This article is the first in an intended series on ‘viewers behaving badly.’ I say intended because I am familiar with the frustration that comes from an author proposing a series only to leave it unfinished and so take David Kreps’ approach in his Microeconomics Foundations I: Choice and Competitive Markets: advertise the proposed series (a trilogy), fail to produce another (so far), but leave an escape route disclaimer of saying the series may never be finished (it’s also a very good and inexpensive micro textbook, though the math would probably turn off most readers here. Perhaps try a campus library if you live near a university). The reason I propose it as a series is because I would prefer these posts to aspire to more than simply ranting about behaviours I specifically get annoyed by, and instead address common threads that can be found among streams and address the reasons why certain rules exist. My ambitions for the series aside, any claims to objectivity will be undermined by the ability of long time viewers will no doubt be able to identify the catalyst for a particular article. In short: I hope to do more than just complain about my audience, but I don’t think it’s at all useful to detach myself from things I personally find irritating on stream.
Origins of the Term
While I’m not familiar with any history of the term, backseating seems to have its origins in the phrase backseat driver, a pejorative for unsolicited advice while driving. Unsolicited advice seems like the most basic foundation for the phrase as one needs no more than an understanding of the words, while the phrase backseat driving seems to create a little narrative to be filled in by the audience. Imagine teaching english to someone and having to define backseat driving, let alone backseating. The negative connotation is directly present in the term unsolicited advice, but potentially is amplified through the drama of the phrase backseat driving. Both cases are annoying, but backseat driving adds to it the active contribution of a distraction from an activity that should command the recipient’s (i.e. the driver’s) full attention.
Taken literally the term backseating makes no sense. There are few, if any, back seats to a stream and while one may rely on prior experience when explaining backseat driving, the term backseating requires familiarity with the term backseat driving to make any sense. I also think this term has grown to encompass more than its origins, and so I would like to mention some sister concepts that I think have been rolled into what we refer to in backseating. The term armchair quarterback is probably the most familiar, referring to a football spectator who mistakes their fandom for expertise and pontificates on what teams ‘should’ have done. A related term, armchair general, I thought had emerged from wargaming, but apparently goes back further (and at least according to Wikipedia goes back to Clausewitz, though doesn’t have a citation). Armchair revolutionary (indeed the whole set of ‘armchair ‘) and keyboard warrior express similar sentiments for amateurs who are fast to criticize without any skin in the game, though personally I hope that we might reinvigorate the granddaddy of all of these phrases and go back to calling them dilettantes.
Despite its older origins, I see backseating as a new coinage with its own specific meaning for what is a decidedly modern phenomena. It combines the unsolicited advice and distraction of backseat driving, the presentation of knowledge without substance of a dilettante, and the criticism divorced from the context of actual involvement present in armchair general.
Backseating on Streams
Each streamer will have their own policies for dealing with backseating, though a casual glance at a random draw of streams is likely to show that the activity is pervasive enough to be mentioned in the rules and that it is viewed as negative enough to be forbidden. I know of one streamer who has gone from a strict no backseating policy to being a little more open ended, a handful who have gone from being somewhat placid about backseating to being annoyed to outright banning it, and the majority I know forbid it outright. I do not have an explicit set of rules for the stream, though, for my part, consider backseating to be self-evidently unwelcome, the same way I would consider racism or harassment of other chatters to not require explicit rules (in my experience both as a mod and a streamer, a list of rules only invites attempts to litigate everything down to the simplest purge).
Despite my exceptional distaste for backseating, I don’t actually consider its motivation to be entirely negative in all cases. Furthermore, there is something interesting in the fact that backseating requires special mention in a list of rules, rather than having its own unspoken but self-evident social penalties like public flatulence. In the next few sections we’ll consider not just the positive and negative motivations for backseating and their effects on a stream, but also why this kind of activity has become pervasive enough to require special rules to be set up in streams.
