“Don’t @ me when I say this, right, but Drake is not hard. Drake has never seen the hood in his life. I don’t know why Drake tries to claim something that he’s never been a part of. Like, it’s so weird to me.” The game streamer’s thick, curly hair cascades out from under her headphones, her eyes dart quickly as she loses the thought. “What kinda damage?” Her bullets bounce pitifully off the Sentry Bot, barely denting its health gauge. She beats a hasty retreat and whoops in surprise as an explosion rocks the hallway behind her. “What kinda damage was that? That was BS!” She reloads and prepares for another run at the machine, targeting its limbs for annihilation.
This game streamer’s name is Alexis, better known by her gamer alias “AlexisAyeee” and she’s broadcasting the latest of her efforts to beat Fallout: New Vegas. At the moment, the tunnels beneath the HELIOS One solar farm, and the armored mechs infesting it, are proving an obstacle. She scatters land mines in front of the doorway, hoping to lure the Sentry Bot into a booby-trap. It doesn’t take the bait, so she switches to a plasma rifle and reduces it to green goop. Now she’s thinking about Drake again. “I bump to his music, I’m not gonna lie,” she says, preparing to disintegrate another Sentry Bot. “But he from Banada.” She does this often, substituting a “b” for words that begin with “c,” since true Bloods avoid that letter whenever possible. Minutes later, she’s cut a swath of destruction across the tunnels. “Get them cheeks burnt crispy off, boi.”
Alexis is one of many Black streamers on Twitch, the massively popular video streaming service, and she does these runs on an almost nightly basis. Whether it’s a game of Fallout: New Vegas, The Evil Within, or the hit battle royale shooter PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Alexis brings a unique brand of humour, along with an enclyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop history to her nearly two-thousand Twitch followers.
She began as a fan of other popular Black streamers, regularly tuning in their broadcasts and participating in their group chats, both as a reprieve from everyday stresses and from the toxic culture endemic to the broad gaming community. Two years later, she’s picked up something of a cult following, cracking jokes with her followers on everything from current hip-hop beefs to the quirks of Japanese language (in which she is fluent). “You can tell the difference between someone who’s having fun, and someone who’s doing it…for the money,” she tells me. “I just like to have fun, and make sure everyone’s having a good time. Just being there, being a support system for people. Showing them they can rely on you when life gets hard.”
Though it began as a spinoff to popular web streaming site Justin.tv, Twitch has exploded in popularity over the last few years. Just before its acquisition by Amazon.com, Twitch was one of the top five sources of internet traffic in the United States. Communities have been founded in Twitch, once-obscure games have leapt to the forefront due to popularity on the platform, and nerds from all walks of life have found massive audiences and corporate partnerships by virtue of playing video games and cracking jokes.
However, like all online communities, Twitch has had its challenges. Namely, the toxic atmosphere engendered by nerd culture. Black streamers (as well as streamers of colour from other ethnocultural backgrounds) encounter a sort of double-bind within the Twitch universe. While they may have similar gaming and pop culture tastes, fandoms, and experiences as white streamers, they’re also up against an ecosystem polluted by white male insecurities and resentments. All of which are, in turn, projected towards even more vulnerable nerd groups – namely women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, and all intersections therein.
There was no clearer example than the N-word incident over the summer, precipitated by popular YouTube gamer Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie. While Kjellberg and other game streamers have cultivated an audience polluted by bigotry dressed in the flimsiest of veiled sarcasm, the social state of rest of the world also seemed to slide backwards by a hundred years.
Enter the Black streamers.
They’re much less prevalent on Twitch than, say Twitter or Instagram, which shouldn’t be surprising, given that game streaming is less accessible than other social media. They may not wield the same social influence, and that should come as no surprise either. Tweets, memes, and Instagram pictures translate to widespread virality much more easily than video-captured gaming and stream moments, which are often limited to a particular fandom. Despite all of that, Black streamers are steadily carving out their own niche – one that seems to exemplify the community values of positivity, connecteness, and inclusivity that seems sorely lacking elsewhere.
When I spoke to streamer Simply Undrea, she pointed to her relationship with her father, and his unfortunate passing as a catalyst for her approrach. “Gaming was a huge way that (my father and I) could bond, growing up,” she told me. “As a kid, he would buy me consoles and handhelds. When he passed, it was this big void in my life.” Previously, Undrea had surfed Twitch and lurked on a few streams, but wasn’t an active participant. “I was really depressed, and I was upset.” A chat with her mother, who reminded Undrea that her father would never have wanted her to wallow in grief, turned things around. “My mom always keeps it real with me. ‘Your dad would want you to mourn, but he wouldn’t want you to dwell in it.’ My dad wouldn’t want me to wallow, he was always about me pursuing my passions. That’s what got me to say ‘maybe I should try streaming.’”
