Applying Twitch Streamers’ Engagement Strategies to Synchronous Online Learning

by Kristina Wilson

Context 

Early in 2022, a friend told me he was going to start streaming on Twitch and asked if I would join to watch and chat. I knew little about Twitch, an online community for streaming video gameplay, and as I considered his request I wondered if there could be a place for me in this space. Frankly, I don’t play video games, and at first glance, most streamers appeared to be men with a focus on fighting and shooting games.  

However, I logged in to amusedly watch my friend play long-distance trucking and city-building games and, curious, found myself searching the Just Chatting and Music categories. It didn’t take long to find communities of co-working streamers and musicians. I started to join their sessions regularly. In particular, I was drawn to two streamers: a co-working streamer named @aminoanic who streams her work sessions as a geography master’s degree student at the University of Georgia, and @tysondang, a drummer in the metal band Red-Handed Denial who streams himself drumming to “Kpop, Jrock, and metalcore.”  

After a few weeks, I got comfortable in my little corner of Twitch. I joined pomos (work sessions following the Pomodoro Method), saved up Channel Points to redeem for a drawing commission, and used streamers’ custom Emotes (emojis that depict the streamer or the streamer’s common phrases). It wasn’t long before I started using commands like !pat to pet a virtual co-working bot and !hype to make gifs fly around the screen, celebrating an epic drum solo. 

Similarities Between Twitch and Synchronous Online Learning 

Through it all, I couldn’t help but think: “You know… this is a lot like synchronous online learning.”   

As an instructional designer during COVID-19, I’ve had many discussions with instructors about how to make synchronous online learning work. We’ve heard about the unattended Zoom office hours. We’ve heard about the three-hour Zoom sessions where instructors feel like they’re shouting into the void. We’ve heard that students can find the sessions impersonal, draining, and ineffective. 

In contrast, viewers on Twitch seem invested, connected, and engaged. 

Could engagement techniques used by Twitch streamers be applied to synchronous online learning contexts? There are certainly many similarities between the two venues. 

As Bill Nye would say, “Consider the following. 

  • Format: In both Twitch streaming and synchronous online learning, a single leader streams, while participants join in via chat. 
  • Participants: The streamer, moderators, and regular followers and subscribers are not unlike a classroom with an instructor, teaching assistant, and students. 
  • Time-Based Approach: In both spaces, the content is dually synchronous and asynchronous. A stream or class may occur live but is often recorded for viewing at any time. 
  • Parallel Community: Many streamers connect with viewers and subscribers through parallel asynchronous community spaces using tools like Discord; this is similar to coursework that takes place in a learning management system. 

Strategies 

So, what could we try applying? 

Pattern Work and Rest 

Co-working streamers typically integrate a good amount of break time into their sessions. If your class runs for 90 minutes before pausing for a break, you may consider offering more. Common proportions are 25 minutes of work to 5 minutes of rest and 40 minutes of work to 10 minutes of rest. If your class is typically 3 hours long, that means spending up to a half-hour of your class time just on breaks. 

These breaks can be used in the typical ways—bio breaks, snack time—but also as critical time to process, reflect, and rest, preparing for the next intense learning session. A coworking streamer may ask, “How was your work session?” or “How did that go?” to elicit responses; as a participant, I have found it refreshing to take a moment to inventory what I accomplished or acknowledge what happened as a barrier to productivity. 

Get Personal 

Co-working streamers also typically ask participants to focus—and not type in the chat—during work sessions, but the break sessions can be very personal. Streamers make time for chit-chat, including taking questions, sharing their personal experiences, and welcoming others’ personal narratives. They make an effort to say usernames aloud to acknowledge who they are speaking to in a large group. They address individuals as well as small groups and the entire community.  

Understanding that it takes time for participants to type responses in the chat, streamers are patient with response times. They are comfortable with silence and essentially narrate the session as they give voice to much of the text written in the chat. 

Co-working streamers also express gratitude frequently, something we could all stand to do more often. Sometimes, it is just a recognition that followers and viewers are spending time with them. There are many competing places to spend time online; they acknowledge that something extraordinary has happened to assemble the group. (Viewers often join simultaneously from many different countries in a huge variety of time zones.) 

