When I was a kid, I watched my older brother play horror games like Resident Evil, or Silent Hill. Young me was fascinated by these, but didn’t want to play them: Too scary, too mature, and anyway I was pretty sure Mom wouldn’t let me. So I’d creep into my brother’s darkened room on quiet weekend afternoons, and just watch. Plopped on his collapsing blue recliner, resting awkwardly against exposed wood slats, I would silently observe the nightmares he explored. Years later, I remember those times with my brother as some of the best we’ve ever had.
Nowadays, watching other people play videogames is a multi-million-dollar industry called Let’s Plays. They dominate YouTube’s top earner charts and have formed the broad template for streaming live gameplay on the website Twitch, which Amazon acquired for nearly $1 billion in 2014. Every now and then, an article in some local paper or business journal will pop up, listing the major players in the industry like Markiplier or PewDiePie and asking, with more than a little handwringing: How is it that an entire cabal of young entrepreneurs can make six figures just playing videogames in front of a camera?
Cue the touch of moral panic: What are our children even watching?
Well, they’re not just watched by children. In fact, the perspective of the viewer is suspiciously absent from most discussions of this new genre of digital media. Why do we watch Let’s Plays? Just ask us.
I first started watching Let’s Plays regularly about three years ago. I had just moved to a new city to work a lousy job. I was much lonelier there than I expected; the connections I thought I had in my new home proved to be more flimsy than I had anticipated. Old friends flaked, new friends were hard to come by. I spent too much time alone.
Videogames were a useful refuge, but playing them was still a solitary activity. But sometime during this period, I started watching The Game Grumps. Their setup was fairly typical for the genre: Two guys, animator Arin Hanson and musician Dan Avidan, play games while sitting in front of microphones and cracking jokes. It’s an even more niche take on MST3K, in 10-minute chunks.
The conversation ranges from juvenile to insightful, covering topics from game design and history to personal frustrations and dick jokes. It’s informal, two friends sitting on the couch together, talking shit and playing together, a casual afternoon on the couch retrofitted into an improv comedy routine.
Nearly immediately, I was hooked. I eked my way through their playthrough of the Gamecube’s Super Mario Sunshine, a game I remember fondly. Their experience with it brought all my memories rushing back. The intense frustration at the game’s steep challenge, the hours I spent just jumping off of walls aimlessly. Going back and playing Mario Sunshine again would require digging up a GameCube and a copy of the game, not to mention opening myself up to feeling the frustration the Grumps were taking upon themselves. Watching them play was a frictionless, distilled way to recapture that experience.
In a world where playing together on the couch is becoming rarer and rarer, YouTubers offer a substitute by straddling the line between reality stars, critics, and comedians. An open seat next to the play button. The tenor of conversation, for the Grumps and a lot of other Let’s Players, runs the gamut from irreverent to the personal, moving along the same uneven lines as real conversation with friends. A goofy reverie might turn into a confessional. It’s not community, exactly, but it’s a proxy of one, and I think it’s easy to devalue that unless you personally need it. Proxy communities, through mediated relationships and art, create a space for people to see themselves more clearly and to build a sense of connection with the broader world. When you’re in isolation, proxy communities can help you find real ones.
That’s what happened to Alyssa Sedillo, a twenty-something from Colorado who cops to watching LPs regularly. “Thanks to my depression, I struggle with being alone, but Let’s Plays help me feel like there is someone else in the room talking to me,” Sedillo said.
“The Let’s Play community has also brought me closer to people both online and off,” she said. “LPs are something my sister and I share, even though we’re living several states apart. LPs allowed me a connection to some of the more introverted students I encountered while working in public schools.”
“Growing up, I wanted to be a video game reviewer until I saw the level of hate women get in the field,” Sedillo said. Let’s Players like the immensely popular Markiplier offer viewers like her a place to safely sample and engage with gaming and the surrounding culture without opening themselves up to toxicity.
Her answers resonated with me, too. The gaming world can be polarizing and hostile. It’s not always a safe place to share enthusiasm, but so many Let’s Plays are nothing but.
A few years back, I spent a week at a friend’s house, a few of us crashing in sleeping bags on the floor. She had a Nintendo 64 and a copy of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was the first game I ever beat, but I hadn’t had a chance to touch it in nearly 10 years. One afternoon, I sat with her and played while another friend of ours slept on the couch nearby. We spoke in hushed tones as he drifted, swapping memories of our first moments exploring the soaring greens of Hyrule Field, listening to the echoes of the past in the Great Deku Tree’s faded bark.
My sleeping friend told me, later, that he could hear us. Our low voices made him feel safe, he said, like the world was just as it should be. Like all he needed was friends and something to tie us together, and from that he had a home. Let’s Plays remind me of that moment, that connection. They conjure a shadow of it. They remind me that even a shadow of home is worth the time you spend in its shelter.