Undrea began streaming the popular game Destiny, not necessarily with a game plan for building an audience, but to work through her feelings by picking up the controller, the way she and her father had done together for years. “I started off at zero, and just (by) being active on the platform, and putting myself out there on Twitter and other social networks, it was an organic building process for me.” It’s a long climb for Twitch streamers who don’t have the benefit of a pre-existing audience; the front page is populated by the most popular games and most-watched streams on the network. For new streamers, finding an audience can be a long struggle, since the ones who need the least help getting new viewers are the ones who occupy prime real estate on the front page. Through word-of-mouth and social media savvy, Undrea built an audience of more than 3,600 viewers.
At a time when everything seems to be fragmenting along ideological national, and ethnic lines, it often seems that social media has failed in its grand promise to connect the world. In an interview with CNN Money’s Laurie Segall last November, Twitch co-founder Justin Kan spoke on the tech sector’s role in getting President Trump elected. Kan was, for the most part, discussing the tech sector’s need to connect with the economic realities and everyday lives of Americans, but he touched on an important question during the interview. “Have we created systems that bring people together to create common ground,” he asked, “Or created systems that divide us?”
The promise of the internet, and social media spaces in particular, was that interconnectedness – a bringing together of people from all corners of the world, in spaces where we might see our humanity reflected in one another. But every platform seems to struggle with the reality that people often are, given adequate distance and the shield of a computer screen, colossal shitheads to one another. There’s no getting around this, regardless of which community one may find the most familiarity and comfort. Black spaces in social media aren’t immune; Black Instagram has its birds and wastemen, Black Twitter has its hoteps and homophobes.
But there’s something about “Black Twitch” that seems to stand out as an exception – a garden with walls tall enough to keep out the toxic elements, but doors wide enough to accommodate the folks you want at the cookout. While popular (and often white) streamers often let gross jokes, sexism, and other bigotry slide unaddressed – or worse, play along – for the benefit of building an audience, many Black streamers have made a concerted effort to keep their streams and chats as relaxed and friendly as possible. “I’ve been in those toxic chats,” Undrea tells me. “Being a woman of colour in those chats, and [forced into] leaving, I wanted to do the exact opposite. I did not want a lurker, or a new person, or even my regulars to come into the chat and have that feeling. I wanted to cultivate a community where it feels like you’re sitting with a bunch of friends, gaming, and enjoying each other’s company.”
Jay-Ann Lopez, avid streamer and founder of online community Black Girl Gamers, feels much the same way. “It does sometimes take a bit of pruning…sometimes we do get toxic people that come in. But we have a community of people that will immediately react. Also, like-minded people attract like-minded people, whether they’re Black gamers or not. What we’re trying to do is, in no way harmful to anyone. People can gravitate towards that…It’s cool, we don’t really have any negativity at all. We want it to be a family, and a space where you come in for our perspective on gaming.”
Brandon Stennis, who goes by the Twitch handle UGRGaming, has a similar take. “I’m a very open person, where it comes to talking to people,” he says. “But I also have a weird sense of humour. People who have that same humour tend to understand, and love my streams as well. A lot of streamers don’t talk to their (chat participants) enough, but my whole channel is built off my interactions with people, responding to them, and making jokes.” Stennis’ popularity on Twitch led to employment with XSplit, a company well known in the community for its streaming and video mixing application. Stennis is the US Community Manager for the company, has amassed over 24,000 followers, and is a verified Twitch partner.
With an increased presence on the network among Black streamers, and with the data showing that Black millennials carry an outsize influence in most internet spheres, it seems only logical that Twitch would try to capitalize on the opportunity. After all, Black gamers spend more time in front of their screens than their demographic peers. But Twitch is not built to capitalize on potential, it’s designed almost from the ground-up to boost streamers with an already-high follower count and drop even more viewers into their chat rooms. Scroll through the top feeds of the most consistently popular games – League of Legends, PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, Hearthstone – and a pattern emerges: wall-to-wall white streamers.
Tanya DePass, known by her Twitch handle INeedDivGames, rankles at this reality. “People still assume they’re the default,” says DePass. “The nerd social fallacy ‘Oh, we’re all geeks in this space, and we’re all a happy family’ is utter bullshit…They don’t look for anybody besides the Bearded Angry White Dude playing Dark Souls for the 20th time, or if there is a female streamer, she looks a certain way. She’s usually conventionally attractive – and white. Very rarely do you see women of colour, even on Twitch Unity day, there were only two women of colour highlighted. And very light-skinned to the point you may not have even realized they were women of colour.” DePass is outspoken in her advocacy for an inclusive gaming industry, using her nonprofit organization I Need Diverse Games to push for representation both on screen and in development studios. “A lot of it is that people aren’t going outside their comfort zones. They’re not looking outside the same games, the same strata.”
