by Matthew Lewallen
One of the many joys in my life is playing video games—some of my earliest memories are playing the original Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the late 1980s, and eagerly awaiting the chance to rent the newest installments of Capcom’s then-ongoing Mega Man series throughout the early 1990s. As the 16-bit “console wars” ignited between the marketing for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and the Sega Genesis (back when Sega was Nintendo’s direct competitor), I found myself supporting the latter up until Sega’s final console, the 128-bit Dreamcast, in the early 2000s. Despite being saddened by Sega’s departure from the console market, I’d find myself playing Nintendo’s consoles again, from the GameCube to the Wii U, and giving increased support to Sony’s PlayStation releases, from the original PSX (owned by my older brother) to my very own PS4.
Having been born in 1983, I was given the privilege to have grown up and matured in relative proximity to the major developments of video game technology itself: my path from childhood to adolescence to adulthood closely shadows the advancements of 8-bit consoles like the NES to 16-, 32-, 64-, and 128-bit predecessors (and beyond, in just the last 10 years). My exposure to different kinds of games would also change in relation to what increasingly powerful systems could produce—I primarily enjoyed left-to-right “platformer” games like Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog in the 8- and 16-bit eras, but became a longtime fan of 3D “survival horror” games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill during the 32-bit era. As a gamer, I developed much more experience with, and a subsequent preference for, playing video games by myself, but still enjoyed having other people watch me play during less intense gameplay. In turn, I found that I also enjoyed watching others play games themselves, much like how I wanted to be watched.
This loose social dichotomy eventually led me to discover the presence of so-called “Let’s Play” videos on the internet, which featured near-uninterrupted footage of individual and grouped players showing off their skills to a community of gaming fans (and spectators) such as myself.
What Started “Let’s Play” Videos?
As explained by Know Your Meme, a “Let’s Play” is a popular online activity where numerous people watch and/or comment on a documented playthrough of a given video game (sometimes part of the game, sometimes the whole game). According to the entry, “Let’s Play” sessions are primarily traced back to a messageboard threads posted around 2006 to the forums of Something Awful (an NSFW absurdist-themed website). In these threads, users directed and commented on a player’s actions in Oregon Trail (an old text-based computer game), with gameplay being shared through screenshots and text showing the player’s progress. The participants of these threads were forming social connections through gameplay, and commentary, with Oregon Trail.
Patrick Klepek mentions in “Who Invented Let’s Play Videos?” that the advent of video recordings of “Let’s Play” sessions—a natural progression from the static “pictures and text” template described above—are dubiously attributed to Michael “Slowbeef” Sawyer. Sawyer has gone on record against this claim, with Klepek taking the stance that it’s more likely that while Sawyer didn’t necessarily “invent” such videos, he arguably formalized their usage. In fact, Klepek even points out that the Japanese TV series GameCenter CX premiered earlier in 2003.
Regardless, “Let’s Play” videos have established surprisingly high levels of attention and revenue through online viewing, with Christopher Zoia’s “This Guy Makes Millions Playing Video Games on YouTube” discussing the financial success of Felix Kjellberg. Zoia states that Kjellberg, known on the internet as “PewDiePie,” has made an amazingly lucrative career out of producing and uploading “Let’s Play” video content—to quote Zoia:
Difficult as it may be to believe that online audiences throng to watch strangers play video games, Let’s Plays have surged in popularity. The top five Let’s Players collectively have more YouTube subscribers than Peru has people. A user-generated Wikia page tracking current Let’s Players, their subscriber totals, and their videographies lists about 950 players with active YouTube channels, collectively followed by more than 60 million subscribers. And the Wikia page acknowledges that this isn’t a comprehensive list.
Let’s Players aren’t driven only by love of gaming. Many hope to one day make a living playing games on YouTube; a few already do. PewDiePie’s estimated monthly revenue from YouTube ads fluctuates between $140,000 and $1.4 million depending on viewership, according to Social Blade, a company that monitors YouTube channels.
To clarify, the sheer popularity of “Let’s Play” videos can be used as a source of income via subscriptions and advertisements to support—and give exposure to—gamers who know how to promote themselves at just the right time with just the right audience in adherence with kairos, all while indulging in the shared interests and enthusiasm for the video game industry as a whole.
However, as fascinating and appealing as the possible monetary benefits of “Let’s Play” videos are, there’s still the matter of the social dimensions alluded to earlier. Some of the more personal reasons one might watch a “Let’s Play” videos for are just as interesting as their financial merits.
Why Do We Watch “Let’s Play” Videos?
In one view, it could be argued that “Let’s Play” videos serve to expose audiences to, and subsequently make informed purchases on, different games being featured online, as well as give those audiences demonstrations of the game’s mechanics and aesthetics. Again, viewers support “Let’s Play” uploaders through subscriptions (or “e-begging”)—likewise, viewers support game companies by buying products they see in uploaders’ videos. However, “Let’s Play” videos aren’t always seen as mutually beneficial in the latter case: as Mona Ibrahim notes in her Gamasutra article on the legality of “Let’s Play” videos, game companies have attempted to file copyright infringements against perceived misuses of their intellectual properties.
In another view, “Let’s Play” videos function as a form of social connection between uploaders and their countless internet followers, with Tom Sykes’ (noticeably unfavorable) article “The Addictive Curse of ‘Let’s Plays’” citing a member of German “Let’s Play” group Pietsmiet:
Our style and talking reminds our subscribers of their best friends. For many people we are good friends to them—and like them.
