Players versus Spectators

I’ve been growing increasingly interested in the interaction between players and spectators in various games, literal and metaphoric. In both kinds of games, spectators need players to create value, and players need spectators to consume it.  I’ve been trying to classify the various sorts of “extra” interactions that seem to emerge, and came up with this 3×3 grid.


The classification is based on the observation that both sides always seem to want something beyond the basic economic transaction from the other side. Though players sometimes yell “just shut up and watch,” and though spectators sometimes yell in turn, “just shut up and listen, I am the customer” at the players, neither side ever really shuts up.

The phenomenology of player-spectator interactions is of particular interest today because the Internet has seriously muddied the clarity of roles and relationships all around.

Here’s how you read the chart.

Players who are still in the game can be classified into three kinds. Celebrities are very aware of the audience and respond to it, accommodating its demands to varying degrees, and in many cases, deriving pleasure from the interaction. Artists see the audience mostly as a necessary evil to be tolerated, except for connoisseurs. Contenders are players who haven’t yet proven themselves and are also very aware of the audience, but play to it in a different way, seeking legitimacy.

Spectators can be classified into three kinds as well. Cheerleaders seem to live vicariously through players, feeding off the positive emotions of victory. Connoisseurs effectively ignore the players and focus on the quality of the game itself. Hecklers seem to live for Schadenfreude. In terms of skill in understanding what they’re seeing, connoisseurs and hecklers tend to have roughly comparable levels of skill, while cheerleaders usually understand less, but feel a great deal more.

All the possible pairwise relationships have interesting characteristics. The grid above only illustrates the relationships across categories. Each X versus Y characterization of the interaction has as the player attitude and as the spectator attitude.

Related 3×3 Charts

Relationships among subtypes within the same category and self-perceptions of various types would yield two more 3×3 charts, but I’ll leave you to sketch those out yourself.

The player-player chart includes interesting relationships such as contenders seeing celebrities as “sell outs” and idolizing artists as the “true” practitioners. Curiously, artists and celebrities tend to have harmonious relationships. Each appreciates the choices the other has made and respects them.

On the spectator-spectator side, you have hecklers making fun of cheerleaders when celebrities are not around, and connoisseurs seeing hecklers as nursing sour grapes about not being on the field themselves. Cheerleaders tend to see both connoisseurs and hecklers as insufficiently grateful for what is being provided by the players.

Emotion, Information and Legitimacy

The interactions at the four corners illustrate basic human relationship needs playing out in the context of player-spectator relationships. They involve the least information and the most emotion. The four cross-tip positions involve less emotion and more information than the corners, with one side dehumanizing the other to an extent. The center position is nearly pure information flow.

Another way to view the grid is in terms of sources of legitimacy and fulfillment. The corners involve players and spectators seeking legitimacy for their roles from each other. In the corners, a sort of Prisoner’s Dilemma situation prevails, where each party can choose to either validate or undermine the role of the other.

The cross-tips involve one side seeking legitimacy from the other, and the other side seeking legitimacy via objective realities rather than through human validation. The Coen brothers movie Barton Fink is an interesting exploration of what happens when a contender-player seeks legitimacy from a spectator-connoisseur.

The center position involves both parties finding independent legitimacy for their roles in objective realities, leaving them free to interact without dependencies. Interesting dialogue can grow in this box.

When boundaries are blurring, and extrinsic markers of player-versus-spectator distinctions weaken, confusing meta-debates can emerge about who the “real” (or legitimate) players are, and posturing around questions of professional and amateur status can emerge.

Recognizing Yourself

Most of us are players in some games, spectators in others. In formal sports, we can generally choose whether to play or watch, but in the larger economic game of life, only those with inherited wealth can choose to be pure spectators. In this larger game, most people are not contenders in the games they actually want to play, the ones they see as the most exciting or rewarding, and don’t want to play the games where they are contenders. This means they often turn into sour-grapes hecklers where they watch, and defensive, resentful rationalizers where they play. They are basically not getting as much action, of the preferred kind, as they want. There are also players who are getting all the action they thought they wanted, but are tired of it. They might find themselves unable to withdraw to spectator mode gracefully, and suffer burnout.

