In the digital age, New Media is constantly evolving and redefining existing boundaries in the fields of commerce, communication and entertainment. Video games are uniquely positioned to change the cultural landscape of interactive entertainment and existing broadcasting channels. By leveraging transcoding within digital media, video games can blend existing broadcasting tropes to create an entirely new cultural layer. An excellent example of this is Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty (Blizzard Entertainment, 2010). This game plays a major role in the recent era of live stream gameplay broadcasting, and from this came a worldwide shift in media consumption and entertainment.
Although transcoding has a stricter technical definition, within the context of New Media it can be defined as the translation of information from one digital media to another, or one analogue media to another. Manovich (2001) then extends this idea by discussing the computer layer and the cultural layer. The computer layer retains the digital information and structure of the media, the numerical representation that is key to defining New Media. The cultural layer is the context and meaning given to the numerical representation. The computer an cultural layer continually influence each other, and the versatile nature of New Media means that transcoding is almost inherent and encouraged.
When discussing the principles of New Media, video games are often unique in their interactivity. The influence that programmable interactive experiences have on the cultural layer is potentially more potent than passive media experiences. It is interesting then, that one of the most prominent examples of transcoding within video games removes the interactive element. With 45 million viewers every month and over a million broadcasters (Person 2014), Twitch.tv is on the forefront of video game culture. Twitch provides online viewers with live video streams of gameplay footage, along with a chat room for viewers to interact with each other. The broadcaster of the stream provides commentary along with their gameplay, to entertain the viewers. As well as more recent games, one mainstay of Twitch.tv is streaming Starcraft II gameplay. Online personalities such as Sean Plott and Steve Bonnell earn up to six figure salaries by streaming Starcraft (Edge Magazine, 2013).
Video game live streams have effectively changed the media consumption habits of video game fans
As previously mentioned, live streaming transcodes interactive gameplay into a non interactive online video stream. Although there may be hundreds of Starcraft video streams broadcasting at any given time, the contents of each will be unique, due to the interactive nature of the original medium. It could be argued that live streams simply transcode video games into live television shows, but it goes beyond this. The implementation of the live chat room allows viewers to textually communicate with each other and the broadcaster. Unlike television, this communication is global and not restricted to whoever is in your living room. Occasionally the textual communication in chat may influence the broadcaster, causing them to follow their viewers instructions within the game, which is then broadcast back to the viewers. If we use the definition of transcoding as the translation of information between digital mediums, then information is transcoded three separate times during the live stream. From the game to the online video, then from textual chat to the game, then from the game back to the video. This complexity is rarely seen outside of live streaming, and certainly not with the same immediacy.
Video game live streams have effectively changed the media consumption habits of video game fans. The key shift is in the mindset and activities of the consumer, “if old consumers were assumed to be passive, the new consumer is active…if old consumers were isolated individuals, new consumers more socially connected ” (Jenkins, 2004). Although the viewers of the live stream could choose to play a video game themselves, they instead watch someone else play. Among many other reasons, a key one may be the development of the cultural layer that this transcoding creates. The intimate relationship between the broadcaster and the viewer is unique when juxtaposed against television and cinema, and from this comes a set of memes and tropes associated with that broadcaster. Many broadcasters have inside jokes and experiences between their regular viewers, and these are developed and embellished upon during each new stream. A unique community is created, who’s consumption of media fuels the development of the cultural layer.
The uniqueness and immediacy of this transcoding may be starting to affect the commercial broadcasting media. Traditional cable television sales are consistently dropping, and even large television sporting events are reporting lower ratings (Edwards, 2013). Live streaming online video is re-mediating traditional elements of television and then providing more content and value to consumers. Although advertisement breaks exist in many streams, viewers know that they directly support the broadcaster, and can make a choice about watching them. Although live streaming is only just starting to come into its own, the future of this new New Media has the potential for a huge impact on how we broadcast and consume digital media.
Through a combination of intimacy and active development of the cultural layer, transcoding video games to live, online video streaming is proving to be an important and interesting development. Removing the consumers ability to interact with the game does not impede its popularity, and allows media to be enjoyed in new and immediate ways. As this burgeoning medium continues to grow, the possibilities for the development of broadcast entertainment and interactive experiences are endless.
Blizzard Entertainment. (2010). Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. [PC] Irvine, CA: Blizzard Entertainment.
Edge Magazine (2013, July) Check me out: The New World of 24/7 on-demand videogame TV. Edge Magazine, (255), 70 – 75.
Edwards, J. (2013, November 25) TV is Dying, And Here Are The Stats From The US That Prove It. Business Insider Australia. Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com.au/cord-cutters-and-the-death-of-tv-2013-11
Jenkins, H. (2004). The Cultural Logic of Media Convergence. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 2004, (7), 33. DOI: 10.1177/1367877904040603
Manovich, L. (2001). The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Pearson, D. (2014, July 01) Twitch – 1 million channels and rising. Gamesindustry.biz. Retrieved from: http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2014-07-01-twitch-tv-1-million-channels-and-rising