of me and my pastimes shortly after high school. Such a liberating feeling to not care for the judgment others pass upon me!

  10. Laurentius says:

    I don’t get it at all. All my formative years of gaming have been completely different. First on coin-ups, then playing with my sibling on my dad’s PC, then together with friends, on one’s friend Atari and other firend Amige, getting games together, playing them together. It alwayes has been social thing, watching each other play, helping, competing etc.

    • mike2R says:

      Same here. Growing up, and when living in shared accommodation, I used to play a lot of games with friends. Alternating who plays, or with some who didn’t like playing themselves, but just like watching me play. Never even occurred to me to dislike it, it was just something to do in the evening.

      That said, I loath the idea of streaming a game, which is maybe similar to what other people are talking about. With friends it was always mainly about the game, and just hanging out. Having to put on a performance would be completely different thing, and not something I’d enjoy at all personally. There would be pressure to be entertaining, rather than that being what the game was for.

  11. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Interesting. I feel the uncomfortable sense of doing something slightly “childish” from my partner. She totally doesn’t get the appeal of games and after 23 years together, is unlikely ever too. Now she has to cope with my son loving gaming as much (maybe more!) as I do. But she accepts it and tries very hard to be non-judgmental, even though I know its hard for her.

    Having my kids watch me play is very different – they enjoy it, have grown with it and thus it feels very natural. Of course, I keep the gory and more adult bits to after their bedtimes – so I self-censor in the interests of being a good parent.

    Strangers ugh. Never – I game for my enjoyment and goals, not for others.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      As for the kid, you could always tell her the predominant way humans learn is through “play” and that the digital age has simply extended this. And that various research subtly hints towards gaming being a good thing not just for reflexes, but a lot of other competencies(and then have these papers and their abstracts at the ready).
      Or just say “While he/she’s gaming, at least nobody will get beat up, drugged out or pregnant. Which do we prefer?” ;p

  12. tkjgmz says:

    I could not stand someone watching me play either (or doing anything else in an over-the-shoulder-y way for that matter).

    But sometimes my wife sits at the other end of the living room while doing some handiwork, too busy to really pay attention to the game and too far from the monitor to see the fiddly details,
    and then her presence is even somewhat relaxing – while to her the game becomes a kind of radioplay in the background. She experienced a lot of the Mass Effect series that way and even gathered quite a bit of canon knowledge without ever seeing the game from up close.

    That doesn’t work with any game, though. Alien Isolation stressed me out so much, she left the room several times just to avoid the tension.

  13. brucethemoose says:

    It completely depends on the game.

    Some people LIKE to watch me play certain games… Planetside 2, and Reassembly, Ace Combat and Mass Effect Multiplayer come to mind. While they might not be totally mature, games like this are content rich/visually appealing enough to interest bored onlookers.

    Others… not so much. If I’m playing a particularly immature-looking game like modded Minecraft or Ratchet & Clank on an emulator, I can just FEEL the other people’s judgement when I’m playing. Others just require too much explanation to justify, like Life is Strange or the Mass Effect campaign.

    Bethesda RPGs are a strange case. The hardcore-fantasy setting of TES in particular is something I would feel anxious about others seeing, but I’ve had people watch me play Oblivion for an hour without even realizing it. Something about those games just hooks people, whether you’re playing them or not.

  14. Sarfrin says:

    Cricket is much sillier than video games and people aren’t embarrassed about doing that.

  15. HefHughner says:

    Don’t know why, but getting watched while playing is a nightmare, so i can relate 100% to what you wrote about this problem. I had no idea this was a problem for me till i played a Magic The Gathering tournament. Getting watched and – most importantly – getting judged by everyone standing by was enough for me to quit, leave and never ever try again.

    My theory: It’s a problem with self-esteem. I always pay too much attention to what people think of me. If they give me good grades i feel good, if they think i am the worst and do everything wrong, i get the feeling they are right. So getting in a position where people are able to inspect my actions and judge me means getting a in position that could do serious damage to me or how i think or feel about me.

  16. TWChristine says:

    Oh man I hate it when people watch me. I always felt stupid when my dad would come in and watch because I knew he thought games were a waste of time. He’d just stand behind me, and in my head I knew he was judging this stupid waste of time, and me for playing it. Sometimes I’d try and pretend like I was bored, and run around in circles or something until he left so that I could carry on enjoying myself.

    My wife plays some games (we used to play WoW and GW2 a lot together), and she’s very aware of how gamey they can be. But it still makes me feel stupid when (as recently happened in SWtOR) something comes up like a bubbly/flirty character and I get the “WHAT are you playing!?” as if I’m playing Porn Mansion Simulator 2015.

