Voyeuristic Gaming

I remember a time when my friends and I would sit huddled around a tiny TV with a Megadrive in front of it cheering each other on for hours. We’d sit and watch each other play these games, not as backseat gamers, but as true voyeurs to the pixellated wonder. For some reason, no matter how long we were there, watching never got boring. There was a true sense of camaraderie as we’d sit and “ohhhh!”, “ahhh!” and “oh no!” the player through levels of the chosen game.

As many of you know, I live with my boyfriend Chris who is also an avid gamer. We never sit and watch TV together, films are reserved for mealtimes and our time together is optimised for the very best allocation of gaming time. He’ll be on his 360, while I’m on mine as we gradually rack up the electricity bill (and the heating in our lounge, blimey do these machines kick out the heat!). Every now and then, a strange sense of “meh” will wash over me. I quite simply can’t think of any better way to describe this feeling, it’s a feeling of dissatisfaction and confusion. Normally, this is because I don’t know what to play. When these moments happen, I’ll normally pause for a while and watch Chris play whatever it is he is playing until I think of something to do. Other times I’ll sit and watch the “I just want to get past this bit first…” moments when we’re due to go out/cook dinner/insert non-gaming activity here.

If there is one thing I notice more than anything in these times it’s that next-gen gaming is so overwhelmingly boring to watch someone else play. I’m not 100% sure what it is, perhaps it’s the difficulty curve in modern games and the fact that they just don’t appear more “retro”. Maybe it’s because there is no longer such a thing as true “Game Over”. Really though, it doesn’t make sense. With modern games being as visually stunning as they are, really they should be completely entrancing to watch. But aside from the odd fluke (Bioshock, Bioshock, and Bioshock) they really are just so dull to watch.

I’d not really thought about this in much detail until quite recently. I’d just assumed I was getting cranky in my slightly older age and less tolerant of waiting around for stuff to do. Lately, however, Chris has had an old-school vibe wash over him and he’s been playing a lot of arcade games (Sonic, Pac-Man, and Bionic Commando to name but a few). I began to notice something very odd happen to me. More and more I was pausing my games to watch him as he cursed, stropped and battled his way through these games. So what is it?ย What is it about older-gen games that is so hypnotic. The graphics are poor, the levels simplistic and you can bet your bottom dollar you won’t need more than your D-pad and a few buttons. It doesn’t make sense. Why is it that the most technically-advanced and beautiful games are about as fun to view as watching paint dry (except that paint that goes on pink and dries to white, magic!) while these pixellated eye-sores are exciting and entrancing.

I have a few theories, one of which being “they just don’t make ’em like they used to”. Games are just easier nowadays, “Oh, you died, never mind, you saved recently right?”. Back in the 2D days there just wasn’t that luxury. You sat down and you played ’till your last life. Maybe this level of suspense is what makes it so exciting to watch?

Or perhaps, just perhaps, I’m just easily taken in by bright colours and flashing things.







20 responses to “Voyeuristic Gaming”

  1. Dave avatar

    Loved this post. I’m a retro-nut as well and I have a silly Mega Drive collection, it’s literally taking up all the space underneath my lounge window, out of sight behing the couch.

    Two things new to the last and current generation that we didn’t have in the old-skool are regenerative health and unskippable cut-scene.

    The first takes away the challenge (you young gamers don’t know you’re born etc.) and the latter is a pain, especially when you have to rewatch the scene after dying and going back to a checkpoint.

    I love go back and playing Streets of Rage 2 (my fave retro game) and the strain you feel on stage 7 or 8 as you’re down to your last two lives hammering the attack buttons in a desperate attempt to scrape through to the end gives you a feeling you rarely get nowadays.

    16-bit for the win!

  2. Webby avatar

    I had this exact same discussion with a friend a few days ago.
    One of the main points that I got was games nowadays you have to “get in them” like engage in the story and games before didn’t really have anything like that, however they were really easy to just jump into at any time.
    So I think that’s probably the main reason you can watch someone playing an old game more than some new releases because you don’t have to know what’s going on a lot of the time to understand what’s happening.

  3. Tony avatar

    Personally I couldn’t disagree more.

    Retro games are endlessly tedious to watch, because they are all about the gameplay and not about the graphics and story.

    First game I actually enjoyed watching someone else play was GTA III, I used to spend hours with my mates taking it in turns to cause chaos round the city whilst having a beer and a laugh.

    My partner who isn’t that into games used to love watching me play Shadow of the Colossus, and I can see why, what a spectacle.

  4. Dave avatar

    Watching something like Street Fighter II Championship Edition is fun if you’re passing the controllers around a group of mates.

    Anything with a big focus on multiplayer such as Mario Kart, Micro Machines on the J-Cart, NHL 97 etc.

    Retro games can be fun to watch, it just depends on the title really.

