Talking on Stream

Whatever failings I may have as a streamer, one fairly consistent (positive) comment I’ve gotten has been my ability to keep talking. It’s easy for someone of my temperament to fall into a reflective ‘chicken or egg’ cycle regarding my format and my ability to talk, but if I’m honest with myself I can say that this is a quality I had going in, and just needed a mentor (in this case two, SeriouslyClara and JessyQuil) to bring it out. Earlier in my life I was very shy, and along the way set out to try and be a bit more outgoing. I think shyness is still a trait I have (I’m not crazy about taking photos, I don’t always go out of the way to introduce myself to new people. Limit it to the opposite sex and I half think I’m no better than I was in my early-teens), but I’ve managed enough to be able to do public speaking, and I can feel a degree of comfort speaking with people to a the point that I talk too much and now need to reign it in. That said, there are also a few imperatives created by my particular format that make a lot of commentary important. You can take a positive view of it and say that strategy oriented games with opportunities for pauses invite a more dialogue heavy style of cast, or a negative view and say that without a cam every minute without dialogue is an absence of any personality (easily the most important factor in any cast in my opinion). Given that other casters (Brotatoe’s guides come to mind, though personally I’ve not read them) have written their views on casting, I thought I’d weigh in on the one thing I have some credibility for. My verbose style probably limits the utility of this post as an actual guide, especially as I can’t resist the opportunity to editorialize, but I’ll do my best to section it off in meaningful ways.

Why Talk?

In some ways this seems apparent. Other casters talk, and I think it’s safe to say that most people begin broadcasting because they saw a channel that inspired them (even if it’s “Well I can certainly do much better than that systemchalk guy”), but presumably we can come up with a better motivation than “monkey see, monkey do.” Why would I want to be a second rate Arumba when I can be a first rate systemchalk? (For those seeking the origins of my streaming interests, look elsewhere. You good people let me know about Arumba after I was well into my broadcasting hobby.) We are on firmer ground when we consider that live streaming is probably the best interactive broadcasting platform (though by no means exclusively. TV has attempted far more innovation along these lines than people give it credit for) available to us, and we are social animals. Since the greatest strength of the platform is its interactivity, it is only natural that we would want to leverage the strengths of the personalities bringing us this content, and ultimately speech is the most effective way to accomplish this. People are communicating with you in typed words, you speak words back.

Interacting with a personality is not itself a major revelation, but what we should do is unpack exactly what that means so that we can put it under the microscope and find out why we are compelled by some broadcasters but not others. It also puts some boundaries on the discussion. For instance, this has little to offer an aspiring eSports professional who is likely going to attract an audience based on their performance on broadcast games (either in tournaments or on stream, though preferably both). Assuming there is no preliminary work that has already been done through success on another platform, what people know about you is due entirely to what you have spoken after hitting the ‘start streaming’ button.

Of course, there’s an even more fundamental reason to talk and display your personality: it’s entertaining. There is, of course, no obligation to be entertaining, but I am assuming that there are far less costly and technologically intensive forms of masturbation available. And if you’re not having fun, surely there are easier ways to make a living. I’m always looking for new ways to be entertained, and so I have to hope that the broadcasters I visit are as invested in my entertainment as I am. Having identified a motive for dialogue on stream, let’s think about the substance of what is said.

What do I Talk About?

The importance of founding the ‘what’ question on the personality of the broadcaster (again, interactivity being the comparative advantage of live streaming and so personality being the factor that best leverages this advantage) lies in its versatility. Our potential audience is anyone with a reliable internet connection, which means it is global and growing. It’s hard not to believe that there is an audience out there for more or less anything, though clearly some formats will be more popular than others. I don’t really think anyone can teach someone how to become famous. There’s an old quote that is at least attributed to Henry Ford saying “If I asked the customer what they wanted they’d have told me a faster horse that ate less.” This suggests that even if you were to simply poll the Twitch user base, the supposed insights of “Call of Duty is in this year” or “People really want tutorial style MMO PvP streams” are simply identifying past successes and so are basically like driving using only the rear view mirror.

