There is a man who makes $10,000 a day because 27 million people want to watch him play video games. That man is Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie. The majority of the YouTube videos he creates see him alternating between screaming, spouting stream-of-consciousness musings and delivering bad puns (but hey, who am I to judge?). In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, PewDiePie revealed he makes $4 million annually from his YouTube channel, and is (to his credit) keenly aware of his influence.
The story came at the same time Gamasutra’s Mike Rose wrote an article titled “Is YouTube killing the traditional games press?“. Rose interviewed developers who stated that, while traditional games press may provide exposure, it was getting covered by popular “YouTubers” that resulted in notable sale spikes. Elsewhere, Anita Sarkeesian released her latest Tropes vs. Women in Video Games episode, an excellent 30-minute breakdown of women as virtual background decoration and the systemised rewarding of deeply sexist and discomforting in-game actions. Polygon games journalist Brian Crecente livestreamed his process for writing articles by… well, writing an article live.
“Everything is compelling when someone is streaming it live,” he wryly comments.
They and others like them represent the new emerging media surrounding coverage and critical analysis of video games. It’s often raw, but occasionally superbly produced. It’s personable and warm in the way that writing can never be. I’m all for it. I’m also wary of it; it has lessons for gamers and media alike, but I’m concerned about some of the conclusions being drawn from this growing movement.
Evolution is painful
As a man who loves the written word, preserves (well, kinda) his video game magazines from way back when and is willing to wile away hours deep-diving into Polygon’s long-form pieces and Kill Screen’s esoteric game coverage, it’s hard for me to admit that maybe — just maybe — writing’s not the best way to cover games. Animation, audio-visual design, script-writing, UI, game mechanics and interactivity: video games are a multifaceted pileup of disciplines in motion, and writing’s static, linear nature is never going to be able to fully do them justice.
Let’s Play videos can be a far better indicator for viewers of whether or not they’re going to enjoy a game, and as of right now, are often honest and an unedited experience (more on this in a bit). This is particularly useful in games where the interaction of several systems results in a different experience for each player, and where the narrative is not the core conceit of the game.
Anita’s analysis, for example, could have been presented in an article on the topic. It wouldn’t have been as effective though, for the very reason that seeing the gameplay parallels play out onscreen is far more powerful to her argument than words could ever convey. When you watch some dude get a health boost from having sex with a prostitute and then shoot her to get the money back, then watch him pay for the exact same health boost from an in-game vending machine, it can’t help but have an effect on the viewer. I’m doubtful that any article on the topic would have the same emotional impact.
Enemy of the people
Critically, YouTubers are seen as a more legitimate source of information and appraisal; Robin Hoods of Truth that have sidestepped the corrupt gatekeepers. There’s a prevailing opinion amongst gamers that gaming journalism exists purely as a platform for publisher PR, paid reviews and prissy English majors with a penchant for textual masturbation about their feelings*. It’s a myth that’s occasionally propagated by the gaming press themselves. Take Rose’s article: there’s a place for us, it seems to say, and that’s letting YouTubers know what’s up next so that they can do the real work.
It’s an opinion that fundamentally misunderstands the value of aggregation and publications like Gamasutra — having the resources to collate vast swathes of information with relatively short lead times and a multidisciplinary team that can keep each other in check. There’s something to be said for the means of delivery itself: inherently retrospective, it aids a different approach to the delivery of games news and criticism, one that might be the result of months of investigation and reflection.
Equating them is problematic, but the gaming press hasn’t exactly done a good job disentangling the two. When we publish trailers without caveats, or run stories whose source is whoever wrote it first, we merely entrench the notion that gaming journalists aren’t necessary. We don’t actually have that many gaming journalists, if truth be told. Gaming writers are plentiful, but the two aren’t comparable.
The snake slithers silently and smarmily
“Video” game journalism is also not without its own ethical quandries. Phil Fish imploded spectacularly recently when he described Let’s Players as pirates and that they should be giving the majority of their revenue to the developers before ALT+F4’ing out of Twitter for good. While his assertions for why YouTubers should provide him revenue are, frankly, absurd, they operate in a murky legal area of fair use. It’s a question this new group are wrestling with with varying degrees of success.
Let’s Plays are more open to attack from upset publishers and developers, as could be evidenced by Nintendo’s copyright claims on numerous Let’s Plays using its titles last year, something the games press is (generally) more resilient to. It’s also much more transparent as to where YouTubers are receiving their revenue: take the Xbox One scandal earlier this year, which brought into question some rather murky dealings between Machinima and YouTubers to promote the Xbox One without necessarily specifying that was the case.
The other problem is it favours personality over the quality of the content being presented. This isn’t a slam against Let’s Plays or video criticism (Jim Sterling’s Jimquisition, for example, is precisely the kind of acerbic, witty criticism our industry should thrive on), but it does mean a candid or extravagant opinion may be preferred over a more germane presentation of the facts. It also means that those that have the money to throw at production will win out: as an example, Nintendo decided to skip having a press conference and cover E3 live through their Nintendo Treehouse channel, streaming exclusive playthroughs, developer interviews, on-the-ground impressions of their games and more.
And they nailed it — it was slick, it was natural, it was entertaining, it was in-depth and everything you saw was exactly what they wanted you to see. Taken at face value, that’s a problem – but unless game journalists stop delivering the same rehashed content, I don’t see any reason for viewers to go anywhere else. Games writers, particularly those online, dismiss this new wave at their own peril; especially if they’re to retain their relevancy for an increasingly jaded audience.
* This sentence is ironic.