Dr. T.L. Taylor is a professor at M.I.T. and the author of several books, including Watch Me Play – Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming. Her ethnographic research into esports and online game streaming have led her to co-found AnyKey, an advocacy organization that supports diversity, inclusion, and equity in competitive gaming; and to be one of the founding members of Twitch’s Safety Advisory Council.
In this episode, I ask T.L. how esports led to Twitch and vice versa; how an external advisory council can sway an organization as large as Twitch; how one can write a book about a medium that is so quickly evolving; the AnyKey pledge that over 750,000 million streamers have taken; whether esports could survive without Twitch, or vice versa; what gaming can tell us about the future of our country’s culture and politics; and about her current research into amusement parks as commercialized play spaces.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Dr. T.L. Taylor
- @ybika on Twitter
- Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming (free under Creative Commons)
- PAX Online
- PAX East 2018: The Truth About Streaming from the Streamers Themselves (Panelists Meg Kaylee, Graham Stark, Kate Stark & Kintinue; Moderator Susan Arendt)
- Mia Consalvo
- AnyKey’s “Good luck, have fun” pledge
- T. L. Taylor on Gamergate, Live-Streaming, and Esports (Public Thinker)
- Major Nelson interviews Gary Whitta of Animal Crossing
- “Why Animal Crossing Is the Game for the Coronavirus Moment” New York Times
- Strong Museum of Play
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello, and welcome to the Polygamer podcast episode number 105 for September 2020. I’m your host Ken Gagne. For most of my adult life, I’ve had the pleasure of living in or near Boston, Massachusetts. That means that whether I am walking across campus at MIT, where I used to work, hopping the subway in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or attending PAX East, I have the opportunity to encounter some of the most brilliant minds in our country.
Ken: One person I’ve repeatedly encountered in all those contexts is Dr. T.L. Taylor, the author, sociologist, and full professor from MIT. And at our last encounter at PAX East 2020, I said, “Hey, let’s stop with the random encounters and do something a little more intentional.” And so, I’m excited to be talking to T.L. on this week’s Polygamer. Hello, T.L.
T.L. Taylor: Hey, Ken, it’s so great to be here on your podcast. And it’s fun to connect with you after seeing you at PAX East right before the pandemic hit, and now, getting the chance to reconnect with you this different way.
Ken: I know. I was sitting in the diversity lounge, and you came in, and we started chatting, and we had no idea that just a week later, the entire world would be different.
T.L.: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Ken: If I knew at PAX East, what I knew now, I probably would not have gone to that event at all. Can you imagine 70,000 gamers in Boston in one place?
T.L.: I have thought about that on numerous occasions, in particular, because I think that same weekend, the now what somewhat infamous, was at Biogen conference, which was a super spreader event was happening. Yeah, no, I’m very happy to have made it out of it unscathed.
Ken: Yeah. I’m glad I didn’t know what I know now because I loved going to PAX East, and I would have hated to have missed it. And we lucked out and nothing happened.
T.L.: Yeah, exactly. We were very lucky. I didn’t even get the usual PAX cred.
Ken: That’s true. PAX online is happening right now. Have you attended any of that?
T.L.: Oh, I have to admit, I didn’t, and I didn’t even know it was happening online. Have you gone? What’s it like if you have?
Ken: I have not attended partly because now six months into the pandemic, I’m experiencing Zoom fatigue, and Discord fatigue. Another online event just doesn’t jazz me up like it used to.
T.L.: No, it’s so true. And I have to admit, for me, part of the draw of PAX is the in-person vibe of it all, whether that’s running into people like you, seeing people I know, or just the mass collective experience, and all the cosplaying. I get the value of having it online. But I think part of what I enjoy about it is that that mass takeover of the convention center here.
Ken: Right. I used to get a lot of my in-person interaction by my day job is fully online. But then at night, I would go be on the faculty at Emerson College in Boston, I get to interact with my students in person. And so, when they asked me, “Do you want to teach online?” I’m like, “So, you want me to work 9:00 to 5:00 at my day job online, and then go teach 6:00 to 10:00 PM online?” And I’m like, “It’s a little bit too much online,” so no.
T.L.: Yeah, yeah. I’ve had this strange feeling through this whole pandemic, where most of my work over the years, and my own disposition has been about the online world, and the value of online stuff, and not denigrating it. But of course, there are those moments where you’re like, “I don’t want any more,” or noticing the places where it just doesn’t actually work as well as embodied face-to-face interaction. So, yeah, it’s a very strange time.
Ken: And I know that that’s impacting your career because you’re teaching at MIT, your 2020 curriculum includes a course called games and culture. Is this the first time you’ve taught it online?
T.L.: It is. It is. Yeah. And that’s a class I’ve been teaching at this point now, probably 20 years in different forms at my prior job, and then now, here at MIT. Yeah. But this is the first time online, and it’s an interesting shift. Interesting as a black box term for the good, the bad, and the ugly that is online teaching these days.
Ken: What does one cover in a course called games and culture?
T.L.: Yeah. Basically, in some ways, it’s really a class on the sociology of games. So, we do everything from last week, we were talking about infrastructures, and platforms, to we do weeks on gender, race, community management. It’s basically all of the sociocultural, sociotechnical stuff rather than formal analysis, or we don’t do close readings of games as texts. It’s really about the culture in and around gaming.