    I don’t think the generation gap has anything to do with it. It just depends on the individuals really. I couldn’t stand watching someone tooling about on Halo 3 for example, that game bores me enough as it is :/

  5. Rob avatar

    I remeber the days huddled round my old megadrive as well. I know what you mean though. Games like sonic and golden axe will never grow old and always have a tiney bit more appal. Maybe becuasei gre up with them i don’t know. But there is nothjng like getting co-op golden axe or streets of rage 2 on the go.

  6. Dave avatar

    I think someone should make Streets of Rage 4, but keep it old skool. Some current 3D scrolling beat-em-ups can’t hold a candle to the 2D scrappers.

    Did you ever play the Ninja Turtles or Simpsons beat-em-ups from Konami?

    Rob, have you ever played Streets of Rage Remake by Bomberlink? It’s absolutely amazing! Google it and download it, the ultimate in fan service!

  7. Kate avatar

    I still find it quite enjoyable to watch other people play games. I think the last two I can recall were Mercenaries 2 and a Tiger Woods game. I find it quite relaxing – probably becasue I get quite stressed when I game, and it’s nice to see someone else sweat it out!

  8. Laura avatar

    I can sit and watch 2 games only, Mass Effect or GTA IV, it’s probably because they’re pretty cinematic and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next.
    Anything else and I can’t STAND watching, I’ll want to play it myself!!!

  9. Ben avatar

    I often get strange looks when someone passes me a controller and says “that’s all right, I’m fine to just watch them play.

    Think last game I watched someone play was Fallout 3 which turned out good fun.

    That said, the amount of times I watch rather than play is slowly dwindling away.

  10. NorfolkNChance avatar

    I think it’s down to games having a long, detailed, enriching narrative that makes it difficult to keep a passerby captivated.
    Some games create pockets of mini-narrative that allows non-players to engage in for a short time.
    Back in the day (had to get that in) there wasn’t much narrative over gameplay. It was easy to grasp the concept of a simplistic game and understand what was going on.

  11. Alex avatar

    Dave, I vote we should get a picture of this mega drive collection of yours! I miss mine terribly, but it had an unfortunate and untimely death (they’re hard to destroy, but subsequent house moves and some clumsy movers managed it!). I’ve not played the Ninja Turtles or the Simpsons beat-em-ups, I could see the Simpsons ones being great fun. Then again, I always kind of liked mucking about in Simpsons games. Tacky, I know.
    Webby, I think that’s a very good point! I’d honestly not thought of that but I think it’s a real contributor as to why I personally get so bored watching next-gen games.
    Tony, We’ll have to agree to disagree ๐Ÿ˜‰ However, SoTC is phenomenal to watch, and I’ve sat through more than one play through as a viewer. It’s beautiful.
    Rob, I often wonder if I’m biased because I grew up with these games. But they do have a timeless appeal!
    Kate, I get just as het up when other people play games as when I’m playing them! I think I get a bit too involved, haha.
    Laura, Might have guessed you’d have to be playing ’em! Hehee. I tried watching Chris play GTAIV, but I just kept getting hacked off at the side quests. Too many, too often!
    Ben, Fallout 3 is a funny one. I absolutely LOVE the game, but I hate to watch people play it. Though that’s probably because I want to play it instead :p
    Norfolk, you make a similar point to Webby, and I think you’re both right. It’s something I’d not really thought of before this post! Oh, for the good old days eh? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  12. Ben avatar

    Oh Simpsons games…was it ‘Bart vs the Space Mutants’ that had that epic skateboarding part in it that I just couldn’t do, and no matter how hard I tried I could never make the jump over the construction sign, great game but really painful memories, almost as bad my inability to play Echo the Dolphin on any level at all, I just could get past the first bit (suffice to say I downloaded the trial on Live Arcade and I’m still crap at it.)

    Back to watching games, I remember watching a friend play through Zelda Ocarina of Time, that was good fun, it was like watching an extremely long film.

  13. Duncan Aird avatar
    Duncan Aird

    My theory is that back in the day, the simplicity of the gameplay made it exciting.

    Just to throw a example out there, Metal Gear Solid 4, every time a cut-scene entered it’s way onto screen it breaks the flow of entertainment of gameplay – and you get bored.

    Pac-Man is exactly what it says on the box, every single time, for as long as the player can last. ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. City avatar

    Maybe it is a case of they dont make them like they used to..
    Saying that I do watch Paul play games when I cant decide what I’m doing, Ive watched him complete 2 Call of Duties so far, and watched him play most of the first STALKER.

    My Mum watches me play Tomb Raider, my best friend will watch me play anything.. but paul only watches funny simplistic games – its odd. I reckon the PC/console divide might have something to do with it.. I play both, Pauls mainly PC and my best friend has only really just started gaming.. and my mum.. well shes still got a PSone.

    I love watching/playing games with my friends, but I know what you mean. It gets really dull unless its sonic.. or Alex the Kidd (i used to watch my mum play).

