Let's Play: Interactivity by Proxy in a Web 2.0 Culture (Part 4)

The ways gamers customize their gameplay and then document that play has the potential to significantly affect how certain titles and their surrounding culture of players are perceived.

Today marks the final of four articles expanding upon my "Interactivity by Proxy" paper delivered in early April at Rutgers's Game Behind the Video Game conference. Previously, this series looked at vectors for audience engagement and three of the four major taxonomic categories of Let's Play walkthroughs, the Expert and the Chronicler and the Comedian. We wrap up today with discussion of the last major LP type and arguably the most contentious from a social sciences perspective, the Counter-Historiographer.

To review, let's return one last time to our Pokemon analogy to discuss in brief the major Let's Play taxonomy described up to this point.

Fire: The Expert

Fire-types love to show off. No one can play this game as well as they can, and it's down to them to demonstrate just what is so spectacular about it. I've previously cited the work of Baldur Karlsson as being located in this category.

Water: The Chronicler

Water-types revel in subtlety. Or maybe just freezing things in place. Chroniclers are also often completists, aimed at documenting the entire game that can possibly be played. I pointed to the screencap Let's Plays of Luisfe as being emblematic of this type.

Plant: The Comedian

Forgetting the failed analogy of comparing any group of Let's Players to sedentary flora, the important thing is that Comedians are entertainers. They may or may not be experts and may or may not be about showing the viewer the entire scope of the game, but they do aim to please. Last week we saw that VoidBurger's comic Silent Hill Let's Plays as well as the work of Chip Cheezum and General Ironicus fall within this category.

And last but certainly not least:

The Counter-Historiographer

(Subtypes: updater, revisionist, autobiographer)

As a practice of record-making, Let’s Plays contain some inherent limitations. Chief among them are the ways in which particular records of games have the potential to reinforce, even make hegemonic, certain interpretations or paths in games. Thus, counter-historiographers take it upon themselves to offer alternative documents that allow for the revisiting of gaming artifacts, opening up new interpretations, and adjusting the objective record.

One way of examining this practice is to look at instances where two or more Let’s Plays exist for a particular title. For instance, the main Let’s Play Archive hosts two separate walkthroughs of Tim Schafer’s 1998 Grim Fandango. The first record is a screenshot and textual walkthrough by Luisfe, whose procedural style seen in his Digital Devil Saga LP returns here in the form of minor notes translating Manny’s Spanish, but otherwise there are few interventions on his part ("The Day of the Dead is coming, let's play Grim Fandango!", Let's Play Archive, 18 Feb 2007). When asked in the beginning of his walkthrough why he was covering the same title, a second LPer Vexation answers, "The original thread was mainly in screen shot format which didn't included alot [sic] of the excellent voice work and music that the game features" ("Get your tickets ready for Grim Fandango: The Movie", Let's Play Archive, 09 May 2008).

Vexation also cites a personal vested interest in having a video record on hand, fearing that it would be a “hassle” to have the game play properly on future hardware. Here we see the Let’s Player strongly interested in providing his own chronicle for the dual reasons that he feels it is underserved by the existing record and also why it is potentially underserved by technological advancement. Vexation’s unstated assumption, that his uploaded encoded video will weather these same technological changes much better than the game itself, is also worth noting.

Counter-histories are also means by which players can test the limits of their influence on a game engine to record their own preferences or personal stamp upon the game. A good example of this would be the proliferation of video walkthroughs on YouTube and elsewhere that feature the customizable protagonists of BioWare's Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises. Although both franchises have male and female default avatars, the aesthetic choice of a player to adjust their protagonist’s appearance can in turn become a reflection on the player in a subtle but defining way, especially if it is being done for the sake of making a statement in addition to a preference (Gus Mastrapa, "Every Gamer Should Cross-Dress", Joystick Division, 7 Jan 2011). As a gesture in favor of sexual and/or racial exploration or as a statement of aesthetic or personal preference, the ways gamers customize their gameplay and then document that play -- from going around in pink armor in Halo 3 to recording players' homophobia to Maxwell Adams's Let's Play of Mass Effect as an absurd, yet subversive sexually blended Commander Shepard -- has the potential to significantly affect how certain titles and their surrounding culture of players are perceived.

I focus particularly on Bioware's RPGs here in part because Mass Effect and Dragon Age are both franchises near and dear to my heart but also because I feel it may be especially valuable to further explore how minority representation is emboldened by these personal histories in such games. As I wrote in response to Gus Mastrapa's post (linked above), women gamers (as well as many players elsewhere outside the dominant white straight male demographic of most of these games) have grown up being forced to suture themselves into the lives, histories, and perspectives of characters who do not reflect them -- to such an extent that to be able to play as someone who resembles themselves (or can be tailored to the particular values that they find attractive, important, or different) can be amazingly empowering. Identity performance and conscious counter-performance are thus far more central to the counter-historiographer than any of the other types of Let's Players and as a result may warrant the most rigorous investigation in the future.

