Hello everyone. In this article, we discuss the theme of ‘Let’s Play’ in YouTube.
YouTube and Me
YouTube was created in 2005 by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim. The website is a video-sharing platform for people to upload and share their video-based content, with themes and content ranging from different genres such as music, film, TV and adverts. Over the past 9 years, it has grown to be an important site for social communications where millions of interactions takes place each day, vital for people trying to get their word out.
This has allowed different people and groups to post their opinions and views through online videos, ranging from individuals to national corporations such as BBC, NBC and others. Because of its video-sharing nature, interactions between people is fluid. People uploading videos to their accounts can have others view, comment and provide feedback on them. The video itself also contains bits of metadata such as total number of views, publishing date and the number of likes/dislikes (which many use a barometer of how ‘great’ a video is).
The social impact of YouTube is remarkable for a number of reasons. The effects on culture have both negative and positive aspects, but for the sake of this article, we will be focusing mainly on YouTube as a platform of expression for individuals. Anyone can create an accounts and begin uploading pretty much whatever they want (within reason to YouTube’s terms of service). It is here that people can begin to create a steady following depending on their success.
People can subscribe to a certain channel they like. The more subscriptions to a channel, the more popular that person becomes and the recognition they receive. If they are extremely successful, they could even have contracts from established media companies at their door. Even those companies use YouTube to get their content across. Famous celebrities (mostly singers) such as Rihanna, Katy Perry, Justin Beiber and One Direction upload their music online via their record label. A myriad of established groups and organisations also use it such as various news channels and political parties.
What is interesting, though, is that it isn’t just famous people making a name for themselves. Its video-sharing aspects has allowed ‘grassroots’ talent to emerge. In short, ordinary people have used YouTube to become successful in their own right, becoming YouTube Personalities. Channels such as Jenna Mourey (Jenna Marbles), nigahiga (Ryan Higa), Zoella (Zoe Sugg), and Fine Brothers have all developed a steady/devote following that has propelled them to online popularity. The examples listed garner well into millions of subscribers from all over the world, but there are plenty of others who have had similar success in their channels. If you are successful enough, you can make a living.
The people mentioned have gained millions of subscriptions, the biggest YouTube draw remains Felix Kjellberg, better known by his online handle, Pewdiepie, and has over 30 millions subscribers. Pewdiepie is an interesting figure in the community. The fact that he has over 30 million subscriptions is not because he is a singer. He is not a politician, activist, athlete or actor. Unlike the examples listed above, he is a videogame player, and his success revolves around what is known as ‘Lets play’ videos.
What is Let’s Play?
In its simplest definition, Let’s Play (LP) is essentially people playing videogames themselves for others to watch. People often provide commentary to their videos, generally expressing their current thoughts, opinions and feelings of a particular game. Patrick White (2013) defines it as ‘a video showing a screen captured video of a gaming session wherein the player provides commentary over what is happening’. Think of it as a running commentary of people playing games. The term is apparently credited to Michael Sawyer (aka SlowBeef) who produced a screenshot play through of The Oregon Trail which founded the LP culture. As a result, a forum was established to store and archive future LP called Something Awful. ‘A long, long time ago, back in 2006, a little trend started slinking around the Games subforum of the Something Awful forums: people were posting up screenshots of themselves playing various old fondly-remembered videogames (such as Oregon Trail and Pokemon) and including their own humorous commentary. This proved to be a winning – if not entirely original – formula which very quickly exploded in popularity! Before too long, everybody was trying to get in on a piece of the action’ (Something Awful, 2012).
Felix Kjellberg (aka Pewdiepie) is the most subscribed person on YouTube
Let’s Plays are separate from similar formats such as walkthroughs. Whereas a walkthrough is about sharing experience and knowledge for others, LP is usually the player’s first-time play-through; as such it is subjective and contains genuine feelings, opinions and criticisms at the time of playing.In most cases, a small screen within the screen is shown of the player themselves as they play. It also seems a ‘tradition’ that the commentary provided is usually a humorous, profanity-laden play-through, depending on the personality of the player.
These types of videos can easily get a large following. If we factor in how big the market is for videogames, we can safely say that there is an audience out there for people to watch others play. To put things in perceptive, as of March 2014, ‘the top five Let’s Players collectively have more YouTube subscribers than Peru has people. A user-generated Wikia page tracking current Let’s Players, their subscriber totals, and their videographies lists about 950 players with active YouTube channels, collectively followed by more than 60 million subscribers. And the Wikia page acknowledges that this isn’t a comprehensive list.’ (Zoia, 2014).
