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.





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