One partner playing games while the other sits idly by is not an activity we usually associate with a strong, healthy relationship. At best, we imagine a couple involved more in their own activities than each other. At worst, we picture the guy who receives a copy of Call of Duty from his girlfriend along with an associated list of rules urging him to "not forget about her," which he jokes he will immediately break.
It's depressing stuff, the kind of image that bleeds into sitcom fodder about the horror of having a loving wife. But I am here today to insist that this need not be the case! Like any other activity, if both parties are on board, then playing a video game while a partner or friend watches (or vice versa) can be a wonderful time.
To wit: my girlfriend received a Nintendo Switch for Christmas last year. When she recently came to stay with me for a few days, she brought it over and I was immediately charmed—not just by the console itself and Nintendo's trademark vibrant worlds, but by the experience of sitting next to someone I love and watching her play video games.
Wouldn’t I rather be playing myself? Not necessarily. Plenty of people—myself included—love watching streamers, whether for their skill or shticks. The recently launched Overwatch League is a testament to the popularity of the pastime, an attempt to bring esports even further into the mainstream.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Anyone who grew up with an older sibling or selfish rich friend can testify to the unpleasantness of having to look on while they hogged the controller, wishing merely to play as Mega Man for but one level. As one of those people, it’s somewhat ironic that I enjoy the experience today. But like so much in this life, the same experiences we might find distressing when pressed upon us are often enjoyable when freely chosen—why else would people be into bondage or horror movies?
So why do we watch people play games? To share in their triumphs, to explore genres we don’t care to play ourselves, to enjoy the thrill of high-level play. Being a part of a chat as your favorite personality goofs off or wins a heated match feels great, like you’re part of a community. As counterintuitive as it seems to someone unfamiliar with the concept, there are probably as many reasons why we enjoy watching others play games as there are why we enjoy playing them ourselves.
Watching a friend or loved one play a game isn’t exactly the same as spectating on a stream—I’d say it is to streaming as couch split-screen is to online multiplayer. They’re similar but distinct experiences, each with their own particular joys. Sitting in on a stream can make you feel like part of a group, though in bigger chats it’s easy to feel less like you’re hanging out and more like you’re drowning in a sea of memes. In contrast, watching someone you know play a game right beside you is often a more intimate experience, one that likely involves more back-and-forth of dialogue and maybe even the controller.
So yes, my girlfriend and I did pass the Joy-Cons occasionally during our little winter staycation; but for the most part, I was content to watch. It reminded me of the other times I’d enjoyed watching a friend play a game, or vice versa. For me, looking on as someone you like pulls off a hard-won victory or having a spectator coach you through a tricky level is its own kind of fun. And so, here are some games I’ve had that kind of fun with.
Super Mario Odyssey
"There’s a treat," was the refrain I heard over and over while watching my girlfriend play Super Mario Odyssey. The game is so packed with hidden Moons, coins, and other secrets that watching another person explore while shouting out spotted secrets they might have missed feels almost like a game in itself.
For instance, she’d just reached New Donk City when she brought her Switch over. When she paused the game to locate her next objective, I noticed the brochure facts listed alongside the map, a detail she’d missed thus far. "Always. Be. Constructing." I read aloud in my best Alec Baldwin. "Put that Cappy down! Cappy is for constructors!"
As we cleared more and more of the game’s kingdoms together, we found ourselves becoming increasingly invested in our good friend Mario, especially in regards to his fashion. She’s a little younger than me and didn’t grow up with the special plumber man, so as she acquired each new outfit I’d explain the references: oh, chef Mario is from the puzzle game Yoshi's Cookie. The clashing outfit? That’s from a Kyary Pamyu Pamyu commercial for the 3DS. Cowboy Mario, of course, is a reference to this classic reaction image.
I occasionally jumped in to navigate a tough platforming section—but mostly I just sat back and watched, offered advice, and enjoyed the scenery. I’d been playing a lot of Titanfall 2, which I adore but is definitely on the grimier end of the artistic spectrum. It’s also an intensely competitive game, one that can quickly become frustrating—especially when getting pubstomped as a result of the game’s small player base. Moving from that to watching my girlfriend play Super Mario Odyssey felt like a double relief: a return to lush, warm visuals and an escape from the stress of a half-dozen Ronins carving my poor Titan apart.
During a match, I cheered each time my girlfriend splatted an opposing Inkling, shouting encouragement at her to dominate the children who dared defy her inky reign. "Crush that Timothy!" "Yesss, get revenge on Josie233!!" I might have gotten a little too much into it.
But can you blame me? More than any contemporary shooter, Splatoon 2 is a joy to watch for its aesthetic sensibilities alone.The game literally drips with color. With bright splashes of ink gushing out of every weapon and running off every surface, a Splatoon match looks like a 90s Nickelodeon game show with an infinite slime budget, making it an appealing experience even for spectators who don't know all the details of play.
Unlike some other shooters in which lobbies are simple menus, Splatoon 2 presents a fashionable, Shibuya-esque world to wander around in between matches. It’s true that games like Destiny and Call of Duty WWII have similar offerings, but none of them are as much fun to behold as Inkopolis Square. Much like with Super Mario Galaxy, watching someone stroll through this part of the game is an invitation to examine its weird, colorful environment.
And don’t get me started on the user-generated content—running around the square and spotting the good, the bad, and the just plain weird art means more opportunities to read jokes aloud in awful voices. Remember: in Splatoon 2, as in life, the couple that memes together, dreams together. Like, you both sleep soundly because you’re joking around and having fun? Moving on.