Ken: And your students, what do they tend to be majoring in?
T.L.: A lot of MIT, those of us who teach in the social science and humanities, most of our students are generally computer science or other STEM fields. And I would say those of us who teach games courses have a disproportionate number of computer science courses. So, we’ll get a sprinkling of I teach in a program called Comparative Media Studies.
T.L.: So, we’ll have a sprinkling of CMS majors, but for the most part, my students are from the STEM fields. And either they’re there because they’re interested in games, or they’re there because all MIT students have to do a pretty robust amount of social science and humanities classes.
Ken: Remind me, does MIT have a game design major?
T.L.: Not a major, we have a decent number of games and game design courses within CMS. It is actually funny that if you want to do games at MIT, they’re not doing it over in the computer science department really. They’re doing it in CMS. So, we have several game design courses. We have interaction design course, it’s about play and interaction design, my course. And then, there’s also a group in our departments, it’s a lab associated with our department that does education and learning. And there’s a fair amount of game stuff in that space as well.
Ken: Excellent. Now, you talked about games as texts. The flip side is you produced many texts about games. You are a published author of many books, including the 2018 title, Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming, which is also available online for free, a version of it for Creative Commons.
Ken: So, this book came out a couple years ago, and you’re writing about these mediums that is still developing, still emerging Twitch. I imagine that you need to be an expert in an area to write a book about it. But you probably were doing a lot of research as well. What is something you learned about Twitch and online streaming when you were writing this book?
T.L.: Yeah. Well, it’s a big question. It’s an interesting one. So, I’m an ethnographer primarily, which means I spend a lot of time in the field. And that meant, in this case, everything from an online field site, being in streams, to meeting people in their homes, being at events tracing out. PAX East actually was a really important site for the fieldwork.
T.L.: In fact, in a part of that book, I talk about Twitch’s presence at PAX East over a number of years because it was very interesting to see it evolve and change. So, my projects take a long time, and Twitch book actually came out of my prior work in eSports, and beginning to see how live streaming was changing eSports broadcast and production.
T.L.: So, there was this red thread in some ways from the eSports book to twitch. But I think with the live streaming project, one of the things that really bubbled to the top with that project was I went in, because I was interested at first with eSports broadcasting. And then, very quickly saw that there were all of these what at the time, we used to call variety, streamers who are trying to transform their private play into public entertainment.
T.L.: The twitch research really started, I guess, probably around 2012 or so. So, this is first early period of Twitch. And so, I think one of the things I really walked away from that project was what the labor of doing that work really looks like? What does it mean in terms of how people are organizing their homes? How are they navigating relationships? How are they building communities?
T.L.: So, just really thinking about the labor of play in the streaming context. So, that was one really powerful takeaway. The other thing that came out of that project was really trying to look at how eSports broadcasting was changing eSports in general. When I did my prior book on eSports, the lens that really predominated at the time was eSports as sport.
T.L.: That was really the framing in the language most of those folks were using. And what I found so interesting is with the rise of live streaming, eSports as an entertainment media property really grew. And so, I was really interested in just exploring, with that shift, what comes, what follows from that? And then, I guess the third thing, and I’m giving you more topics rather than lessons I learned.
T.L.: But the other third big bucket that really informed that project by the end was thinking about governance and regulation issues in streaming. And that was everything from how communities govern and regulate themselves, and what community management looks like for variety streamers, all the way up to thinking about how Twitch as a platform, and how law is structuring, and shaping governance and regulation.
T.L.: So, it was a big project. And there’re lots of little nooks and crannies in all of those things. But the work of streaming is probably one of the things that really stands out in my mind foremost about that project.
Ken: I remember attending a PAX East panel a year or two ago that had Kate Stark on it. And she was talking about all the work that goes into being a streamer. And it’s not just getting played to play video games, which is what a lot of people aspire to, and wish it was. And that’s why they are motivated to try it themselves. But there’s a lot that goes on beyond that.
T.L.: Yeah, and I think it’s funny. So, when I started the work on that project, I was really interested in people who were striving to be professional, who had aspirations to professionalization. Because I’ve always been interested in that fascinating line when people are engaged with playful things in professional or serious ways.
T.L.: And of course, that aspirational mode has just, I would say, taken over the platform in really interesting ways. So, my work was really focused on that stuff. And you’re so right, when you really spend time talking to, and looking at what that professionalized aspirational mode, what that labor looks like, it’s incredible.
T.L.: I think there’s a lot of great work now, though, coming up, thinking about scholars like Mia Consalvo, and some others who are looking at small streamers, people who actually don’t aspire to have massive audiences, but are building these small, cozy channels. And I think there’s also really interesting work to look at that stuff, too. But yeah, my focus was on a little bit of a different slice.
Ken: So, here’s a big question. You came into your studies on Twitch based on your previous experience with eSports. And the two dramatically inform and correlate with each other. Would we have one without the other? Could we have eSports without Twitch or Twitch without eSports?
