Player Stories without Platforms

Jentery Sayers (he / him) English UVic
Games in Action 4 November 2022 UBC

Many thanks to Chris Patterson for inviting me to speak today, and to Chris, Janice Stewart, David Gaertner, Grace Wood, and Sydney Lines for facilitating this wonderful event. It’s an honor to be here on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people.

When I learned that the topic of this morning’s panel was “Technologies of Control and Liberation,” I first thought of collaborative research I’ve been conducting on minimal computing and specifically minimal computing from the labor perspective. For me, this perspective begins with the position that, contra Marx, we need not find humans or, more accurately, the universal human subject always at the center of labor. To quote McKenzie Wark, “Labor is the mingling of many things, most of them not human” (2015: 217). It is, for instance, the mingling of infrastructures.

But what, then, is minimal computing from the labor perspective? I recently did my best to define it with Tiffany Chan, who is also at UVic. We published an article on minimal computing as an alternative to software as a service (SAAS) models. Articulating that alternative brought us to the following four points.

  1. Computation is historical, not abstract. Minimal computing starts in the middle of institutional work (in medias res). It engages computation as mediation, beyond the packaging of minimalism as a canned style, transhistorical feature, or list of fundamentals intended for download and exchange. From the labor perspective, a minimal computing project is its files and the relationships between them; it is also the ongoing activity of maintenance, customization, and care moving into the future with the past in mind.
  2. Computation subsumes labor. Or, labor is found within computation (Wark 2015: 19). Minimal computing happens within infrastructures greater, or larger, than itself. From the labor perspective, a minimal computing project attends to the power and persistence of these infrastructures and determines which ones are worth maintaining.
  3. Yet labor also experiments with computation (Wark 2015: 19). Or, it is an activity of resistance and friction, especially with respect to software’s default settings. Minimal computing projects find new uses for computing outside software-as-a-service paradigms. From the labor perspective, a minimal computing project positions technical work as creative and critical work beyond familiarity with management systems.
  4. Minimal computing from the labor perspective may thus be defined as the reduction of computation’s alienating effects: the alienation of projects but also of practitioners from social organization and collective expertise. From the labor perspective, a minimal computing project degrows computation’s tendency to reinvest in productivity by investing instead in shared structures and common activities, also called “convivial computing” (Chan and Sayers 2022; Barca 2019; Sterne 2016).

This notion of degrowth, which is used in labor studies and labor movements, has helped Tiffany and me to foreground our own projects as cultural ones: as efforts to change habits and values against extractivism and solutionism.

It’s also helped me to approach writing about games and teaching them alongside fiction at UVic. I am not a game designer or developer, and I’ve no experience in the games industry. But I’m interested in games, I play them often, I follow the literature in media and game studies, and I enjoy talking about games and interactive fiction with students in my courses.

In this context, I encounter a palpable problem: how to keep up with games and games communication. I will defer to experts in the room, but streaming and video appear to be the dominant mode of communication, if not marketing, in games right now. I also gather that walkthroughs or guides are the bread and butter of most online publications that cover games. Please correct me if I’m mistaken.

As an instructor and researcher, I am not equipped at the moment to teach or participate meaningfully in streaming. I do not have the technical resources and neither do the classrooms in which I teach. I also need to learn more about streaming’s privacy and safety implications before involving students and research assistants in such work. Having now read numerous publications on the topic, including T.L. Taylor’s Watch Me Play (2018), I recognize the gravity of understanding how streaming has been platformed, if you will. Aleena Chia uses this term in her research on “game engines and automation beyond game development” (2022), a topic very much aligned with the theme of today’s panel. Chia writes: “As games studies follows its object into entertainment computing and product design, game studies must not be platformed [my emphasis] – our lines of inquiry should not lock interlocutors into field-specific ways of understanding and critiquing engines” (2022: 7). I am not expert in game engines, yet I very much agree with Chia’s remark about games studies, and for the balance of my talk today I want to outline how Chia’s position (that “games studies must not be platformed”) shaped my current approach to games and minimal computing from the labor perspective.

