Internet Critics: Satire, Analyses, and Personas

Doug Walker, in-character as the Nostalgia Critic. SOURCE: http://static01.nyt.com/images/2011/06/06/business/blip/blip-articleLarge.jpg

by Matthew Lewallen

It should go without saying that most people have opinions about popular media—from comic books to movies, and television to video games, just about everyone has a response to give, falling anywhere between extremely positive and negative. In recent times, the sheer scope and accessibility of the internet has dramatically increased the opportunities we have to connect with others who share overlapping likes and/or dislikes in countless forms of entertainment. The internet’s communal, and near-instantaneous, properties allow for a much larger (not to mention faster) degree of transmission than most prior forms of mass communication, with anyone’s opinions and criticisms being virtually guaranteed to be seen by an untold number of viewers.

More importantly, the internet allows just about anyone with the proper appeal and charisma to achieve varying levels of recognition—and even fame—for providing reviews and commentary on pop-cultural artifacts. The individuals who can, and do, gain notoriety by asserting their opinions on the internet sometimes take less direct approaches to straightforward “I like it, I hate it” criticisms one might see in print and/or television. So-called “internet critics” will often take the most prominent (or most vocal) opinions within various fan communities, and use them to approach and outline critical discussions of a given topic, while also developing exaggerated “characters” that they can adopt to emphasize their reviews with elements of satirical comedy.

Internet critics have established a significant, and quite popular, presence in online culture, and have some interesting similarities and differences in how they present themselves: what follows is a look into who these critics are, and their methods of reflecting and embodying our opinions.

Who Are the Internet Critics?

To put it simply, “internet critics” are individuals or groups who produce reviews and editorials in the form of internet videos; some focus on specific fields like music or toys, while others will cover more diverse material (but might still have preferences for given topics). For example, internet critic Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug is predominantly recognized for his “Atop the Fourth Wall” video series that focuses on reviewing (often terrible) comic books. However, Canadian uploader Phelan “Phelous” Porteous has varied interests in film, television, animation, video games, and bootleg toys featured throughout his personal section of Phelous.com (which shares content from the likes of Allison “Obscurus Lupa” Pregler and the Team Panshy collaboration).

James Rolfe, in-character as the Angry Video Game Nerd. SOURCE: http://ringsidereport.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/avgn.jpg

Another popular internet critic is James Rolfe, who’s best known for creating (and starring in) the long-running “Angry Video Game Nerd” series featured on Cinemassacre Productions, in which he specializes in mocking typically older (and, again, often terrible) video games. But Rolfe is also well-versed in film history—particularly in regards to the horror and sci-fi genres—and has produced an extensive line of videos discussing movies. A similarly long-running video series, “Monster Madness,” is annually recorded by Rolfe for the Halloween season, and uploaded daily for 31 days straight through October. Here, Rolfe gives brief, but incredibly detailed, overviews of obscure (and not-so-obscure) horror-themed movie releases.

A final, but extremely significant, example is the online community known as Channel AwesomeChannel Awesome is a collective of many different internet critics, some of which already have established presences and/or are part of separate review groups. Among the various programs featured on Channel Awesome, the site’s headlining attraction is “The Nostalgia Critic,” hosted by Doug Walker as the titular “Nostalgia Critic.” Much like James Rolfe, Walker focuses on older popular media (in Walker’s case, usually movies and television shows) to alternatively nitpick and defend certain aspects of a subject that are vocally loved or hated by their audiences, be it issues with the narrative, characters, or the general quality of its production.

Even though these examples’ interests might differ more than they overlap in some regards, all of them share a common goal: to establish rhetorical connections with viewers through a mixture of critical analysis, satirical humor, and caricatures to simultaneously entertain and inform them.

What Does an Internet Critic Do?

As summarized in this article from the Purdue Online Writing Lab, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle established three major components of persuasive discourse:

Logos

Logos is frequently translated as some variation of “logic or reasoning,” but it originally referred to the actual content of a speech and how it was organized. Today, many people may discuss the logos qualities of a text to refer to how strong the logic or reasoning of the text is. But logos more closely refers to the structure and content of the text itself.

