Play, Performance, and Community: An Introduction to Let’s Play Culture

As a self-confessed citizen of the internet, I spend a lot of time on Tumblr. In fact, endlessly scrolling my tumblr dashboard is the number one reason why I usually don’t write these articles until between 48 and 12 hours before I’m due to post them.

Screenshot 2015-06-13 at 15.51.51

The number two reason is binge-watching new seasons of TV shows on Netflix.

 

Sometimes I can pass this off as research — I study new media and fandom after all, so looking at Tumblr is sort of like data collection and brainstorming for future ideas — but after a while I know that I need to stop procrastinating and get back to work. This week’s a little trickier though, because I used Tumblr to gather some data about another extremely popular internet pastime, and between that and endlessly scrolling my dash, I’ve been very easily distracted.

In my article two weeks ago I mentioned my Critical Theory seminar, where I wrote my paper on Alien: Isolation. Bringing up the inherent active nature of playing videogames led my instructor to ask for my insight on a sophomore student of his who was working on a videogame-related paper. More specifically, a paper about people who watched Five Nights at Freddy’s Let’s Play Videos on Youtube. He wanted some insight into this phenomenon, the Let’s Play Phenomenon, because he couldn’t understand why anyone would watch someone else play a videogame, especially one like FNAF. From his point of view, it was taking an inherently active medium and turning it into a passive act, watching someone else play scary games instead of playing them for yourself. He said he didn’t get it, and the conversation has been gnawing at the back of my brain ever since.

For those of you not familiar with the game in question, Five Nights At Freddy’s is an indie game where the player, as an overnight security guard at a Chuck-E-Cheez clone called ‘Freddy Fazbears Pizza’, has to monitor the animatronic animals who perform at this restaurant during the day, because they still move around even at night. Players sit in a guard room with nothing but two doors, the buttons to close those doors and lights to shine down those hallways, a camera feed that checks multiple areas of the restaurant to keep an eye out for the roaming Fazbear characters, and a little percentage counter that keeps track of how much power you use. You have a first-person POV, and extremely static movement — you can turn to the left, and turn to the right, and that’s pretty much it.

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I fired up the game and took this screenshot just for all of you.

 

What makes this scary is that when the animatronics roam around at night, their screwed up AI sees you not as a person, but as a naked exoskeleton. So if they come across you on their nighttime wanderings, they try to shove you into an old Freddy Fazbear suit. While you’re still alive.

 

FNAFGameOverBrightened

gooey popped-out eyeballs and everything

 

Gruesome.

Between that and the repeated jump scares, it became an internet sensation and people called it ‘THE SCARIEST GAME IN YEARS’. It went from being a little-known indie game to a HUGE DEAL, and two sequel games have been spawned with another slated for a release this coming Halloween. These days internet folk either seem to love this game, feel sick of it, refuse to have anything to do with it because it’s scary, refuse to have anything to do with it because it’s too simplistic and boring, or they just draw strange pornography of the characters. This is the internet, after all.

 

censored

No I’m not posting FNAF Rule 34 in this article. You can go find that yourself.

 

Here’s the thing: I’ve played very little Five Nights at Freddy’s. I spent five bucks on it in a Steam sale to use it as a demo for my freshmen, and have never made it past Night 3. Not necessarily because it scared me – it made me jump, but a jump scare is not true fear by my standards – but because it made me so incredibly tense and hypervigilant. I almost worked myself into a panic attack trying to prevent animatronic rabbits and bears from shoving me eyeballs-first into an animal suit and making me dance for their amusement. I couldn’t keep playing.

All the same, I was curious. The internet spoke and said there were clues and easter eggs that alluded to a bigger story, even an in-game conspiracy. I also found out that a couple of big youtube personalities were doing playthroughs while recording their reactions.

So I started watching people’s reaction videos to Five Nights at Freddys (trigger warning for jump scares in that link). Then I started watching full-length Let’s Plays of the game. So, when my theory professor said he didn’t understand why people watched reactions to this game instead of just playing the game itself, I had a personal stake in the answer.

