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The World of Twitch, Parenting, and Beyond: an Interview with John Reid
The media each generation grows up with is constantly shifting. And today’s relatively new kid on the block, streaming, has certainly made its mark on consumer entertainment – with platforms like Twitch providing a hub for audiences to watch and interact with others doing anything, from making a meal to playing games, as it happens in real time.
We spoke to John Reid, a streamer who wears many hats: he’s a parent, a player of both tabletop and video games, a watcher of streams and a streamer himself. He gave us a great insight into what streaming means to him, how it influences the way he interacts with his kids, and what makes games good to stream and/ or suitable for family game-play.
So, the first thing would be a little bit of background – do you mind telling me a bit about your profession, and what connection to games you have?
John: I’m an IT manager at an education company, and I’ve been working there for about, let’s say five years. With regards to gaming, I’ve been into games of various sorts most of my life. When I was younger I had a Commodore 64 in my bedroom; I got to play all the early video games and got into console games as they came out.
So you’ve grown up with it?
John: Yeah, it was kind of all around me…my older brother and I were just lucky to have them there, I think. As I got older I got a Nintendo and a Super Nintendo myself, and after a while I moved onto PC gaming. Then I got older and fell out of love with it for a few years…but over the last decade I’ve been getting back into gaming again.
Was there anything in particular that drew you back to gaming?
John: I think it was because the Wii came out, and you were able to have something around that was a bit fun without having to sit and drill down…I’m a busy professional with a family, so the idea of sitting down in front of a console and getting immersed for 4 hours non-stop is not an option.
So what was it that drew you to streaming in particular?
John: Well, I used to do a bit of blogging for a phone fans website, but after a while I got too busy and gave it up. For a while I’ve been so busy with work life and family life so I didn’t mind too much. But I’ve watched a few people streaming, and there’s been a kind of resurgence of video gaming as a more socially acceptable thing – I don’t know whether you’ve seen it on TV – ‘Go 8-bit’ – they’re just sitting around playing computer games and having comedy japes…So I just thought, maybe I should try this streaming thing!
Gaming definitely seems more mainstream – so many people play video games now, and a lot more people are interested in watching others play games too.
John: Yeah, I always think it’s quite bizarre…when I was growing up, only a few of us really played video games, and you were looked at like a bit of a geek or nerd…yet over time it’s become such a huge industry. Even with tabletop gaming there’s just so many clever ideas now, and there’s a few that break out like Cards Against Humanity, which you can mention to a lot of people and they’ll recognise what it is. You can go to a games expo now, and right next to computer games there’s another section for board games as well.
It’s nice to see the two camps merging a little more. So, when it comes to streaming, there’s generally interaction between people who are playing the game and people watching the game. How does that change how you’re playing?
John: I always try and engage with the people that are watching, because they’re spending the time to actually come and watch you play a game…It’s the same as if you’d just invited those people to your living room, in my opinion – they’ve gone to the trouble of coming around, so you’ve got to talk to them and engage. I think that’s as important – or even more important – than me actually playing the game…that’s where you can have the banter and the fun come into it. It’s not just streaming for your own ego, it’s about those moments and memories you’re making along the way as you’re doing it.
Regarding the kind of audience I have, I’m lucky in that I happened to create a group on Discord, and one or two of the people in it were streaming already, and I’d kind of just started at that time. Then over time people in the group also started streaming, and they always make an effort to jump on each others’ streams and hang out, if you will.
Yeah, one of the nice things about streaming is that it creates another little hub that people can gather around.
John: Definitely, and it’s nice to watch somebody playing something you wouldn’t normally play.
I’ve seen from some of your streams that you’ve done a fair mix. You’ve done a few things which are purely digital, some leaning towards the tabletop side like Beasts of Balance, and then also some streaming with your family, and some solo. So, to pick one of those broad topics, starting with digital games versus tabletop games – what are the key things that struck you about the differences in streaming them?
John: I think if you’re streaming board games, I’ve discovered you feel more exposed. If I’m sitting there and playing a video game…although I am pushing it along, as much as I’m playing the game and pushing it, I’m also the passenger – it takes me wherever it’s going to take me. I can make decisions along the way, but ultimately the game is there…With board games you’re pointing the camera to your table, and then you’re kind of the master of your destiny at that point. You’ve got the rules of the game, sure, but you’ve got to take more responsibility for how you present that to the people watching. So I wouldn’t say it’s more work, but certainly the attitude you take towards it is slightly different.