Negative Motives for Backseating
We will begin with the obvious motives stemming from the original phrase backseat driver. The backseater wishes to assert control over the stream due to their discomfort with what is presently being done on the cast, their lack of faith in the caster, or their wish to be in control. There is little mystery as to why backseating is largely perceived as a negative in these cases because they involve taking control from a streamer, and an unfavourable assessment of the streamer’s ability to conduct their cast. While likely not a conscious motive, the backseater wants the attention of the audience and creative control over the stream without actually taking the effort to build it themselves. This attention seeking behaviour might also be motivated by the impression that they have a secret that nobody else knows (since the rest of the chat is presumably not backseating), and an overwhelming desire to prove that they know what these ignoramuses can’t seem to fathom.
What makes this particularly frustrating is that while driving can at least be justified through a fear of safety when the driver behaves contrary to the backseater’s wishes, no such fear of safety exists in the context of a stream. Furthermore, streaming almost always takes place on a service with a plethora of options, and so not only has the backseater opted into the particular stream they are interrupting, but they have any number of options available if they are dissatisfied with the stream they are viewing. Here, not only is backseating not just disrespectful to the streamer, but disrespectful to the audience through insisting that the content they are enjoying should conform to the backseater’s wishes, rather than the backseater seeking out entertainment more in line with their expectations.
The primary (or at least the apparent) motives for backseating then appear to be the negative ones: A desire to be in control or the centre of attention, a disrespect for others’ abilities or priorities, and a sense of entitlement that demands their whims be catered to.
Positive Motives for Backseating
Backseating does not always come with a nagging whine from the back of the chat to “play better.” It may also come in the form of seemingly helpful advice. Streamers are more or less expected to communicate throughout the cast and so will likely discuss their frustrations or confusion at certain parts. This can be misconstrued as a request for help, much the same way that a greeting of “How ya doin’?” can be taken as a request for information. Even if a streamer does not verbalize their thought process, the mere fact that the game is not in a state of constant progress (or the player is on a losing streak or what have you) may be perceived as an invitation for ‘advice’.
My own feelings on backseating are manifestly apparent by now, and so it will not come as a surprise to know that I doubt the sincerity of most of these cases, though even I cannot deny that there are some legitimate misunderstandings. However, I have also been present for casts where a viewer claiming to have never have played a given game was displaying a tremendous insight into many solutions to puzzles they ‘just noticed’ after a few minutes of the streamer going through the level. Even in the case of a genuine effort to advance the game, I can’t help but think that the dominant driver in these cases is to display knowledge about the game, rather than a benevolent wish that streamers get through their content as efficiently as possible.
Another potential positive motive for backseating is an viewer’s desire to participate in the stream. Streaming is an interactive medium, and a large part of its strength stems from its interactivity. That said, these are the very kind of good intentions a famous road is paved with, and the destination is the same. Rather than sharing in the stream, backseating wrestles control away from the broadcaster. Interactivity is a desirable feature because it is a shared experience, and backseating violates this principle through attempting to take control.
The Impact of Backseating on a Stream
Having considered some of the motives behind backseating, we will turn our attention to the much more important matter of how it affects the streamer and the stream. The first and main consequence of backseating is distraction. The streamer is no longer focused on the game or the entertainment but instead must now deal with this interruption to the natural flow of thought. While it probably does not require elaboration, an analogy may be in order. Everyone has a way of getting ‘in the zone’ whether it’s absorbing oneself into a good book, delivering a speech, getting absorbed in music, trying to solve a tough problem, or getting into an exercise routine. It’s a unique feeling, not really appreciated in the moment (the lack of distraction or absence of self-awareness is key to me), but certainly recognized after its passed. Backseating is an imposition of the outside world on a blissful mental state that is difficult to achieve. The streamer’s mind is no longer juggling the game, the channel, and their presentation in harmony, but has had one of these elements disrupted, breaking the focus. More experienced streamers may find it easier to regain this state, or find it more difficult to be shaken by outside disruptions, but it remains an unwelcome intervention from the outside world into a state I feel is conducive to the best and most enjoyable casting.