As a corollary to that, counter-histories also require nurturing. I would argue that as much as Grim Fandango LPer Vexation echoes the trust that Let's Players have in shareable web assets being able to outlive game software, there is a push for a dominant, all encompassing record that is not conducive to these smaller and more personal performances. This tendency toward canonization of particular gameplay paths may be all but inevitable for a variety of reasons, not the least that they are frequently reinforced from the commercial end through marketing and promotional demonstrations. Yet as academics such as Henry Jenkins and Rhiannon Bury have observed, the any-spaces-wherever that the web provides leads to breeding grounds for counter-canons and personalization from fanfiction communities on up to subversive Let's Plays, deconstructivist mods and critical spaces like The Border House.

What would it mean to record and exhibit a totally pacifistic run of an action game? Perhaps it's just a neat skill to net an achievement trophy or a few minutes of fame, but perhaps it could also spark a conversation on the role of violence as an optional win condition? How about performing a "feminist run"? A "Marxist run"? If you are thinking at this point that many games' systems are simply not conducive to breaking that much with their implicitly male-oriented, heteronormative, capitalist structures, you would be making a fair point -- but it would not be a good reason for players to cease in such an attempt. Moreover, with Let's Plays' tendencies toward humor, skillful exhibition and attention to detail, they seem to me to be uniquely positioned to be subversive, oppositional, and to serve as a venue for at least a small modicum of social justice and exploration.

A Wild Corporate Interest Has Appeared!

One question that inevitably arose while conducting my interviews with Let's Players was what publishers might or should do in reaction to Let's Plays. My response is traditional Jenkinsian optimism. In that regard, I think that it's free advertising that developers and publishers should be happy to receive and that moreover free and unmonetized spaces are absolutely essential to a strong and healthy fan community. There is also the inverse to that, however, raised by the question: does a video series that essentially documents an entire game do little more than demystify the game and drive down sales? Will gamers who would have otherwise have invested their $60 take their money elsewhere once they find that they can simply watch someone else play it?

Obviously, the commercial ramifications of game sales models is far larger than the scope of this article, but if there is any takeaway from such hypotheticals, it is that not all Let's Plays serve an identical function. Some respond to the availability of a title, others to its cultural value. If games with a strong linear story are better watched than played, perhaps they shouldn't be sold for the same amount as a game promising an endless multiplayer experience. Maxwell Adams's comparison of Let's Plays to athletic exhibition (cited in part two of this series) is also a factor. Let's Plays don't drive away consumers but reinforce their bonds with gaming as a cultural identity, just as machinima and other fan remixing practices do. Developers seeking to bolster that response can do so by providing more tools to perform that identity, not by becoming frantic about unauthorized videos on Youtube.

Cosplayers Jennifer Merizan (left) and Holly Conrad pose as their Bioware heroines of choice.

Conclusion and Notes

It is my hope that through the course of this series that I have highlighted what I feel are some of the most interesting aspects of Let's Plays as a fan practice. By virtue of its origins, this inevitably all comes off as academic, but these really are walkthroughs with something for everyone. If you are not already an avid watcher, I do encourage you to check out one or three over at the Let's Play Archive, Chip and Ironicus, and Freelance Astronauts.

I would like to thank the Let's Players who took the time to speak with me for this project and my ongoing research: Baldur Karlsson (baldurk), VoidBurger, Maxwell Adams, Feinne, and Azuriazyfire. Thanks as well go to my academic advisor, Tara McPherson, who suggested the taxonomic approach and my professor William Huber for his revision notes and feedback. Lastly, many thanks to Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shreshtova, and the Civic Paths research group for providing me a strong model to work from.

We exist in a net culture that is increasingly crowd-driven to such an extent that while Let's Plays do not replace the consumption of games and transmedia, they do alter that consumption, its processing, and its accompanying identity performance. Game watching is now a part of play culture as much as play itself, something the early Let's Players in the Something Awful forums seemed to have figured out far in advance of games studies rhetoric. It would be thrilling to see a subfield comparable to television audience studies take up residence in some corner of games studies in the oncoming decades, particularly as we increasingly look to games as relational and play itself as sublime art. But, I admit to a little bit of bias in that respect.

Join me next week as I either cave to my impulses and write about Dragon Age II again or get a Portal 2 post out of my system. In the meantime, do check out this week's Moving Pixels podcast for a less academic, more familiar style of critical punditry regarding Dragon Age II.

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