Sometimes I Just Like to Watch: Thoughts on Let’s Plays

Summer time is here again, and if you like video games two tent-pole events are happening for you in June alone. The first is E3, that magical time when studios come together to announce new titles in the works for the various consoles and computers (and their release dates hopefully). The second event, just a week later, is the annual Steam Summer Sale, where Valve offers (sometimes) ridiculous discounts on a large number of games in their library. I have friends who budget for this sale every year, usually picking up more games than they might play anytime soon, just to have them for when the whim to play it hits them. I, in fact, may also be one of those people because I still have Remember Me and Skullgirls sitting untouched on my hard drive after I just finished Never Alone and am on my second full playthrough of Transistor and Knights of the Old Republic 2. 

Assuming I get to them, that still leaves me with Pillars of EternityChild of Light, and Darkest Dungeon to finish (maybe this year).  I would like to think I do that before I get to Overwatch, but on the other hand, I am really itching to reign down some justice from above as Pharah in that game. Even more wishful thinking is I do any of this before the first chapter of Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy VII remake launches, at which point none of you will ever hear from me again because I will have literally moved to the Midgar slums and gotten a job as a member of Avalanche.

In case you were wondering, what my problem here is that I have a lot of games I think about playing but sometimes fail to play. Part of it is clearly my MMO enjoyment; some nights all you want to do is log in and do a few memorized mechanics versus more story-driven works. Another part is a thing that plagues most grown adults; I have a job. I like this job because it affords me the money to buy these games, but it does take up a lot of the time. Finally, some games well… I am not interested in necessarily playing. Take The Last of Us for instance; many of my closest friends really enjoy that game. They are especially aware by now the delight I take in making fun of Joel’s backstory (he moved to Austin to be a musician, not unlike half the population of Austin ok). But I have never actually played it because, in terms of gameplay mechanics, it’s not my cup of tea. My aim in most first person shooting type games is poor at best, namely because I get disoriented being in the first person perspective. I rolled a biotic Adept Shepard in Mass Effect to avoid having to use guns as much as possible. Garrus was a better shot than me anyway, why compete?! So, what does one do when they are a) short on cash, b) short on time, and c) may not specifically enjoy playing the type of game? Enter the Let’s Player.

While I am sure many people are somewhat aware of who these folks are (at least some of the bigger names), to give a short explanation for those confused: these are people who quite literally play through a game and record video of them doing so, usually with commentary offered throughout. Think of it as watching any kind of professional sports game, and these folks are your commentators. Their observations range from the humorous to the technical depending on that person’s particular tastes. I know some who love to talk about level design or the art direction (or lighting), whereas others are more focused on the narrative arcs in the stories. Their tastes in games also vary greatly; some stick to predominately single player narratives, but others like to mix it up by playing with friends more. Game Grumps pairs up people, with one person playing the game while another watches with them and their banter being as much a part of the show as the game itself. Still others try to create a specific style of content, like this series of Mythbusters videos pertaining to Overwatch

Does this still count as gaming? You might think. I would argue it does because I can honestly recall experiencing other games I enjoyed as a kid in this manner. My sister was the better shot in FPS games, but I had the better reaction time — we were a two-person one controller co-op for Goldeneye. I made many distressed noises over Silent Hill 2 with a friend (who I then betrayed by playing very little of it myself), helped name their Pokemon and laughed at the ridiculous kinds of trouble their Sims got into. The fact that YouTube provided a way for people to broadcast this experience to bring enjoyment to others does not make someone less of a fan of video games. The fact you went looking for the videos is proof enough you are!

But now that you’ve seen the game, will you buy it yourself? I think this thought process is reminiscent of the .mp3 argument from the early 2000s when Napster, Kazaa, Limewire and the like were running rampant. A lot of news coverage about pirating had this firm tone that if you pirated something, you would not support that artist. Later on, people grasped the real crux of the issue; it was not that people were stingy, it’s that they wanted more accessible means to procure music. Who here can say they have not purchased at least one .mp3 from Google Play, iTunes, or Amazon Music if that obscure track they wanted was available? If it were not for so many videos of people enjoying themselves with Overwatch, I would not feel the need to purchase it like I do now. The same goes for Uncharted 4. Having played none of the previous installments, I had zero interest in the franchise. Now I’m itching to budget out money to purchase Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 because I fell in love with the characters over the course of this play through. Are there going to be people who do not buy the games? Certainly. But can it be said that those people were going to buy them to begin with? Not with complete certainty.

As games become more and more ubiquitous to society, the different ways we enjoy them are going to grow outside of play. Whether it’s for the original purpose of a firsthand experience or viewing someone else’s crafted content using the game as their medium is irrelevant. If you enjoy the game, enjoy it.

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