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Opinionista

It’s not just Twitch that’s swimming in a cesspool; gamers are guilty too

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

The revelation of its source code and top gamers’ earnings has rocked the Amazon-owned game-streaming service.

It’s hard to say what is more devastating for the Twitch community – that the source code for the game-streaming service has been released, or that all of the top gamers’ incomes have been revealed?

This is, after all, an audience of people who tap into the strange, voyeuristic nature of humanity that wants to watch sportspeople, and now gamers, do their thing.

This generation of gamers have been able to capitalise on this happy circumstance that allows video gamers to make a pretty decent income just by playing games. Never in all of human history have us geeks had it this good.

Not that you would know from the outcry about the Twitch leaks.

The leak showed that 81 streamers each made more than $1-million from Twitch from August 2019. Amazon bought Twitch in 2014 for nearly $1-billion. It has an estimated 140 million monthly active users.

An anonymous user on online forum 4chan dumped a 125GB file with the source code and earnings earlier this month.

“Jeff Bezos paid $970 million for this, we’re giving it away FOR FREE,” wrote the user. “Their community is also a disgusting toxic cesspool, so to foster more disruption and competition in the online video streaming space, we have completely pwned them,” the user added.

The word “pwned”, from a misspelling of “owned”, is used by gamers when they thoroughly beat an opponent. It is now used mostly by hackers or when data is leaked.

The data leak is huge, effectively revealing all of the underlying code that makes Twitch function. Could a competitor copy Twitch using this code? Very much so.

Sure, a behemoth such as Amazon will be waiting with its phalanx of lawyers for any such move, so an outright clone is unlikely.

But that video-streaming code will almost certainly pop up in many other places, in other apps, and for other services. A benevolent way of viewing it may be that Amazon has unintentionally provided the impetus for many other ventures through this leak.

But that is to overlook the malevolence of the hacker and the sheer destructive nature of dumping a company’s proprietary code on to the internet – however much its culture is deemed a “disgusting toxic cesspool”.

Given the rampant sexism of the gaming industry, it might be an apt description of the entire culture of this now dominant form of entertainment.

Ethically, is it a moral good for new services and apps to emerge because of a crime, because of a theft? Does it truly “foster more disruption and competition in the online video-streaming space” if – as the lawyers argue – its source is the fruit of a poisoned tree?

It’s hard to agree with that kind of anarchic argument, which would rapidly fall apart if applied to other contexts or circumstances. It is, in essence, at the heart of copyright laws – to protect those people, sometimes geniuses, who come up with good ideas; or create amazing music or write extraordinary novels.

Unfortunately, this is society, a world, where such honour is in limited supply.

Many hundreds of millions of people happily steal music and movies in the still-held belief that TV companies are somehow evil and deserve it. It is part of an outdated idea from the early days of digital sharing that it’s “easier to steal” than to legitimately watch and pay for TV shows.

Not any more. Netflix’s unexpected and unprecedented success has given rise to innumerable competitors, with just about every broadcaster or tech firm rolling out a subscription service of their own. It’s not a cheap exercise, but it is now easier to stream than steal.

I subscribe to Netflix, DStv Premium (and therefore the excellent Showmax), Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ (albeit the latter came free for upgrading my iPhone). I also subscribe to Spotify, Audible (for amazing audio books and lectures) and Luminary (for Trevor Noah and other podcasts).

I also subscribe to the New York Times, The Guardian, Daily Maverick, BusinessLive, TimesLive and News24. Writing that, it seems like a lot. Not for a news junkie like me. My editor Tim Cohen goes one further with his PressReader subs – which he evangelises as if it is the holy grail of news services. He may be right, as he often is about so many things. (Hi boss.)

Creators

We live in a world where it is now possible to reward the people who create that TV show or podcast or play games for a living. Like so much else, it is an economy of scale – the more subscribers you have, the more you make. I can’t bring myself to use the word “creators” – which so many people use to describe Twitch stars. It’s the new buzzword now that everyone has worked out that so-called influencers, who get paid to promote a brand, are not authentic nor believable.

As much as you want to support anyone who makes $1-million by playing games (with a video selfie in a small corner of the screen so viewers can see their facial expressions), it’s kinda hard to classify that as “creativity”, which is the essential ingredient, one has to imagine, for labelling someone a “creator”. Either that or divine powers.

By using the word “pwned”, the anonymous hacker who posted the Twitch data gave insight into themselves as gamers – but also into the sadly destructive nature of online game play. Forget for a moment the irony of a data thief, a clearly amoral hacker, calling anyone else “a disgusting toxic cesspool”.

Despite appearances, online gaming doesn’t always foster a sense of fair play. Instead of just beating your opponent, gaming thrives on destroying them – of pwning them. That alone isn’t healthy. And that is the culture of competitiveness that generations of youngsters are learning.

Losing, as every child is told, is part of playing. Learning to lose, and learning to lose graciously, is part of the education process. This crucial life lesson is slowly being eroded by the winner-takes-all gaming culture where “pwning” your opponent is seen as part of the winning process. Fair play is not being inculcated in a generation of future sour losers. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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