Gaming

Why I started streaming video games on Twitch at the age of 43


Like so many things in my life, it began as a daft experiment. I love learning new stuff, and over the course of my 43 years I’ve tried all sorts. Some things have stuck, like comedy, running, and having kids. Some haven’t, like kung fu, olives and holidays in Germany. To be honest, I thought that livestreaming games on Twitch would fall into the latter category.

For those who aren’t familiar (I wasn’t until this year), Twitch involves playing video games live on the internet while providing a running commentary. People watch you, and chat to you via a message window, and sometimes give you money. It’s sort of like exotic dancing, but with fewer breasts.

It was January 2021, and we were in lockdown. I hadn’t played any blockbuster games for years, put off by the amount of time and commitment involved. But there I was, stuck at home, staring down the barrel of another three months making sourdough banana bread in the shape of Joe Wicks’s face, so I thought I’d give Assassin’s Creed Valhalla a go, a historical action game from Ubisoft about slicing up Saxons in ninth-century England. I chose to play as female Viking Eivor, and she quickly became my favourite video game character since Lara Croft – tough, cool, and equipped with skills I’ve coveted all my life, like the ability to slice through a man’s spine with the single swing of an axe, and apply eyeliner.

But where’s Nando’s? Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
But where’s Nando’s? Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Photograph: Ubisoft

I adored exploring snowy Norway and ancient Croydon, trying to work out which monastery was on the site of what’s now the Nando’s by the tram stop. (Very strong branch, by the way.) But it’s a long old game, and sometimes it would get a bit lonely. My husband’s not a gamer, and surely there are only so many times you can watch your wife swearing as she hacks a bunch of virtual men to death without wishing you’d just married that other girl who was into scones and cross-stitch.

So I started thinking about giving Twitch a try. I was inspired by a conversation I’d had with the comedian and streamer Sooz Kempner on Extra Life, the games podcast I co-host. “It’s never too late for Twitch,” she’d said, like one of those kind daughters whose 57-year-old mum is about to walk out in front of the X Factor judges. I didn’t really understand what Twitch was or how it worked, or why anyone would want to stream themselves playing games in front of a bunch of strangers, but I knew there was a button on my PS5 controller that made it go. So one night, I pressed it.

That first time was terrifying. I was more nervous than the first time I did standup. With comedy, you know roughly what you’re going to say when you’re up there, even if you can’t predict the fistfight between two women in the back row. With Twitch, I wasn’t really sure why anyone would turn up to watch me play a video game, or what they wanted from me.

Ellie Gibson playing games
Who summoned the stallion? Ellie Gibson ‘felt enormous pressure to do all the things at once’ on Twitch. Photograph: Courtesy: Ellie Gibson

And I was suddenly and acutely conscious of being absolutely terrible at games. I seemed incapable of remembering which button you press to call the horsey, and which one you use to fire arrows. An accidentally summoned stallion would inconveniently appear about every 12 seconds while I was trying to shoot someone in the eye. I felt enormous pressure to do all the things at once – play the game well, be funny, respond to all the comments in the chat, not look like an utter dick. It was like doing a standup gig while trying to row a boat, make a sandwich, and shave a cat.

Echoing from some cavernous depth I thought I’d sealed off years ago, the voices came, whispering every negative comment I ever received in 20 years of games journalism: “She’s not funny.” “Who does she think she is?” “This is why girls shouldn’t play games.” “What kind of dickhead gives Sonic the Hedgehog 4 a 9 out of 10?” (Fair.) But there, in the chat windows popping up on my screen, were new voices. Keep going, they said. You can do it. There were lots of laughing emojis and smiley faces. I started to relax, realising that it didn’t really matter that I was rubbish at the game. This wasn’t about skill, it was about people with a shared interest having a laugh. At me, mainly, but still – a laugh’s a laugh, as all attention-craving comedians (read: all comedians) know.