T.L.: Oh, yeah, absolutely. We could certainly have eSports without Twitch, and one of the things… it’s now probably would be taken as a given, but one of the interventions I was trying to make at my eSports book was actually to trace the long history of competitive gaming. It’s been around for decades, and different technological infrastructures reshape it.
T.L.: So, you can think about the move from, I think probably a lot of people have seen the documentary, King of Kong. So, you get a glimpse of what competitive gaming looks like in the arcade days. And once you get internet infrastructures, it changes what competitive gaming can be. And similarly, I think the infrastructures of streaming change.
T.L.: But one of the things I tried to talk about in the Twitch book are the ways people were doing broadcasting long before Twitch. It was much more expensive, and it was incredibly DIY, and janky, and improvisational. But people have been trying to do broadcasting of eSports long before Twitch. So, eSports could absolutely exist without live streaming. And I think twitch could exist without eSports. It would look really different.
T.L.: Broadcast eSports competitions are high, they’re high-ticket events, lots of eyeballs in short periods of time. But in fact, Twitch is a funny platform, because the majority of streamers on Twitch are sitting there with zero to five views or something. There’s a lot more happening on Twitch than eSports. So, yeah, I think they have a relationship, but they can both exist without the other.
Ken: You mentioned what used to be called variety streamers. I’ve had some on the show before, are they no longer called variety streamers?
T.L.: Actually, I don’t know. I don’t know. The language sometimes changes so quick, I find… yeah, so I don’t know what the latest lingo for that is anymore. But yeah, that’s what I called them. That’s what they called themselves at the time.
Ken: How do you write about a topic that is changing so rapidly, especially given the lead time of books? I imagined it must be like Duke Nukem, where you keep pushing it back because you want to capture the latest thing. And then, by the time you’re done writing about it, it’s outdated again.
T.L.: Yeah. It’s always a challenge, especially when you do ethnographic work like I do, which takes a long time in it of itself. My projects usually take, I’m in the field for years, honestly. I think I probably have seven, eight, nine years between my books. So, you’re absolutely right. I think for me, it comes down to a couple things.
T.L.: One is really, the work I do is not meant to be journalistic, and capturing of the moment. Its aims are different. In some ways, it has historical aim. So, I am usually pretty invested in trying to trace a longer story of the phenomenon. And the aims are generally analytic and critical in a different way. So, that eases up some of the pressure.
T.L.: The other thing though, is just there is a pragmatics where you just sometimes do finally make some semi arbitrary decisions about, “Okay, I got to be done with gathering data now.” And that’s a very iterative process. For me, it’s usually spending time in the field, and then I come to have a sense like, “Okay, here are the core issues I’m pretty sure I want to be talking about.”
T.L.: And then, they start repeating, and you get a sense of where they lay, and then you say, “Okay, I’m going to close the story at this point for now.” But I long ago, reconciled myself to the minute a book comes out, its history. And for me, the beauty of scholarship is, in its best moments, we are all collectively involved in an ongoing conversation. And there are going to be folks who come right after on the heels of my project to show changes, and gaps, and fill out the story. But yeah, you got to reconcile yourself to that.
Ken: I appreciate that you said your aim wasn’t journalistic because that’s very important to distinguish with the ethnographic work you’re doing. With journalism, which is my background, we’re very often taught to not be part of the story, to be distanced, and unbiased.
Ken: Whereas, you are embedded in the topic, you’re out there, not only interviewing people, but participating in the pastime. And do you find that, nonetheless, you need to separate a certain bias from the story, or is that part of the story?
T.L.: Yeah. It’s a really important and complex question. So, I think one of the things in ethnography, we often see that we, as the researcher, are one of the instruments of research. And in fact, that for ethnographers and qualitative work in general, I would say, there’s actually incredible value in recognizing the power of intersubjective engagement with people in the field that you’re not an anonymous blank slate.
T.L.: And that can pose, for example, really interesting challenges. I find, for example, as a woman, especially when I was doing my eSports project, my embodied presence meant that I both had access and didn’t have access to data in different ways. And some of it is just reckoning with the truth of us as embodied intersubjective individuals, and watching for moments where that can be a strength.
T.L.: And then, also, as I always try to talk to students about watching, making sure you’re always also watchful for things that will disprove your hypothesis, or open up conversation, or exploration in ways that may challenge your assumption. So, it’s a tricky balancing act. I think the other thing you pointed though, too, is the journalism thing is interesting, because I would say, yeah, part of what I do see my work as trying to do is take up key critical issues.
T.L.: And by that, I do talk really frankly and really critically about things around gender, or race or moderation, or harassment on the platform. There’s no neutrality stance. And there’s a bigger conversation about journalism. Certainly, the way us journalism is constructed, it’s that neutrality stances is the framing point. But yeah, I don’t shy away from making normative points, or making critical points in my work.
T.L.: I actually feel that’s part of the value of the analytic work I do. But let me just say, too, though, there are moments where there’s fantastic long form, what I think of as long form journalism that takes many, many months, and has a richness of data, and talking to people, and analysis. And would say in those moments, there is a bit of kindredness between certain long-form journalism, and a certain ethnographic work I do. But yeah, they are different creatures.
