The imperative to be seen: The moral economy of celebrity video game streaming on


  • Mark R. Johnson University of Alberta
  • Mark Carrigan University of Cambridge
  • Tom Brock Manchester Metropolitan University



video games, live streaming, digital labour, digital economy, celebrity


In this paper we examine the pursuit of celebrity through the live broadcast (‘streaming’) of video games as an expression of an emerging moral economy of contemporary digital capitalism. Live streaming is a novel form overwhelmingly found amongst young people disproportionately harmed by the economic crisis, and we propose that the contraction of employment opportunities is giving rise to a strong imperative to be seen, which finds an outlet in the practices of self-presentation, self-promotion and entrepreneurial enterprise that are central to financially-successful live streaming. We first outline relevant contemporary economic conditions, the disproportionately high prizes at the top of career paths, the attendant lures of fame and fortune, and how the politics of play have been affected by these changes. We then explore (the leading game live streaming platform) as our case study, covering how streamers make themselves appealing, market themselves, profit, and how the platform’s affordances are interwoven into these questions. In doing so, we present Twitch as illustrative of the broader phenomenon of ‘digital celebrity’ and argue its practices reflect changes in work opportunities and social identity. In particular, we show that Twitch is a platform that allows neoliberal aspirations to play out through competitive performance.

Author Biographies

Mark R. Johnson, University of Alberta

Mark R. Johnson is a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. He studies the intersections of play and money, such as professional video gaming, live streaming, fantasy sports, and gamification. His first monograph, ‘The Unpredictability of Gameplay’ is due out in 2018 from Bloomsbury. He is also an independent game developer, a retired professional poker player, a regular games blogger and podcaster, and a freelance games writer for a number of publications.

Mark Carrigan, University of Cambridge

Mark Carrigan is a digital sociologist based at the Sociological Review Foundation and in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. He works at the intersection between qualitative sociology and social ontology, with a current focus on digital platforms within higher education and their implications for academic labour.

Tom Brock, Manchester Metropolitan University

Tom Brock is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University. His research interests include social theory, digital cultures and political protest. Tom currently co-convenes the BSA Realism and Social Research Group and steers the BSA Theory Group. He is an Associate at the Centre for Social Ontology at the University of Warwick and is also the co-author of the edited book: “Structure, Culture, Agency: Selected Paper of Margaret Archer” (Routledge). 




How to Cite

Johnson, M. R., Carrigan, M., & Brock, T. (2019). The imperative to be seen: The moral economy of celebrity video game streaming on First Monday, 24(8).