It’s led me to consider why people watch Let’s Play videos. I certainly have my own reasons, but I’m just one nerd on the internet, and I wanted to know if my experiences and thoughts lined up or diverged with other fans of Let’s Play channels. I didn’t just ask about FNAF – I asked about Let’s Plays in general, and I got a collection of answers from some excellent people, many of whom watch Let’s Play videos weekly or even daily, and their insight helped me put together a few introductory points that help explain why people love to watch Let’s Plays and become a part of the Let’s Play community.

 

Let’s Plays as Performance and Spectatorship

The average Let’s Play Channel on Youtube is run by one person or a couple of people, and they play games while delivering their commentary. That’s the basic formula, and different channels go for different points of view from there. Sometimes, people like to watch other people play games to see how they respond to the situations of that game. Tumblr user serenescientist had this to say on that point: “I think we all have our idiosyncrasies about how to interact with different game mechanics and it’s cool to be able to see the differences.” It’s true: even watching three different Let’s Players play through the first Five Nights at Freddy’s yields three different responses, all of which can be completely different from personal experience. Everyone approaches games differently too, and some folks like to watch them to get a tip when they’re stuck on a difficult level of a game or to hear about other gamers’ opinions of those games.

While Let’s Play videos have a lot in common, most watchers will select for the channel based on how they feel about the player, because it’s not just about the game, it’s all about the reactions, and the kind of reactions. Some people want comedy, some want commentary, others want a nuanced combination. “I like some sort of commentary about what’s going on,” says avid Let’s Play watcher tsukidoesthething. “I will take knock-knock jokes over just yelling at the game. Anyone can scream, I demand wits!” The personalities of those Let’s Players brings a different energy to experiencing those games, and as the popularity of the subgenre grows, Let’s Play Channels have to provide their own original spin on games and their reactions to those games. Let’s Player and viewer Andrew64 notes that “A lot of new Let’s Players tend to just copy the jokes of more successful ones and hope they take off, but don’t take the time and energy to make the video entertaining.” It’s a lot like going to see a particular genre of film, at least from my view. I’ll go see action movies in theatres, but I don’t want them to be carbon copies of each other.

There’s something fascinating about the performative nature of Let’s Play videos, and how so much of the culture is focused on that performativity. A successful Let’s Player has to wear a lot of hats and juggle a lot of roles, and a large portion of that includes being able to deliver a successful on-camera performance, much like an actor or television star. These personalities do encourage their viewers to promote their videos, do charity work, and post videos thanking their fans for watching. It’s performative, but also interactive, in a way that I consider similar to being able to tweet a celebrity versus just watching them on the red carpet. Because these youtube personalities are internet celebrities, performers who use their internet platform to communicate with their fans as best they can. And Let’s Play work is a full time job. As a creator of Let’s Plays, Andrew64 provided me more insight into that too:

 

“[Let’s Plays are] a lot harder than people think. Like, plain and simple. Not only are you trying to entertain viewers, but you’re also trying to complete a game, beat a challenge, engage your audience, and make it all worthwhile watching with hours of editing, rendering, exporting, uploading. It’s not just a simple record upload and rack in the views. It requires a lot of hard work and dedication, and I respect anyone that can do it successfully.”

 

The hard work pays off too — check out Andrew’s channel, BeardBox, to see how he manages it!

 

Let’s Plays and Accessibility

Last week I touched on the issue of game accessibility, and I think that it’s especially relevant to the reasoning behind watching Let’s Plays. A recently released AAA videogame title usually costs around 60 dollars in the US. Even with a carefully-planned budget, that’s a lot of money for folks to drop without knowing what they’re going to get. This is one of the reasons tumblr user and aspiring Let’s Player duckrunsagain watches Let’s Plays: “Sometimes, I want to see if the gameplay is interesting enough to invest in playing the game.” A free Let’s Play on the internet is one way to do that. This was Taylor’s motivation for watching Let’s Plays too: “I started to watch LP videos as a way to tell if I liked the game or not before buying it but then some of the commentary over the video became so entertaining, that I would watch them whether or not I was interested in the videogame.” A lot of times, Let’s Plays function as a ‘view before you buy’ for gamers. As Sara notes, “It’s also a great way to check out the game beforehand to see even if you would want to buy it since you see real time gameplay versus a game trailer.” Some folks prefer to watch Let’s Plays of games they don’t ever intend to play themselves. It gives them the chance to experience the game without spending the money.