Despite Syke’s low opinion of “Let’s Play” videos, he still acknowledges that uploaders’ success is strongly tied to how well they connect to their viewers through the internet in ways not unlike how I enjoyed being watched, and watching others, while playing video games. As Sykes puts it, the ability to establish that people creating “Let’s Play” videos are “just like us” could be seen as an outlet for developing camaraderie with viewers through gaming. Syke’s children even make the claim that “Let’s Play” videos are no different from vicariously enjoying sports on television.
In a final view, “Let’s Play” videos allow players to mix gaming commentary with comedy and general irreverence. According to Zoia’s examination of PewDiePie:
PewDiePie is a Let’s Player, one of hundreds of gamers who post “Let’s Plays” online (as in “Let’s Play Super Mario Bros.” or “Let’s Play Grand Theft Auto”), videos that are part “Mystery Science Theater,” part Siskel and Ebert reviews. As a Let’s Player navigates a game, he (or more rarely, she) provides running commentary, usually funny and profane.
That is, many Let’s Players will feature varying levels of comedic (even absurdist) material along with their demonstrations of the games they’re playing, frequently using comedy to highlight and explain unique or recurring elements in gaming media. Take this video review for the obscure NES game Nightshade: The Claws of Sutekh by internet personality “JonTron”:
Starting at 2:08, JonTron’s frustrations with the game’s confusing interface and narrative is reflected in an increasingly surreal—but utterly ridiculous—emotional breakdown. To use another example, this video from the “Game Grumps” (who JonTron was previously affiliated with) showcases the player’s overly dramatic responses to the infamous P.T. horror demo:
The Game Grumps video is an admittedly better example of a “Let’s Play” session than JonTron’s, since the latter is obviously scripted (including heavy uses of audio/visual editing to insert random silliness) and more focused on criticism, but both still share the basic goals of showing off a game’s unique qualities and providing comedic banter for their viewers.
How Do We Bond Through “Let’s Play” Videos?
Video games, like most other entertainment media, typically encompass some sort of socialization/participation among different players, with many games allowing multiple players to cooperate or compete with each other (sometimes across vast geographical distances). Take note of the dialogue between James Rolfe and Mike Matei as they play Metal Slug:
Even though their attention is ostensibly focused on playing the game, they also spend time discussing tangential topics and simply enjoying each other’s company—it’s more than obvious that they’re good friends, and that they’re comfortable (and skilled) enough to socialize during gameplay, which makes watching the video feel all the more inviting to anyone in the audience.
Similarly, try listening to random intervals of this nearly two-hour “Let’s Play” video for Resident Evil: Survivor:
Despite playing alone, AlphaOmegaSin (an entertaining, but polarizing internet figure) also punctuates his gameplay with irreverent chatter and off-topic references to just about anything that’s on his mind at a given moment. Resident Evil: Survivor is a single-player game, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone else contributing to, or spectating on, AlphaOmegaSin’s gameplay in the same location. Yet, viewers are made to feel that they’re spending time with him because he opens up as a person while playing (and, in turn, they can communicate with him via comments).
Both examples reiterate the social dynamics of “Let’s Play” videos alluded to by Klepek, Zoia, and Sykes: that is, there’s an inherent desire in most people to engage in and/or comment on various types of “play” that we see others indulging in. In some situations, it’s just as fun to watch someone play a video game as it is to actual play it yourself; as with watching sports on television, a viewer still enjoys the game even if they’re not actually participating. “Let’s Play” videos allow gamers to vicariously socialize with other gamers they may (or may not) directly make contact with—whatever the case, the need to familiarize, and identify with, others with similar interests in video games provides common grounds for entertainment and interaction.
While there isn’t a guarantee that all “Let’s Play” videos facilitate positive connections between gamers (as with any interaction, there’s always opportunities for uploaders and commenters to be belligerent), they’re an otherwise fascinating “quirk” of current media and socialization trends.
Admittedly, I sometimes find myself wanting to stop watching “Let’s Play Videos” so I can play the games being shown for myself, especially when the games look genuinely fun and interesting enough to lessen my attention to the overlapping commentary (or if there’s a noticeable amount of dead air from less communicative players). Nonetheless, I’ll occasionally keep a “Let’s Play” video I’ve seen before active in one tab will I’m working on something else in another. While I can’t see what’s going on, some commentaries are entertaining enough on their own simply because I find that player’s humor and personal insights to be worth revisiting. Uploaders like JonTron and the Game Grumps are particularly great in this regard, with many of their videos featuring overtly bizarre (or outright terrible) video games that promote significant amounts of joking, non sequitur dialogues, and a general atmosphere that’s equal parts fun and reminiscent.
It’s actually not too surprising that something like “Let’s Play” videos are so popular these days, especially considering that today’s media and technology allow for—and, to be honest, strongly encourage—frequent multitasking that redirects our attention and interests in varying ways, which often results in new forms of enjoying existing content. For example, it’s one thing to watch a movie or TV show by itself, but it’s another when formats like DVD and Blu-ray pair them with audio/visual options and multiscreening that give viewers an added layer of control and interactivity over content than what it typically allows. In some situations, “Let’s Play” videos could satisfy viewers’ urges to experience gameplay, but who might be too preoccupied to actually play (or have access to) a given game, and might also be unsure if a game is worth trying (granted, both are ironically at the expense of interactivity based on the previous example).
Regardless, gaming will continue to be a large part of my life, and “Let’s Play” videos are just one more way I can cherish it with countless others.
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