In what ways do you think that the experiences of watching a tabletop game versus a purely digital game may differ?
John: Playing a tabletop game would make it easier to chat to the people watching the stream…What my hopes are to do as I stream more board games is to have the people who are viewing join in and things like that…As you said, when I was playing Beasts of Balance, you can put the figures down on the table and the elements and say ‘okay, which one shall we try and place next? What are we going to try and build, try and create?’. So there’s always a fun point there.
The Beasts of Balance stream was also one where you’d been playing with your kids, which brings me nicely onto the topic of playing with family versus solo. In terms of streaming, what are the differences on your end about how it feels in both scenarios.
John: It’s much harder [laughing]! But once you’ve got it going, streaming with family is not so bad. Like I said, I’ve got a small community of people who watch me stream and everything, so I’m not worried about millions of people watching. But as a parent you always think, you know, ‘are my children going to be well-behaved, because I can’t undo anything if they do anything inappropriate!’, or ‘are they going fall out and argue in the middle of the game?’…I think that’s why I wanted to do Beasts of Balance on the stream, as a starting point for family streaming, because it’s got a very open structure to it, and I think finding games where it’s not the end of the world when somebody misses their turn, it’s not the end of the world if somebody gets something wrong…
It’s a lot more flexible, I suppose.
John: Exactly – any kinds of games that can offer flexibility in those kinds of veins are more beneficial to me…like I said in an email before, my middle child – my eight year old son – he has some special needs, and he doesn’t play well with the others when we play board games. And it’s not his fault, he just can’t deal with the turn taking over a long period of time, he can’t deal with the fact that if he doesn’t win he’ll probably get cross 50% of the time…And at that point you’ve got to try and find games and ways of engaging with him that doesn’t exclude everyone else, yet doesn’t make him feel like he’s singled out.
Having that balance between a game that appeals to everyone and genuinely makes everyone feel included can be really challenging. It’s definitely possible, there are lots of amazing games out there that do it, but it can be tricky.
John: There’s a kind of modern – or anti-modernist attitude. You read it in the newspapers and see it on TV, where a school will be saying ‘we’re not doing competitive races anymore, it’s all team based and nobody has to win’…and I’m not a subscriber to that. I think we have to have conflict in our lives, we have to have challenge, and we have to feel like we’re succeeding in our lives. And when you’re children, it’s very important to learn all of those things; winning and loss: it’s gonna happen.
So I’m never one to say I don’t want any games that don’t allow those things to happen, but as parents in those situations they have to be a little bit more choosy. It’s about coming to the end of the game and feeling like you may have achieved something, and you may have won together or separately…even if somebody wins and somebody loses, it’s fun along the way.
So in terms of what you would define as a good family game, are there any things you look for, or things you appreciate?
John: It’s always handy to go back to basics – having a game at the lowest common denominator where you roll the dice and move the figure, because it’s pure chance, nobody can really get upset by it at the end… You can never really go too wrong with those, and they’re nice and short usually, which is another part.
Then on the other end I’ve got my oldest son, and we love playing games like Risk, and that’s something I’m going to consider trying to put on the stream at some point…There’s a lot of moving parts in that game in the sense of what you have to think about. I love playing that with my oldest son, and other similar games where the board itself isn’t your traditional board (like in Chess), where it’s all open and your decisions can directly affect where it goes.
So somewhere in the middle is that creativity without the over-complication – and that’s what appealed to me when I saw Beasts of Balance…We were just looking at it, and thought ‘that looks like a great thing and we can all do it’, and it’s fun for the grown ups as much as it is for the youngest ones.
But I’m always out there seeking something new like that, and bringing the kids as a part of online streaming as well… I said to them one day ‘well, would you like to be on a stream?’, because I’d normally try and do it when they’re off in bed, and they’d sneak down and see what I’m doing. So with Beasts of Balance, I said ‘that’s the perfect one’ because they can move the pieces, they can be in there, and we can just chat about it. And of course you’ve got the tablet as well, which you can put onto the screen, so I think of it as a nice easy cheat for me to choose that one as the family game to try first.
Would you say, then, that your kids enjoy being a part of streaming?