    Even having other gamers watching isn’t the greatest; while I don’t feel judged for the fact I’m playing a game, I feel like my skill/methods are being criticized…the same as when you’re the last person standing in a team game, and everyone watches you.

    • Premium User Badge

      X_kot says:

      Re: SWTOR, was it Holiday? I’ve only just gotten into the Theran character story, but it is sleazy af.

      • TWChristine says:

        That would be the one! I just got him as well, and recently shot him down..so I hope at least in that regard it’s done. And is it just me or are you having trouble with him calling her during fights? He seems to use the ability on the target I’m attacking, so she pops out and then immediately leaves (as I’m interrupting the daze effect); it’s just a waste of the ability and doesn’t help. In the end I went back to Qyzen because I got tired of him CONSTANTLY saying, “Did I mention I’m a pacifist?”

        • Premium User Badge

          X_kot says:

          Hah, amazing! At first I was excited b/c Tara Strong is the VA for Holiday, but then I found out about the weird master/servant relationship and how Theran doesn’t have qualms about cheating even though Holiday is super devoted. Ick.

          As for his battle mez, I think he only uses that ability if set as a tank (that’s how I use him). You can deactivate skills on his skillbar by clicking on the green button; it should appear blank afterward. It is annoying, especially against trash mobs, but technically the tank is supposed to disable and grab aggro before you DPS stuff. I imagine the AI is expecting you to follow its lead and not break the sleep effect. You might try setting him as a healer or DPS, see if the dynamic works better for you.

          • TWChristine says:

            Hehe yea that really came out of the blue! At first I thought he was just a flirty guy and I was like “Ok, whatever..” but then he popped that and I was like “Woooooaaaa guy. Woa. As much as I dislike how vapid she seems at times, I’m not going to do that to her!”

            But yea, he seems to do it with DPS as well. I actually found him to be an awful companion period..his DPS didn’t seem great, and his tanking wasn’t so hot either. His healing was ok, but still kinda sucked. Besides, I’m a Seer so I heal myself anyway! I think I read somewhere that the companion abilities get better/more effective the higher their rank with you is? So perhaps that could be it as well..Qyzen is 15 or so for me, while Theran is only 5.

    • rmsgrey says:

      Something I only realised years later with my dad is that a number of the things he described as “silly” or “waste of time” were not because he didn’t enjoy them, but because he was embarrassed about them himself. Obviously, I don’t know you or your dad at all, but I thought I’d raise the possibility that the person he was judging was himself rather than you.

  17. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I don’t like it either, in general.

    What I do like though is to actively show someone a game. This is especially true for games which are about building something – Minecraft and the games it inspired, of course, but also city builders and certain management games.

  18. Jekadu says:

    I usually don’t mind other people watching, but there are circumstances where it feels awkward. Often I end up trying to showcase a game out of a fear that I’ll bore my audience if I play like I normally do, which is with a magnifying glass to the screen as I scour every part of a game for secrets, my finger hovering over sacred F9 to ensure things work out just the way I want them to, every sequence repeatedly replayed with ADD-fueled obsessiveness (guess it’s good for something?) until I get a perfect ranking everywhere. Often people will notice and ask me to be my usual weird self. No idea why.

    It’s also a bit annoying when your little brother of five wants to watch you play a JRPG and keeps nagging you with questions while you’re trying to focus on the story.

    It can be very rewarding to show a game to friends. Steam Broadcast is great for this — no third party software needed, just invite people on the Steam Overlay. Letting people watch me play the Torment alpha was particularly fun, since I just let them make all the choices.

  19. Sinjun says:

    Feel the same way, and frankly I find the whole Let’s Play revolution thing to be mind boggling. Jimmy Kimmel’s skit about it summed up my feelings pretty well, and the internet’s violently defensive reaction just kind of proved his point. A self-deprecating sense of humor seems to be foreign to these people.

  20. Psychomorph says:

    I sometimes upload Multiplayer games of me playing, or such that have not much depth to them. Especially round based MP games often have spectators (people on your team that got killed earlier), so you’re being watched and commented on your game anyway.

    Immersive, narrative and story driven games, that need to be absorbed, not just played, are for me and for me only. I even shut off Steam (or go offline mode), because I want the outside world to cease to exist, that includes people on the internet.

  21. Gus314 says:

    My gf is a casual gamer (skyrim and the odd big release) so action games tend to be ok. But trying to explain crusader kings 2 etc is tough. And roguelikes. “You die and have to restart the game from scratch. It’s fun!” :-)

    • Premium User Badge

      RaveTurned says:

      I’m exactly the opposite. My PC is in the front room of our flat, and I’ve learned the hard way that when my girlfriend is also using that space I just can’t play anything twitchy due to the risk of sudden outbreaks of conversation, followed swiftly by in in-game death and real-world anguish. Slower strategy and turn-based games where I can control the pace more easily give me a chance to respond to social cues like a vaguely functional human, and generally result in much less strife. :)

  22. Superpat says:

    I’ll be the odd voice here and say that, while I’ve never played in front of strangers, and would not see the appeal, I really dont mind having to explain the plot to a little brother or changing my playstyle because of a judging parent, I guess I just like explaining why I find something interesting.