Focusing on personality also forces you to answer the question: why are you doing this? The best way for me to approach this question is to answer it for myself. I can clearly remember from the start what my intentions were in streaming. Gaming has always been a social experience for me, and I tremendously enjoy sharing games with people, even if they’re not gamers themselves. Furthermore, I really like games that make me learn things. When I was little I loved Civilization and can remember being fascinated by all the reading I was doing in the Civilopedia. It’s no coincidence that Kerbal Space Program was one of the first games I streamed because it was a game that I not only enjoyed sharing the experience of learning the game, but was also one that was very subtly teaching me more about orbital mechanics than I would have thought. The learning dimension somewhat expanded because I also talk about my academic interests. People who know me in person know that this is not limited to my stream. These discussions come from a genuine love of these subjects and the enjoyment I get out of sharing them with people. As it happens, games provide a wonderful framework to take people from “God I hated X in high school/college” to “Oh wow, I never thought about it that way.” Clearly the success of this is not for me to determine, but these are the reasons I stream and they are broadly unchanged from the first broadcast, though I hope I’ve become more effective at delivering them.

What I hope this biography conveys is that, while I do behave quite differently when doing a guest appearance on another stream, the content that you see (or more appropriately, hear) on Mondays and Fridays is inextricably linked to me on a personal level. Ultimately, I feel the best commentary comes from this place, which is why I don’t believe in a success formula. People will always remain the core of this broadcast medium, and your dialogue is one of the best ways to interact with them.

Sometimes answering this question is hard. Because it is part of yourself that you will be putting into each broadcast, answering “Why are you streaming?” bears some similarity to the dreaded question “What do you want to do with your life?” It’s a very personal question that you’re dealing with, and it is one that deals with your aspirations and ambitions, which will then be exposed to the world which makes no promises to cherish them as much as you do. But failing to answer this question means that we, the audience, are simply interacting with some cartoon, or worse, nothing at all. Here we do well to remember Polonius’ final piece of advice son Laertes in the first act of Hamlet, “To thine own self be true…”

While this section could be condensed simply to ‘be genuine’ the commandment version does not offer much about the insecurities associated with such an action, and leave the reasons for its importance up to conjecture. But while shrieking at a jump scare is, pretty much by definition, genuine, reaction alone is not enough to properly convey personality through the stream. This brings us to our final topic.

How do I Talk on Stream?

I have to guess every streamer at some point has had to deal with the problem of an empty chat room. Another reason for centring this discussion around a personality is because it should make this problem irrelevant. I knew playing Kerbal Space Program I’d talk about my experience learning the game if nobody showed up or 100 people showed up. This is the active creation of content where the streamer is bringing something more to the table than their access to a gaming computer and broadband internet. This is my Kerbal Space Program, there are many like it but this one is mine…

It is a lot easier to cast to an active chat than it is to an empty chat. Partly it’s because of the support, and partly it’s because I enjoy the interactivity of the medium both as a broadcaster and an audience member. But with this in mind, I still try to be active in how I interact with chat. I’ll illustrate this difference between active interaction vs. passive interaction with an example:

Suppose I’m playing The Talos Principle. I wander around a level, unable to solve a puzzle. “Man, I’m stuck on this one…” Go around in circle again “This game is really hard sometimes…” Notice something different “Oh I think I’ve got the answer.” Flip the switch, move to another section, wind up where I started. “Nope that’s not the answer.” “Oh hey yoloswag420360noscopeblazeit, how are you today?” … “I’m good, just playing some Talos. This puzzle is really hard.” Continue through level. “Yeah, it is a lot like Portal. The puzzles seem a lot harder though.” Have a breakthrough, solve the puzzle. “Oh I get it now. That makes sense, I can’t believe I didn’t get it before.”