Ethos

Ethos is frequently translated as some variation of “credibility or trustworthiness,” but it originally referred to the elements of a speech that reflected on the particular character of the speaker or the speech’s author. Today, many people may discuss ethos qualities of a text to refer to how well authors portray themselves. But ethos more closely refers to an author’s perspective more generally.

Pathos

Pathos is frequently translated as some variation of “emotional appeal,” but it originally referred to the elements of a speech that appealed to any of an audience’s sensibilities. Today, many people may discuss the pathos qualities of a text to refer to how well an author appeals to an audience’s emotions. Pathos as “emotion” is often contrasted with logos as “reason.” But this is a limited understanding of both pathos and logos; pathos more closely refers to an audience’s perspective more generally.

These three components form the guiding principles of our spoken and written rhetoric, which are respectively used by a speaker and/or writer to make appeals to their audiences through displays of logic, ethics, and emotions. Ideally, internet critics establish logos by making arguments based on knowledge and experience, ethos by making arguments based on values and beliefs, and pathos by making arguments based on storytelling and passion—in turn, these arguments are heavily shaped by many critics’ uses of a “persona” to present their viewpoints.

In an academic analysis written by Daniel Scarpati, the author describes Doug Walker’s “Nostalgia Critic” character as embodying a disillusioned person looking back at media that wasn’t scrutinized as heavily as it was in the past—as Scarpati states:

…the NC was looking at the content from the perspective of someone from the future, someone who had already lived at least 10 years past the content. Determining if it held up a decade after it was produced was a true testament to its quality, plus it helped to determine what worked and what didn’t work. It’s been said that a person can’t judge a presidency until at least two terms pass, and the NC proves that in some cases the same logic applies to media.

Likewise, Scarpati points out that the Critic’s frequent use of hyperbole, non sequiturs, and “comical verbal and physical aggressiveness” reinforces a persona that both encapsulates and satirizes the frustrations of the stereotypical “angry fanboy.” In this sense, the Nostalgia Critic induces pathos in viewers by embellishing the collective anger and disappointment people have in popular culture while giving those feelings a central voice—yet, the Critic also hosts editorials that make clearer logical and ethical analyses:

Brad Jones, who produces reviews as “The Cinema Snob” for the titular website, also utilizes a caustic persona, albeit a notably less hysterical (but definitely snarkier) one compared to Walker’s Nostalgia Critic character. As stated in this interview conducted by George Pacheco, Jones explains that the Snob persona was largely inspired as a satire of overbearing critics such as the late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert:

They would pick it apart or see things which just weren’t there, such as the Roger Ebert review of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. It’s very soapbox-y, saying that a movie teaches you nothing, that you’re just gonna grow up and get killed; all this stuff which really isn’t there: it’s just a slasher movie. But they were picking it apart as if it were a Terrence Malick film, and it’s funny! It’s humorous, and that’s kind of what I wanted to do with The Cinema Snob character.

Whereas the Nostalgia Critic establishes pathos through his mockery/personification of angry fan communities, the Cinema Snob’s behavior appeals to audiences who feel that some critics can be infuriatingly didactic (and utterly clueless) about what they’re reviewing—take note of his review for Mommie Dearest, especially how he actually breaks character to speak sincerely:

(click image for video link)

(click image for video link)

Walker and Jones primarily use their exaggerated personas for comedic effect, both lampooning trivial aspects of praise and criticism on the internet, but often intermix their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs (as well as observations and research) into their diatribes to add substance.