The sum of our roles in life may make us spectators overall or players overall. Writing and consulting are both roles that involve some playing, but are mostly about spectator positions.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize just how well spectator roles fit me. Most of the time, I try to play connoisseur and seek out artistry to appreciate, but sometimes I enjoy heckling, mainly because I enjoy supplying the always scarce antidote to the plentiful cheerleading-pandering interactions that dominate most discourses. People are sometimes surprised to find that I am more cheerful in person than I appear to be online.

Except in the case of children or those obviously in need of encouragement, I cannot even pretend to cheer-lead though. It is a very unnatural behavior for me. It clouds my thinking, and I don’t particularly crave the trade in positive emotions it involves.

To the modest extent that writing and consulting involve playing, I mostly try to tune out both cheer-leading and heckling and seek out the connoisseurs. It is a somewhat elitist mode of engaging feedback that tends to be somewhat blind to the signal in more noisy sources. My writing is mostly in artist mode now, internally focused, while my consulting is mostly in contender mode.

On the rare occasions where I’ve had a little taste of Internet celebrity on the writing front, I’ve found that I don’t really know what to do with it or how to respond to it. I am not very skilled at pandering to cheerleaders or battling truly committed hecklers, and don’t particularly want to learn either skill. So I strongly suspect, even if the doors to true A-list celebrity ever open, I will not be walking through them.


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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Vinod Khare says

    What do you feel about how people engage with themselves? We are simultaneously players and spectators in our lives. Does it matter how people view their own work and promote it?

    • Hmm… not sure the game metaphor is straightforward for a single person. People do have ‘internal critics’ and ‘self-affirmation’ habits, so this could be a fractal map of internal struggles as well, but it seems to be missing something. Can’t put my finger on it.

  2. Interesting post – I think some of the generalisations are throwing me a bit, though. Do you mind clarifying…

    I was wondering how you came to this conclusion: “Curiously, artists and celebrities tend to have harmonious relationships. Each appreciates the choices the other has made and respects them.” I feel like perhaps they just co-exist without thinking too much about each other, if at all. Unless you’re talking about celebrity artists like a Tracey Emin or Damian Hirst.

    And by artists, do you mean visual? Musicians? Actors? Writers? All of them? Because I would think each of those subsets would have a different relation to celebrity.

    Am I being too nit-picky?


    • I can speak to the musician flavor of this second-hand. My brother is a working musician, himself a contender/artist depending on the context, with a circle of friends including all three types. He speaks very plainly about the choices and trade-offs made by celebrities as things he would not do himself (e.g. ensure that “marital troubles” made their way into the tabloids as a form of self-promotion) but understands that others have different priorities. He even goes so far as to be a little confused by my personal judgement of those priorities/values. On the flip side, he’s somewhat disdainful of his contender friends because he feels they’re rationalizing their position as somehow being the spectators’ fault.

  3. Perhaps I still have Gervais Principle VI on the brain, by I notice a definite loser/clueless/sociopath pattern going on with both axes:

    Clueless – Cheerleader/Celebrity
    Loser – Heckler/Contender
    Sociopath – Connoisseur/Artist

    The parallel is their attitude toward the extrinsic system within which the “game” takes place.


  4. Nice job, it’s an incredible post. The data is good to find out!

  5. I wonder where do wannabes fit it to this?

    At first, seems to be a subset of the contender archetype.
    After further thought, how many movie directors that find themselves firmly in the Player category were at one point agape Spectators at a Star Wars showing?

    Could it be that there are categories that serve as transitions between the Player and Spectator realms? And the grid could extend in more than 2 dimensions? …

    As always, thank you for another thought-provoking post.