A man stands with his arms to his side in a pair of green duck patterned shorts and a dark shirt. He is in a bright pink bathroom. the text above him reads "viewers have decided to put jerma to sleep"
Credit: Jerma Ilbertson via Twitch

In a Dollhouse: The ethics of playing with Twitch streamers’ lives

By Katrina Sian Williams

We delve into Jerma’s Dollhouse stream and wonder … just how far would an online audience with authority go?

“I did something cool while I was gone; Jerma’s Dollhouse stream,” said Twitch streamer Ludwig at the tail-end of his three day hiatus from the world’s most popular streaming platform. “And if you have no idea what that is, you’ve been living under a Twitch rock.” 

In late August, streamer Jeremy Elbertson (known by his Twitch username as Jerma985, or colloquially, simply Jerma) embarked on his most adventurous project yet: the Dollhouse. Three separate streams inspired heavily (right down to the cheery, upbeat music heard between segments) by EA’s The Sims series occurred between 18–21 August. Seven months and hundreds of thousands of dollars went into their planning, which included the creation of a custom-built user interface in order to ensure viewers near-complete control over not only Jerma’s actions, but the clothes on his body and the furniture within the set that served as his house. Viewers were in charge of responding to Jerma’s needs, shown, as an avid Sims player might expect, through a variety of bars at the bottom left of the screen: though whether they truly attempted to actually take care of Jerma is debatable.

“Viewers were in charge of responding to Jerma’s needs, shown, as an avid Sims player might expect…”

Ludwig was right: if you’re in any way a frequent user of Twitch and hadn’t heard about the Dollhouse streams whilst they were running, I’m going to assume you had your internet connection cut for their duration. The Dollhouse incited an explosion of activity through gaming circles on social media, the streams themselves garnering millions of unique viewers. Throughout the event, hundreds of clips were shared in real time as chat wiggled Jerma into increasingly ridiculous situations: he was forced to shower (with a customary Sims-like censor bar hiding that he was assumedly fully-dressed) live on stream, made to flirt with an elderly neighbour, then to “WooHoo” with the Grim Reaper. The entire stream was a psychedelic fever dream of improv comedy brought to astounding new heights by inclusion of its interactive aspect, and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Jerma, the infamous eccentric that he is, attempting it and succeeding.

“The entire stream was a psychedelic fever dream of improv comedy brought to astounding new heights by inclusion of its interactive aspect…”

Yet Twitch itself is no stranger to dabbling with ethics of control. For years, streamers have utilised the platform’s donation system to reward their viewers with brief moments of ultimate, terrible power: such as forcing a streamer to take a sip from their water bottle. The horror! Similarly, popular streamers will often attempt to drive up their subscriber count with streams aptly named “subathons”: each new subscriber results in an amount of time added to the stream’s overall length, meaning that they can last for days, frequently accompanied by their respective stars refusing to sleep. It’s common that, once the stream is on its last legs and minutes away from its conclusion, its viewers will spam the “Gift a Sub” button in order to incite frustrated reactions from streamers.

Of course, subscriptions are how Twitch streamers make a good bulk of their money, so their annoyance is often feigned. Where’s the harm in it, then? They’re simply fulfilling expectations of their livelihood for the promises of cold, hard cash: parasocial interaction, out of harm’s way behind a glimmering LCD screen, as virtual to their viewers as the interface that keeps them contained within the livestream’s playback.

A YouTube video aptly titled “jerma dies” captures within its thirty second runtime the moment wherein Jerma’s viewers force him to work-out with barely a speck left within his energy bar. Whilst sobbing, Jerma gets down on the floor to do push-ups, the Sims-esque music providing a pleasant accompaniment to his eventual “death” about ten seconds later. The man collapses on the ground, the lights darken to a deep blue, and the stream transitions into its next Buy/Build segment as if nothing ever happened.

Nevertheless, the Dollhouse stream was, as you would expect, a complete, and hilarious, performance act. Jerma came to absolutely no harm during the days it was live; in fact, in the following section of the stream after his work-out session, his chat decided to dump a purchased mattress on top of his head, unceremoniously waking him back up. But it raises the question: if their actions resulted in an actual, physical consequence – Jerma getting genuinely hurt, or even killed – would his viewers still have participated in the stream?

People will always feel more powerful when hidden behind a screen. Countless streamers have had their lives turned upside down from online harassment, with some viewers taking actions so severe as to SWAT (wherein one makes a fake call to emergency services concerning a particular address in order to dispatch to it a large amount of police officers, usually well-armed) those that they dislike, despite its evident illegality. The same goes for any form of cyberbullying. There is a complete disconnect that forms between an individual and the events playing out before them within their browsers: said events aren’t tangible, so they have no consequence – they may as well not be real.

“People will always feel more powerful when hidden behind a screen.”

The following concept is undoubtedly stolen right out from beneath the feet of every sci-fi author ever, but bear with me. Five, ten years into the future, will Twitch regress from being a platform designed solely for gaming and become a life-controlling conglomerate, its participants jumping at the chance to make some sweet, sweet cash completely at the mercy of those clicking eagerly away at their mice to decide exactly what streamers will do next? Five dollars to choose what’s for breakfast, fifteen to decide which subway stop to get off at, fifty to egg them on to ask that hot girl at the bar out on a date…

It would all begin innocuously, for sure. But with the full extent of their control realised, how far would the audience go? Would events segway into uncomfortableness, vulnerability, even violence? Imagine a platform with no rules, nor regulations, to stop them, no value or weight to their actions. That, after a stream ended, perhaps hastily, with events filed away in a VOD for playback and never truly touched again, there would be no legal ramifications for their actions.

How, then, would we decide the monetary value of a life?


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