In a related way backseating is disruptive because of its disrespect. There is likely to be a degree of variance between streamers’ egos, and so the disruption is likely to be negatively correlated with the streamer’s sense of self. Again, personal experience is likely useful here. I’m those who have had the misfortune of meeting me in person will say I have no shortage of ego, though I am secure enough in this fact so as not to be too bent out of shape if a stranger on the internet doesn’t think I’m good at a video game (notice, after all, they’re watching me, while they have only succeeded in distinguishing themselves through disrupting my content). That said, it is hard to shake a twinge of annoyance at the assumption you not only did not know the solution, but were so hopeless you required intervention. This feeling of disrespect is amplified through the fact no consideration is made to the fact that the streamer’s concentration is divided between the chat and the game itself, as well as the fact that the most skilled choices are not the most entertaining. My Crusader Kings II casts are a good example of this: I have hundreds of hours in the game (a majority of it, in fact, on cast), and while I think there’s always something new to learn, I feel quite confident in my command of the game’s mechanics. This is also a game that derives a lot of its magic from the emergent stories, and so my understanding of the game’s mechanics is coupled with a willingness to make sub-optimal but dramatically appropriate decisions (legitimizing a bastard when you have an heir is only asking for trouble. However, the resulting story of how you sired a bastard son through your son’s wife, legitimized the bastard, only to have him grow up and assassinate the legitimate heir to inherit the kingdom is worth the potential fallout). Ultimately, the best casts are where the streamer is sharing something of themselves with the audience, and so any backseating, whether its instruction in the game, or demands for a certain style of casting, digs at this personal aspect and attempts to hijack the effort. A viewer can take or leave the content, but should not try to subvert it for their own ends. Nobody has the magic formula for streaming success, and not every stream needs to be the same. Sometimes casters need to find their voice, and they are not going to be assisted through malcontents spoiling the fun for everyone.
Fundamentally backseating also strikes at the heart of what makes gaming enjoyable. While this is something of an old example, consider the controversy surrounding the estimated playtime of The Order: 1886. While there was some dispute as to the duration of a representative playthrough of the campaign, a consensus seemed to form that the game was short in duration, and that this was a bad thing. Concerns about quality adjusted playtime notwithstanding, there is a fairly simple observation to make here: people seem to prefer more of a game than less of a game. Obviously this is with everything else being equal, and there is certainly a point where a game can be too long, but it’s a lot easier to feel cheated with too little of a game, than disappointed with too much of it. Part of the length of the game is a function of how difficult it is. Most classic adventure games are quite short (I’ve run through Day of the Tentacle twice and did not need to split it over casts), but don’t feel short because of the process of figuring out the puzzles. NES games are another great example of this as the limited space on the cartridge means that the duration of the game had to come from something other than increasing the number of levels (which is why some of these games seem arbitrarily difficult). With very few exceptions there are supposed to be points in games that present a challenge and require some thought to get through. Denying the streamer the opportunity to solve the puzzle means the experience on display is not what the developer intended, it diminishes the streamer’s enjoyment of the game, and it also diminishes the stream’s enjoyment of the game twice over given that there is less content to experience, and the stream is no longer able to experience the streamer’s thought process through a difficult part of the game.
This is possibly the most important and damaging consequence of backseating. Streamers have access to the exact same information as anyone else and if they wanted to be told how to advance in the game they would either consult a guide or directly ask chat. A viewer that attempts to backseat not only diminishes the caster’s enjoyment of the game, but ruins the fun for everyone else who is watching. Given that some population of a cast will have arrived because they are interested in the game, it is safe to assume there are multiple people in a given stream who will know the information being communicated by the backseater. The backseater’s solipsism is not an excuse for ruining everyone else’s fun.
The Spread of Backseating
Why is backseating a problem now? Or, if it’s always been a problem, why does it seem so much more prevalent? First, both the appearance and the fact of increase backseating can be attributed to technological progress: Where we originally had to be physically present to backseat drive, communications technology have expanded our capabilities to be irritating to virtually anywhere. Likewise, because streaming can be so personal (the audience is invisible, and the streamer appears to be speaking directly to you), the backseater’s disregard for others is reinforced by the environment. Finally, through various fan wikis and forums, it is possible to gain any information about a given game at a moment’s notice. While the fact that someone can do this is unremarkable, the illusion of possessing knowledge seems to be preserved through the fact that nobody can see how someone got this information.