Community-Building 

Streamers work hard to build community, and there are a few formal structures in place to facilitate that. Many streamers have clear community guidelines that must be read before a participant’s first chat message is allowed. It appears that streamers start with just a few rules, and add to them over time, taking input from viewers and co-creating expectations for behavior. 

Viewers often help enforce the rules; for example, I once observed a viewer begin spouting inappropriate comments at a coworking streamer in the chat. Other viewers immediately chimed in to say that behavior was unwelcome, and the inappropriate comments stopped without the need for a moderator to mute or ban them. 

Speaking of moderators, many streamers collaborate with volunteer moderators (“mods”) to keep pace with the rapid chat messages, remind viewers of stream rules, and enforce those rules if necessary. Moderators may also help convey options and prioritize requests for on-stream activities and continue community-building activities on Discord, Twitter, etc. 

Technology Considerations (The Basics + More Happening on Screen) 

Co-working and music streamers—and, well, all streamers, really—are savvy technology users, wielding both technical and aesthetic sensibilities to cultivate a coordinated screen image and smooth flow from one activity or scene to another. Lighting is carefully considered; the streamer is evenly lit with diffused light, not typically in shadow or washed out by a spotlight. The video and audio quality are high as they typically use high-resolution webcams, USB microphones, and accessories like pop filters.  

Streamers show a high level of fluency with these tools, producing the live stream seamlessly. For example, when a follower requests a drawing commission, @aminoanic is able to instantly shift to a pre-crafted scene that highlights an MS Paint window and changes to a front-facing camera. When she takes a call on-stream, it appears to take only one click or hotkey for her to add time to the counter and a banner scrolling across the scene saying, “On a call.” Consider the contrast with Zoom discomfort. How many times have we said, “You’re muted!” in the past few years? 

Also in contrast with a Zoom session, where the speaker is typically facing forward and looking directly into the webcam throughout the call, streamers often show themselves at an oblique angle. They commonly utilize an indirect line of sight, showing themselves watching a screen; however, they turn to address the webcam at meaningful times, particularly when having a conversation and making a personal connection such as thanking a participant or making a personal greeting. The webcam view shows more of the streamer’s body than we typically see on a Zoom call; rather than showing head-and-shoulders, streamers often show more of their arms and torsos and show themselves typing, gesturing, and moving in and out of the room.  

They also provide some context regarding place; instead of using a virtual background image or blurring their background, many have carefully curated their spaces with objects that generate conversation and promote the streamers’ hobbies and priorities. For example, @aminoanic has a plant shelf and a map of the world with pins showing the locations of subscribers. @tysondang has a plush takoyaki keychain hanging from his drumset. 

In addition to more happening in the webcam view, a stream is frequently overlaid with widgets and tools. In addition to showing the streamer, you may see a countdown timer, the name, and artist for the current song (many streamers use background music), reminders of command phrases that can be used in the chat, or a second chat stream. For streamers seeking followers and subscriptions, progress bars and acknowledgments (latest followers, for example) gamify the process of building community. 

Caveats 

Although I believe we can mindfully use some engagement strategies borrowed from Twitch streamers in synchronous online learning contexts, there are a few aspects that give me pause in connecting the two.  

First, Twitch cultivates a cult of personality around the streamer. Streamers, especially those seeking Affiliate or Partner status, work to convince the viewer that they are interesting, knowledgeable, funny, personable, skilled, etc. because it can translate into monetization. Likewise, viewers, followers, and subscribers can treat the chat as access to a celebrity, fawning with compliments and trying to get a shout-out or promotion.  

These motivations seem particularly strange in the context of a classroom. While many streamers do make teaching a goal (including, for example, a mechanic who gives tips about car maintenance, and crafters who lead knitting and crocheting streams), we should be wary of the pull of edutainment. An instructor should not have to be entertaining to be effective; an instructor should not have to cultivate a fandom to be effective.  

This leads me into a brief discussion of power—and perceived power!–between the streamer and viewers. Twitch provides a stage for a single person to perform; the power differential between a streamer and viewers can be very different from a class community in which the instructor and students contribute in a more equal way to discussion in the same modality (all using live audio, for example). 