Compare and Contrast: The Critic and the Snob

Brad “Cinema Snob” Jones (left) and Doug “Nostalgia Critic” Walker (again). SOURCE: http://33.media.tumblr.com/afd466fff0c5c22a282a5ae1e5f2f7b2/tumblr_mv9z8xp9Sf1s46koto1_500.gif

To take a more detailed look at the similarities and differences between the Nostalgia Critic and the Cinema Snob, let’s compare and contrast their reviews for Exorcist II: The Heretic, starting with the Critic’s video from 2011:

(click to open video link)

(click image for video link)

For the most part, Walker uses running commentary to point out the story’s logical inconsistencies and perceivably failed attempts at horror and surrealism, while also using audio-visual editing and cutaways to openly mock footage of the movie itself. Keeping true with his established “Critic” persona, Walker alternates between responding to the movie with sarcasm, nitpicking, and exaggerated anger and misery. Yet, Walker also alludes to some factual tidbits regarding the movie’s production, and even admits that the plot had unrealized potential.

Now, let’s watch the Cinema Snob’s review of Exorcist II: The Heretic, produced earlier this year:

Like in the Critic’s review, the Snob also touches on the circumstances of the film’s creation (including the anecdote that the director actually hated the original movie), and makes similar jabs at its confusing narrative elements. Jones also uses the Snob character to make vacuous assumptions and conclusions during the review while maintaining a comedic air of authoritative confidence and self-importance, with his statement at 28:09 regarding Pauline Kael’s opinion of Exorcist II as indisputable fact reiterating his satire of pretentious, misinformed film criticism.

In general, Doug Walker’s Nostalgia Critic emphasizes reviews with overreaction and theatrics, while Brad Jones’ Cinema Snob emphasizes reviews with underreaction and sardonicism—both, of course, to delivery their own senses of humor. However, both usually try giving audiences some background information on what they’re reviewing, and will even take time to share what they found positive (if not interesting) in otherwise negative productions. Likewise, Walker and Jones’ comedic/analytic treatments of their subjects let them put forth their views in ways that are both entertaining and approachable if viewers understand the nature of their personas: in a sense, Walker and Jones gain credibility with audiences by parodying our overuses of opinions.

In turn, countless other internet critics use varyingly similar and different tactics to frame their review methods and/or host caricatures. Everything I’ve discussed here is the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” in the backdrop of the internet, and there are so many others that could be analyzed.

Closing

Internet critics aren’t entirely original in their purpose and methodology—the late comedian Andy Kaufman used the character Tony Clifton to satirize vitriolic entertainers, though at the expense of further confusing his audiences. Another, more recent, example is the television show The Colbert Report (2005-2014), in which comedian Stephen Colbert presented himself as a political commentator with an exaggerated conservative mindset. Kaufman and Colbert used these characters as antithetical misdirections of their own personalities, with Kaufman’s Tony Clifton being a far more extreme case when compared to Colbert’s Report persona (in fact, other people have, and still do, perform as Clifton to maintain the narrative that he’s a “real” person).

While the individuals mentioned throughout this article don’t have nearly the same mainstream recognition as Kaufman and Colbert do, they’re still quite popular and influential within the realm of online entertainment, and regularly appear at various fan conventions. Because of their online presences, internet critics also tend to have closer, and more frequent, input from their viewers, making them feel more accessible and amiable to be interacted with. Internet critics succeed or fail by how well they accumulate viewerships and endorsements, but also by how well they connect to their audiences’ interests and opinions of popular culture: as with all media figures, internet critics come and go, with some enjoying longer or shorter exposure than others.

Whatever the case, internet critics will probably continue to keep us laughing (and thinking) into the foreseeable future.

References

Channel Awesome – Just Awesome. Channel Awesome, Inc. Web 19 Oct. 2015. <http://channelawesome.com/>.

Cinemassacre. Cinemassacre Productions. Web 20 Oct. 2015. <http://cinemassacre.com/>.

Jones, Brad (Cinema Snob). “The Cinema Snob: EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC.” YouTube. YouTube LLC. 5 Aug. 2015. Web 23 Oct. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GuiBIIbCTQ>.

Jones, Brad (Cinema Snob). “The Cinema Snob: MIAMI CONNECTION.” YouTube. YouTube LLC. 3 Aug. 2015. Web 22 Oct. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ao-atLBCHxw>.

