While aimlessly browsing Twitch a few days go, I stumbled across a channel that was streaming Final Fantasy XIV. I've long been fascinated by the massively-multiplayer Final Fantasy games, starting back when developer Square Enix announced its first attempt, Final Fantasy XI. These games have a daunting goal: distill the iconic design and narrative motifs that define the series's single-player experiences, and faithfully embed them within a compelling, persistent multiplayer world.
As I watched the caster adventure through one of the game's dungeons, I had a lot of questions. Was the combat as interactive as the animations made it look? Was this a "pick-up group", or was the caster playing with friends? What character class was the most popular? Nowadays, what features made FFXIV stand apart from other massively-multiplayer games? Typically when watching videos or streams, I let such questions drift out of my consciousness, unanswered; or, I resort to quickly googling the ones that nag at me.
Much to my surprise, the stream's chatroom was active - and it wasn't a blitz of emoticons, trolling, or other cacophony. Rather, the caster was fielding questions from each of the ~10 participants, and generally facilitating a discussion among them. I decided to pose the questions I had to the group; and I was again surprised - both by the speed and the thoughtfulness of the responses. Someone would take a first swing at answer; someone else would respectfully insert a caveat; a third participant would ask a clarifying question. It was a civil, productive discourse; and it felt totally bizarre.
After learning a satisfying amount about the state of FFXIV, I decided to peruse a few other channels - to see whether that experience had been a fluke. I joined a few speed runs, which ended up being mostly silent affairs; with the scarce chat focused on pointing out suboptimal decisions the caster had made. (The attempts at dialogue I made were met with not-so-thinly-veiled annoyance.) The more popular channels, predictably, were simply too noisy to facilitate much of anything. Casters either made periodic attempts to respond to the aggregate sentiment gushing out of the stream of emoji and exclamatory statements, or ignored the chat altogether.
A while later, I came across a Mass Effect stream that clicked. The ~20 spectators in the chat were leisurely discussing the classic game, and the series's forthcoming Andromeda entry. I ended up learning quite a bit about the upcoming game, which I'm now excited to play. Shortly thereafter, I found a sleepy channel dedicated to playing through the older Zelda games. The spectators and caster were engaged in a lively debate about which prior entry the forthcoming release, Breath of the Wild, seemed most reminiscent of. Despite my relative ignorance of recent Zelda games, I stuck around for over an hour.
On the surface, none of these amiable encounters seem especially noteworthy. ("Oh, you had a not-shitty time talking with strangers on the internet? Mazel tov.") Perhaps, but I struggle to think of other popular sites that permit you to filter down to a specific topic, such as a particular game, and then [potentially] have a decent time interacting with other anonymous visitors. Sites like Reddit foster thriving communities of all shapes and sizes; but those are very different than the near real-time, transient nature of these Twitch channels. At their best, a few of the channels were reminiscent of a bygone era of IRC.
This was a long-winded way of saying: certain Twitch channels can be compelling places to learn about games, and chat with likeminded strangers. It's bound to be hit-and-miss, but a decent heuristic I've found is: look for channels with ~15-30 people, and a caster that's making an effort to engage with the chatroom. Take a swing at asking a few questions - and who knows, you too might partake in a cordial online experience!