  15. Andy Turner avatar
    Andy Turner

    Back in the old days every trip to my grandmothers in stoke would always mean packing up my Megadrive and then spending the day in a separate room to all the adults with my sister and cousins watching each other (mostly me to be fair) playing Sonic the hedgehog, Streets of Rage and the mighty Gunstar heroes. As you say Alex there was a real sense of us all being in it together despite the fact only one of us was ever playing.

    These days it’s somewhat harder to find such a willing and appreciative audience. My last few girlfriends over the last few years have swayed between some having no interest at all, every second I played a videogame in her presence further darkening the ink that marked my place in her bad books…to others that wanted nothing more than to boot me off and play for herself…

    My current girlfriend has no interest in gaming though I finally got her to play guitar hero the other day and admit that it’s fun…at present since we only get to see each other at weekends and therefore usually go and do something I tend not to play when she’s around but it’s going to be interesting when live together.

    There are exceptions however…my flat mate seems to quite enjoy watching me playing Left 4 dead at the moment (though he does have his laptop to provide additional entertainment. I have also been known to quite enjoy watching friends play xbox live arcade supporting your retro games being more watchable theory (though I sometimes play DS / take a nap.)

    I’m not really sure if were just less easily entertained and more easily bored in this day and age or if there really is some hidden watchabillity secret that older games seem to mysteriously have in abundance…you may have uncovered a new mystery for our era here, (Which is good as I’m bored of trying to figure out the Bermuda triangle and I’ve hit a wall with my time machine project.)

  16. Dave avatar

    Alex, I could certainly take a photo of my collection if you like, it’s got some absolutely cracking games in it, stuff like Story of Thor, Landstalker, Streets of Rage 3 etc

    Andy, always difficult to win over your better half if they aren’t into games. I’ve been with my girlfriend 3 years now and she’s so much more into gaming than she was at day one. Casual games are the key!

    The Simpsons Arcade game is the one I was referring to, it was this hulking great 4-player arcade cabinet that played like streets of rage. I have fond memories of Blackpool and sinking stupid amounts of money into it. I have it for my PC now ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. powell106 avatar

    Does anyone else remember the wonder at games which broke the graphics of old school consoles like donkey kong and starwing

  18. Alex avatar

    Ben, I was USELESS at Echo the Dolphin. Plus the music was really eerie. I loved it though!
    City, Haha, Mine is always in the “I don’t know what to do” bits too. Though I can’t watch Chris play CoD. Or any shooter for that matter, it frusrates the hell outta me!
    Andy, That’s exactly it! I loved the sense of togetherness. Perhaps the megadrive just exudes that aura? ๐Ÿ˜‰ I think the watching games thing is another mysetery. I’d give up on the bermuda triangle if I were you, it sucks anyone close to a resolution in never to return ๐Ÿ˜‰
    Dave, Please do take a piccie! I’d love to see it ๐Ÿ˜€

  19. Andy Turner avatar
    Andy Turner

    Yeah you’re probably right best to leave the triangle alone for now at least though I did have a solution that I was hoping would work at last:
    (Since technology gets gonked up in there I was just going to go through on a row boat with a really long piece of string tied to a big boat waiting at the edge.)

    Spot on about watching FPS…I watched my friend play Prey while I was on the phone for 10 minutes and got so frustrated when I could see something that he had missed…namely a lift in the dark to his right going up and down as he mashed a keypad before walking another circuit of the room firing at marks on the wall that could be switches (in bizarro world perhaps). as he was stuck in one area…while trying to mime the solution to him without giving it away to my girlfriend that I wasn’t giving her my undivided attention…it was more stressful than my degree and all of my jobs EVER.

  20. Gary (RetroGT) avatar
    Gary (RetroGT)

    I think that it’s as much to do with age as anything else. As kids, (well, gaming kids) we had little else to do but watch our mates play games, waiting for our turns and trying to get to the end. As ‘adults’ (I use the term loosely) we have other things on our minds… Work to be done, dinner to be cooked, social engagements to attend or avoid respectively… etc.

    Obviously the game itself plays a massive part – cinematic extravaganzas are all well and good, and make for a very immerisve experience overall; but it’s the tension and suspense of a difficult bit of gameplay that will get us unconciously ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’-ing at the appropriate moments.

    I’ve spent a huge potion of my life watching others play games… Entire months spent in front of ‘Turbo Turns’ on Micro Machines 2, inordinate amounts of time in front of every version of Mario Kart ever, about a decade of Goldeneye (It’s all about facility)…
    I think what all these games have in common is the group atmosphere, the comeradary as you say, with lots of people in the room hanging on every movement of every pixel to see who will emerge victorious. Of course, single player games can achieve this too, but usually in a smaller group, and with turns that are shorter, and levels that can be repeated, to keep the sense of competition between those in a room.

    I seem to be waffling on so much now that I’m thinking of writing my own blog post about it!

    But I just have to mention a few more games that really work on this level:

    Bomberman, Tony Hawks, Micro Maniacs, Pilot Wings, Final Fight, Street Fighter 2 (obviously), Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Doom, Datona USA & The old VIZ game on the Amstrad. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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