Ultimately, not everybody has access to a game console, not everyone has a computer that can run demanding games. Watching a Let’s Play allows people to experience those games without having to drop hundreds of dollars on a console or computer upgrade. Even with sales on Steam or at GameStop, gamers use Let’s Plays for a vicarious experience, and with the high volume of Let’s Players on youtube, they have a number of styles of playthrough to choose from.

 

Let’s Plays and Personal Well Being

It’s no secret that playing videogames can be a source of stress. I spent last Friday night playing through a long story mission in Borderlands 2, only to have my computer crash once and the game glitch another time, losing me all the progress I’d made on that mission. I was so mad I ate a bagel smothered in cream cheese at 2am.

… I react strangely to frustration.

Stress and videogames aren’t just unique to my experience. A lot of gamers don’t have the time or energy to play certain games, games that Ray refers to as “too punishing, repetitive, or long for me to realistically tackle with my life’s limited free time.” This is one of the reasons I often watch Let’s Plays — because I realistically do not have the time to sit down and play all of the games I want to. I mean, I could, but then I’d have no job and no social life and basically rot away in my room. Which is bad for everyone.

Let’s Play watching is all about mental health too, and that’s where I go back to the start of this post: Five Night’s at Freddy’s. Tsuki’s experience with this game lines up pretty well with mine, and she has some pretty awesome insight into her experience with Let’s Plays of Horror Games:

 

“I like horror games but I sometimes have issues with jump scares mimicking a panic attack for me, which is extremely uncomfortable. Watching a Let’s Play is less immersive so I don’t feel as… threatened (I guess?) when jump scares happen. It doesn’t feel like it’s me being “attacked” it’s the person playing the game. Also it gives me an immediate out if I can’t handle an aspect of gameplay; I can just close the game window, or tab to something else but still listen to the commentary if I’m curious about what’s going on. For example, I was very curious about Five Nights at Freddy’s but I knew for a fact that there was no way I could play it on my own. So I watched Markiplier do it. Probably for half the Let’s Play I couldn’t watch the screen itself because the jump scares just kept getting to me, but I played bubble shooter in one window while listening to him talk about the game. I still got a sense of the plot and gameplay, but I didn’t have to deal with my chest seizing up every single time there was a jump scare.”   

 

Videogames are entertainment. They’re cultural insight, they’re literary texts, they’re tests of skill and problem solving, and they’re part of the building blocks of numerous communities. Let’s Players and the people who watch Let’s Plays are their own unique community, and they watch Let’s Plays because they want to be a part of that community in one way or another. Be it watching the videos, making their own, or introducing them to their friends, there’s a certain rhetoric to this particular group, which I consider a Discourse Community (but more on that in the future).

Let’s Plays are another form of entertainment, one that includes performance, analysis, and fun that the average viewer can afford. It’s not something all gamers do — some gamers prefer their own gaming experience, but for a lot of us, videogames are social and part of our community, and whether that community involves playing a few quests in Diablo III together or sitting down to watch a Let’s Play as a group, it involves human interaction in a new and fascinating way. I’ve become fascinated with the inner workings of Let’s Play culture and communities, and this article barely scratches the surface of what people have shared with me about their experiences. I fully anticipate there being additional articles on Let’s Plays in the future.

Until then, if you’re interested in what Let’s Plays have to offer you, check out some of the channels the folks I interviewed recommend! Their list includes Dodger, Jesse Cox, Game Grumps, Markiplier, Super Beard Bros, therpgminx, twobestfriendsplay, twobestsistersplay, and numerous others.

 

Special thanks to 8tabbs, andrew64, bengiyo, beta, Dawn, duckrunsagain, e-z-a-k-u-r, Garner, Lets-Play-Social-Justice, Ray, Sara, serenescientist, Taylor, tinker-tanner, and tsuki for their willingness to receive interview questions.

 

Got suggestions for a topic I can ramble about here on New Media Mayhem? email me at hex[dot]meridian[at]gmail[dot]com.  

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