Let’s Play – video games as gonzo travel journalism?

I spoke with Leon Compton host of local Australian radio morning show on ABC Hobart 936 AM about Let’s Play video game commentary YouTube clips and if they’re a type of gonzo travel journalism. The link between video game discussion and Gonzo Journalism was a connection that had also been made to ‘New Games Journalism’ back ten or so years ago.

Listen here on soundcloud for the recording. https://soundcloud.com/936-abc-hobart/pop-culture-with-dr-craig-norris-9

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To distill these ideas down to some key points – I’ve been thinking along the following lines:

  • Let’s Play youtube videos are game playthroughs on YouTube which have become immensely popular and attracted industry and popular attention
    • most subscribed channel is PewdiePie’s Lets Plays
    • Nintendo recently gating and demanding revenue (collaborate vs prohibit, gift economy vs commercial economy)
    • South Park #REHASH – Full Episode – Season 18 – Ep 09 recently focused on this phenomenon and its logic.
  • New Games Journalism, a tpe of gonzo travel journalism
    • eg: photojournalism in DayZ
Some Thoughts:
Although video games should be interactive and participatory, nevertheless many have found great pleasure in just watching people play a game on YouTube (this is the basic premise of the South Park Ep). And with the most subscribed channel on YouTube being Pewdie Pie’s video Game Let’s Play it’s worth asking what is going on here. There has also been increasing interested around Let’sPlays with Nintendo’s decision to reap a percentage profit from any LetsPlay’s featuring their games.
So, what’s going on in these Let’s Play videos. There seems to be a number of types of Let’s Play clips on YouTube, to single out the two most common:
– the reaction clip, which involves a lot of visceral responses to the game and riffing off the game play experience. A good example would be Pewdie Pie playing a horror game where we hear the rising terror through his screams and shouts during various jump scares.
– then we have the reflective clip, which tries to offer some transparency and analysis of the game play. Examples include FrankieonPC1080p talking about the Zombie survival game DayZ and exlaining ‘This is who I am, this is what I am trying to do, this is what is at stake in my game play’.  How to play the game well, like you’re getting a tutorial; as well as another dimension – the ethics or morality of playing the game.
The second genre of Let’s Plays adopt a commentary on the game which speaks to something bigger, we can see this in examples where Frankie talks about his DayZ experiences and particularly his dislike of those who kill Bambie gamers (the term he gives to gamers who are obviously playing the game for the first time) who are not armed and present no threat, he will even shoot snipers aiming to exploit the spawn area looking for easy kills against Bambies. and discuss a kind of organic moral system within the game. A similar vibe exists back in 2004 with the short-lived experiments around New Game Journalism – variously described as Gonzo writing meets travel journalism, where writers for various games journals and sites wrote of ther experiences in gaming.
Aspects of it might be continuing the trend espoused back in 2004 called New Games Journalism: “The worth of gaming lies in the gamer not the game” http://venturebeat.com/2009/07/16/the-racial-slur-which-changed-games-journalism/
Which in many ways is about the myth of objectivity in journalism, and the move away from objectivity towards other frameworks such as transparency (e.g.: the recent NPR serial podcast). Eg: providing balance – and the recent interrogation of its worth (e.g.: BBC’s response to climate sceptics). Should you conceal or reveal your bias or subjectivity? Your subjectivity is there within the article, one way or another. See this recent PBS idea chanel episode for a good chat on this theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xT0yRXWo6UU
So, if we look at some recent Let’s Plays we can see some good examples of transparency – gamers reflecting on their own game playing styles and ideas. Reflecting on the process of gaming.
These game plays feel honest, while they made slide along a transparency scale, it nevertheless seems to allow facts and subjectivity to appear together.
While the sad Gamersgate episode fixated on various straw men – objectivity, perceived power games played by female gamers,etc. It nevertheless did speak to this issue around defining and living in this space, and how gaming may be changing.
 about video games. In particular the phenomenon of Let’s Play youtube videos which feature gamers commenting as they play the game and people attempting to do ‘journalism’ within a game.
Ten years ago there was a call for ‘New Games Journalism’ which was a type of gonzo travel journalism as the writer described their experiences within the game world reflecting on loftier questions of morality, ethics, gender etc. Examples include:
I want to discuss where we are now with the increasing open-world survival games like DayZ or ARMA III life and the type of emerging pseudo-journalism/story-telling you tubers are doing within it.
Popular examples include:
This attempt at photojournalism within the Zombie game DayZ:
a youtube on the roleplaying dynamics within DayZ
Also, here’s some good examples of play-throughs. From the entertaining reaction clips from the most popular: PewDiePie
South Park have even featured this phenomenon in a recent video:
And of course there are a whole bunch of questions around video game companies prohibiting or collaborating with these play throughs and commentaries as raised in the recent Nintendo policy towards Let’s Plays.
Craig
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