Know Your Meme: Internet Meme Database. Cheezburger, Inc. Web 18 Oct. 2015. <http://knowyourmeme.com/>.

Pacheco, George. “Exploitation Life: Brad Jones’ The Cinema Snob redefines internet film criticism.” Welcome to Examiner.com. AXS Digital Group LLC. 23 Sep. 2014. Web 21 Oct. 2015. <http://www.examiner.com/article/exploitation-life-brad-jones-the-cinema-snob-redefines-internet-film-criticism>.

Purdue OWL. The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue. Web 21 Oct. 2015. <https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/>.

Scarpati, Daniel. “Stingingly Successful Satire on the World Wide Web – An Analysis of the Nostalgia Critic’s Satire.” The Utopia of Daniel. Macaulay ePortfolios. 9 Aug. 2014. Web 21 Oct. 2015. <http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/utopiaofdaniel/2014/08/stingingly-successful-satire-on-the-world-wide-web-an-analysis-of-the-nostalgia-critics-satire/>.

The Cinema Snob – Home. The Cinema Snob. Web 21 Oct. 2015. <http://www.thecinemasnob.com/>.

TV Tropes. Creative Commons. Web 22 Oct. 2015. <http://tvtropes.org/>.

Walker, Doug (Nostalgia Critic). “Nostalgia Critic: When Does a Joke Go Too Far?YouTube. YouTube LLC. 9 Sep. 2015. Web 20 Oct. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNyHlSHbK4s>.

Walker, Doug (Nostalgia Critic) and Rob Walker. “Nostalgia Critic: Star Wars Christmas.” YouTube. YouTube LLC. 5 Jul. 2015. Web 23 Oct. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4uYLgDG_ow>.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web 18 Oct. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page>.

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Friends, Laughter, and Video Games

Mike Matei (left) and James Rolfe (right), playing a video game together. What do you think they’re enjoying more: the game, or each other’s company? SOURCE: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/xCLssqdOkbE/maxresdefault.jpg

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.

Mario, as visually depicted in 8-bit (1985-1990), 16-bit (1991), 64-bit (1996), and 128-bit (2002-2007) graphics. SOURCE: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/bb/1f/de/bb1fde878d7b97a145ccecb2c0d781fa.jpg

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.

Closing

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.

References

Arensberg, Bill (AlphaOmegaSin). “AlphaOmegaSin Plays Resident Evil Survivor (PS1) Complete.YouTube. YouTube LLC. 3 Jul. 2013. Web 5 Oct. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbtwWDcaRyU>.

Hanson, Arin and Leigh Daniel Avidan (Game Grumps). “P.T. – Game Grumps.YouTube. YouTube LLC. 17 Aug. 2014. Web 3 Oct. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tj5AF_m3-4I>.

Ibrahim, Mona. “Deconstructing Let’s Play, Copyright, and the YouTube Content ID Claim System: A Legal Perspective.” Gamasutra – The Art & Business of Making Games. UBM Tech Brands. 12 Dec. 2013. Web 2 Oct. 2015. <http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/MonaIbrahim/20131212/206912/Deconstructing_Lets_Play_Copyright_and_the_YouTube_Content_ID_Claim_System_A_Legal_Perspective.php>.

Jafari, Jon (JonTron). “Nightshade: The Claws of HEUGH – JonTron.” YouTube. YouTube LLC. 1 Oct. 2012. Web 3 Oct. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aq7rhn3h1m0>.

Klepek, Patrick. “Who Invented Let’s Play Videos?” Kotaku. Gawker Media. 16 May 2015. Web 1 Oct. 2015. <http://kotaku.com/who-invented-lets-play-videos-1702390484>.

Know Your Meme: Internet Meme Database. Cheezburger, Inc. Web 28 Sep. 2015. <http://knowyourmeme.com/>.

Nauert, Rick. “Video Games Can Help Boost Social, Memory, & Cognitive Skills.” Psych Central. Psych Central. 26 Nov. 2013. Web 24 Oct. 2015. <http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/11/26/video-games-help-boost-social-memory-cognitive-skills/62537.html>.

