A long time ago, Doug Walker (aka the Nostalgia Critic) released his most unpopular video of all time, “Let’s Play Bart’s Nightmare.” He begins by describing it as “much easier than just analyzing and putting a review together,” but quickly found that his fan-base did not appreciate his new video at all. With his dismissive attitude, one could assume that it’s the inherent laziness of the Let’s Play (as he describes it) that would cause it to fail. And yet, YouTube’s most subscribed YouTuber, “PewDiePie,” and other famous YouTube stars such as the “Game Grumps,” “Markiplier,” “The Yogscast,” all enjoy a sizable audience with content almost exclusively in this medium. In fact, on YouTube’s gaming website (which has the obvious name of “YouTube Gaming“), any lookup of a specific game title will also find you a section dedicated specifically to Let’s Plays of that video game (e.g. this section of Let’s Plays of the video game Braid). The Let’s Play has become a phenomenon, despite its seeming inherent laziness. So, the question becomes, what value is there to this style of video?
To start with, it’s actually important to define the Let’s Play. This is important because the common understanding of the Let’s Play (a recording of video game footage with player commentary playing over it) is not only an incomplete definition, but it actually conceals the draw of this kind of video (and by extension, causes many new Let’s Players to fail right out of the gate). The Let’s Plays only became a video when adapted by SomethingAwful.com user, “slowbeef.” In actual fact, before he ported the Let’s Play to YouTube, it started as a combinations of text and picture in the Something Awful Forums.
The first Let’s Play is hard to track down, but the commonly cited source is a playthrough of the Oregon Trail that’s lost to the archives of the Something Awful forums. In this thread, the original poster decided to perform a playthrough of the Oregon Trail using entirely suggestions from the Something Awful community. He even named his company using other posters on the same thread. Using this, there was a level of humor through schadenfreude when the community would make choices that threatened the named participants in the company. But ultimately, the appeal came from the community participation in this playthrough, and this quickly became a trend 0n the Something Awful forums.
The transition to YouTube, however, changed the context of YouTube videos. While slowbeef was continuing in the tradition of the Something Awful forums, the YouTube audience came to associate Let’s Plays with different forms of media. For example, for Chuggaaconroy (an early popular YouTube Let’s Player) Let’s Plays were a natural evolution of the strategy guides produces in text form by web sites like IGN, or in magazines such as those published by Prima Official Strategy Guides. In his view, having a video walkthrough just made it a more comprehensive guide that improved on what previous strategy guide attempts tried to do. For NintendoCaprisun (another early popular Let’s Player), Let’s Plays were a continuation of VHS recorded gameplay videos he used to do for journaling purposes back in the 1980s and 90s. By transitioning them to YouTube, his series became something of a personal vlog that would use video games as a way for his audience to get to know him personally better.
So early on, Let’s Plays were seen as something of a broad medium on YouTube. But even then, audiences specifically sought out Let’s Players who could entertain them with humorous antics (especially slapstick humor performed on the player’s avatar). This led to a preference among the most successful YouTubers to treat Let’s Play in one of two ways. For the more recent YouTube Let’s Play sensation, The Game Grumps, they found success by viewing Let’s Playing as an analogue to stand up comedy. So they use it to either specifically mock the game that they’re playing, or to mock daily situations, not entirely unlike a traditional stand-up routine (except with video game footage involved). But the most popular of all Let’s Players are people like PewDiePie or Markiplier. These two also play mostly for comedy, but more heavily favor putting themselves into slapstick situations, or otherwise behaving as if they were clowns who play video games. This has made them extremely popular with younger audiences especially, but since their Let’s Plays are as insanely popular as they are (PewDiePie is the most subscribed person on YouTube right now), their clownish style became more or less the public face of Let’s Playing.
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with that style of video. But it is easy, when that’s the public face of it, to assume that Let’s Plays are a crass and low-brow as a medium, and consequently are also seen as low-effort style of video with no substantial merit. However, as this history of the Let’s Play hopefully shows, Let’s Plays are not so much a reductive form of video making as they are an additive video style. Rather than being about reducing the effort it takes to make a video about video games, they are meant to provide a personal connection to the player, to create an experience with the video game that’s unique to the player, and share that experience across several individuals, thereby providing new insights into a budding artistic medium, and also into the people who interact with that medium.
This is where the value of the Let’s Play lies. It’s not a way to dumb down your videos so much as it is a way to give a voice to video gamers, whether they’re interested in literary analysis, game design, training for competitive play, or journalistic information about the video game industry, Let’s Plays provide an effective way to do that without the need to reinvent video game media each time you need to adapt what you’re doing to a video format. Let’s Play allows you to bring video games into a documentary, stand-up comedy routine, editorial, drama… whatever. But it’s still a young medium, and with time I believe that people will understand it better, and utilize the Let’s Play format more effectively.