There’s a trick to analyzing this hypothetical streamer. First imagine a checkbox of all the traits you’d want in a good stream. Are they talking? Yes, sounds are being produced. Are they responding to chat? Yes, and mentioned someone by name. But can we really call any of this interactive, or really even content? Let’s consider an alternative.

Back in The Talos Principle at the same puzzle. “Alright strap in boys and girls, I’ve completely lost my mind here…” While going through the level “I tried moving the box here, doesn’t seem to be any better place for that. There’s a fan part over there, but it doesn’t seem to be good for anything at the moment… I feel like I’m missing something but we’ve been through this level twice… Hey yolo, how’s it going? Were the other 420359 noscopeblazeits taken?” … “Glad to hear it. This is The Talos Principle. I’m loving it so far, but this puzzle is about to make me self harm.” … “Yes, it’s a lot like Portal. You know how in Portal 2 you get bits of the history of Aperture Laboratories through audio as you go through the level? This tells the story in a similar way, though it seems very philosophical.” Same breakthrough solve the puzzle “Are you kidding me? I’m an idiot. Have you ever noticed that you almost never think to look up in games? I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s because the original first person games only made us look forward? Or the levels are designed with most things at eye level (maybe because the designers played first person games where you only look forward)? I don’t know, what do you guys think?”

Very similar situation. A lot of the dialogue is geared towards the game, and this is a scenario that pretty much any steamer is going to find themselves in at some point: a difficult point in a game where they can’t make progress. However there are a couple of important differences in the scenario above that makes it better ‘stream talk’ in my view. First, personality is conveyed through phrases like ‘Okay strap in…’, the corny joke about the 420360 in the name, or ‘I’m going to self harm because of this puzzle’ (obviously context matters in this case!). There’s no way to fake this, but I feel the more genuine a streamer is with an audience, the more these turns of phrase will come out naturally. In addition, the ‘filler’ while going through the level has the benefit of a systematic approach of conveying a thought process through a game. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between just plain noise. “I am going through a door” is information we can see visually, while “Okay, let me double check what I have to work with…” is something that communicates why you are retracing your steps (and motivates why you’re going through a door).

But the chief difference I wanted to take out of these examples was the difference between a reactive caster and a proactive caster. The first example seems to have an absence of content. The comments on the game are largely already restating the obvious or what is present in the game. Interaction with the chat is reduced to waiting for them to give material to respond to. In the second example, the streamer is always bringing something extra. They don’t rest at simply saying they’re playing The Talos Principle or responding to the similarities with Portal, but instead talk about specifics. They don’t just make sounds in response to things that happen in the game, but they become opportunities to talk about things and possibly bring chat into the discussion. Every stream will have its own spin and so the discussion may not be about the game itself, but what’s important here is that there is something from the caster that is being added more than just noise.

In a reactive stream, chat needs to put the ‘token’ of a comment into the machine before they get something from the streamer (or sometimes the game will pay the token and the streamer will respond). The active stream doesn’t expect anything from the audience, and so is less costly for people to watch. The reactive stream really doesn’t rise above watching someone play a video game with occasional interruptions of noise. The person streaming is more interesting than that, and the people watching the stream are more interesting than that.

Conclusion

Talking on stream is by no means an easy task, but it’s one of the best things you can do to leverage the unique advantages of live streaming as a broadcast medium. Because of its interactivity, we need to focus on people: the person doing the broadcasting, and the people the broadcast is going out to. Because of the size of the potential audience there are nearly limitless options of things to talk about, but we may miss the opportunity to present them simply because we’re either unpracticed or nervous about people’s responses.

In the end, this can only get better with practice. Talk with friends, or at parties, or try to do some public speaking. Think about what you have to say, and your unique take on things. In the end, as a broadcaster, you are far more interesting to me than the game you are playing (which to me is just sort of furniture to a stream). Your commentary is one of the best ways to convey your personality and stand out, even in a crowded space.