Ken: I once had a rather stodgy individual tell me that video games journalism is an oxymoron because anybody who writes about video games clearly loves and participates in the medium. And therefore, it’s impossible to be unbiased. But I find that not unique to video games, because if you’re a sports journalist, you probably like sports.
T.L.: Yeah, yeah. I’m going to botch it. I think Anita Sarkeesian has some great line about, we can critically engage with the things that we love. And I don’t know that I’d always say I love everything I research, I probably felt most distanced from eSports as a field side as other projects I’ve done.
T.L.: But these things, being able to recognize the value and virtue of something and simultaneously critique it. To me, that’s where I hope we all end up because otherwise, I don’t know where we stand if we can’t recognize that double move we have to make at all times.
Ken: Right. It’s not just for pure passion or pure hatred, you can be critical of the things you love, as you said.
T.L.: Exactly. That’s exactly, yeah.
Ken: So, speaking of being embedded in the topic you’re passionate about, you are one of the eight founding members of Twitch’s Safety Advisory Council, which is just formally established earlier this year. So, what is this Safety Advisory Council? What problem are they trying to solve?
T.L.: It’s a group of us, Twitch brought us together to basically be there to provide feedback and advice for them. So, there’s not a singular problem we’re meant to solve. It really comes out of Twitch’s desire to really focus on community health and safety that really think about things like community management, and harassment, and all of those issues we could bucket under safety.
T.L.: And so, basically, we’re there, it’s an interesting mix of folks. There’re a number of streamers on the council, there’s a number of us who know about Twitch, or have done research with Twitch, and then there’s folks who aren’t necessarily directly connected to Twitch, or a part of the live streaming space.
T.L.: And yeah, we’re just there to bring our expertise, and the slice of, of working with these online spaces that we have experienced with… to give them advice, and to give them feedback on a range of things.
Ken: Why do you think Twitch chose to have this external council, as opposed to making this an internal project, or assigning employees to it?
T.L.: It’s interesting, of course, they’ve got a ton of incredibly knowledgeable people inside the company. So, they have that expertise, that day-in and day-out expertise there. And it’s certainly, Twitch standing this up, it’s not unique. There are a lot of now, social media platform companies who are starting to do this. Twitter has one, Facebook has one.
T.L.: So, this idea of having some outside advice at times is not unusual. I think when I look at the makeup of the council, I think one of the things that it brings is there are people, as I say, who have different sets of expertise, and a different field of view. So, I think, for example, about Alex Holmes, one of the council members. So, he’s not situated in the gaming world.
T.L.: He’s not a games researcher like I am. He’s like a CEO of a nonprofit, Princess Diana award thing in the UK, and he started the Anti-Bullying program. And he sits on other advisory boards. And so, I think when you bring someone like Alex onto a council, you get breadth of insight that goes beyond just Twitch, or live streaming, or games. And I think that’s pretty important.
T.L.: One of the things that I have certainly always held throughout all of my research work is that it’s important we don’t set games or game platforms aside as some rarefied special space that we actually understand that they are core to culture, and politics, and contemporary conversations. And so, I think it’s really smart of them to actually bring in people, some of whom have are deeply embedded in Twitch, and some of whom may be bringing in other breadth range to the conversation.
Ken: That makes a lot of sense. I’ve been on nonprofit committees where I was not an employee of the nonprofit, but we helped to put together events, we our feet on the ground when the event is happening, for example. But that is slightly different from an advisory council where you’re hoping that you’ll be able to give advice to a technology company who will then be able to implement it in their product. Do you feel that the Safety Council has that level of influence that they are being listened to, or have the authority, or sway to do those things?
T.L.: Yeah. It’s a great question. It’s funny because I sit on another advisory board right now, which is Riot’s Scholastic… I’m going to forget, it’s RSAA. I’m going to forget what the acronym stands for. It’s Riot’s Scholastic Advisory Council basically, for collegiate eSports. I think my sense with a lot of these is they are works in progress.
T.L.: I think companies are clear, and aware often of when they want to do better. They’re often clear about the value of bringing in some other voices. I think it’s good faith effort, but how much influence any of these outside parties can have is, it’s I think an open question. Institutions are complex. And I think we’re doing our best to give them some feedback.
T.L.: We don’t weigh in on specific cases. So, you probably know Facebook has set up an external counsel that’s actually weighing in on cases. We don’t do that. We don’t have specific details about particular people or instances. We don’t adjudicate in that way. We’re meant to give honest feedback when they present ideas, or issues, or possible policies.
T.L.: And like I said, it’s still early days. My sense is that it’s a very good faith effort. But yeah, institutions are complex. So, what influence and impact looks like? I don’t know. I don’t know. We’ll see.
Ken: Sure. Well, especially with a company this big, 10,000 plus employees, and your eight individuals. No matter what the ultimate outcome of the council is, you’re probably not going to be able to draw a straight line from something you said to something Twitch did.
T.L.: That’s right. That’s how I feel like how all institutions are. With AnyKey, we would do these workshops with private industry stakeholders, and try to tackle complex issues. And I learned very quickly, change and these things are, it’s a long game, and it’s built over many years with lots of stakeholders. And so, my feeling right now as an academic is I feel like these are good faith efforts by these companies. I’m happy to join in and give it a shot. And it’s a little bit of a grand experiment. And we’ll see, yeah.
