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Why Twitch Needs Bob Ross

By Paul Nadin on November 18, 2015 | Editorials | Comments

Why Twitch Needs Bob Ross

I was surprised that Twitch were putting on a marathon of The Joy of Painting, on the surface it seems so anathema to what Twitch is all about. Having said that, I wasn’t surprised at its initial popularity. The idea had tons of novelty for the usual twitch crowd, and the show is earnest enough that it makes for an easy target for that schoolboy ‘my first ironic detachment’ attitude that the videogame audience is so bound to.

What did surprise me was the reaction in the long term. Bob Ross started to rub off on them. I’m left wondering if this will have any impact on the cultural wasteland we’ve built, and the precarious foothold of positivity it represents.

I remember when Twitch, and streaming in general first took off. In hindsight, the idea of streaming video seems like a no-brainer. YouTube was exploding as broadband speeds were reaching the point that we could watch videos at a decent reolution without waiting for buffering. I call the time before that ‘the dark times’, and rarely speak of it.

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The conditions were just right, the audience was primed, and everyting exploded. The video streaming revolution caused another lurch forward on the path to the digital age. Others rush to follow the trail smoothed by the passage of the innovative, lucky, or crazy enough to strike out ahead.

As is the way of these things, sooner or later people will work out how to make decent money from it. People with capital want to invest, and to see a return on that investment. A formula for success is laid out, and homogeneity sets in.

It’s like the bit in The Lion King when Mufasa explains the circle of life. It’s vital to remember how many things had to happen for us to get to ‘now’, and that ‘now’ is another step on the road to somewhere else.

It’s no accident that Esports matches look more and more like sports shows on TV. Even if it often manifests itself in a gaudy, energy drink fuelled, black plastic and neon lights manner.

There’s a reason a lot of the successful streamers on twitch get along on a personal level, they’re often very similar people. This is not to be taken as any kind of criticism of them as people, I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of them, and they’re great.

My point is that there’s a reason for them being similar people. They’re people who play well to Twitch’s biggest audience. It’s old school marketing: Find the biggest recognizable demographic for your product and aggressively target them.

When this traditionalist, dare I say conservative approach gets a foothold in a medium, it becomes what we call ‘mainstream’. And for some, that’s where the real fun begins.

Creativity is not served by a vacuum; cultural context is required for any subversion, a status quo is needed to innovate upon.

There have been examples of innovation in streaming already, Twitch Plays Pokemon immediately comes to mind. A beautiful experiment that I’m just so happy worked out. It’s gratifying that the desire of gamers to achieve and cooperate eventually beat out the desire to kick the sandcastle over. It gives me hope for the future, to be honest. Maybe Dark Souls was a bit too far of a stretch, but aim for the stars, and all that.

Being a niche within a niche makes it hard to pay the bills, it’s easy to forget when you move in these circles how much of a niche streaming is. It’s impossible to predict what will take hold. While Twitch is a powerhouse in the medium, and can put up some impressive numbers, most people you see out on the street won’t even know what streaming is, and if you try and explain it, they’ll think you’re weird as hell.

But then they probably still own TVs so what the hell do they know about anything?

The point is, you get to a stage when taking risks suddenly has consequences. You’re not so small that no one will notice, but you’re not yet big enough to be bulletproof.

I was surprised that Twitch were putting on a marathon of The Joy of Painting, on the surface it seems so anathema to what Twitch is all about. (Though I do think the idea of the creative platform on Twitch is a great way to support something that was already happening.)

Having said that, I wasn’t surprised at its initial popularity. The idea had tons of novelty for the usual twitch crowd, and the show is earnest enough that it makes for an easy target for that schoolboy ‘my first ironic detachment’ attitude that the videogame audience is so bound to.

What did surprise me was the reaction in the long term. Bob Ross started to rub off on them. I’m left wondering if this will have any impact on the cultural wasteland we’ve built, and the precarious foothold of positivity it represents.

For me, this event really highlights the work we have to do in the videogame community to shake off the bad habits we’ve gotten into. The Joy of Painting shows that there absolutely is room for positivity, and for projects that aren’t built on cynicism.

A problem for countless communities throughout history has been a vanishingly small minority know how make enough noise to shout others down and bully themselves to the front of every line. Maybe with influences like Bob Ross they won’t feel so alone and lost that they need to do this, and the problem will become a little less pronounced in the videogame community.

Even if I’m totally wrong about that (and it wouldn’t be the first time), I bet that if one kid picked up a paintbrush instead of yelling at strangers in some hate-vacuum online, Mr Ross would think all this worthwhile.

When Bob painted a tree, more often than not he gave it a little friend, and that made them both happy little trees. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to think that maybe a lot of these kids watching just needed a little friend, so that they could be happy little trees too.