Twitching and Choking: The Audience Effect in Games

You all know about, right? I can’t actually hear your answer, so to be on the safe side I’ll go ahead and explain that it’s a website that makes it super easy to stream your gaming sessions out to the Internet and for Twitch viewers to find those streams. All it takes for PC gamers is a little software configuration, an Internet connection, and a webcam if you want a picture-in-picture showing your grinning face. More advanced users have also been streaming console games for a long time, but the Playstation 4 features built-in Twitch streaming and the Xbox One will implement the feature later this year. So the practice is only going to grow in the coming months.


I’ve thought about creating a Twitch channel, but honestly one of the things stopping me is that I’m afraid of sucking at games in front of an audience. I’m not even talking about hardcore competitive DotA 2 or Street Fighter matches. I’m afraid of loading up ANY game and sitting there going “Herpa derpa DERP DERP!” into the webcam while my avatar just walks into walls. Should I worry about that? Can knowing you have an audience affect your performance in video games?

Research says …yes! It also says …no! Because it depends!

Studies on what’s called “social facilitation” were all the rage during the early 1900s, but they started out noting how competing with others spurred people on to better performance on tasks such as cycling or reeling in fishing lines.1 Unsurprisingly, we tend to perform better on tasks while in competition, which can be chalked up to increased motivation to look good and/or using information about the performance of others to figure out how much we should be doing.

Eventually, though, people began researching what effect the presence of mere spectators had on solo performance –something dubbed “the audience effect.” Early investigations found that yep, having even a small audience caused people to perform better on tasks like solving easy math problems or simple demonstrations of hand-eye coordination.2 Other studies, however, showed that having an audience caused people to perform WORSE when the task was difficult, like memorizing lists of nonsense words.3

What was going on?

The best current explanation is called “Distraction-Conflict Theory” and was proposed by University of Illinois researchers Robert Baron and Glenn Sanders.4 They say that audiences distract us for a variety of reasons, including our preoccupation with what they may be thinking of us. This causes conflict between our intention to perform a task or play a game and our intention to see (or even just ponder) what the audience thinks of our performance. In the case of simple tasks or tasks that we’re really good at, we’ve got mental resources to spare because these tasks require little cognitive juice. Thus we can handle the distraction of the audience and choosing to focus on the task benefits performance.

But say the audience is full of jerks who are screaming at us, or the task is really difficult or novel. In that case the total demand on our attention and mental energy is higher, and performance suffers. Even if the distractions go away, Sanders and Baron found 5 that the drain on resources caused the drop in performance to persist for a while. This is why trash talking opponents in fighting games sometimes works: You’re distracting them and maybe even making them angry to the point where mental energy needed to play the game is being diverted to dealing with your incessant stream of “Yo mamma…” jokes. Other research has shown that if we think the crowd is hostile or judging us, the audience effect intensifies.

NBA 2K14

In 1993 researchers James Moore and Jody Brylinsky discovered a unique opportunity to test this theory.6 They dug up data from a series of basketball games in the 1988-1989 North Atlantic Conference season when a measles outbreak had caused the team from one school to play a series of games under quarantine –no audience, in other words. It was just the two teams facing off against each other on a weirdly quiet basketball court. By comparing players’ statistics during these spectator-free games with their performance just a few weeks earlier in front of a roaring audience, the researchers showed that lacking an audience caused them to excel in the complex, demanding task of playing a basketball game. Or to put it another way, they choked less.

And while research on the audience effect and social facilitation theory is underrepresented in the video game literature, researchers Nicholas Bowman and his colleagues do provide one recent example.7 In their study, they had subject play games of the first person shooter Quake 3: Arena on either high or low difficulty levels either in front of a small audience or alone. Even after controlling for certain aspects of skill like hand-eye coordination and 3-dimensional spatial ability, the researchers found support for the idea that at least in the low-difficulty condition, performance was better when an audience was there.8

And so I imagine it would be so for someone playing a complex and challenging game FIFA or League of Legends on Twitch.9 Even if you’re not keeping an eye on the chat or the viewer count, you’re still probably thinking about what the audience thinks and this will subtract from the mental resources that are in demand because of the game. But if you’re just screwing around with an easy game, like Minecraft or the latest Lego game, your performance might actually improve in front of an audience.

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1. e.g., Triplett, N. (1898). The Dynamogenic Factors in Pacemaking and Competition. The American Journal of Psychology,9(4). 507-533
2. Travis, L. (1925). The effect of a small audience upon eye-hand coordination.The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 20(2), 142.
3. Pessin, J. (1933). The comparative effects of social and mechanical stimulation on memorizing. The American Journal of Psychology, 45(2), 263-270.
4. Sanders, G. and Baron, R. (1975) The Motivating Effects of Distraction on Task Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(6). 956-963.
5. ibid.
6. Moore, J. and Brylinsky, J. (1993). Spectator Effect on Team Performance in Basketball. Journal of Sports Behavior, 16(2). 77-84.
7. Bowman, N., Weber, R., Tamborini, R. & Sherry, J. (2013). Facilitating Game Play: How Others Affect Performance and Enjoyment of Video Games. Media Psychology, 16. 36-64.
8. They didn’t find support for the related hypothesis that an audience would have no effect on a high difficulty condition where players still had enough skill to bring to bear, but they note some potential limitations in their design and method that may explain it.
9. This would actually be a really cool experiment: Have subjects pay a game that you tell them is streaming to Twitch, then compare them to players playing without a stream. Someone do that.

10 thoughts on “Twitching and Choking: The Audience Effect in Games

  1. This effect can also be mitigated (but maybe not totally removed) by practice and experience in front of a crowd. The crows for pro fighting game tournaments are notoriously loud and obnoxious so top players need lots of experience playing in front of these types of crowds to make sure they stay focused during critical matches.

    There’s actually quite a few very strong fighting game players who do very well in casual sets with the pros but can’t win tournaments because they have problems staying focused in front of spectators.

  2. I wonder if the effect is present in what are essentially tape-delay situations: where the user is not currently being monitored, but they’re aware that they will be viewed by a large audience in the future.

    • That would be an interesting test of the theory. I would predict that it would have some effect, maybe even an equally large one. You still might be preoccupied that this was going to be scrutinized eventually, which would create that “tension between intentions” if the game is demanding enough. It would be a pretty easy experiment to run: just tell one group their game is going to be recorded for later reference by one experimenter, and tell another that it’s going to be uploaded to a popular YouTube channel with commentary.

  3. I have nothing to add but I’ve been following your blog for over half a year and every article has been really interesting. That’s not something I can say about most gaming-related blogs. Keep up the good work! (Does the audience effect also apply to article writers and the presence of commenters? :P)

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  5. Ravaja published studies that showed an increase in the intensity of the emotions and the feeling of presence when participants played against human opponents. I wrote an article about it, arguing that it might have something to do with how the presence of others made in-game events more relevant for social comparision and, therefore, self-esteem. Your piece is actually going to help me find more relevant theories and studies to use on my own research.

    Here is the information about Ravaja’s studies:

    Ravaja, N. (2009). The psychophysiology of digital gaming: The effect of a non co-located opponent. Media Psychology, 12 (3), 268-294. doi: 10.1080/15213260903052240

    Ravaja, N., Saari, T., Turpeinen, M., Laarni, J., Salminen, M., & Kivikangas, M., (2006). Spatial presence and emotions during video game playing: Does it matter with whom you play? Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 15 (4), 381-392. doi: 10.1162/pres.15.4.381

    • Very cool, I’m going to grab those and give them a read. Thanks! Do you have a link to the article you wrote?

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