Beyond these surface explanations, I think there’s something a bit deeper behind backseating. Overall there seems to be a diminished opinion of experts across more or less any discipline. If you don’t like the results from your doctor you can go to another one, or even consult a website to self-diagnose. Don’t know an answer to a problem? StackExchange has got you covered. Need some trivia on history? Just go to Wikipedia. None of these options are inherently bad and, in fact, are likely edited or curated by experts. What the accessibility of these sites has done though is allowed people to replace the knowledge of how to solve a problem with how to look for someone else’s solution. In many cases this is replacing actual knowledge with the mere appearance of it. An analogy may be fame. Before photography, you had to be someone very important for others to know what you looked like (your face was on a coin, or images of you were widely distributed in various buildings like churches). Now photography is cheap, and easy, and it is enough to simply be famous for being famous. Given the seemingly limitless capacity for celebrities to offer opinions on matters of importance, we don’t seem to have lost this deference we give to the people whose images we see all over the place, but the barriers for entry seem to have been significantly diminished. Likewise, it is not especially difficult to express an opinion online, and the fact that one can do so seems to have created the illusion that one voice on the internet is as good as any other’s. In addressing the phenomena of fake news Obama offered that “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.”
We implicitly acknowledge the value of experts through our consumption of the information they provide, but we want to receive the credit for disseminating the information. Just like it’s simple to download seemingly anything: a song, a game, a book, a movie, we are able to take just about any information and pass it off as our own discoveries. If I read a walkthrough for a game start to finish and play the game, I am going to feel like I am the one who beat the game, but I was simply the instrument through which the walkthrough operated. It is not the same accomplishment as playing from start to finish without assistance. Finally, while good streamers make it look easy, streaming is actually fairly difficult to do (at least well). Of course, one needn’t go through the trouble of finding an audience and building a community, when any given streamer has already done this work for you. All you need to do now is demonstrate how much more you know about the game than the streamer through backseating and you can show how much better you’d be at the exercise if only you had enough time off from kicking ass at video games.
Of course, this type of expertise is an illusion, but it’s a powerful one. I can recall coworkers who genuinely felt that knowing they could find a solution to a problem was equivalent to solving a problem, and I think plenty of people online expect that their opinion should receive the same weight as a well reasoned argument simply because both parties are speaking the same language and are on the same forum. Our reward mechanisms are roughly consistent with these views: homework and reports are often graded on outcomes, not thought processes. Most online discourse is graded on how well an opinion aligns with the audience’s prior (sort Undertale’s negative reviews by most helpful for an example). The appearance of expertise is much simpler than obtaining that knowledge for oneself, and so much more effort is now expended in finding the biggest platform to display this false knowledge than obtaining the genuine article.
This problem is as old as Plato’s Ion (the bard who claims expertise on generalship due to his understanding of Homer), and yet now we seem to be taking Ion seriously. It’s never fun to admit we don’t know something, and yet it’s an important ability to have. It’s impossible to talk about this and not acknowledge the fact that not only is it possible to be elected President on the basis of being able to play a successful businessman on television, but the appeal towards a lack of experience is actually considered a positive feature to campaign for any number of populist candidates following in the wake of this outcome. Where politicians aren’t directly articulating policy that is ‘just like the average joe’s’ they are directly turning it over to the public in the form of referenda. These are representatives who, if they don’t possess expertise themselves, should at least be consulting with experts to make decisions turning that responsibility over to people who do not have access to this expertise. Even the news is reporting an opinion poll on everything, as if their job wasn’t to inform people about the facts.
In an environment where so many important issues have now been surrendered to seemingly anyone, is it any surprise that seemingly anyone feels entitled to instruct something as trivial as a stream as to how to do things ‘properly’? Backseating a stream allows the quick rush of displaying the possession of ‘secret knowledge’ in front of an audience who is clearly invested in the game you are talking about. But the ‘fame’ is as illusory as the knowledge. Nobody really thinks it’s impressive that someone in chat knew what everyone else knows is public knowledge. In truth, chat should, and likely does resent the backseater for taking away from their experience. The streamer resents the attempt to wrest control of something they’ve put considerable effort into.
Games aren’t fun as play by chat, streamers aren’t fleshy controllers to implement your instructions, and if the audience were interested in your gameplay, they’d be in your stream. This is why I feel the net result of backseating is so negative as to not even require articulation in the rules. But if I must articulate a position I’ve already primed my bot: “Support the devs, buy the game for yourself, and LEAVE THE STREAMER ALONE!”