    But that might just be a side effect of my ski instructor carreer (I constantly have to explain why careening to your untimely death could be a GOOD thing)

  23. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    It’s been a loooong time since someone watched me play something single-player, but I think I might also resent their presence these days, just as I tend to if people talk during a movie or when I’m trying to enjoy some music for the sake of the music. On the other hand, I used to play Super Metroid and Deus Ex and lots of other games with my sister watching and had no problems with it, and I enjoyed watching her play, too. But on the other hand, there are certain games I think are infinitely better in isolation, such as single-player or even two-player Journey, for exactly those self-conscious reasons you’ve laid out.

    So I guess for me, it totally depends on the game, immersive or not (I can get pretty in to Super Metroid and Deus Ex), but/so I understand your pain!

  24. Premium User Badge

    X_kot says:

    Hah, amazing! At first I was excited b/c Tara Strong is the VA for Holiday, but then I found out about the weird master/servant relationship and how Theran doesn’t have qualms about cheating even though Holiday is super devoted. Ick.

    As for his battle mez, I think he only uses that ability if set as a tank (that’s how I use him). You can deactivate skills on his skillbar by clicking on the green button; it should appear blank afterward. It is annoying, especially against trash mobs, but technically the tank is supposed to disable and grab aggro before you DPS stuff. I imagine the AI is expecting you to follow its lead and not break the sleep effect. You might try setting him as a healer or DPS, see if the dynamic works better for you.

  25. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    I identify with this. It’s not so much a feeling of embarrassment as just not being able to immerse myself in a game in the same way. It’s different for games that are just about messing around a bit to produce something funny, which is kind of performative by nature, but anything story-based or hinging on suspension of disbelief I just can’t.

    I rarely watch Let’s Plays, though as a dev it’s pretty great when someone makes a video of something you’ve made and you get to see their reactions.

  26. RegisteredUser says:

    I’ve always been unapologetic about gaming. IMO people watching TV have infinitely more explaining to do, both because it is (predominantly) a passive consumption medium as well as the fact that even most of the worst computer games don’t come close to the atrocities of some TV / reality shows or movies.

    I’ve even played some dark/scary games “for” my friend, who can’t bear through more than 30 seconds because with any scare he jumps behind the coch and hides.

  27. egattocs says:

    I hadn’t even realised it until I read this, but that is exactly how I feel about this too… I definitely change the way I play when my partner is in the same room. Games feel like they’re my “space”, my place to go. Not that I need to escape from the world or anything, but what I’m doing in a game does feel somehow… personal, and the immersion is a huge part of that.

  28. OmNomNom says:

    When I started reading this I just assumed its because you were playing Skyrim with an anime character and nude mods for all the enemies :)

  29. BathroomCitizen says:

    I always get big judgements looks too by my partner, who is a non-gamer.
    That’s until I hand her the controller (or mouse & keyboard) and hook her up with the game.

    THEN, she understands the coolness of the game I was playing.

    I’m a lucky man! I’ve got a non-gamer girlfriend who occasionally turns into a gamer.

  30. wodin says:

    Your not the only one. I hate it. I’m also terrible at say watching my daughter when she was younger playing say an RPG game when she would miss out lots of the game by rushing to much. I was a terrible back seat ..erm..player. Infact sad to say I use dto get so wound up I stopped watching her. Now thankfulyl she is a betetr gamer than I ever will be:)

    • wodin says:

      Excuse typos in the above post. Mainly due to illness and co ordination issues!

  31. DeFrank says:

    relevant: link to youtube.com

  32. Mandrake42 says:

    Bizarre as it may sound, my mum loves to watch me play cinematic games. So far she has sat through The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, The Walking Dead Season One and Tales from the Borderlands. The later is probably the most surprising as she knows nothing at all about the main games but she thought the episodes were hilarious and was continually hassling me as to when the next one would be released. I also often play games for my sister as she has chronic early onset arthritis and can no longer hold a controller. We just finished The Last of Us a week or so ago and she was silent for the entire credits before asking “Do you think she believed him?”

  33. ffordesoon says:

    Lord, do I identify with this. I hate being watched when I play games, even by friends. It’s like one of those dreams where you’re walking around your high school minding your own business, and then someone looks at you weirdly, and you realize you’re naked and you’ve been naked this whole time and OH GOD NO.