With YouTube’s new streaming service breaking into mainstream media discussion, it caught the attention of a certain Jimmy Kimmel, who went on to air a comedy sketch poking fun at the popularity of the let’s player scene. The sketch was… poorly received, to put it lightly, the video’s comment section soon swelling up with chauvinistic vitriol. But did I feel the urge to join this brief but web-wide strawman of Kimmel, for the sake of gaming comradery? Absolutely not, learn to take a joke, dammit.
But this event did trigger in me an internal debate on the ‘let’s player’. Why are they popular? Is it fair that they earn so much money? Let’s examine two opposing dispositions, in light of the recent Kimmel sketch.
(The popularity of) Let’s Play is ridiculous
The most commonly passed around criticism of the popularity of the let’s player, represented in Kimmel’s sketch, is that watching their game-captures only provides a kind of tertiary enjoyment of the whole video game experience. The initial element of agency is immediately removed when someone else is playing and even after this, the potential secondary enjoyment of communicating with the person playing is also removed when you’re only watching a video. This is akin to watching a video of someone having a colloquial conversation rather than having one yourself. The subject matter covered and the pace at which the conversation progresses is entirely taken out of your hands. People view the enjoyment from let’s plays as perverse, an awkward satisfaction from denying yourself a much better, more natural video game experience.
This is often rebutted by referencing the popularity of live sports, where equally people could just play the sports instead. This is easily a false equivalence. The popularity of watching live football is rooted in the satisfaction of seeing world-class players strive above others, and subsequently this is why world-class clubs are the most watched around the world. Football is a standardised, universal sport which no one owns the rights to. Video games range from Tetris to cult classic narrative The Wolf Among Us. There’s no standardised criteria by which the ‘talent’ of a let’s player is judged by because video games as a whole don’t have the standards. There is a market for competitive gaming, of course, but unless we’re talking about places like South Korea competitive gaming is infinitely less popular than the let’s play. Most of video game players could do what Pewdiepie does, but very few people, perhaps no one now or ever could achieve what Lionel Messi has achieved in his lifetime. This is partly why so many people are perplexed by the popularity of the let’s player, because they lack any perceivable talent. And this makes their success a lot more arbitrary, owing to their personality and already established popularity alone.
And this wouldn’t be so bad if that popularity didn’t bring with it an awful lot of money. It’s reported that Pewdiepie makes an average of $4M USD a year just… playing games. And while I appreciate that in this world there are other people more undeserving of that kind of cash, you still have to call this instance into question. I understand that Pewdiepie donates half of his income to charity, however the donation feels a lot less charitable when he’s in such a position to do so. Struggling let’s players don’t hate Pewdiepie for the sake of being contrarian, they hate him because he’s doing the same work for different money. At the end of the day he takes home $2M USD for showcasing things he himself hasn’t made or in the least bit contributed to
And on that point we come onto the topic of infringement. I never quite understood the widespread backlash to the perfectly rational Nintendo partnership scheme (where Nintendo demanded a share of the revenue from let’s players Nintendo gaming videos). If you are using something that Nintendo has made in order to establish your own popularity, then you undoubtedly owe Nintendo a slice of your pie. No one would solely watch a let’s player’s commentary without the gameplay, it’s the two elements working in tandem that allow for an appealing let’s play. Nintendo is helping them out, not the other way around. We need to abandon the idea that let’s plays are solely advertisement. There is empirical evidence to suggest that let’s plays directly boost game sales, but that isn’t taking into account the millions of people who can partially experience the game for free anyway by viewing these let’s plays. And it remains uncertain whether they would have bought the game otherwise.
While the notion that viewers can achieve a free gaming experience by viewing a let’s play directly contrasts the idea that the let’s play is so relatively bland it’s pitiful, the fact will always remain that let’s plays of story driven or story centric games give viewers a narrative, that writers have worked incredibly hard on, in a way in which no writer gets compensation where they otherwise would. This isn’t right. It has never been the case with books or films that it’s culturally acceptable to access these stories for free, and I think we need to begin to closer inspect the reason why gaming is currently an exception.
(The popularity of) Let’s play is reasonable
While I appreciate that let’s players undoubtedly owe all of their popularity to games that they had no part in creating, sometimes, and this usually depends on the player agency of the game involved, the let’s player can add enough of their personal touch to the game that the whole experience retains an element of originality. Look at what the Yogscast did with Minecraft, their entire Shadow of Israphel series was centred around their own imagination, and the game itself was simply a conduit and not directly the main source of entertainment.
And sometimes let’s players actually improve upon the gameplay experience through their commentary. I’m currently enjoying Jesse Cox’s ‘scary game squad’ shakily tiptoe their way through Until Dawn, the squad’s witty quips heightening and also appropriately diffusing tense situations. It’s comparable to how Jimi Hendrix took Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower and simply made it so much better. Should all proceeds of that song go to Dylan because of it?
And while the level of humour put forth by let’s players isn’t exactly Louis C.K standard, they’re no more or less likeable than your average radio or television host, and there are some genuinely attractive personalities amongst let’s players.
I personally watch a select few let’s players that I find to be consistently funny, however I dislike the let’s plays that feel like an outlet to experience a game without paying for it. And for me watching a let’s play often comes with the reconciliation of me enjoying it and the concious knowledge that watching one will contribute to a system of potential freeloading and sometimes dangerously intense parasocial relationships.
Kimmel has a point. It’s incredibly easy to say that him and Nintendo are ‘out of touch’ when it comes to the let’s play, but perhaps it’s time to do a double take at how touchy we get on the subject, and how well the protection of the let’s play holds up against scrutiny.