Rolfe, James and Mike Matei (Cinemassacre). “Metal Slug (Neo Geo CD) James & Mike Mondays.YouTube. YouTube LLC. 27 Jan. 2014. Web 5 Oct. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSNSeOjwWwc>.

Sykes, Tom. “The Addictive Curse of ‘Let’s Plays’.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company LLC. 11 Nov. 2014. Web 2 Oct. 2015. <http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/11/11/the-addictive-curse-of-let-s-plays.html>.

TV Tropes. Creative Commons. Web 22 Oct. 2015. <http://tvtropes.org/>.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web 28 Sep. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page>.

Zoia, Chris. “This Guy Makes Millions Playing Video Games on YouTube.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. 14 Mar. 2014. Web 1 Oct. 2015. <http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/03/this-guy-makes-millions-playing-video-games-on-youtube/284402/>.

Creepypastas: Urban Legends and Campfire Stories for the Internet

by Matthew Lewallen

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated with the macabre: even as a very young child, I adored the likes of Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Creature, the Wolf Man, and anything along the lines of King Kong or Godzilla. Naturally, growing up through the early 1990s, I had regular exposure to the horror-themed (but youth-oriented) television series Are You Afraid of the Dark? and, occasionally, syndicated reruns of Tales from the Crypt. Likewise, I was an avid reader of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps juvenile novels, as well as—in my most humble of opinions—Alvin Schwartz’s more satisfying Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy (to this day, I still find Stephen Gammell’s illustrations to be equally charming and disturbing).

Sample of Stephen Gammell’s illustrations for Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. SOURCE: http://slightlywarped.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/3011385313-OEMy35m.jpg

With such a deeply rooted interest in horror fiction—not to mention adolescent attraction to hearing and reciting stories—it’s no surprise that I was enthralled with listening to (and, in a few embarrassing instances, trying to tell my own) various ghost stories and urban legends. Some tales I heard were iterations of old campfire yarns like “The Hook” or The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,” while others were playground “gossip” about local witches and monsters. It was just entertaining to hear all of these stories and to let the darkened theater of my imagination construct the spookiest scenes a young boy with an established background in horror media could possibly muster in a pre-internet setting.

Suffice it to say, my love of the macabre continued to grow over the years, and also seeped into my love of comics, animation, and video games. Eventually, access to the internet not only increased my exposure to horror, but it also showed me different ways horror could be told; in particular, I became very attracted to a popular storytelling practice called “creepypasta.”

What Is Creepypasta?

According to its entry on the website Know Your Meme, a “creepypasta” is a “popular subgenre of copypasta which consists of short horror fictions and urban legends mainly distributed through word of mouth via online message boards or e-mail.” As the entry states, “creepypasta” is named after a “copypasta,” an image or excerpt of text (usually nonsensical, like this example) that is posted and reproduced online by using a computer’s “Copy and Paste” function. Copypastas and creepypastas are both examples of an internet meme—a meme is any “spreadable media” (such as a basic phrase or image) that holds established meaning(s) within a given sociocultural group as it grows and lessens in prominence over varying periods of time (and among varying people).

As popularized through various forum-based websites like Reddit and 4chan (both well-known for allowing comments and content that are often wildly offensive and tasteless), creepypastas have become a very large component of modern internet culture. Will Wiles’ online article “Creepypasta is how the internet learns our fears” alludes to the notion that creepypasta stories are functionally similar to the aforementioned campfire stories and urban legends. That is, they feature readily identifiable and seemingly innocuous scenarios of everyday life (e.g., going to school, starting the first day of a brand-new job), infusing the author’s application of horrific elements into the story with “just enough familiarity to give a frisson of awful possibility.”

Much like how “The Hook” and “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” take normal activities (a car ride and babysitting job, respectively) and put the protagonists in threatening situations, creepypastas make real-world settings feel terrifying. In fact, Wiles points out that real-world settings used in horror narratives are memes in and of themselves: they have established meanings and are frequently referenced and reproduced. Many creepypasta stories utilize various narrative “templates” not unlike how most versions of “The Hook” generally follow the loose “young couple hears about an escaped criminal” premise; similarly, “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” largely boils down to the “babysitter receives odd phone calls” outline.

