We’ve come a long way from playing “Pong” in the family room to keep busy until “Planet of the Apes” showed on channel four. Video games have caught up with technology’s unrelenting, Forrest Gump-like pace. Gone are the days when that simple, electronic table tennis contraption sat in the corner of your mother’s house waiting to be used (it’s still sitting there, collecting dust); now you can play a shiny shoot-’em-up piece of entertainment so realistic that it puts your great-uncle’s ‘Nam stories to shame.
If the ‘80s are to be called anything (other than crazy), it’d be the decade of the arcade. With the introduction of now-classic gems like “Pac-Man,” “Tetris,” “Space Invaders” and “Galaga” you could play these awesome games at the price of a few quarters. Or you could watch a friend or two play the same game that you just died on seconds ago. If you ever wanted more proof that humans are meant to be social creatures, the arcade is good evidence in and of itself. There’s something magical about being with friends, with fellow nerds who cared about typing their initials next to their high scores, that creates a great amount of joy and passion for what you’re doing at that very moment.
Fast-forward about 30 years, and the magic of old-fashioned arcades have been successfully replaced with YouTube and Let’s Plays.
A Let’s Play (or an LP), in its most basic sense, is when a person records themselves playing a videogame, with one camera angled at the gamer’s face and another usually at the computer or TV screen itself with the game of choice being played. PewDiePie, the most famous gaming YouTuber right now, makes a living off of LPs that he posts on a daily basis.
LPs have gained a lot of prominence and attention over the past few years, up to the point where in 2015 you won’t find a self-proclaimed gamer who can’t name their favorite YouTube gamer. Arguing the merits of each and every big YouTube star is practically the new console-versus-PC debate that’s plagued the gaming community for the longest time.
There are a lot of important reasons why LPs are (rightly) popular at this moment, and why they’re important for video games as a whole. For one thing, it’s a pretty good business venture for the huge companies that actually make the content YouTubers do their LPs on. Just think about it: The age group for PewDiePie’s fanbase is relatively young. There were plenty of advertisements for games and arcades back in the good ol’ ‘80s, and of course companies still produce ads for their latest games up to today.
But people like PewDiePie who sit and record their own experiences are, for lack of a better word, giving out free advertisement for those companies. This is different from traditional ads or reviews because LPs combine the magic of watching actual gameplay experience with quick, real-time reactions of a YouTuber. It feels fresh and legitimate, unlike the harsh words of a one-star Yelp review. As long as companies and their lawyers don’t suddenly strike YouTube with the power of a billion takedown notices over potential copyright infringement, then gaming companies will continue to benefit from what is for the most part a positive PR campaign that they don’t spend a dime on. It’ll help them create even better games in the future. This takes the business term “you have to play the game to beat it” to a pretty literal level. (Get it? Like levels in a game? I’ll quit my job now.)
But more importantly, what LPs are doing on YouTube is recreating the magic of what arcades did back in the ‘80s. We’re social creatures. From shooting self-indulgent selfies before social media existed to catching up on the news with the evening paper back when newspapers existed, arcades represented the ideal escapist location for geeky friendships to develop and grow. Sadly, arcades declined in the ‘90s as the home console took off, and fellow nerds everywhere left their budding friendships back at the “Pac-Man” machine to check out far more advanced games they could play all by their angsty selves.
Then the Internet became a thing, and YouTube was created. It didn’t take long for someone to put two and two together and realize, “Hey, I could share my gaming experience with friends and other passionate gamers on them fancy new interwebs by video!” And that’s important, because that is, or at least should be, what gaming is all about: another chance to make friends and connect with others.
It should also be noted that the YouTubers who post LPs are pretty great people themselves. Pewdiepie, or known by his full name Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, holds a unique position in the gaming and YouTube world. As a Swede who’s fluent in English, his fanbase is spread out through much of Europe and North America, and since English is the second-most spoken language, his fanbase can only grow exponentially larger. He’s respected and adored by millions, and with his fans he’s donated hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity from the money he makes creating his videos.
Many YouTube commentators follow in his footsteps (such as Markiplier, my personal favorite). So people who post weird videos of themselves making noises and faces only God would recognize aren’t just doing it for the giggles and subscriptions. They really do want to make the world a better place, all with the yearning of human connection through video games.
Now excuse me as I put my fedora on and watch some weird middle-aged guy scream over creepers in Minecraft.