In Literary Gaming (2014), Astrid Ensslinn describes four categories of "functional ludostylistics"—ludology, ludonarratology, ludosemiotics, and mediality—that build on Marie-Laure Ryan's "methodological strategies required to synthesize ludological and narratological analyses" (51). Each of Ensslinn's components cover relatively extensive theoretical ground, but for the purpose of this piece, I only look at ludonarratology, which considers relationships between game and story as well as "external narrativity," or player narratives as they are formed through "playthroughs [...] walkthroughs [...] [and] transmediation" (53). I find this aspect of external narrativity to be a particularly dynamic feature of pandemic gaming, from a social perspective.
Esports in general continue to have a strong draw in spectatorship, from organized and funded competitions to day-to-day live streams of popular gamers. This latter mode of spectating, for example the watching of speedruns with a set of specific restrictions and parameters, establishes a community that clusters around a single game, streamer, or criterial set of rules. In the case of speedruns and the restrictions placed on those runs, gameplay functions as a combination of transmediation (creating new media with the old form) and playthrough. Gameplay is designed to operate within the variables imposed by the player—no healing, permadeath, for example. These experiences utilize the game in its structural attributes such as level design and avatar movement but largely ignore any narrative engagement. The purpose of the gameplay has shifted to intentions of external agency, where the player now chooses what is deemed success or failure based on the elected criteria. These kinds of situations offer an infinite range of possibilities through which players can repeat games.
Similarly, where these experiences are livestreamed, they create gravitational pulls and establish communities. In some cases, streamers are able to build inclusive spaces based around their own persona and help to create containers of space in which to hold supportive conversations. In the relatively anonymous setting of a live stream, chatters interact with each other as well as the streamer, and topics can open up into the issues of self, identity, and mental illness providing a system of support and the chance for one’s voice to be heard.
In the case of my ten-year-old daughter, pandemic gaming and pandemic livestreaming (or the watching of livestreams), has given her a sense of connectedness to the outside world and helps to mitigate the anxiety of navigating a world struggling with Covid-19. The games that attract her are ultimately non-narrative and open-ended roleplaying, such as The Sims, Minecraft, and Roblox. As well as the opportunity to connect with friends, these platforms offer a freeing of the creative imagination, the chance to actually build and design in the toolkit of the game. The games all offer spaces for users to upload and share their own designs. My daughter’s fascination with streamers of these particular games is a mix of popstar fandom and genuine intrigue in their creative abilities. She cites Clare Siobhan’s work, for example, with Sims’ Custom Content, expressing a kind of artistic delight with Siobhan’s skill in crafting detailed sim avatars and other assets.
External narrativity in the space of the livestream functions as a use of the original platform that has been energized by the agency of the streamer. While the rulesets and storyworlds of the games remain intact, the narrative assertion is one of that streamer personality and the community that surrounds them. In this sense, all games become a kind of “open world” adventure, cheered on by the crowds through their witness to the actions of the streamer. At a more essential level though, these offer virtual spaces in which the public may abide, to feel free of embodied living or to perhaps come together to be heard in ways unavailable otherwise.