Thoughts on the Let’s Play Phenomenon


There’s an interesting phenomenon that’s been building up steam over the last few years—making videos of video games and talking through them.  It’s similar to a commentary track on a film D.V.D., as generally, a “Let’s Play” video isn’t an attempt at a guide or the like.  Rather, it’s more a discussion on the game, whether humorous or informative, and it usually comes as a series of screen shots or videos.

I can’t help but see it as a boon to the hobby, one that seems to be bringing gamers together, as well as helping to dispel the negative stereotypes of any flavor of “casual” or “hardcore” gamer.

The “Let’s Play” concept can be traced back to Something Awful, specifically forum poster Michael “Slowbeef” Sawyer, who posted a video of him playing The Immortal, with the tag line, “Watch video of an [expletive] play through an extraordinarily difficult game that you never heard of! (Probably.)” Soon other gamers started recording themselves playing video games and giving a commentary, and thus was the concept born.

Interestingly, the concept has its roots in a concept revolving around older turn-based games, the After Action Report, itself spawned from the even older concept of reports compiled after military actions, usually compiled by the general.  One of the earliest, and by some reckoning best, examples is Commentaries on the Gallic War, Julius Caesar’s first-hand account (though written in the third-person) of the Gallic Wars.

Not a bad history for a popular concept, really.

Unlike a “Speed Run“, the object isn’t to get through a game as quickly as possible.  While that definition is certainly popular, and has numerous sites for various types, as well as pages and pages of speed runs on YouTube, it’s not quite the same.

With a Let’s Play video, there’s usually more a sense of fun—whether fun in mocking bad aspects of a game, or fun in teaming up with one or more other people to talk about the game, or fun in showing off little-known elements, or whatever else.  Often, deaths and humorous mistakes will be left in, since the focus of a “Let’s Play” is to enjoy the game, and the camaraderie, whether that camaraderie is with the ones who comment on the “Let’s Play” or with others actively helping with the commentary.

Even in the more “instructional” sorts tend to be done with a sense of fun and enjoyment.  Speed runs, in their focus on getting the game completed as quickly as possible, I think don’t allow for quite as much simple enjoyment.  Let’s Plays, on the other hand, have that enjoyment as the goal.

Making a Let’s Play is also a good excuse to bring out those old N.E.S. and Genesis games and show them off to younger gamers who didn’t grow up with them.  Plus, you can say that a game is difficult, but until someone actually watches, say, the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Superman 64, it’s difficult to express just how difficult many older games were.

Another, though tangential, way to enjoy a Let’s Play is by taking another look at an older game one may no longer possess.  Whether sold, broken, lost in a move, or whatever else, every console gamer has older games they no longer own but still miss.  They’re also handy if one wants to pick up a game but isn’t quite sure, though they do take more of a time commitment than reading a review.  On the other hand, no matter how great a text (or even text with screen shots) review is, they can never quite capture the look of a game.

One of the best aspects of a Let’s Play is the fact that gamers come together to make them a success.  From the person or persons “behind the scenes” to the people commenting and sharing one with their friends, gamers come together to enjoy the games.  That’s the most important, and the most heartening to see, aspect of the concept.

There are almost as many sites devoted to the concept as there are people interested in making them.  You have The Let’s Play Archive, featuring completed Let’s Plays by Something Awful posters, the Let’s Play Forum, unaffiliated with Something Awful, Live Blogginations, a sub-set of T.V. Tropes and focusing on more than just video games, and of course you have positively scads of videos on YouTube.

One can easily while away many hours indulging in Let’s Play videos and texts.  It’s not a bad way to spend that time, either—you can reminisce about games you’ve played before, you can learn something about a game you might not have known before, and you can laugh as the posters make fun of silly aspects of the games, as well as themselves.

The Let’s Play phenomenon has swept through many facets of gamer “culture”, and that’s really a good thing.  It brings camaraderie, familiarity, and humor to a hobby that has too many negative stereotypes surrounding it.

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