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The Cultural Importance of the Let’s Play

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In a world where only the big gaming media companies and established game journalists had access to the technology and cultural influence to capture game footage and promote it to a mass audience, it wasn’t particularly easy to do just that. The development of cheaper capture devices and the prominence of video game media on video sharing sites like Youtube have made the “Let’s Play” into something of a phenomenon. Countless Youtube channel owners have videos of themselves playing through games, with webcam footage in the corners of the screen displaying their reactions. It’s become something so common (and in some cases derivative) that it’s become almost an unwritten standard to have at least one Let’s Play on your gaming Youtube channel. But behind this massive following, something definitely has emerged. The Let’s Play format isn’t just a Youtube fad; it has literally changed the face of gaming culture, giving the typical gamer power that was originally reserved for elite gaming journalism outlets.

So why study something like the Let’s Play? Is it really something that’s culturally relevant for gamers? To answer these questions, we should first examine what makes a Let’s Play. It’s usually a collection of game footage with voice-over (or webcam audio) detailing the actions of the player, providing commentary while the gameplay airs. It shares features with things like sports commentary, movie reviews, or in some less stringent cases, goofy critiquing in the same fashion as a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000. Let’s Plays can be informative like a walkthrough or hold a more comedic structure, one that focuses on the actions and reactions of the Let’s Player instead of the gameplay itself. Game footage can be captured using internal capture cards or external devices, and depending on the hardware, can be captured from consoles as old as the Atari 2600 or as new as the Wii U. Footage is usually edited in a video production program like Sony Vegas or Adobe Premiere, and the video is generally promoted on Youtube (one of the most prominent sources of Let’s Play videos).

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Capturing video game footage and adding commentary isn’t really anything too new, dating back as far as 2004, long before Youtube became the phenomenon it is today. What the Let’s Play idea has done is made the gaming community and gaming media on more level ground. While gaming videos in the early 2000’s were very much reserved for the “elite journalism outlets” (those who had access to wider audiences and expensive production equipment), things have made a serious paradigm shift since then. The popularity of Let’s Plays has convinced many Youtube users to make their own, causing game footage capture devices to become much more affordable and easier to obtain. In combination with the ease of Youtube publishing (many video editors now offer instant uploading to Youtube from within the program), making a Let’s Play is now simpler than ever.

So what does this mean? It means that gamers are inching closer and closer to being on equal, or at the very least similar playing fields as larger gaming journalism outlets. To be fair, gaming media sites still have massive viewership and influence (especially in the cases of breaking news and reviews), but when it comes to showing what a game is truly like, you really can’t detail that in a three-minute video review. The Let’s Play format allows for hours upon hours of footage; an entire game can be played start to finish over the course of only a few videos, and with the convenience of editing, videos can be designed to show specific moments instead of the full game, hiding the bits and pieces that can make the creator’s case less valid.

TwitchTv Logo The Cultural Importance of the Lets Play

As if that wasn’t enough, the development of the live stream system has nearly closed the gap between the Let’s Player and the viewer. Like capture devices, live streaming equipment has become much less expensive for consumers. The gameplay can be streamed in real-time over the internet using services like Twitch, near eliminating the time latency that can distract from direct communication between the creator and audience. This makes the relationship between the two all the closer, even going so far as offering chat feeds and live reactions like Q&A’s.

However, the Let’s Play format has since had its share of criticism as well. It’s become so easy to make a video that making a Let’s Play stand out from the crowd has become much harder to do. Many games are frequently selected over others and you will more than likely only find one lengthy retro Let’s Play behind a dozen or so Call of Duty uploads. Some Let’s Play videos are so under-produced and focus so little on the game being played that the format can be criticized, especially when the commentators’ reactions take precedence over the gameplay itself (ultimately defeating the purpose of the format). The dangers of copyright infringement have also become an issue, with the rise of SOPA in 2012 and continued threats of legal action from certain publishers, very much in the same regard as the movie industry affect the small number of film reviews available. But despite these problems, the format has grown into a massive hit for Youtube, with some channels reaching as many as one billion video views.

There’s a twisted irony here. The internet and the creation of online gameplay had seemed to take away the intimacy of the party environment, pushing users onto internet-based services instead of together in the same room, but with the Let’s Play, gamers are being pushed back together, despite being in completely different locations. If anything, the Let’s Play combats the elitism that gaming media had grown since the internet began. In fact, larger media outlets have begun to adopt the Let’s Play format for video features and walkthroughs in order to stay relevant and recapture that fanbase that has since migrated away from them due to that gap in influence. But this is a controversial point: would you rather hear a high-level journalism outlet do a Let’s Play or a typical consumer who is more impulsive about revealing a game’s faults? That’s really up to the audience, but it definitely shows the influence of the format.

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To answer one of the initial questions, the Let’s Play is very important in understanding modern gaming culture because it paints a picture for the gamers, giving them an amount of influence that since was reserved for the higher journalism powers. In a world where game media outlets have seemed to take control of public opinion, the Let’s Play has become a refreshing glass of water for those who wanted to see games in a much purer, more real form. Yes, it has its share of criticisms, but with gaming growing on original, user-driven content and reactivity, it’s something that really can’t be ignored at this point. Like it or not, the Let’s Play really isn’t going anywhere.

It began with a hand-me-down Sega Genesis from his cousin and since then, he's been fascinated with video games. He enjoys the blissful platforming of the 16-bit era and the rich adventures of the 64-bit era. Favorite games include Metroid Prime, Banjo-Tooie, and practically every 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog title.
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