Ken: No, I’m glad they have you on the council, especially with all your experience, and academic research into these topics. You did just mention another organization, AnyKey, can tell us a little bit about what that is?
T.L.: Yeah. So, AnyKey was cofounded with myself and Morgan Romine back in 2015, with the support, at the time, of ESL and Intel. And basically, Morgan, I don’t know if you know Morgan Romine. She’s amazing. She also has a PhD, her PhD is in anthropology. So, we’re kindreds, her in anthropology, and me in sociology.
T.L.: Morgan founded the Frag Dolls back in the day, which was really, I think it may be the first competitive women’s eSports team, and has done tons of work in the game industry. So, we came together, we saw that there were still some really persistent diversity and inclusion issues in eSports in particular.
T.L.: And like I said, partnered with ESL and Intel to ramp up this organization, which was really just trying to tackle stuff from a research-based approach. We’ve done a number of things over the years. Last year, we also brought on at the time, a postdoc Johanna Brewer, who’s done amazing stuff with us, and continues to be working with AnyKey.
T.L.: And so, we’ve done everything from put out white papers, and best practices guides, how to run gender-inclusive tournaments, to trying to support some amazing community partners, and initiatives. So, it’s a very multipronged, very multipronged. And I remit, I would say, has expanded a little, we really started with our core heart in eSports. And that’s still there, but you can’t do eSports and not do gaming broadly in some ways. So, in some ways, we’ve hit gaming writ large.
Ken: Can you elaborate a little bit more on that? Why can you not do eSports without also doing gaming at large?
T.L.: I think they’re connected. People who are eSports fans, and going to follow eSports tournaments are usually connected in some way to game culture more broadly. They’re spending time on platforms like Twitch. It’s not siloed and even players.
T.L.: So, even though you’re on the one hand, we have things that are very targeted to eSports specifically, whether that’s partnering with ESL for the women’s Intel challenge, which was a firmly professional competitive tournament, to supporting college eSports clubs.
T.L.: Also, we have events, we have connections with Twitch, and live streaming, and streamers more generally. So, it’s just they’re not siloed. Game culture is a big umbrella, big tent that eSports certainly sits within as well
Ken: Has AnyKey in the five years it’s been around had any major events, or well-cited publications, or any other successes you’d like to tout here?
T.L.: We’ve had a few over the years, there’re a couple things I would say right now I’m really excited about. So, we soft launched it, so people can see it at the website. We haven’t done the big PR push yet, but we just soft launched our inclusion 101 training, which was the thing Johanna was working on this last year, and did just an amazing job with.
T.L.: And so, the inclusion 101 resource, it pulls together some stuff we’ve previously had, materials we had, like how to think about moderation, or how to run inclusive tournaments. But it also provides basic diversity, and inclusion, training, and teaching, education for your club individuals. Part of this really came from us, and I just remember, visiting college clubs on campuses.
T.L.: And the students, they really wanted their clubs to be more inclusive, and they just did not know how to get there. And Morgan and I could individually talk to folks, but we were like, “Can we just scale up some training so that all of these people who want to make things better have some footholds to do that?”
T.L.: And so, we had earlier, this last year published a guideline, some help white paper for collegiate, but this training program that Johanna built out, also, they came up with this terrific way of you can have this deck. And here’s some basic education for your club that you can work through together. Here are some exercises.
T.L.: So, all of that’s up at the website now under inclusion 101. So, that’s one thing. I’m really excited about that resource. And then, I guess the other really exciting thing we’re really happy about right now is we’ve run this some good luck, have fun pledge. We’ve done it enough for a number of years, and we re-launched it this last year.
T.L.: Basically, folks can go onto the website, look over this pledge, commit to being good community members. And then, they can attach their Twitch account to it, and get a little twitch badge. So, when they’re on Twitch, there’s a little AnyKey badge. And I just looked up the statistics today, and we have 760,000 people who have signed that pledge.
Ken: Holy crap, seven-
Ken: So, three-quarters of a million people?
T.L.: Yes. Can you believe that? We are just a little most scrappy… I guess what that tells me is, people want things to be better. We don’t have millions of dollars behind. It’s Morgan, Johanna, and I scraping through. It’s really encouraging. There are moments when I’m very pessimistic and bleak. And then, I see a number like that, and I’m like, “Wow, actually, most people want better spaces.” Yeah.
Ken: So, that number did not come up in my preparation for this interview. And my next question was going to be how can listener support AnyKey? One of them would be taking that pledge.
T.L.: Yeah, yeah. Go to the website. There’s a link at the top that says the GLHF pledge, and you can take the pledge, and then you can link it to your Twitch account if you like. So, one of the most gratifying things that we found the last time we ran the pledge, we got a lot of good attention again. We did not do a big campaign behind it.
T.L.: It was just people were excited and took it up. And one of the most gratifying things we kept hearing from folks is, they would go into a Twitch channel, and see the AnyKey badges there, and it was a sign, this low level culture signal like yeah, you’re with folks who want to be in healthy, terrific places online. So, that’s, to me, one of the coolest things about that pledge too, just when you pop on Twitch, and see it bubbling up.
