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The imperative to be seen: The moral economy of celebrity video game streaming on Twitch.tv

Johnson, Mark R and Carrigan, Mark and Brock, Tom (2019) The imperative to be seen: The moral economy of celebrity video game streaming on Twitch.tv. First Monday, 24 (8).


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In this paper we examine the pursuit of celebrity through the live broadcast (‘streaming’) of video games as an expression of an emerging moral economy of contemporary digital capitalism. Live streaming is a novel form overwhelmingly found amongst young people disproportionately harmed by the economic crisis, and we propose that the contraction of employment opportunities is giving rise to a strong imperative to be seen, which finds an outlet in the practices of self-presentation, self-promotion and entrepreneurial enterprise that are central to financially-successful live streaming. We first outline relevant contemporary economic conditions, the disproportionately high prizes at the top of career paths, the attendant lures of fame and fortune, and how the politics of play have been affected by these changes. We then explore Twitch.tv (the leading game live streaming platform) as our case study, covering how streamers make themselves appealing, market themselves, profit, and how the platform’s affordances are interwoven into these questions. In doing so, we present Twitch as illustrative of the broader phenomenon of ‘digital celebrity’ and argue its practices reflect changes in work opportunities and social identity. In particular, we show that Twitch is a platform that allows neoliberal aspirations to play out through competitive performance.

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