Let Us Play! The Rise of User-Generated Game Media

I like play­ing games.1 I also like watch­ing friends play games I know and love, some­times with me, some­times not. I also, it seems, like watch­ing com­plete strangers play games I may or may not know inti­mate­ly while hav­ing all sorts of wacky adven­tures and fun times.

The Let’s Play for­mu­la owes its exis­tence to YouTube, a most fer­tile field of online con­tent cre­ation. With its ease of upload­ing and lim­it­less poten­tial for fame, YouTube’s open nature facil­i­tates the cre­ation and devel­op­ment of an infi­nite num­ber of enter­tain­ment for­mu­lae. Naturally, of course, some of those forms involve video games, and it is the Let’s Play for­mat that has been mak­ing notable head­way recent­ly. Along with Let’s Plays, YouTube has encour­aged the growth of such performance-based media as speed runs, reviews, and machin­i­ma (More on those in a minute).

The for­mu­la for a Let’s Play itself is fair­ly sim­ple: A video game, a cam­era (or anoth­er sort of record­ing device), a play­er, and a per­son­al­i­ty. Mash ‘em all togeth­er, put the result­ing prod­uct on YouTube, and you’ve got a part of an Internet sen­sa­tion!

Fellow trav­el­er Ben Milton has before med­i­tat­ed on the rise of the medi­um of Let’s Plays, spec­u­lat­ing that, at the very least, we’ve got a bur­geon­ing art form on our hands. Ben the­o­rizes that a game is not a game until the play­er expe­ri­ences it, but mere­ly a poten­tial expe­ri­ence. By play­ing through the game, the player’s expe­ri­ence of the game is real­ized, and the game as a work is “com­plet­ed.” If a game is incom­plete until the play­er com­pletes it, then the Let’s Play move­ment, so Milton holds, is a crys­tal­liza­tion of the art inher­ent with­in the game, much as a sculp­tor reveals the stat­ue that was all the while buried with­in a mere block of mar­ble.

I like the idea of gaming-as-exhibition-as-art. If the enter­tain­er is par­tic­u­lar­ly cre­ative (say, gift­ed in improv or ani­mation), the final prod­uct is all the more excel­lent, much as the con­flu­ence of a beau­ti­ful piece of music played upon a mas­ter­piece of a vio­lin in the hands of a vir­tu­oso soars to artis­tic heights greater than the sum of its parts.

Currently, a few such for­mu­lae have risen to promi­nence. These for­mu­lae, speed runs, reviews, machin­i­ma and Let’s Plays, all arise from the point where prod­uct meets play­er. These videos, these cre­ations, are not the games them­selves – indeed, their exis­tence is derived entire­ly from games – but can be just as enter­tain­ing or oth­er­wise edi­fy­ing, if not more so, than play­ing the game itself. Speed runs are by their very def­i­n­i­tion a per­fect exe­cu­tion of the game in ques­tion. This in itself is a thing of beau­ty, and by virtue of its excel­lence is art. Reviews gen­er­al­ly are just that, but are real­ly engag­ing only if the review­er adopts some sort of char­ac­ter (like the Angry Video Game Nerd). The art of the review, then, is in the per­for­mance of the review­er rather than the review itself. Machinima is per­haps the most artis­tic user-generated medi­um, and its impact on gam­ing is by far the most pro­found. The folks at Rooster Teeth, cre­ators of the still-going series Red vs. Blue, have fre­quent­ly col­lab­o­rat­ed with Bungie Studios, and later Microsoft, on the Halo series, and their con­tri­bu­tions can be seen even today.

But what’s so spe­cial about a per­son sit­ting down and play­ing the game? Let’s Plays don’t show you the opti­mal strat­e­gy for beat­ing the game the Best Possible Way (like speed runs), nor do they nec­es­sar­i­ly go into great depth on all the game’s attrib­ut­es (as reviews), nor even do they cre­ate movies or sto­ries out of the game (like machin­i­ma). So then what could pos­si­bly be the edi­fi­ca­tion derived from sit­ting at a screen and watch­ing some­one sit­ting at a screen and watch­ing a game that we our­selves are not play­ing?