However, creepypasta writing deviates from campfire stories and urban legends in small yet interesting ways that are heavily shaped by the capabilities of the internet itself, including the communal nature of forums and messageboards (as well as a greater use for multimedia).

What Makes Creepypasta Special?

For the most part, creepypasta writing entails a wide variety of length, quality, and content largely due to the fact that it’s a relatively open-ended form of composition generally produced for entertainment by internet users covering many different demographics. Because of the internet’s immediate access and widespread connection, anyone with sufficient typing and browsing skills could potentially write a creepypasta story of their own. To be more precise, any person with the simplest experience in using computers and the internet, and a proper interest in telling scary stories, is free to create and post creepypastas of virtually any subject and quantity as they please—regardless of his or her age group, cultural background, or social status.

Yet, the digital nature of creepypasta also allows storytellers to incorporate (or completely rely on) pictures and videos, adding a multimedia angle to their narratives; as Annalee Newitz discusses in “Has Creepypasta Reinvented Classic Folklore?”:

First of all, a lot of creepypasta is not actually written down. It comes in the form of pictures or videos. This mirrors one of the definitions of folklore, which is generally passed along orally, as a spoken story.

Often, folklorists will contrast the world of “orality” with the world of “literacy.” Stories are shared differently in an oral culture, remaining fluid and ever-changing with each retelling. In a literate culture, stories are fixedonce they are written down, they can be copied but are rarely transformed.

Newitz is touching on the argument that the inherent “copy-and-paste” format of creepypastas limits how much they can be revised and retold in the same ways that more traditional “word-of-mouth” stories do through varied repetition. But Newitz counters that while some creepypastas are repostings of unchanged selections of images or text, users will still find ways to use visual media (and, in some cases, even audio) to enhance or repurpose those selections for audiences, much like how written works are frequently adapted for film and television.

The “Go to Sleep” image meme, frequently used as a “screamer”, or in conjunction with the “Jeff the Killer” story. SOURCE: http://i2.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/original/000/237/357/9d8.jpg (click image for video link)

Another interesting aspect of creepypastas Newitz mentions is the significant participatory/collaborative elements seen in their writing communities, as highlighted by the development of the ongoing “Slender Man” and “Holders” mythos. Both narratives feature rather complex stories and media contributed by a countless number of users to create fully realized, large-scale fictional worlds with interconnected characters and events. Similar communities, like the SCP Foundation, have even drafted guidelines to maintain a defined canon that, in turn, encourages readers and writers to engage in varying levels of role-playing (for example, SCP articles are treated as “official reports” of anomalous subjects being held by the foundation).

Above all, creepypastas are special because of their memetic and interactive qualities, as well as their ability to accommodate different media; another, equally important, aspect that makes creepypastas unique is the idiosyncratic ways their writers establish and punctuate horror.

What Does Creepypasta Taste Like?

While many creepypastas feature the typical gamut of serial killers and recognizable pop-culture monsters (vampires, zombies, and so on), others feature more abstract—and, at times, misanthropically violent or cruel—stories that subvert categorization. An infamous creepypasta titled “Knock” is literally two sentences long: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.” Despite its incredible brevity, the sheer vagueness of the situation suggests myriad unsettling implications in the reader’s imagination; an extended version, “Knock: Full Story,” adds a considerably larger amount of details than the original, but its ending still leaves enough room for audiences to come up with equally chilling possibilities.

Because creepypastas are composed and shared online, it’s no surprise that many stories feature content related to the internet and/or various entertainment media that are frequently discussed and commented on by users. The creepypasta “Username: 666” concerns rumors of a demonic YouTube channel (which has accompanying video “recreations”), while “Dead Bart” involves an allegedly “missing” episode of The Simpsons featuring exceedingly bizarre content. As Newitz states in her article, creepypastas like these are similar to Japanese horror properties like Pulse and Ring, respectively featuring cursed websites and videotapes, in that they both integrate fears of the supernatural with the overwhelming presence and accessibility of technology.

