One month ago, PewDiePie became the most subscribed channel on Youtube. This is telling about how the landscape of online media has shifted from viral comedy shorts towards PewDiePie’s staple genre known as Let’s Plays. This longer, serialized, and more organically produced media form about watching someone playing a video game is an extraordinary departure from the manufactured laugh machines that usually reign over social media. Not only do Let’s Plays rule over Youtube, but they are now ruling over the gaming industry at large, as they give viewers insight they may not otherwise be able to afford into both the AAA and indie gaming markets. But Let’s Plays are more than just a way to market games and manipulate Youtube algorithms, they are an expressive, new media form focused on exploring play in new and exciting ways! Let’s Plays are a powerful medium for understanding the different ways people play in video game spaces. Let’s Plays are culturally driving how we explore play in an empathetic and performative way that helps us better understand how we engage with games.

“Why would anyone want to watch someone play a video game when they can just play it?”

Youtube producer, Northernlion, has produced 2,098 videos at time of writing, 613 of which are just playing Edmund McMillen’s The Binding of Isaac. At an average of about 45 minutes a video, it would take 19 days straight to watch every episode of The Binding of Isaac! There is a sense of scale to Let’s Playing that overwhelms many people who are new to Let’s Plays. However, there are two nuances to Let’s Playing that can help explain how people become so attached for such a long time to the (seemingly) simple act of watching somebody play a video game. First, Let’s Plays explore the idea of play by turning the act of playing into a performance. When I sit down with my controller and my microphone my goal is to share my game with others. This is not as simple as just being an entertaining person or having a likeable personality, I need my play to be an extension of my commentary about the game and vice-versa. I need to be able to clearly and succinctly explain how I’m playing the game while I’m playing it. This public expression creates a performance out of play that viewers connect with and enjoy. In reaction to this first nuance, a second one appears with viewers: As the public nature of this play pushes the creators to perform, the viewers in turn empathize with the player’s performance. As the player finds success or failure within the game, so does the viewer. The success is shared, internalized, and then empathized. That is the “Let’s” in Let’s Playing. People can watch Northernlion’s performance of The Binding of Isaac 613 times, because there is an emotional connection between the viewer and the Let’s Player where the viewer identifies with the player.

While there are huge Let’s Players like Northernlion who have large and consistent fan bases, there are also thousands of smaller Let’s Players scattered around Youtube who are doing amazing things that explore tons of new ways people play video games. The Jessa Channel uses games like Skyrim and The Sims to roleplay adventures with characters she creates, meanwhile Voices From The Dark takes the same idea of roleplaying and adds the art of cinematography. Both of these Youtube producers create new forms of play by creating their own stories that they tell as players of their games. BumpyMcGump and SharkyAndTheBear play games as a duo, usually one person watches the other while they play. This adds more dynamics to the social play that is produced by Let’s Plays mimicking the feeling that someone is with you on the couch. [1] PrescriptionPixel and RockLeeSmile focus their content specifically on playing independently produced games which satisfies interests in exploring a wide variety of games in a critical way, it also helps small games that may not otherwise be able to afford exposure find a new audience. [2]

By and far, the most popular sub-genre to Let’s Play is known as the “Blind” playthrough. The player is unfamiliar with the game and because of that, viewers can enjoy a natural and expressive reaction that players have to the game. Viewers can clearly understand the player as a Tabula Rasa within the scope of a new game, and then watch as the player grows over time. This “natural” [3] type of engagement helps players follow along, even if they haven’t seen or played the game before themselves. Let’s Play, as a media form, has expanded in so many ways and each of these sub-genres represents different ways to express yourself playing a game. The intimate relationship between the player and the game within Let’s Plays allows them to be extraordinarily critical in ways other media commonly isn’t.

Let’s Plays can become a granular lens on the levels, characters, mechanics, and themes of a game by documenting and recording a single thread of all possible interaction threads that games have.

 

Let’s Plays allow players to explore and express the way they play games in myriad ways. It also allows viewers different ways to empathize and identify with the player and their relationship to the game. Together these create a societal power that directly identifies with Eric Zimmerman’s Ludic Century as a force of play that addresses systems and information manipulation within a performative space. But what makes it even more powerful is that it also addresses Heather Chaplin’s response where she challenges, “If it’s true that we’re moving into a Ludic Century – an era that rewards and elevates this systemizing personality type – what happens to emotional intelligence and empathy?” Let’s Plays give us that direct cultural link between how we better ourselves as players within a game’s systems and how we share these systems with others in an empathetic and emotionally intelligent way. I love Let’s Play because it is first and foremost an invitation to participate – [LET'S PLAY] – And now it has become as easy as downloading some screen capture software, audio software, and editing software for anyone [4] to add their expression to games and play at large!


Bonus Commentary:

[1] Where Salen and Zimmerman write about The Magic Circle for games – For Let’s Plays it is more like The Magic Couch. Play happens all over, even as a spectator. Let’s Play captures the shared feeling of play between spectators and players in amazing, even Magical, ways.

[2] This mutual relationship between LPers and Indie developers is a primary cause for Minecraft and Terraria’s ludicrous success and in turn The Yogscast and Jesse Cox’s proportionally ludicrous success

[3] I’m not convinced Blind LPs are the ‘natural’ way to play a game. It’s complicated. From a Let’s Player’s perspective, Blind LPs are the easiest to make, as they require little effort and are not mentally taxing. You aren’t expected to KNOW anything. From the viewer’s perspective, there is a small group of viewers that enjoy watching a Blind LP so that they can lord their knowledge of a game over the LPer whenever the LPer meets failure. If you were an industrialist, wouldn’t the ‘natural’ way to play be all about maximal output? Blind LPs would be ‘unnatural’ and then as the player learns the games systems they would be honed to peak performance. Many consider Blind LPs to be ‘natural’, I think they are conflating ‘natural’ with ‘easy to make’.

[4] If you are on PC, there is free software. Unfortunately, if you are on Mac, it isn’t as easy, but there are still practical and affordable options for screen capture, audio, and editing software. (Here’s for Linux :D)

Extra Resources:

  • For any information about Let’s Playing, PixelProspector is our local archivist who has information on EVERYTHING LP!
  • If you are interested in reaching out to a formal community, there is a subreddit that is worth skimming but not investing in and a Twitter Group that is worth investing in but is difficult to skim.
Author
Solon Scott
Solon Scott is a graduate of UW's Comparative History of Ideas, where he studied, taught, and created games. His work culminated in a 10-credit thesis researching the formal methodologies we use to better understand video games. Now he hosts a Production on Youtube called Rainy Day Let's Play focusing on exploring ways we can all participate in playing together!
3 replies to this post
  1. Yes, it is certainly reasonable to assume that the term “gamer” will pass away and no longer be marked, just as we no longer feel compelled to say we are “readers.” It is marked in our historical moment because although games are pervasive in culture gameplay is still seen as marginal with respect to everyday life.

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