Did you, read­er, ever also read Nintendo Power? Do you remem­ber how you were able to read about the hot new game you des­per­ate­ly want­ed but couldn’t get, given your (prob­a­ble) sta­tus as a job­less minor, and there­by derive a great deal of enjoy­ment from the game by read­ing about it? Nintendo Power offered a unique way to expe­ri­ence games you didn’t actu­al­ly have through vic­ar­i­ous enjoy­ment. I per­son­al­ly looked for­ward to NP’s month­ly write-ups of the coolest new games (such as Jet Force Gemini and Super Smash Bros.), with their detailed walk­throughs of the intro­duc­to­ry sec­tions and in-depth expla­na­tions of the set­ting, char­ac­ters, and the cetera.

Let’s Plays are so pop­u­lar, I believe, because they give us the same sort of Nintendo Power-ian enter­tain­ment. But they are more than just that. The niche Let’s Plays fills is that of hang­ing out with your friends around a game and hav­ing a laugh. As this is the inter­net, where we are all about replac­ing real life with vir­tu­al inter­ac­tion, it only seems nat­ur­al to try to recre­ate expe­ri­enc­ing a vir­tu­al game vir­tu­al­ly. Let’s Plays give you the chance to enjoy a new, refresh­ing kind of com­e­dy sit­u­a­tion, where you enjoy peo­ple very much like your­self hav­ing expe­ri­ences very much like ones you would have. We as gamers are nat­u­ral­ly famil­iar with the sort of frus­tra­tion, gid­di­ness, cama­raderie and gen­er­al sense of won­der Let’s Players expe­ri­ence in the course of play, and are able to relate to these enter­tain­ers as though we were watch­ing a sit­com about our gam­ing expe­ri­ences, or our lives, which is essen­tial­ly what we’re doing. Thus, rather than out­sourc­ing our gam­ing, Let’s Plays give us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to actu­al­ly enjoy our games in a new, pow­er­ful way.

I sup­pose it would do to name a few of my favorite Let’s Players. Tobuscus, a YouTuber of many hats and chan­nels, plays a lot of games and puts them up daily on what must be a her­culean pro­duc­tion sched­ule. Tobuscus’ incred­i­ble impro­vi­sa­tion skills and for­mi­da­ble vocal range, as well as his for­ays into inter­net flash games, make his videos a wacky treat. Game Grumps, a project under­tak­en by JonTron and Egoraptor, is some­thing of the new hot­ness in the Let’s Play phe­nom­e­non. The Grumps have a large fol­low­ing because they strive to recre­ate the buddy-aesthetic described above. Both chan­nels promise a great deal of vic­ar­i­ous fun, though the Grumps are decid­ed­ly unsafe for work.

Slender: The Eight Pages is a great game, one of my favorite recent indie titles. I will one day write in depth about my love of the Slender Man phe­nom­e­non, but right now let’s just say that the sig­nif­i­cance of a user-created bit of folk­lore is an inspir­ing sign of things to come. In the same way that Slender Man is a Big Deal for the Internet, acts of game-appropriation, such as Let’s Plays, rep­re­sent an impor­tant step for­ward in terms of what it means to be a con­tent cre­ator.

By tak­ing estab­lished games and apply­ing their own per­for­mances to them, gamers are giv­ing them­selves agency and cre­ative abil­i­ty where before we were the ones games were cre­at­ed for (mak­ing us the creat-ees, I sup­pose). This devel­op­ment serves to lower the gulf between cre­ator and audi­ence, spread­ing the cre­ativ­i­ty all around. Gamers have been able to mod­i­fy the games they play since Doom, but those mod­i­fi­ca­tions have always been inter­nal, direct­ly con­nect­ed to the game itself.

Let’s Plays, and the other forms of user-generated con­tent we’ve dis­cussed, don’t mod­i­fy the games per se, but rather how we expe­ri­ence them. Minecraft exists, but my per­son­al expe­ri­ence play­ing it and my expe­ri­ence watch­ing it are rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent; I derive much more enjoy­ment from watch­ing some­one else mine for hours for Schrodinger’s dia­monds, com­plain­ing all the while as ze does how hard they are to find, than I do min­ing for them myself. Conversely, I take greater delight design­ing and build­ing my own things than I do watch­ing oth­ers at work. Watching Let’s Plays gives me and my fel­low watch­ers an expand­ed appre­ci­a­tion of the games we love.

  1. I know, you’re all sur­prised. []

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.