However, streamers typically work to cultivate a friendly persona, as if you are working or studying or gaming with a friend. They demonstrate alignment with viewers by acknowledging struggles, identifying commonalities, and making suggestions as if they were spending time with a friend or friend group. An instructor should not have to be students’ friends to be effective. 

In reality, both parties know very little about each other. While streamers’ profiles may provide some contextual information, they often use aliases to protect their identities and guard the information they share while on stream. Viewers who do not stream often have blank profiles. (Twitch populates a blank profile with “We don’t know much about them, but we’re sure [username] is great.”) This is in contrast to the use of personal names in the classroom. 

To wrap up, I also want to note that although these observations have all taken place on the Twitch platform, I do not advocate for the use of Twitch as an educational technology tool. Instead of taking a technology-first approach (choosing a tool and then adjusting your learning goals to meet the affordances of the tool), I suggest a pedagogy-first approach (identifying learning goals and then choosing tools to help achieve them).  

What’s Next? 

Right now, I am experimenting with hosting a co-working stream of my own. It’s not much—just me sitting at home with a bargain webcam balanced on top of a dresser, a desk lamp pointed at my face, while Twitch Studio runs a timer. I’ve been leading 25-minute work sessions that consist mostly of me typing, sipping coffee, and wielding I Miss My Café to generate copyright-compliant white noise (chatter, rain, etc.). 

I have been playing browser games during my 5-minute breaks, though. I have a shortlist and allow viewers to choose as a way to begin conversation and start building community. Although my largest audience to date has been a very underwhelming seven simultaneous viewers, it felt fast-paced as a number of them typed in the chat simultaneously. I’ve had complete strangers ask me questions about grammar and request opinions on working in project groups in college. Viewers and followers have also watched me play Tetris (badly) and we’ve collaborated to create digital ecosystems using Orb.Farm 

It’s been a strange few weeks. My first stream quite literally made my heart race and my palms sweat, but now it feels more natural. As someone who benefits from the slight social pressure of working on-campus and in coffee shops but has not had the opportunity to do so during the pandemic, the opportunity to work synchronously with others has been a treat.  

And it’s a strategy already being used in academic communities. For example, I recently began participating in a faculty writing group at the university where I adjunct. Once per week, we meet via Zoom for an hour and a half: at the beginning of the call, we share our goals for the session and then turn our cameras off. With five minutes left in the session, we turn our cameras and report on what we did or did not accomplish.  

For now, my goal is to cultivate a co-working community focused on writing of all kinds; where we coach each other rather than judge each other. I am working towards affiliate status in order to explore gamified features like Emotes and Channel Points (points accrued by spending time watching a stream that can be redeemed for rewards such as animations or sounds, or an activity such as a reminder to hydrate, a change in camera angle, or a priority song request). I’m even exploring the development of a bot to accompany me on stream, responding to viewers’ prompts to provide both information and companionship. 

The co-working community I have found on Twitch has been inclusive, supportive, and meaningful. Although I’m not sure where this journey will take me, I’m excited to continue learning more! 

Further Reading 

I am far from the first person to consider how Twitch could either be used for or to influence strategies for online teaching and learning. Check out these resources to learn more! 

Brown, Ashley ML. “The Unintended Consequences of Using Twitch as a University Professor.” Authors & Digital Games Research Association DiGRA, 2019. 

Hamilton, William, et al. “Streaming on Twitch: Fostering Participatory Communities of Play Within Live Mixed Media.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, 2014, pp. 1315–24. 

Payne, Katherine, et al. “Examining the Learning Effects of Live Streaming Video Game Instruction over Twitch.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 77, Elsevier Ltd, 2017, pp. 95–109.  

Pirker, Steinmaurer, and Karakas. “Beyond Gaming: The Potential of Twitch for Online Learning and Teaching.” Proceedings of the 26th ACM Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education V. 1. Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 2021, 74–80. 

Santiago Pozo-Sánchez, et al. “Twitch as a Techno-Pedagogical Resource to Complement the Flipped Learning Methodology in a Time of Academic Uncertainty.” Sustainability (Basel, Switzerland), vol. 13, no. 4901, MDPI AG, 2021, p. 4901.  

Sjöblom, Max, et al. “Content Structure Is King: An Empirical Study on Gratifications, Game Genres and Content Type on Twitch.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 73, Elsevier Ltd, 2017, pp. 161–71.


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