YouTube, Let’s Plays and Cognitive Capitalism

Originally published at http://politicaleconomyoftechnoscience.wordpress.com on January 19, 2015.

Lets Plays on YouTube

I came across LPs a few years back — I think it was in 2009 or 2010. I was either ill or hungover and was thinking about playing Deus Ex again but wasn’t sure if it’s was worth the time. I looked it up on YouTube and came across an LPer called Kikoskia who does a brilliant turn at sardonic commentary — see here. I ended up watching 100+ videos, several hours worth of clips all told. I then explored more LPs, looking up games I’d played previously or never finished playing. Since then YouTube and LP videos have basically replaced TV for me. I watch something every day, sometimes several videos, and follow a number of LPers.

Here are my favourites:

  • Obviously Kikoskia: amusing and wry commentary by a British guy, who knows who he is, on various RPG games that frequently takes me back to my youth (well, younger days!) when I played games like Ultima 7, Deus Ex, Baldur’s Gate, NeverWinter Nights, etc. Funny, poignant, nostalgic, entertaining …
  • Then there’s Helloween4545: another British guy, active on Twitter as well, who focuses on horror games. First started watching him because he did an LP of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, which I never finished because I found it too terrifying to play. Interestingly, he now does commentary on gaming issues (e.g. conflicts of interest in games reviews, DRM, in-game advertising) with other LPers like Kikoskia. He also does multiplayer LPs with people like Kikoskia and Klyka, an intermittent German LPer.
  • Next, Necroscope86: yet another British guy (there’s probably a trend here) who does various RPGs and strategy games. He also does video blogs (VLOGS) about his personal struggles with depression alongside gaming.
  • NerdCubed: a British guy who has nearly 2 million subscribers and basically does 20–30 minute showcases of games, including new independent games. He’s amusing and pretty blunt in his reviews, which is nice to see when it comes to something like Dark Souls (which I don’t understand the attraction of at all!). What is interesting, though, is that he has become increasingly influential in the gaming world and beyond, evident in his interviewing of Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who fame).
  • Bajan Canadian: finally, a non-Brit! A Canadian teenager — or just out of his teens — who specializes in Minecraft (the best game ever!) modded games, especially a version of Hunger Games in which players fight each other to the death until only one remains. He has over 4 million subscribers and seems to have a pretty adult head on his shoulders — which is more than can be said for many YouTubers.
  • LifesAGlitchTV (LAGTV): another Canadian channel, this time comprising a couple of guys (MaximusBlack and NovaWar) who commentate on StarCraft games, mainly amateur ones rather than professional (yes, there is such a thing as professional gaming!). Their commentary regularly veers off into other subjects as they forget the game at hand. They started out, it seems, with a series called ‘When Cheese Fails’ in which one player tries a ‘cheesy’ tactic instead of playing normally (and then loses). Probably more pre-pubescent humour than the others, but both casters also do other videos on things like the mechanics and economics of being a YouTuber — i.e. how to make money from it.

What should be obvious right away is the gender imbalance here — this might be my own fault (in terms of what I watch), but it is very noticeable that women are under-represented in the LP world. They are not missing, there are several women LPers with significant followings (e.g. RPGMinx, YOGCASTHannah) and, of course, others without. They are not, however, the dominant voice in the LP world.

Monetizing Personality: Affective Economies and Cognitive Capitalism in Action!

What is clear is that computer gaming has changed and is changing as the result of greater interaction and multiplayer formats. It is likely that games like World of Warcraft, Sims, Second Life and so on drove greater demand for interaction through social media like YouTube — for example, WoW came out in 2004 and the first lets play (LP) video was supposedly created in 2007. The growth in gaming itself, whether online, on smart devices, etc. has no doubt contributed to the emergence and growth of LPs as well. One particularly important gaming development, in my mind at least, was the (full) release of Minecraft in 2011. For those living in the desert for the last three years, Minecraft is a sandbox, survival game. You start in a world and then collect resources and build things; there is no real goal to the game or limits on what you can do within it, which makes it totally different from most other games out there. It is, moreover, rather ugly — blocky, pixelly, etc. However, the freedom it allows players has meant that people can create their own worlds — in creative mode — and then play games in them with other players online. As I mentioned in the last post, one popular Minecraft game is a version of Hunger Games.

Anyway, alongside the social aspects of LPs (and other online gaming), there is an economic aspect to them as well — especially on YouTube. What YouTube allows players to do is monetize their videos — i.e. videos of themselves playings computer games. Any YouTuber can do it, not just gamers. The basic dynamics are as follows — also see video by LPer NovaWar on whole process:

Professor at York University, Canada who's interested in Big Tech and emerging forms of digital rentiership; obsessed with thinking about assets!

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