Despite the challenges of visibility in the medium, Shareef Jackson (a.k.a. ReefJackson) appreciates that Twitch has, in a sense, provided the type of hub that Black geeks have sorely needed. “Nerd culture in general is really counterculture. It was for the outcasts. I’ve always appreciated that, and now nerds set their own rules. The rest of society just sort of bends towards it now.” Outside of his streaming hobby, Jackson runs a physics tutoring service called Math Looks Good, and uses his skills and platform to advocates for diversity in the STEM fields. “Twitch is a good way to connect with folks and expand your presence online. It opens you up to a whole other group of people…when you see that visual representation of people of colour in the space, you can’t ignore it. If this kind of thing was out when I was a kid? Man, I would be in heaven.”
It isn’t all bad news. Twitch has partnered with high-profile Black streamers, including Lopez and the Black Girl Gamers channel. Some of the most popular streamers on the network run the gamut from current and retired MMA fighters (such as Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) to longtime podcasters and YouTubers like Parris Lilly. Lilly (a.k.a. Vicious696), an online stalwart with GamerTag Radio, believes it’s important for Black streamers to make their presence felt on the platform. “I don’t shy away from that fact. I’m not afraid (to be) a Black person in this space. My opinion may be different from people that aren’t a person of colour, because I’m seeing things through a different lens.”
When I mentioned the challenges of picking up Twitch followers, as well as the effort needed to cultivate a safe atmosphere for those followers and chat participants, Lilly countered that representation wasn’t just necessary for streamers themselves. It’s also needed to create a snowball effect of picking up more Black viewers, who may themselves become streamers. “I think it’s important for all races and creeds to see that it’s not just white faces out there. When my son looks at a YouTube video, or a commercial on TV, and the people on it are consistently white faces? He’s going to look at that and wonder ‘Why aren’t there people like me doing this, too?’”
There are, of course, challenges beyond getting noticed on the Twitch page for Black streamers. For one, there’s the cost barrier. Getting on Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat and building a following takes nothing more than a smartphone and a half-decent data plan. Building a following on Twitch, on the other hand, can be prohibitively expensive. Building a PC capable of running games seamlessly – including monitors (yes, you’ll need more than one), a high-quality microphone, mechanical keyboard, an HD webcam, and a responsive gaming mouse – is guaranteed to run into the thousands. Console gaming may be a less pricey route, but also requires a good microphone and HD-quality webcam to provide for a watchable stream experience. Throw in the cost of an internet connection capable of streaming the game without lagging and skipping frames, and the costs of this hobby can quickly add up.
To offset these costs, many streamers have gone the route of subscriptions and sponsorship. Sponsoring a streamer can be done with a cash donation in any amount straight through PayPal, with fees subtracted at source. Subscribing to a stream can run as little as $4.99/month, split 60/40 between the streamer and Amazon. There’s also ad dollars, paid to the streamer based on the amount of eyeballs they bring to the stream. These latter two options require the streamer to apply for a Twitch partnership, and to qualify for that, the streamer needs to carry an average of 500 concurrent viewers, and must stream at least three times a week. In other words, what began as a hobby can end up looking more like a part-time job if the streamer hopes to recoup some of their costs.
All of these are obstacles, though. Not barricades. And the broad Twitch community is often eager to pitch in when a streamer encounters difficulty. Once, in the middle of a broadcast, Alexis’ computer crashed and lost all function. She was nearly reduced to tears at the prospect of having to replace the hard drive, both for the financial cost and the potential loss of data. But one of her tech-savvy viewers wasn’t about to let that happen. Over her phone’s Discord chat app @thatgayginger walked her through troubleshooting the machine and determined that it was a faulty RAM stick, easily replaceable and much less expensive. By the next day, Alexis was back to streaming again. Generous viewers have also gifted her games through Steam (if only to watch her hilarious commentary while she plays them), and her subscription levels are healthy enough that she runs a draw each month for a loot package, which she mails to a lucky subscriber.
While the gaming community wrestles with the demons inflicted on its own community, as well as the toxic barrage of white supremacist ideology that’s infected the global body politic, Black streamers have slowly become the counterculture for the gaming community. Which is ironic, given the gaming community, in many ways, began as a counterculture that morphed into an ugly status quo. Black streamers are as diverse as the general community – college students, fathers, straight, gay, femmes, – and the tone in their chat rooms run from wholesome to raunchy. But there’s a common thread of genuine kinship that binds them together, and a familiar type of Blackness as comfortable as your cousin’s basement.
And maybe, in a world that seems hell-bent on annihilating itself before we can milly-rock our way into the Black Panther premiere, Black Twitch is more necessary than ever. The corners that its streamers have carved out seem to function as much a fallout shelter as a means of entertainment. But once you’re in that shelter, just make sure to stay far, far away from Alexis while you hide out.
You wouldn’t want get them cheeks burnt crispy off.