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Teaching on Twitch was a ‘mild disaster’ for one games professor

Teaching on Twitch was a ‘mild disaster’ for one games professor


Robert Yang streamed his class to students and eager strangers

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Robert Yang has just said the magic number. Twitch chat suddenly has an echo, and it sounds like “nice.” Yang, a developer and New York University Game Center professor, is teaching a course about the sociology of streaming and Twitch by streaming on Twitch, with mixed results. “69 is the weed drug number,” one person helpfully declares. (420 is the weed drug number; 69 is the sex number.)

Anyway, class is in session.

Yang doesn’t typically stream his classes. Today is, unfortunately, special. The novel coronavirus — now elevated to pandemic status — is pushing everything from political events to game conferences into streaming. Offices and schools are temporarily closing their doors, and NYU is no different.

Faced with remote classes, one student joked that Yang should use Twitch to teach his class. “A terrible idea,” Yang says. “But I thought it would be instructive to make students sit through why it’s a terrible idea, to aid in our academic study of streaming platforms.”

The NYU Game Center typically takes a more hands-on approach to its education, and it puts a lot of emphasis on community. Remote teaching removes key context for education, whether it’s checking in on if students are engaged or seeing who needs help. “It’s hard to read emotions in a chat channel filled with emote spam,” says Yang. He references the concept of context collapse: “When you don’t know who’s reading your tweets or watching your stream ... your audience is illegible.” That can make it difficult for students to want to participate via video when they don’t know who they’re talking to. Some are naturals on Twitch or TikTok. “For many others,” he adds, “making video is a complicated negotiation of production value and personal boundaries.”

Yang’s material focuses on T.L. Taylor’s Watch Me Play. In this case, Yang chose to diversify his curriculum with a 2018 piece about streamers with no viewers from former Verge reporter Patricia Hernandez. “It’s a good reading because it speaks directly to a very relatable anxiety — to be heard, to find an audience — and how Twitch amplifies that anxiety,” Yang says.

Yang’s broadcast drew in 584 unique viewers and 78 unique chatters. His class only has 18 students. Students probably enjoyed seeing strangers popping into their class, Yang says. Possibly, his students even gained a few new followers out of it. But Yang wasn’t among those who enjoyed the class.

“Twitch is such a bad platform for this type of thing.”

“As an educator, it was kind of terrible, and demonstrated how Twitch is such a bad platform for this type of thing! I had trouble performing basic classroom management tasks like timekeeping and facilitating student discussion,” he says. “I was never sure who was paying attention or when to move on.”

To Yang, Twitch might be a fine option for lecture courses — or classes that don’t need discussion — but for those that require interaction, it’s a total mess. Idle chatter can easily clog up the room, and it’s not even guaranteed to be from students. That might stymie efforts to get kids in class to participate if they’re unsure of who else is watching. Human moderators and plugins could ease the pain, but Twitch is still a public platform that doesn’t do enough to protect students’ privacy.

“This is by far the most popular stream I’ve done... but I’m pretty sure I never want to do it again,” Yang says. “I’ve been in the social media game long enough to know that the numbers don’t mean much.”

As for the student who originally suggested it? “They changed their mind.”