John: Yeah I think so. It’s a little thrill for them when they see people are watching, and they can say ‘hello’, and the people watching say hello back, because even though we’re living in a more connected world, younger children aren’t necessarily a part of that. I don’t have my kids on Facebook and social media, so for them media is a traditional means where there’s not so much two-way engagement. So it’s kind of a little fun for them to see, ‘actually, I can be that person on the TV, or on Dad’s stream on the internet, or whatever’.
I’m not a person to hide them off the internet completely, because when they grow up they’re going to put themselves out there. When I see social media, the worried parent in me goes ‘that’s too much’, but there’s gonna be a point in my kids’ lives where they’re going to have to make those decisions and actually stop and think ‘is that right?’. And I’d rather they be exposed to that kind of dialogue with other people over the internet in a kind of interactive way now, than later on when it completely overwhelms them.
Online streaming is definitely picking up in a very big way.
John: Absolutely! To pretend it’s not there is ridiculous…millennials and younger kids are going to be driven towards that side of things more and more as they grow up, and I think this is mainly just saying ‘this is how it all works, kids, this is what it’s really like. If you wanna do that and be a part of that, then I’ll support you. I’ll be behind you, as long as you have fun with it and can be responsible with it.’
It’s great, because I think that’s where the next big boon of entertainment is. I mean, it’s already there – you go and see tournaments with massive prize money, and you have those elite players who have thousands and thousands of followers…
Yeah. There’s this whole world of people, at events like TwitchCon – the scale of it, and the following of people going there – it’s just phenomenal.
John: You know the old Bob Dylan song: ‘the time, they are a changin’ – and it’s up to us as parents; we can either engage with what’s going on at the time or not. I don’t know if you caught a stream of as I was playing Minecraft with my son?
Yeah, I saw that!
John: Well, I’d never played it before – he just sat there getting frustrated with me, telling me what’s going on, and people were watching and mocking me for it – and it’s fun, because it’s a game my son plays a huge amount of. So I don’t have to play it all the time, but it’s engaging with him and having him on the sofa next to me playing rather than just sat in his room playing online. It’s a nice way to bring those worlds together.
What are the aspects of a game that you feel make it good for streaming as a family?
John: It’s got to be something that somebody might find interesting along the way – if you’re just gonna sit playing card games and you’ve got one camera angled on you, it’s not going to be very interesting. Of course, card games are very interesting in their own right! But it’s the way they present it as well.
The great thing about Beasts of Balance was that I had a tablet hooked up to the stream; it was on the corner of the screen and on the stream, so you could see everything. But there were also these physical tangible objects that we were mucking about with, and I think if the games you play have some kind of place to focus, whether you’re building something or demolishing something, then that’s probably an important part of streaming it.
I was saying, Risk would be another one I’d like to try some point, simply because you can have the board there – this is where the difficulty comes, because to have a view of the board, as well as see what’s going on with the people – you need another camera. For instance, if someone just tunes in, they’d want to know ‘how do I know what your score is’, or ‘how do I know how well you’re doing compare to the next person’…do you have to put something on the screen to represent that as well? There’s the challenges for anyone who wants to stream board games I guess!
Indeed. So, just to wrap up: are there any games that you’ve seen streamed, or that you’ve streamed recently that you’ve enjoyed? And are there any games that are on your to-stream list?
John: My to-stream list keeps changing depending on my mood. In regards to digital, I like to try and put in some retro games as well as some of the newer ones. So I was doing Lemmings the other day, which a few people watched and enjoyed. I’ve also got a Nintendo Switch, and they’re always fun to chuck a new game in and start from the beginning – you know Mario Odyssey will be out later in the year*, so I’ll certainly be doing a bit of that!
Then for board games, like I said earlier, I do fancy doing a bit of Risk with my kids. I’m also looking forwards to the Beasts of Balance Battles expansion coming out – I can’t wait for that to drop out and show that to the kids, because I haven’t let them know I’ve ordered it yet.
I’m led by the kids in that regard of streaming…the other day, my daughter asked ‘can I stream Zelda?’…so I just took my laptop into the kitchen and set up so I could watch her streaming it and check everything was alright in the other room! It’s fun to let the children take some ownership as well. When they feel it belongs to them as well, rather than just something they’re doing because it’s Dad’s…it’s never about that. I always want them engaged and enjoying it, and to feel a real part of it.
*interview was carried out significantly earlier than when Mario Odyssey is due to be released