The ReDeads in Ocarina of Time scared the hell of out me when I was eight. It was probably the moaning. Give it a listen; it’s still pretty unsettling. At the time, I was so afraid that I’d put off playing the game just to avoid running through future Hyrule Town square while those ghouls scream and groan. My little brother was too afraid to play the game at all, but that didn’t stop him from watching me play. Having an audience was comforting. With my brother watching the ReDeads felt less scary–manageable even. Eight year old me wouldn’t have had the guts to finish that game if not for the shared experience of playing with my brother. It’s hardly a unique phenomenon; the same thing’s been happening for decades as family and friends tackle scary movies and games together in the living room. Thanks to Let’s Plays, that fraternal experience of enduring horror together is more attainable than ever, but in a drastically less meaningful flavor.
The most popular Let’s Player, PewDiePie has over 31 million subscribers to his channel. Audiences that large can be difficult to conceive of, so here’s some perspective: For the past six months, PewDiePie has gained about 30,000 subscribers daily. That means that every day he’s reeling in almost twice as many perennial viewers as SkippySigmatic’s audience and my audience combined. The equivalent of 10% of the United States’ population is seated in PewDiePie’s virtual living room, and 30,000 new faces pile in each day. Now PewDiePie’s demographic information isn’t publicly available, but looking at any one of his comments section shows that he owes much of his success to young teenagers and adolescents.
These adolescents–like the stone cold maniac on the left–are putty in an LPer’s hands. They’re amused by meme screaming and sing-songs. They may consider Minecraft to be their favorite video game. You know what, that’s all okay. If you reflected honestly on your interests as a twelve year old you’d probably want to kick your own ass.
Most interesting about these whippersnappers is that they’re not only jumping on “kids stuff” for the Let’s Plays they watch. I mean yes, Happy Wheels is one of the most Let’s Played games in the world and all, but kids also flock to horror games like Amnesia in massive numbers. In fact, it was PewDiePie’s Amnesia Let’s Play that cast him into the limelight to begin with.
For a child or young adolescent, a game like Amnesia might be too intimidating to play at all. So they do exactly what my younger brother did with me: they sit down with their “Bro” and tackle the fear together. Adults do it too: they might not be too afraid to play horror games on face, but watching a Let’s Play of a scary game carries the same appeal as putting on a horror movie with friends.
But are the experiences really comparable? You’d be hard pressed to argue that watching a stranger react to a horror game as one of 31 million “Bros” is equivalent to being in the same room as a flesh-and-blood brother, experiencing the game together in real-time. There’s a wonderful social and emotional dynamic realized by a few pals playing video games side by side.
That dynamic is exactly what made the GameGrumps popular in the first place. JonTron and Egoraptor were friends who played video games together, and sappy as it sounds it was touching to watch. Recall that in most GameGrumps Let’s Plays only one of the hosts actually plays the game; the other sits on a couch with them and talks. The same is true of Two Best Friends Play–these channels were and still are popular because that dynamic is awesome: both to watch and to experience in person.
But this heartwarming authenticity all too often falls to pieces with time and fame. PewDiePie’s output consists almost entirely of meme-screaming and lolsorandom “jokes.” Jon left the GameGrumps, and now it feels more like a commercialized product than ever, with the laughter feeling more and more forced by the episode. Yes, millions of kids still enjoy these Let’s Plays, but keep in mind that kids and adolescents are still developing the sort of discerning judgement and critical taste that you and I take for granted.
It isn’t apparent to a “Grump” how commercialized the GameGrumps brand has become. It’s not obvious to a conscript in the “Bro Army” how horrendously unfunny PewDiePie’s fractured-English screaming is. People of all ages are drawn to these sorts of Let’s Play channels by the cooperative closeness they invoke, but adults with mature sensibilities are driven away, forcing the lowest common denominator of taste and humor lower yet.
Not to say that all fans of PewDiePie or the GameGrumps are children though. Many are adults, but said adults are hardly paragons of well-adjusted maturity. The YouTube channel Silvermania produced a pretty depressing video that illuminates this fact all too uncomfortably.
Poor taste is usually pretty harmless though. Why should I care if people want to watch awful Let’s Plays?
It’s because Let’s Plays are such a poor substitute for the real thing. If eight year old me had a PewDiePie let’s play of Ocarina of Time to go watch, I can’t say that my brother and I would have ever shared that experience we both remember so fondly.
Let’s Plays tap into the same pool of emotional synchronicity as playing a game with your best friend by your side, but often in the cynical spirit of meme-propelled commercialism. Cynical or no, not even the best Let’s Play can hope to match the feeling of tanking some scares with your buddies in real life, and I can only hope that the growth of Let’s Plays doesn’t crowd that sort of experience out of our lives.