Furthermore, certain creepypasta writers will even utilize the very structure and pacing of the stories to unnerve its readers—again, many creepypastas “twist” audience expectations but will sometimes do so in ways that are sudden and jarring. An interesting example of this is the creepypasta “A Bright Flash,” describing an unidentified narrator’s disfigurement from an explosion and his ensuing thirst for revenge against the world. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’ll say that the final line is such a revelation because those reading it closely probably won’t initially pick up on the (retrospectively) obvious clues that the writer provides, taking the seemingly grounded story “as is” before finding out the narrator’s identity.

Even though plot twists, or looking at the “dark side” of popular media, aren’t really exclusive to creepypasta writing, there’s still a lot to consider in regards to how such writing is created, spread, and adapted over the internet, as well as how people are encouraged to collaborate on it.

Closing

In closing, I’d like to say that while creepypastas—and, to be honest, the horror genre as a whole—aren’t for everyone’s tastes and sensibilities, they’re still fascinating examples of community-based writing that give us similarly fascinating insights into what internet culture considers terrifying (and how it conveys such terror). While there are immediate parallels between creepypastas and word-of-mouth storytelling, creepypasta writing adds the contextual background of the internet itself into the narratives, frequently using technology and media as sources for strange and horrific situations to occur. The participatory aspects of creepypastas are also quite interesting, with sites like Creepypasta Wiki being devoted to letting users share, archive, and edit creepypastas; likewise, the continued expansions of the Slender Man, Holders, and SCP Foundation narratives showcase unified canons developed through mass collaboration.

As I’ve been writing this article, the month of October draws ever closer, bringing the fall season with it: cooler weather, longer nights, and attractive orange and red foliage; more importantly, the eagerness for Halloween is palpable, with stores already stocking their aisles with candy, costumes, and other seasonal paraphernalia. Being in my early 30s, I’m perfectly content staying home and watching the usual marathons of horror movies and Halloween specials on television in lieu of trick-or-treating or handing out candy to children. But I’ll still enjoy the holiday for what is: a celebration of the macabre, and a time to indulge in a mixture of fun and frights—it’s everything I’ve loved about horror since childhood but shared on a significantly larger scale once every year around October 31st.

I think I’ll even read a creepypasta or two this Halloween…I’m always looking for a good scare.

References

Creepypasta. Creepypasta. Web 24 Sep. 2015. <http://www.creepypasta.com/>.

Creepypasta Wiki. Wikia. Web 21 Sep. 2015. <http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Creepypasta_Wiki>.

Edmond, Spike (Mr. CreepyPasta). “Go to Sleep – ‘Jeff the Killer’.” YouTube. YouTube LLC. 12 Oct. 2012. Web 29 Nov. 2011. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2K5I3NJtiQ>.

Jenkins, Henry. “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead (Part One): Media Viruses and Memes.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins. WordPress. 11 Feb. 2009. Web 13 Oct. 2015. <http://henryjenkins.org/2009/02/if_it_doesnt_spread_its_dead_p.html>.

Know Your Meme: Internet Meme Database. Cheezburger, Inc. Web 20 Sep. 2015. <http://knowyourmeme.com/>.

Newitz, Annalee. “Has Creepypasta Reinvented Classic Folklore?” io9. Gawker Media. 6 Jan. 2014. Web 24 Sep. 2015. <http://io9.com/is-creepypasta-a-form-of-folklore-1495902436>.

SCP Foundation. Wikidot. Web 24 Sep. 2015. <http://www.scp-wiki.net/>.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web 20 Sep. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page>.

Wiles, Will. “Creepypastas is how the internet learns our fears.” Aeon. Aeon Media Ltd. 20 Dec. 2013. Web 23 Sep. 2015. <http://aeon.co/magazine/culture/creepypasta-is-how-the-internet-learns-our-fears/>.