So I did keep going. Soon I was playing twice a week, on a regular schedule. A couple of hours on Tuesdays, with a nice pot of tea. Friday became Vikings and Vodka night, where I’d start at 9pm and get increasingly drunk and progressively worse at the game until I gave up at about 1am. Somehow a drinking game based around my appalling skills emerged, with viewers taking a sip every time I mistakenly summoned a horse, set myself on fire, read a boring letter, or accidentally killed a dog.

Chat replay on Twitch.
Chat replay from one of Ellie Gibson’s games. Photograph: Twitch

I started to pay more attention to the names in the chat, as I saw the same ones popping up again and again. Sometimes people I knew in real life would turn up, like other comedians, or my dad, or people I’d worked with on a terrible games magazine in Macclesfield a thousand years ago. It felt like having a mate pop round for a cup of tea, which was very welcome at a time when that sort of thing was illegal. But there were many more names I didn’t recognise. One advantage of Twitch, I realised, is that you can join in and make a connection without anyone being able to judge you based on your gender, race, age or appearance. I totally understand the appeal, as someone who once received a barrage of sexist abuse during a game of fucking Xbox Live Uno.

I feel safe here. I’ve streamed for more than a hundred hours now, and contrary to what I would ever have predicted, there have been only a few slightly dodgy incidents. A viewer who I’m pretty sure was up past his bedtime accused me of being a “MOM GAMER”, which I think was supposed to be an insult. But I wasn’t offended, because that’s what I am – a mum, and a gamer. You might as well try to insult me by shouting “BRUNETTE”, or “OLIVE HATER”.

Another time, someone simply wrote, “You’re hot.” I was immediately unnerved. I know how quickly these things can escalate from seemingly innocent comments to graphic filth, followed by can’t-you-take-a-joke and hideous threats. My mods weren’t around, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Ignore it, and hope he goes away? Make light of it, and risk encouraging him? Shut it down, and get accused of overreacting – which maybe I was?

As it turned out, I didn’t have to do anything. “You’re right, she does look a bit hot actually,” said one of my regulars.

“Yeah Ellie, maybe turn the central heating down?” wrote someone else.

And just like that, with grace and humour, they gently but firmly let the bloke know this wasn’t that kind of party. I think that was the first time I realised I’d accidentally created a community. I understood it wasn’t about me or my performance, but my relationship with the audience, and their interactions with each other. I began to encourage backseat gaming – inviting (or sometimes begging) people to give me tips on beating the boss or finding the sodding rusty key for the chapel dungeon. I was no longer playing this game on my own. I had a team.

Chat replay
Chat replay from one of Ellie Gibson’s game streams. Photograph: Twitch

Without them, I’m sure I’d have given up playing Valhalla weeks ago. As much as I love the game, it doesn’t half go on a bit. After about 60 hours it became like one of those relationships where you know it’s over, but you shuffle along, going through the motions until one of you finally has the guts to end things, or dies. But along we shuffled, and eventually, last Tuesday, I finished the game. It took me 97 hours, 13 minutes and 51 seconds. Based on previous timings, I could have spent those hours giving birth eight times.

I marked the finale with a little speech. I thanked everyone for all their support, like I’d just won a bloody Oscar, and worried terribly about forgetting someone. We paid our respects to Harry Trotter, Amy Winehorse, and other ponies we had known. Everyone cheered. And I cried. If you’d had told me three months ago that I’d be crying on the internet in front of a bunch of new friends I’ve never actually met, I’d have laughed in your ludicrous face. But here we are. And it was a Tuesday, so I wasn’t even drunk.

This experience has restored my faith, not just in games, but in gamers. I realise that makes me sound like an ex-vicar who’s just rediscovered Jesus after seeing his face in a cup of Horlicks, but it’s the truth. I took a lot of shit when I was a full-time games journalist; sometimes because I’m a woman, sometimes just because people can be twats. But on Twitch, I’ve found a group of people who don’t give a toss about my gender, or how rubbish I am at boss battles. Together we’ve created somewhere safe for us to come together to laugh at the ridiculousness of video games, and ourselves.



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