I understand streams, Let’s Plays, playthroughs, and even features of games criticism as aspects of how people tell stories with, through, and about games. In fact, we might call them “player stories,” by which I mean a format that documents the experience of a game, playing and reacting to it, making meaning of it, being affected by it, and even arguing with it. A player story is, in the words of Kishonna Gray, a “narrative description” (2020: 117) that frames a game and contextualizes it. Player stories may be personal, political, creative, critical, social, transformative, educational, entertaining, homemade, and/or professional. They also correspond with autoethnography in many ways. For one, they consider the mechanics and narratives of games, often from first-person perspectives, while also engaging the metagame of gaming culture: the values and habits of games and their platforms, for instance.

Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux observe that “all videogames are surrounded by and saturated by metagames” (2017: 276), which are often toxic. Boluk and LeMieux bookend this point with the writing and lived experiences of Anita Sarkessian. They quote her: “I’ve been harassed and threatened for going on three years with no end in sight. And all because I dared to question the obvious, self-evident sexism running rampant in the games industry” (in 2017: 275).

Sarkessian’s story, including her narrative description, documents gaming’s metagame and refuses to alienate or extract games from their platforms and toxic cultures. Similarly, Gray’s work, to which I referred a moment ago to define “player story,” notes that narrative is “essential for empowerment” (2020: 117). Gray writes: “While gamers may not have direct power to recreate the visuals of hegemonic imagery, people exert some influence over their lives through the construction and creation of their own environments” (117). This seems absolutely crucial to me. The stories that emerge from narrative description are not simply told; people use them to produce their own spaces and support their communities. Gray’s research demonstrates why such environments are imperative for Black women in particular. They are, in Gray’s words, “a necessary part of framing [what she calls] an intersectional counterpublic” (117). Elsewhere, Mia Consalvo makes comparable gestures, calling for more documentation to trace the patterns of toxicity. Here’s Consalvo: “Despite the seeming persistence of online documents and artifacts, much is disappearing from the internet or becoming increasingly harder to find. Even with technologies like the WayBack Machine and library digital archives, it can still be difficult to locate or identify materials from even six months ago. By locating, storing [and] even simply taking screenshots of what we see now, we can provide real help to later scholarly work” (2012). I would argue that maintaining such documentation becomes all the trickier when player stories are platformed – when we rely on Twitch or YouTube to publish and preserve them.

The work of practitioners such as Consalvo, Gray, Sarkessian, Boluk, and LeMieux directs how I teach and research games at UVic. For instance, it provides students with examples of what player stories can do and how they are entwined with matters of accountability and axiology in research. I don’t think these stories need to be high-tech, either. Echoing my remarks about minimal computing moments ago, a player story can foreground the labor of sensing and making sense of games and their metagames. And it can do so without a platform. As examples, I often refer to early Let’s Plays, which were mostly text + image, as well as merritt k’s Videogames for Humans (2015). In the introduction to that book, merritt k describes the chapters that follow as dialogues, resonating in part with T.L. Taylor’s observation that streamers use a “‘think-aloud’ method similar to usability testing” (2018: 70). merritt k calls the dialogues a “conversational format [that] . . . suggests the feeling of sitting next to the player and listening to them talk about the work they’re engaging with as they move through it” (2015: 17). That book as well as Melanie Oberg’s research (2021) on Let’s Plays are what nudged me to articulate player stories with minimal computing from the labor perspective.

For the last few years, I’ve experimented with my own player stories and prompted students to compose them, too. I apologize if the following list is vulgar, but – in the interests of time and sharing work in progress – I wish to close by outlining what I’ve learned thus far from a minimal computing approach to player stories without platforms:

To be clear, I am not suggesting that game studies should somehow avoid the internet. I am instead sharing how I have approached games and player stories mostly out of necessity, with the hopes that we may ultimately feed this work into streaming and its cultures wherever we find them.

Thank you for your time.


I am employed by the University of Victoria. I wish to acknowledge with respect the lək̓ʷəŋən peoples on whose traditional territory the university stands, and the Songhees, Esquimalt, and WSÁNEĆ peoples whose historical relationships with the land continue to this day.

I also want to thank everyone in the Praxis Studio for Comparative Media Studies (Samuel Adesubokan, Abby Fry, Julie Funk, Madyson Huck, and Asia Tyson) and English 506, “Player Stories,” for discussing this topic with me during the last few months.

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