Zoia (2014) adds: ‘the chance to earn money, let alone a living, by playing video games was an adolescent fantasy until YouTube launched its Partner Program in 2007. It allows eligible YouTube users to make money through Google AdSense, which runs targeted commercials alongside user-generated video. Users who join the partner program get 55 percent of advertising revenues – the amount determined by the type of ad, its price, and how often the video is viewed – while YouTube keeps the remaining 45 percent. A few hundred views per month hardly generates pocket change; tens of thousands might pay the rent…As an alternative to YouTube’s Partner Program, users may seek membership in multi-channel networks (MCNs), like Maker Studios or Fullscreen, companies that manage YouTube channels and offer members such benefits as cross-promotion, product merchandising, tech support and perhaps a more desirable revenue split. Details are hammered out in individual contracts.’
A typical Let’s Play video (featuring Pewdiepie playing The Last of Us)
The influx of LP channels can be contributed to various software and hardware that aid in recording, compiling and uploading. A popular choice of video recording is a software called Fraps. In most cases, footage of LP would normally be unedited so as to contain the genuine feelings and emotions expressed at the time of playing. Of course, video-sharing websites such as YouTube and Twitch have made sharing and uploading LP videos easy. With Twitch, people can stream their footage live, giving a real-time experience of playing which suddenly becomes like an online cinema. It also helps to have the actual player with a sense of quirky humour.
Let’s Play and the Social Impact
With the rising popularity of Let’s Play channels, there has inevitably been some implications, particularly among on the videogame industry side of things.
Firstly, there has been praise on the fact that Let’s Play channels can indirectly promote a videogame, especially if that game would have trouble finding an audience on its own right. In other words, if a popular YouTuber such as Pewdiepie posts a video of him playing an independently-made game, this would inadvertently give exposure and coverage for that game. ‘Let’s Play videos are considered good advertising – what better way of saying people are playing a game and having fun than videos showing people doing just that?’ (White, 2013). The critically-acclaimed Thomas Was Alone has benefited from this form of marketing, with the game being covered as a Let’s Play by another popular player, Total Biscuit (John Bain). Other examples include Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Outlast and Plants vs. Zombies.
This has in turn led to different perceptions to the way in which developers now design their titles. Having a title covered in a popular Let’s Play channel now seems like a glowing endorsement considering that hundreds to thousands of people will have watched it. ‘Getting covered by a big-name YouTuber is now essentially the dream of many game developers. The publicity someone like TotalBiscuit, NerdCubed or Northernlion can bring you compared to mainstay consumer websites like IGN, GameSpot and Game Informer is becoming increasingly significant’ (Rose, 2014).
Big personalities means big views. Pewdiepie himself has been largely successful in bringing independently-made games into the forefront. As Zoia (2014) notes, ‘in one November video, he plays the Xbox Indie game ‘Techno Kitten Adventure,’ helping a feline avatar navigate dangerous terrain filled with unicorns and narwhals, and shrieking in frustration each time his cat crashes into an obstacle.’ This video is into the millions, although you suspect a large majority of the viewers are watching Pewdiepie goof about rather than the game itself.
Still, the impact cannot be understated. Getting a title covered on YouTube can created more sales and revenue than in the written press or major gaming websites like IGN for many developers. Aaron San Filippo, creator of Race the Sun, explained the positive coverage his game received as a consequence of being covered in a Let’s Play: ‘For sure, the biggest Youtubers have had a much bigger impact on our traffic and sales compared to the biggest sites we’ve been covered on. When DanNerdCubed played Race The Sun and linked our Greenlight page, it had a bigger impact than all of the website coverage we’d had up to that point, combined. I’m also pretty sure that TotalBiscuit’s coverage on our Steam launch day helped increase our week one sales a lot, which probably helped keep us on the Steam front-page longer. If we’re smart, we’ll try to arrange this type of event more intentionally next time!’ (Filippo cited in Rose, 2014).
While the impact of Let’s Play coverage can be an significant factor in how titles are developed, this is much more noticeable in smaller developers as opposed to the bigger companies. Let’s Plays tend to favour quirky, fresh and original independent games. Partly this is to draw in more viewers to the channel but also increasingly changed the mindset of game development in that developers release titles early in a playable format. Steam, Valve’s online gaming platform, has a feature called ‘Greenlight’ which is dedicated to community made games. Many developers are using this to get out an early access form of their titles well before the final form. This gives a chance for the game to be covered, providing the developers with feedback and commentary but also exposure.