Bloodborne and The Souls Series
During a particularly tricky platforming sequence in Super Mario Odyssey, my girlfriend handed me the Joy-Cons and I proceeded to clear it in one shot. "Damn," she said. "If you can do that, you can definitely play Bloodborne."
Alas! It is not so. A childhood diet of side-scrollers and 3D platformers demanding precision jumps has left me well-equipped to send Mario flipping around the skies of New Donk City. It does not, however, translate to martial prowess in the worlds of Yharnam or Lordran. I can get around, sure, and I understand the principles behind success, but I simply don’t have the patience for the genre’s non-cancelable animations and arcane character statistics.
That said, before I gave up on the series entirely, I did have a lovely time playing Bloodborne while a friend sat by, watching and offering advice. The idea of playing a game with a wiki open feels like work to me, but having a friend nearby to tell me where to go or what stats to increase made the experience significantly less overwhelming. When I tried doing this on stream, it didn’t work—I got too self-conscious and frustrated, even with the good tips I was getting. I needed someone I knew personally in the room with me so that it didn’t feel like a performance I was screwing up.
I did still bail, yes, but this is one instance in which a knowledgeable spectator can be a huge help. And even if they know less about the world than you, watching another person play these games can be an enchantingly macabre experience. Much like with Super Mario Odyssey, the Souls games are full of incredible details, but the gameplay doesn't always afford the player time to take them in. Sitting with someone as they patiently attempt to clear a difficult area, and then finally overcome it lets you share in their exhilaration without actually having to, you know, kill the Capra Demon.
At the height of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds fever, I played a few matches a night while my roommates gathered round, cracked some beers, and watched me struggle again and again for that coveted number one spot.
Battlegrounds is the kind of shooter that explains itself succinctly. No objectives to worry about, no points to keep track of—100 people enter, one person leaves. There are a ton of strategies and technical details that are useful to the player that a casual observer doesn't need to know, making it a great game to spectate, as its Twitch numbers amply demonstrate. As of this writing on a Monday afternoon, just over 58,000 people were watching it.
So why sit in on a friend playing rather than watching a professional player online? You get to shout about incoming enemies and freak out at even small wins, plus there's plenty of downtime in between firefights to chat. It's like watching an action movie, except the star is a friend, and nobody minds if you talk through the entire thing. But please, I require total silence if I make it to the final ten.
I mentioned earlier that my girlfriend didn’t grow up with everyone’s favorite plumber. She favored a different kind of digital occupation, as one of her first games was Harvest Moon 64. So when I started playing Stardew Valley, naturally she wanted to see how I was running my farm, what secrets I’d discovered, and—most importantly—who I was dating.
It was Shane, obviously! We hung out as I got him to dance with me at the first Flower Dance festival, delivered him pizzas as tokens of my love, and helped him through his personal struggles. And all the while, we wondered: why isn’t Robin a dateable character?
But seriously, it was a lovely, relaxing experience. There’s very little tension in Stardew Valley, meaning the player probably isn’t going to get too worked up about anything. It's a very different kind of spectating experience than watching an action game, but sitting in on a session of Stardew Valley lets you witness another person's creative approach to an open world that they can cultivate, and that's its own kind of fun.
My Overwatch days are behind me, but back in the summer of 2016 I’d play round after round on the big TV in my house’s living room. When my roommates came downstairs, I’d assume they wanted to watch a movie and offered to stop, but frequently they just wanted to watch me play.
Probably it helped that I insisted on roleplaying Soldier 76 as my team’s dad, starting each match with his "got my eyes on you" emote and insisting that my teammates come find me for "snacks" when I dropped a Biotic Field. The game’s bright, Pixar-like design makes it a little more eye-catching than "realistic" grey and brown shooters. There is a lot going on in an Overwatch match, but it often boils down to tug-of-war with goofy cartoon characters, which is a simple enough concept for a casual onlooker to parse out what’s happening.
And hey, if you can’t entertain your friends with your skills, then you can always spam Soldier 76’s voice lines. "Not on my watch," indeed.
Anything in VR
The novelty of VR wore off pretty quickly for me. I played a few games on my roommate’s Oculus Rift for a month or two, then went back to my PS4. What never gets old, though, is showing virtual reality to people who’ve never seen it before.
Whenever I have a group of friends over, I get to rediscover the magic of VR all over again through watching them flail around in games like Superhot, or fly around the world in Google Earth. The former is definitely one of my favorites, and because of its time-manipulation conceit, new players don’t need lightning-fast reflexes to do well.
Just be warned: watching your pals play VR games, you might learn some things about them you’d rather not know. I once introduced a friend to Robo Recall and watched as she deliberately wrenched a robot’s arm out of its socket and then proceeded to carry the grim trophy with her through the rest of the stage. Magnus Burnsides would be proud.
Watching another person, even someone you care about, play games isn't everyone's idea of a good time. Some of us might associate the experience with unpleasant memories of rich friends or older siblings refusing to give up the controller. And certainly, getting so involved in an activity that you're ignoring or avoiding your partner is probably a sign of trouble. But if we’re open to the idea of watching a stranger play games online, then why not someone we know?
Whether it’s to explore a new genre, to share in another person’s creativity, or just to watch someone doing something they’re good at, there are plenty of reasons why I love “backseat gaming.” If you’ve never tried it, I hope you’ll give it a shot. Because to me, there's nothing better on a lazy Sunday than making a hot cup of coffee, staying in bed with my girlfriend, and watching her splat some Inklings.