Ken: Yeah. It can be hard to remember that the majority of people are good, and do want things to be better. I’ve heard you said that if 5% of people are toxic, on one hand, that doesn’t sound like a lot. But that means, let’s say you work at a company with 100 people, five of them are toxic. If you work at a company with 20 people, one of them is toxic. And that’s all it takes to ruin a workplace. I know this from experience. That’s a lot of people.
T.L.: That is the devastating power of toxicity is that it can really take over, and it can just crush so easily. And I think one of the things we wanted to do with the inclusion 101 training was also help people find a way to navigate when they encountered toxicity. But also, just help them find a way to navigate like, “Okay, how can I just be a little bit better myself?”
T.L.: So, one of the interesting things that Johanna and Morgan did with the pledge when they launched it, when it got re-launched this last time is they built in a mechanism for people to report people who had the badge, say they were on Twitch, and they saw the badge, and the person misbehaved. There was a way they could report them.
T.L.: And then, there was a way for the people to actually hear what they did wrong, and act on it. I think of it, the big ticket word for it probably is restorative justice. But how can you actually change your behavior? Because, of course, there’s those five people who are super intentionally trolls out of that hundred we talked about.
T.L.: But then there’s the low-level stuff that people aren’t being reflective about, or they haven’t been socialized into better practices. One of the things I was so profoundly struck by when I did my Twitch research was the amount of care and attention healthy streamers brought to making their communities good. It took work. It took community management.
T.L.: It took distributed community management amongst mods, and then eventually, I remember interviewing a streamer. And they said their proudest moment was when somebody misbehaved on the channel. And the community intervened, and educated them, and brought them in line. And things just flowed on. The mods didn’t have to step in. The streamer didn’t have to step in.
T.L.: And so, I think part of also the inclusion 101 training is just like, how can we just give people also the tools to perhaps even be the person they want to be in these spaces? If that make sense?
Ken: It does. But it also does require a lot of faith that they want to be that person.
T.L.: Yeah. And the companion pieces, knowing they’re going to be people who don’t want to be good participants, making sure you have the mechanisms in place to take care of that. And that’s everything from very basic stuff like codes of conduct. So, one of the first things we did in AnyKey is we created a code of conduct that we said, anybody can use this, feel free.
T.L.: Print it, put it in your Twitch, wherever you want to do, use this, because some of it is basic stuff. And then, it’s also, like I said, we have a white paper up on how to moderate your channel. Because you’re absolutely right, not everybody wants to behave. There are people who really are intentionally trying to harass, and trying to police, and block people from full participation. And so, there has to be mechanisms to take care of that as well.
Ken: So, I’ll include a link to AnyKey at anykey.org in the show notes, I’ve probably never done that. In addition to signing that pledge, are there other ways we can support your organization?
T.L.: We’re thrilled when people use our resources. I know it may sound like a funny way thing for support, but use the resources, they’re there. It’s incredibly gratifying to know stuff we’ve put up has been helpful. And we’re going to have a really exciting announcement in the next month or so that’ll give people even more ways to support the org. And it’s a little bit of maybe too much of a teaser, but keep an eye out on our Twitter, on the website. Because there’s a really, really cool thing that’s happening out there.
Ken: So, we still have a few more topics to talk about. One, to wrap up the discussion on Twitch and on AnyKey, so you are advocating in many ways for safer online communities. You yourself said it’s a multipronged approach. We have the technology of Twitch, we have the intervention, the restorative justice that you mentioned, is it fair to say that solving online harassment is going to take all of these different pieces working in concert?
T.L.: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think it’s about culture. I think it’s about shifting the culture of our gaming spaces. I think some of that is going to come from education and training. Some of that is going to come from things like moderation and moderation is a mix of both technology and human labor. So, it’s several angles there.
T.L.: I do think at its most extreme, I really love the work by legal scholar, Danielle Citron, who talks about things like online harassment as a civil rights issue, that we really should not downplay the harm that’s caused when people cannot participate online. It is a really serious issue at its most extreme.
T.L.: And so, I think actually, thinking about things like how the law and policy really takes seriously, cultural participation online is important. So, absolutely, it’s multidisciplinary, it’s multipronged. Ultimately, too, I think our platforms need to do a better job working with each other to tackle this issue as well.
T.L.: The way governance happens online right now is strange, because there’re some categories of things where platforms will cooperate with each other to take down often on child abuse imagery, or sometimes called child porn. There’re sometimes forms of economic issues that there’s sometimes coordination on. But when you think about how harassment flows between platforms, there’s really actually very little done.
T.L.: There’s very little knowledge sharing. There’s very little in the way of consistent policies and practices because these are all separate companies. And I think, actually, a lot more should be done holistically to tackle these things that we really can think about the flows of harassment across platforms is something we have to pay more attention to.
Ken: It can be a little overwhelming, because you have the people who want to harass, you have the technology that fails to prevent them, you have the law that doesn’t understand its impact. And all of these things need to be addressed.
T.L.: Yeah, absolutely. I’m not saying anything terrific, critical media scholars and critical technology scholars have been said, I think, for far too long. A lot of platforms, and probably right now, Twitter is the one that stands out most in many of our minds on this have tried to say like they are just a neutral conduit. And that is just not sufficient.