A recent example of this is the horror game Five Nights at Freddy’s. It was one of the success stories after it was covered by a multitude of YouTubers like Pewdiepie, but also others such as Markiplier (Mark Fishbach), Yamimash (Aaron Ashe) and LDShadowLady (Lizzie Dwyer). Scott Cawthon, the game’s sole creator, designed a simple game where the player has limit control over a set of camera banks and door controls and must last the night against a series of rogue animatronics. He later stated ‘as far as simplicity, I wanted to keep the game simple enough so that anyone from any country (without needing to read or speak English) could pick up the game and learn to play it within a few minutes. I wanted it to be about the experience, not endless tutorials on how to play’ (Cawthon cited in Couture, 2014). The game’s simplistic, but unique interface, seemed to have a resonance with many people and before long millions where watching Let’s Plays of people frantically battling with these scary monstrosities. The success of this coverage generated enough substantial interest that a sequel, Five Nights at Freddy’s 2, was released not long after.
Five Nights at Freddy’s simplistic interface and horror theme was a success
However, Let’s Plays finds itself entangled in the net of copyright laws. As Zoia (2014) explains: ‘Let’s Play videos exist in a gray area of the law. On the one hand, players appropriate footage – sometimes wholesale – from copyrighted video games and run ads on them. Game developers argue that this amounts to intellectual property theft, and is illegal without a license from the games’ publishers. On the other had, a Let’s Play video isn’t simply a recording of a game; the player adds his narration and changes the experience for viewers. In legal language this is called ‘transformative fair use,’ and players believe that because they re-purpose an original work, they should be allowed to continue. Let’s Plays also provide free advertising for the games developers wish to sell.’
This is an issue that not only affects videogames, but also music, film and sport. It is also one that will not have an easy resolution. Many independent developers see Let’s Play as a marketing opportunity to showcase their work, but equally others feel that these videos infringe on their intellectual copyrights. Nintendo was notorious for coming down hard on fan fiction and content. ‘Nintendo took a different approach, registering its intellectual property (IP) rights with YouTube in February and then beginning to push copyright claims against Let’s Play creators. The claims didn’t block the videos but, rather, removed Let’s Play creators’ ability to run ads on them’ (Totilo, 2013). Gera (2013) adds that ‘Nintendo is now claiming ad revenue on user-generated ‘Let’s Play’ videos that feature the game company’s content…As a result, Let’s Play videos using Nintendo content will be bookended by ads while content-creators will not receive any revenue for the videos.’
Many people were angered with this as it meant Nintendo could effectively put adverts relating to their titles and that the person who uploaded the video would receive nothing in return. Although Nintendo may appeared to have ‘softened’ its stance since, this issue is ongoing. This relates back to Zoia (2014), who effectively explains both sides of the argument. Nintendo felt it needed to uphold its intellectual property rights, but are people who record themselves playing games infringing on these rights? White (2013) perhaps offers some clarity: ‘I do concede that if a YouTube user posts a work that is not theirs…that violates copyright. However, the law also says that commentary and parody are protected forms of content. While the original creator deserves his dues, going after fans for expressing their appreciation is detrimental to the original creator’s success.’
Legal issues aside, Let’s Play forms a fundamental complement to videogame development and reception. The power and opportunity they can carry is valuable to developers in getting their games out there. The capabilities of video-sharing websites like YouTubes offers the ultimate platform for these things to happen. People who simple play and film themselves playing games can find an audience and created a steady, growing channel. Likewise, getting a popular YouTuber to cover a title potentially is a gateway to having thousands and millions watch it too. With those numbers, it’s too irresistible for smaller developers to ignore, and that is why Let’s Plays are a big deal.
Patrick White’s article ‘Fan fiction more creative than most people think’
Christopher Zoia’s article ‘This Guy Makes Millions Playing Video Games on YouTube’
Let’s Play Archive
Mike Rose’s article ‘Is YouTube killing the traditional press?’
Emily Gera’s article ‘Nintendo claims ad revenue on user-generated YouTube videos’
Stephan Tolito’s article ‘Nintendo’s Turn For a 180? ‘Let’s Play’ Drama Might Have Happy Ending’
Interview between Joel Coulture/IGM and Scott Cawthon