Those of us who grew up playing video games usually had a certain friend who was a controller hog. You’d go over to his house, hoping to do something fun, and end up watching him play video games for the next three hours. Invites to join in were rare or nonexistent. You were stuck looking on, helpless, as he monopolized those precious hours with Mario or Sonic or Link.
It wasn’t generally a fun experience, which is why it’s interesting that such a vibrant, messy subculture of gaming videos on YouTube has emerged. The site is chock-full of people recording themselves playing video games and providing commentary, criticism, or stream-of-consciousness rambling as they do so. Some of these videos are poorly produced train wrecks that attract maybe a few dozen viewers. Others are professional efforts that win millions of viewers. Though the quality and popularity of these efforts vary greatly, what’s clear is that this genre is here to stay, and that some people have started building large followings out of it.
Why does there appear to be such an appetite for watching other people play games while they talk about playing games? The main reason is that, notwithstanding stereotypes of lonely teens hunched over computers in darkened rooms, gaming has developed into an immensely popular social pastime, and many young people grew up sitting around consoles with their friends, playing games and shooting the breeze, often more fully focused on the latter than the former. Many gaming videos on YouTube re-create that feeling.
One of the most popular subgenres of YouTube gaming is “Let’s Play X,” where X is some game. It’s more or less what it sounds like: A person or group of people play a game and narrate along with the action. Sometimes the point of the video is to explain and give first impressions of a new release, sometimes it’s to a revisit a classic, and sometimes it’s to beat up on a notoriously unpopular game. Type “let’s play” into YouTube’s search bar, and you’ll see the results span decades of gaming, over every genre and console, some of the titles long forgotten by all but their most ardent fans.
It may not sound like the most exciting thing in the world, and yet the most popular “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube attract hundreds of thousands of viewers (with a few outliers garnering even more). Achievement Hunter, a gaming website that has built something of a YouTube empire by producing thousands of videos over the last few years, uploads a new one every weekday.
Many of these videos give off the same vibe as a morning talk show — just a bunch of guys (all guys, in most cases) hanging out, making fun of this or that, trying to one-up one another with an onslaught of witticisms. It’s more about the people than the game itself. You don’t tune into your favorite morning show because it’s the best news analysis around; you tune in because you like, trust, and enjoy listening to the people who will be doing the riffing. The Achievement Hunter guys, for example, know how to banter (“Do you think we should make a fortress of dreams?” Gavin Free asks Michael Jones at one point as the two are trying to figure out what to build in “Minecraft.” “A house,” responds Jones, drily. “Let’s start with a house.”)
Setting aside this social component, perhaps most interesting, and surprisingly compelling, are the videos that focus on abject gaming failure. Some are simply short clips of nerds freaking out over their gaming shortcomings. Others are more involved. Jones, for example, does a series of videos called “Rage Quit” — “rage quitting” being a gaming term for getting so mad at a game you exit out of it — in which he lets various games wallop him and records his subsequent entertaining, R-rated paroxysms of rage.
“Why would you make the game this hard?” asks Jones, whose nasal voice is a bit similar to that of Jay from “Clerks” and various other Kevin Smith movies, as a demon hacks him to death in the notoriously difficult “Demon’s Souls.” “This is like 10 seconds into the [bleeping] game. I put the game in the [bleeping] [console] and I’ve died like 40 [bleeping] times. ‘You will die over and over and over.’ Who would want to do that?!” The rant continues in that vein for some time, and by the end he sounds like an overgrown toddler screaming about some slight that adults simply can’t understand.
It shouldn’t work as entertainment, but it does. It’s funny not just because of how Jones works himself up, but because he can’t tear himself away from these games that torture him so. For those whose lives are drenched in gaming, it’s compelling: They see themselves in Jones, in the frustrated gamer chained to an unforgiving game.Jesse Singal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.