Games

Let's Play: Interactivity by Proxy in a Web 2.0 Culture (Part 1)

Image of boys playing video games from Inquiry

Let's Plays are just a small component of the overarching practice of collective gaming consciousness, to which I would add social media sites, review aggregators, game stores and other physical and digital spaces that affirm, check, and remix gaming knowledge along with other fan practices.

This past weekend I was given the honor to present a paper at Rutgers School of Communication's inaugural games studies conference, The Game Behind the Video Game. The conference was broken down into business, law, and society tracks, with a fascinating spectrum of subjects across those subjects. My presentation, held on a society panel along with Ren Reynolds of The Virtual Policy Network and Burcu Bakioglu of the University of Indiana, focused on a particular prosumer subculture known as Let's Play.

Let's Play are multimedia videogame walkthroughs. While the Let's Play community is just one of many out there who marry production of web assets with fan activity, they are an interesting case in their own right for testing the threshold of transformative works.

I find Let's Plays worthy of talking about from an academic standpoint because they change the meaning of play. I've always believed the true proof of legitimacy with any fan practice is simply if people enjoy it. And since LPs are popular, something about them must strike a chord even among those who prefer to play and experience games on their own. What remains is coming up with a framework for the hows and whys of game watching, which is what this series will be doing.

To start off with, I'd like to talk about two forms of viewership and how they determine game watching behavior. Most of this bears out of my 2008 paper with a bit of reformulation for clarity ("Watching the Game: Videogames as a Function of Performance and Spectatorship", dichtung-digital, Iss. 39).

The Spectator

The first type of videogame watcher is essentially a sports spectator. He gets into videogame viewing because of prior knowledge of the genre and is interested in seeing a game performed well by skilled players.

Some typical characteristic of these watchers:

  • Self-identify as gamers.

  • Play within that same genre.

  • Predominantly male.

  • Heavily concerned with ludic elements.

I believe the most important thing to recognize about the spectator model is the first one -- that spectators overwhelmingly engage in game viewing as a performance of identity. As in traditional sports, the onscreen action of games is virtually incomprehensible to the uninitiated, so watching gameplay both affirms the spectator's esoteric knowledge and provides a unique kind of viewing pleasure. "At the highest levels, we tend to be mesmerized by the skill of someone who can accomplish a physical feat much better than we can," says Ed Cunningham, producer of King of Kong (2007, dir. Seth Gordon) and former player for the NFL; "[but] we can only be truly interested in watching a sport if we know how hard what we’re watching is to do" (Kris Ligman, "Watching the Game", ibid).

We see spectatorship behaviors most commonly in crowded arcades and at game tournaments, like the Starcraft competitions in South Korea or the recent Major League Gaming competition in the U.S.. In home settings, spectatorship tends to go hand-in-hand with competitive play among all-male sibling and friend groups.

The Passenger

This second type of game watcher is less talked about, and as a result, I feel it has more potential as a unique counterpoint to existing literature on game consumption. Passengers, those who "ride shotgun" through a player's game, may share similar interests in aesthetics as with spectators but are more likely to not otherwise fall within typical gamer demographics, even though they can be big consumers of game-related franchises.

The characteristics of passengers are:

  • May or may not self-identify as gamers, but often not as personally proficient with them or play them as often.

  • Might stick to other genres for play or only get into a genre after having viewed it being played.

  • Might engage in support behaviors (consulting strategy guides, watching the player's blind spot, level grinding, etc.).

  • Much higher representation of girls and women.

  • More likely to be concerned with narratological elements.

We can see already how the passenger's departures from spectatorship's norms have larger ramifications in terms of gender studies in games as well as the old narratology/ludology debate. At this point, we should be now where we can easily acknowledge that many games fall along a ludonarrative spectrum as opposed to fitting one extreme or the other, which is reflected in the kinds of games we see being shared most frequently with non-playing viewers. There are, for instance, reasons why Starcraft is an ideal game to be played as a competitive spectator sport and not Final Fantasy, just as the excitation about a revealed text such as a Tales game would outstrip the personal investment a younger sister would have for her older brother's hundredth custom FPS map. While game watching as a practice can favor both systems and texts, it usually does so alternatingly and as a result produces two different audiences.

From Cultivating Audiences to Locating Performers

Just as we see intersections between game watching and television viewing behaviors, the reasons for why people play games for show can vary from displays of gaming athleticism to entertainership. Performance is often highly relational, just as viewing is -- that is, a gamer playing for an audience gets as much out of having an audience as the viewer does in seeing something played. We can see this symbiosis of content creators and content consumers as being the foundation of interactivity by proxy: gaming subcultural behaviors that form a bedrock of direct and deferred gameplay and that make up a collective awareness of what a certain title is and how it functions.

Let's Plays are just a small component of the overarching practice of collective gaming consciousness, to which I would add social media sites, review aggregators, game stores and other physical and digital spaces that affirm, check, and remix gaming knowledge along with other fan practices. Still, among all these practices, Let's Plays are unique in how they have been codified into a distinct set of player-audience dynamics, formalist strategies, and relational devices. Players who play for their siblings or non-gamer friends in turn create video walkthroughs (such as female LPer Voidburger), while those who grew up in a culture of competitive and skill-based gaming turn to videos to be showmen and elucidators (such as Maxwell Adams or Chip Cheezum). And viewing Let's Plays, be they satirical or rigorously informative, is itself a way that net-borne fans seek entertainment, enlightenment, and self-validation.

Next week we'll be looking more directly at vectors of play and performance, together with a closer look at specific Let's Players from within the founding Something Awful forums community. In the meantime, I'll be tweeting some of my favorite LPs and LPers, so if you have a favorite rec you want to share or want to learn more, please stop on by.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.