Let’s Play

I suppose YouTube has done a great many number of things, and (as undoubtedly for other interest-groups) for the ‘gaming community’ one of those things has been to provide a platform for a new way of doing an old thing: watching someone else play a game.

As my university studies this year have slowly transformed into a turgid mess, I’ve sat in on a few ‘Let’s Plays’: hours long recordings of someone simply playing through a game, and talking over the top of the footage.

What’s suddenly struck me about these kinds of YouTube ‘shows’ is that they form an intensely interesting phenomenological experience. I’ve come to realise that watching someone complete a game from start to finish is an epic journey. I suppose what makes a Let’s Play different from the age-old real-life couch experience is that it’s almost as if you’re the person playing the game on the screen  — it’s as if the viewer constitutes a kind of  higher cognitive process of a single mind. One part of the mind actually plays the game, and the footage of this game is transmitted to the other half, which sits there and evaluates the results.

Take this for an example. I decided to watch a Let’s Play of Zelda 2 for the purpose of writing an earlier post on the game (as I had only ever been able to complete half of it), and the childhood memories that were evinced during the process of recording the (difficult) game mingled with the player’s more recent, immediate experiences of work and other mundane everyday activities, and this gave the play-through of the game this insane level of depth. In a significant portion of the Let’s Play, the player went from talking about work, to divulging a memory about when he was a child, making up nonsensical names for the enemies on the screen with his sister — the entire series of vidoes having been filmed over a couple of months, hearing the player relate significant memories (sometimes the same ones, repeatedly) to his seemingly unchanging present life gave the impression that you could detect what made his life important, worth living.

Praxis: From The Phenomenological to The Political?

It strikes me that the level of access that anyone can have into a person’s existential tribulations when they watch Let’s Play signifies something very profound about gaming as an art-form. It’s been recently announced in Australia, by the Federal Government, that a modest sum of money (20m AUD) will be spent on the game industry. The government cited that they were doing this because they believed that gaming presented itself as a logical extension of other art-forms like film, photography and painting. This should of course present itself as a very welcome gesture to the gaming ‘industry’/’community’, but I think that what Let’s Plays reveal about art in general is that the communication of meaning (through art) must harbour anarchic and spontaneous elements to its eventuation. Because the technology was there, thousands of people got to peer into the life of this person because they decided to sit down and play a game and talk about their life. As a result, I believe that they probably gained a whole new perspective on a game they had understood in a previously other, particular way.

The recent publicised decision by the government to, in a small way, fund game development in Australia can probably also be better understood by contrasting the above with the results of Let’s Plays that feature people playing bad games. I suppose when I refer to ‘bad’ games I really mean a specific kind of game, one developed and marketed primarily for the purpose of making money. The phenomenology of playing a bad game is unlike the placid, nostalgic experience of playing a well-worn childhood game. The frustration, exasperation and disappointment of being unable to comprehend, or progress in a game shuts out the viewer’s access to the player’s reflection on their existence, and forces them to focus entirely on how they’re reacting to the game being played. A poorly developed game is an affront to a player’s senses; it seems impossible for a someone to lull into a domain of psychological security when their access to the virtual reality of a game is unintuitive.

In this regard, when it comes to this kind of funding from the government for game development, such an initiative is almost meaningless. Let’s Plays provide a convenient demonstration why. The funding from the government won’t mean anything for Australian gaming unless it transforms our “community’s” process of collectively constructing (developing, inventing, processing…) meaning around our games, unless it makes the Australian game praxis more ‘dynamic’. Perhaps best put simply, if that twenty mil results in a couple new games with which everyone is mildly pleased, but then forgets (no matter how much money it makes), then it’s wasted money. The announcement is probably more important. It’s gotten gamers talking about ‘Australian’ games, and that’s probably good enough.

Spyro: A Conclusion

The particular way a player went about interacting with channel subscribers in order to solve a puzzle in Spyro 1 in another Let’s Play can serve as yet another example of what is most important about gaming as an art-form (I can think of at least another three or four examples). The way players discover tricks and short-cuts in games and pass them on — in a seemingly organic manner — between themselves illustrates the essence of art, language &c: where there was originally intended to be one meaning, there now exists the potential for an infinite number of meanings. It seems that there exists, when a game is played, an over-determination of meaning. With respect to this Let’s Play, the particular player involved had spent their entire childhood never understanding how to reach certain platforms in certain levels, because two or more different perspectives of those platforms were needed in order to understand where they were placed in their respective levels. Varying conflicting, but equally valid suggestions about how to reach those platforms were proffered up by viewers.

(As an aside, I now have a new appreciation for Spyro; the entire game consists of trying to get to higher and higher platforms in order to explore all of the space that exists — I’ve never played Spyro 2 or 3, hopefully I’ll find that they build cleverly on this concept, because it truly is a beautiful one.)

I think what all of this (Zelda 2Syro, 20 million dollars) means is that gaming and art is all about what communication and meaning really are.

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