T.L.: There’s powerful cultural participation, political participation flowing on these spaces. And the retreat to neutral conduit, or some really strange version of free speech, which doesn’t actually pay attention to the way people are shut out of participation through harassment. We just have to do a much better, and more nuanced job being honest about the impact of these things on our culture as a whole.
Ken: Absolutely. When you choose to be, “Neutral,” you let so many things happen that are not neutral, and that not to decide is to decide.
T.L.: Exactly, exactly. Sigh, yeah.
Ken: A big sigh. So, as long as we’re looking at all these cultural implications, in an interview you gave with Public Books, you said that, “Gaming is the canary in the coal mine for broader cultural, critical, and political issues.” And I think we’ve seen some of that with how GamerGate preceded the current political administration, for example.
Ken: So, we can make those connections looking backward, is it fair to ask you to look forward and say, “Given the current state of gaming, what do we might think will happen next?”
T.L.: Yeah. Here’s where I’m going to give the most unsatisfying answer. Because what I usually say is, I’m a sociologist, not a futurologist. And that’s in part because there’s so much indeterminacy. And there’s so much emergent practice and technology. For me, I really think of our world as a sociotechnical world, and I can’t predict on either side of this messy equation, what’s going to happen?
T.L.: I think for me, one of the powerful things about gaming and about play spaces is, play and gaming is always a space where people are innovating. Both not just technically, but socially, and this constant creative pushing that boundaries, and new practices emerge. And that’s part of why I think it’s usually really instructive to keep an eye on what’s happening there.
T.L.: It was really interesting to me. So, the Twitch book came out a couple years ago now. And then, we now, all fun suddenly, find ourselves in Zoom. And people I know who they knew what I did, but like okay, online streaming, whatever. This was now a part of their world. Whether it was they were like, “Okay, I can’t go see bands anymore. So, I’m going to watch my favorite bands online.”
T.L.: That world of streaming, that world of online converting your private space into public, which how many of us are sitting in bedrooms and homes broadcasting on our Zoom? So, even with the streaming stuff, I feel like, “Oh, yeah,” we see the tendrils of this even now in our current moment. So, anyway, I’m not good at predicting the future. Other than this, it’ll be some really interesting, messy, messy thing.
Ken: Yeah. Although, you do bring up some interesting points, I hadn’t considered how gaming culture has put us at the cutting edge of what is necessary to survive this pandemic. That’s really interesting.
T.L.: Yeah. Well, I don’t know about you. I got such a kick at of, I always find it interesting how the big-ticket mainstream media outlets, how they cover and think about gaming. And I certainly remember, when I was doing my streaming project, again, I’m usually the only game scholar in a place. At MIT, there’s a few more in our department, of course.
T.L.: But with my streaming project, my colleagues knew what I did, but whatever. It was a side thing. And then, the New York Times covered Twitch Plays Pokémon. And the number of people who sent me emails like, “Oh, wait, this is that thing you’re working on.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And I had a similar experience during the height of the pandemic when the New York Times covered Animal Crossing.
T.L.: I don’t know if you remember this. It was really interesting because suddenly, Animal Crossing got so popular, you couldn’t get a hold of a Switch. It crossed over, and there were all these think pieces on why is Animal Crossing the game of the pandemic. And it was interesting because a lot of us had delighted in the Animal Crossing world for years, but it broke through.
T.L.: So, yeah, there are these moments where games and game culture pops through the mainstream in really visible ways. And the intimacy that Zoom has brought to people sharing their domestic spaces with each other, and all of the complications around that, and negotiations. That was all in live streaming. I remember talking to streamers who were broadcasting.
T.L.: And I recount this in the book a bit. They talk about having to navigate being on the stream, but having roommates, and people moving in and out of camera view, and all this stuff now that I think would deeply resonate for anybody who spent time on Zoom calls day-in and day-out.
Ken: Yeah. I was listening to an interview on the Major Nelson podcast with Gary Whitta, the host of Animal Talking. And he said that that is the only talk show on the air right now that looks like a talk show. Because all these other talk shows like Jimmy Fallon, et cetera, they’re all just talking heads sitting at home, interviewing other people sitting at home.
Ken: Whereas, Animal Talking, you have the set, you have everything else.
T.L.: Yeah. Well, it’s funny, you say that too. Because of course, what all of those high-end well-paid entertainers had to contend with were infrastructure home, TV studio infrastructure that streamers have been doing for years. To me, this was one of the most interesting things in the streaming work was seeing how people were basically creating one-person television studios in their home. And now, we find the mainstream media, our big ticket corporate media having to learn all of those exact things.
Ken: It’s been quite the equalizer.
T.L.: Yes. Yeah.
Ken: I want to close with another area of research you’ve been conducting, which to me, from the outside, seems very different from the areas you’re so well known for. If I understood correctly from our brief discussion at PAX East, you are now researching amusement parks and Disney World, is that correct?
T.L.: Yeah. It’s a quirky project. It’s a little project right now. It’s not a book. So, sometimes people are like, “Is this your next book?” I’m like, “No, it’s not a book, at least right now.” It’s a play in theme parks. And so, it has nothing to do… well, certainly, digital games intersect it to some degree.
