The Benefits of Not Really Living: On Let's Plays in Videogaming

With Google looking to buy Twitch, we take a look back into an early form of videogame spectating and what it means in the context of that acquisition.

Above: From Silent Hill (Video Game, March 2012)

With Google looking to buy Twitch, we take a look back into an early form of videogame spectating and what it means in the context of that acquisition.

At this writing, tech behemoth and masters of the digital universe Google looks poised to acquire Twitch for more than $1 billion in an all-cash offer. For the uninitiated, Twitch is a YouTube-esque website that serves as a hub for livestreams capturing other people’s experiences playing videogames. It has a rampant, devoted, and massive fan-base that commands a staggering rate of growth, from 20 million unique monthly users in 2012 to 45 million in 2013. According to the company, so far this year it has seen the site streaming about six million broadcasts and hosting about 12 billion minutes watched by users. That’s bonkers.

Should Google finalize the acquisition, which it probably will, the phenomenon of digital remote videogame spectating is likely to undergo an apotheosis and an acceptance into the mainstream. If and when that happens, we’re going to probably see the creation of new sub-industries pertaining to videogame consumption, advancements in the conversations about the aesthetics of videogames, and a crap-load of sponsorship and advertising money circulating around. It’s going to be big, and years from now, gamers will look back at this moment as the crucial maturating episode that truly kicked off the modern history of the videogame-media-industrial complex. (I’d argue that, in a larger sense, we’re still pre-historical, but let’s leave that discussion for a future installment of Text, Lies, and Subtweets).

Reading this whole hullabaloo around Twitch, I found myself falling back into the memories of my first encounters with videogame spectating. Back then, by which I mean about four or five years ago, the format was very different. We were still knee-deep in the PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 era –- the second generational cycle –- and the infrastructure needed for live-streaming still hadn’t really been built out and stabilized yet. Instead of live-streaming, we had “Let’s Plays”, recorded video captures where a gamer essentially visually archives his or her run-through of a game for the audience’s viewing pleasure.

League of Legends was among the three top streamed games on in 2013 (PC Gamer)

The Let’s Play format is a very different animal from the livestreams that make up the core Twitch experience. Where livestreams evoke a sensation similar to conventionally watching a live sport like the NBA or the NFL, Let’s Plays had the feel of watching a travelogue like, well, the Travel Channel or something of the sort. You experienced the environment and interactive arc through a proxy (the actual gamer doing the recording), and all the pleasures and catharsis are contained within the experiential distance between you and the gamer. That distance is attractive, fascinating, and psychologically-complex, and here’s why: a large part of the experience playing through these kinds of games is actually severely, punishingly painful.

There are two sides to this pain. On the one hand, game design largely trades in repetition, which makes sense, because repetition is more often than not the primary mechanism that facilitates the development of skill. In role-playing games like the Final Fantasy or Mass Effect series, you find yourself spending lots of time going through the cycle of getting into enemy encounters and performing the same attacking actions to derive the experience points needed to get to the next area or story chapter. In games that make exploration a principal element like Skyrim, you spend a lot of time negotiating the feeling of being lost and all the intense frustration that comes with it.

On the other hand, receiving the emotional payoffs packed into the game by the designers can also be difficult, challenging, and painful. Like in the case of survival horrors, where the payoff in getting lost and performing rote tasks is to be on the receiving end of perfectly executed jump-scares or to wallow in the overwhelming sense of dread (the Amnesia games were perfect for this). Or the case of shooters like Battlefield and Call of Duty, where you walk out of an hours-long spree feeling the visceral adrenaline of a good game but yet, strangely enough, also feeling headachy and vaguely empty.

Watching a Let’s Play and putting distance between you and the immediate experience instantly mitigates those peaks and troughs, and it's in this mitigation that gives the scenario of watching someone else play its power. You don’t have to stress your cognition in order to enjoy the catharsis of videogames –- with the payoff, of course, being that you only get to receive a watered-down version of those catharses. But that’s okay, that’s completely fine, because you never really wanted to receive the whole unadulterated experience, anyway. It’s too painful, too much of a commitment, too much to bear. You’d much rather be a witness to the experience, rather than being changed by going through the experience first-hand. (In that way, it more than resembles the value proposition of pornography.)

This is especially true for the particular types of game that I feel most strongly about: the ones attempting to seriously handle narrative in an effort, subconscious or otherwise, in order to bring the videogame form closer to being an analogy of film. Prime examples of this subset of games include the Silent Hill series, the Bioshock series, and The Last of Us. Experiencing them through a Let’s Play takes away all the pain from those experiences: respectively, the psychological torture of being lost in horrific exploration, the heavy burden of piecing the larger nuances of the story yourself, and the laborious act of watching the effects of your own violence in your efforts towards survival. But it lets you experience the narrative without break: you get to know what happens to the characters in linear, progressive fashion. And that’s the important thing, right?

As you can probably tell by now, I’m greatly divided over Let’s Plays. I can understand its value: it provides a doorway for people to experience a game that otherwise would be beyond their investment. For one thing, games can be expensive, and games cannot necessarily be universally compatible in the way it wants to be. Let’s Plays allows for the reduction of risk on the part of the gamer-viewer, and they greatly contribute to the expansion of gaming culture.

However, Let’s Plays also undermine the unique value that videogames have as a medium. The form is the ultimate surrogate for meaning –- you literally get to exercise some (note: some) autonomy in a manufactured, approximate world that has a sense of purpose for you. To establish a secondary proxy and even more distance between you and that experience would further take the autonomy out of it, overruling the real value out of it entirely.

I suppose I can fall back on the old adage of there being different strokes for different folks. Perhaps there will always be people who witness and people who participate. Maybe the maturation of the form is a state in which the ecosystem can comfortably, robustly, and mutually beneficially house more than one kind of citizen.

Let’s Plays are largely stored and accessible on YouTube, which is a company owned by Google. The tech behemoth’s acquisition of Twitch will mean that it controls the two outlets that best facilitate videogame spectating of both kinds. This would mark a kind of centralization of videogame spectating, which means more money can flow within a more financially integrated ecosystem.

Such a state of affairs can only bode well for the culture and community of gaming. As a whole, that's probably a good thing.

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