T.L.: So, if you spend any time at Disneyland, Disney does have a whole play app where they’re doing these really strange hybrid play experiences, where you’re on your phone, and you’re in the physical space. But really, what I was interested were two things. And again, they are still a little bit threads to my prior work.
T.L.: I’m really interested in play in commercial and corporate spaces. Most of my work has not been spent in Indie gaming spaces. My first book was on a big MMO eSports, Twitch. I’m really interested in how people often critically navigate commercial game spaces and play spaces.
T.L.: And if you think of something like Disney, Disneyland, Disney World, it’s almost the epitome of a corporatized play space. So, that’s one thread. And the other part of it was I was really actually very interested in how people were experiencing these very often fantastical spaces in mundane ways.
T.L.: And this really comes from one, I enjoy… I grew up in Southern California. So, I grew up going to Disneyland. And now, that I live on the East Coast, I’ve spent a lot of time at Disney World. And the last few years when I’ve gone, I’ve started thinking, “Well, I know this place really well. And I have a really different relationship with the fantastical, the spectacular side of it.”
T.L.: It’s a little bit mundane. And I listen to a lot of podcasts, but I listened to some theme park podcasts. And I remember hearing once, and the guy was talking about taking his laptop to Disneyland, and just working for a couple hours. And I was like, “What, what? You do what?” And that just piqued my curiosity.
T.L.: Yeah. So, I’ve interviewed about 20 people who are regular Passholders about what is it like when you are so familiar with a place that you just pop over for an hour, or you know it like the back of your hand? Yeah.
Ken: And has this work been interrupted by the pandemic or people not going to amusement parks?
T.L.: Yeah, completely. Well, I did all the interviews before the pandemic happened. And in fact, I was at Disney World myself in January, I guess, it was. Yeah. And a lot of researchers have, of course, turned to pandemic-focus research now. I haven’t done that. But it is absolutely interesting hearing and seeing the conversation amongst folks who for whom Disney was the backyard basically, not going there, or thinking about when they will go there, and under what conditions.
T.L.: When something that was formerly just really, this every day part of life becomes scary, or threatened dangerous, wary. So, it has been interesting to see people navigate that, but I did all the research for this, research happened before the pandemic hit basically.
Ken: Whenever you mention the word play, it makes me think, of course, of the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester. I imagine you’ve done some of your research there as well.
T.L.: I’ve only visited once to be honest.
T.L.: Yeah. They’re amazing. And they actually run a fantastic journal that I am now on the editorial board for. But yeah, no, that’s a great spot. I sometimes joke, I hope someday if my papers are my archive of… the amount of stuff I have. I’m a very object-based researcher.
T.L.: So, my eSports archive of things, and my live streaming archive of things, and MMO. Just someday, I keep thinking, I hope it all goes to them if they want it long after I’m gone. Yeah. Anybody who lives in Rochester, or can get to Rochester when it’s safe again, is it’s well worth a visit.
Ken: You don’t have to wait until you’re long gone to donate to them.
T.L.: That’s true. I can’t imagine not having my stuff. I am really one of those people. I’ve always been somebody for whom with research artifacts are just such a useful way for me to re-hook into the field, and to remember a point, to remember a moment. I don’t know. I’m a very visual tactile person that way. But yeah, you’re right. I could donate it now.
Ken: So, I looked at your CV prior to this call, and my goodness, you have published so many things, covered so many topics over such an impressive career. We only scratched the surface today. Was there anything else you want to talk about that we didn’t get to?
T.L.: Oh, gosh. I’m washing through my mind. No, I think we hit a lot of great stuff. Yeah. I’m still having fun. So, that’s good.
T.L.: Yeah, no, no, it’s been really fun to chat with you. Yeah. It’s fun also getting to share the AnyKey stuff with people too because that’s still really alive, and something folks can participate in.
Ken: Which is wonderful. So, besides anykey.org, where else can people find you online?
T.L.: Yeah. Well, I’m a little bit on the Twitter hiatus, but I am on Twitter @ybika, Y-B-I-K-A, it’s just been my longtime game name. So, they can find me there. They can also, as you mentioned at the top, if they’re interested in the live streaming stuff, there’s a free Creative Commons of the book at watchmeplay.cc.
T.L.: So, I encourage people, my publisher probably hates it, but I’m like, “Don’t spend the money, go grab the free PDF.” I’m really grateful actually, to Princeton, for letting me do that free PDF along with the book itself. Yeah. Those are just a couple places.
Ken: And your own website as well.
T.L.: Yep, tltaylor.com. And I try to put a lot of my work writing there. Yeah. That’s another place.
Ken: And one more place, do you yourself stream?
T.L.: Oh, I don’t. I wish I was brave enough to. When I first started the project, I did for a little bit because I wanted to figure out how the technology worked, and just get a sense of things. But no, I’m not brave enough. And I’m not actually entertaining enough to stream. So, I leave that to the others.
Ken: Well, I strongly disagree on both of those points. But I’ll defer to you. Dr. T.L. Taylor, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure to finally and intentionally talk with you.
T.L.: Yeah. It’s been great, Ken. Thanks so much.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, posts, and feedback at polygamer.net.