Home » Blog » Pioneers: Watching People Playing With Themselves

This article is taken from Pioneers is a column I do weekly on Nanu-Nanu.com.

Last week I skimmed through potential ideas surrounding the use of YouTube and how it is having a dramatic effect on broadcast media, as much as culture in general. From there I asked you to let me know what you watch on YouTube – I’ve had quite a response, and I look forward to reading through any more you have to send me. But this week, by way of a lengthy introduction, I want to talk to you about what I do on there.


I spent the last week at my parents’ house, digging through old boxes packed from moving years gone by and I found some gold (you can read my semi-erotic nostalgia stream on my twitter page). Some of the boxes I must have packed 10 years ago, and even then they only collated stuff which hadn’t been touched for a decade before that; 20 years of glorious clutter. I pulled out Gladiator’s toys, a talking drinks coaster from hit BBC Comedy “They Think It’s all Over” and a whole host of Simpsons gumpf that I foolishly imagined my brother would like for Christmas (and who wouldn’t want a homer slouched on sofa next to their television which would hail catchphrase abuse with every use of the remote control?!)

Then came a box that made me weep. Next to Timmy Mallet’s board game (genuinely looking for a small team to play through this if you are interested) and between dusty dining suits that would make even Bernard Manning looking fashionable (and he’s dead), I found my holy grail: a treasure trove of vintage gaming, my holy trinity of digital glory: a Sega Master System, a Sony Playstation and the Sega Megadrive. All in their original boxes, and surrounded with the games I used to play on them.

The first console I ever bought took me three years of saving from Birthdays and Christmases, £5 from depressed Aunt sally here, £10 from randy uncle buck there, and topped up with pocket money that I had convinced myself my parents owed me thanks to the influx of sitcoms for Kids on the Disney Channel (yes we had Sky, fuck you). Back when I first made the purchase, my family thought it would be a waste of money, but I planned it expertly – the £100 box set saw the console (second generation) packaged with Disney’s Lion King, a killer game for the under 10’s if they happen to be a fan of lion based platformers. From this day on, I was hooked (and destined for light hearted obesity).

Amongst the slightly weary cardboard, I even found a multi-tap which really showed my age – a peripheral that allowed you to add four controllers to a console that was only designed for two players.  Sure, I can’t have the same eldered shivers from the Amstrad days (we did own an Amstrad but I’ll be damned if I can remember anything beyond the rainbow striped keyboard), but even I was old enough to remember a culture of gaming that wasn’t to be shared. It was niche, a hobby for the lonely. You had to want to play, to find this world yourself, on a 14″ TV screen borrowed from some spare room or closet, twice as deep as it was wide. Gaming was a dirty secret.

Consoles have since developed from this mysterious 2D word (anyone remember zoop?) and has developed into the multi-billion dollar industry that now has a games console in almost every home, that not only plays games, but the entire media experience. Sometimes we forget just how staggering graphics are these days – sure Fifa 13’s models all look like the reanimated corpses (my favourite being United’s Raphael, who in the game looks like a lemur from the 70’s), but from a distance you could be fooled into thinking you are watching the real thing, less football arcades and more a Sky Sports Simulator.

Rio Ferdinand looking scary in Fifa 13

So realistic that they predicted Rio’s international career would be dead, so they rendered him a zombie and decided to make him look like he wanted to kill you too.

Not only this, the staggering cost of games means that to be successful, games have to be rammed with content. 20 hours minimum of gameplay to get a decent return on the 50 bucks you have to shell out for the latest release. Not only this, but these consoles are hooked up to be social, connected into the internet, and thus to players from around the world. Who can shout abuse at you. In surround sound. Mega.

These games were too long for me. Even if I had the composure to stay interested in the single player, the literally endless possibility of online gaming meant that multi-player extended the half-life of a game exponentially. Games became mystifying in their complexity and dangerous in their capacity for immersion. For a few years I had to let this world go – I couldn’t be trapped as I had been before, the potential to be lost at sea in an endless perversion of shoot-em ups, career driven sports games and open-world hero stories leave little time for a real life. Because they expect you to take on a life of someone in the game world, which they’ve made to be perfect.

Even when detached from the over-designed landscapes of in-game playing, the consoles have a life as Media Hubs to suit the rest of your life. My PS3 is chock-a-block with films and TV, whole libraries of ripped CDs, and with their own apps and services designed to deliver the artistic output of the outside world through your 44″ Plasma TV. Buying the latest console isn’t about the games you can play, it’s about buying into a lifestyle. I may have the latest console, but I rarely buy a new release, and I don’t think I’m unusual in that, especially now I have such a vast back catalogue at my fingertips.

In the last year or so I’ve rediscovered what it is to be a gamer, but I still rarely play – and even rarer still that I make it to the end of a game. Sure, works of art like Portal 2 demand that I play them, and are rightfully demolished in a glorious weekend; but these releases are few and far between, and it is only when I know what I want and I play it to completion. Then I fuck off before I’m suckered in to the extra, Downloadable content.

But I still love Video Games, and want to keep in touch. To keep on top of this world, I rent games through LoveFilm. I’m probably one of the few people to still use the postal DVD service, but for me at least, with games it makes sense. I play a game for a few days, get a feel for the thing, and send it back. If I really like the game, I’ll pick it up for cheap a few months down the line, but more often than not, I’ll shove the disc back into the envelope without a moment’s notice. I might get to try out 4 or 5 games a month, for a couple of quid at a time. I must have the most useless collection of Bronze Trophies given to me for picking up the fucking controller. CONGRATULATIONS, it reads, YOU MADE THE CHARACTER BLINK ITS FIRST BREATH. Here’s a fucking pony.

And this is, finally, where YouTube comes in. For the most part my experience of gaming is through what I read, or more often than not, it is often through someone else playing. And I am not alone.

The king of the culture of video games videos is Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, whose “Zero Punctuation” series on The Escapist match extreme cynicism, fast paced metaphors and humour with a genuinely respected critical opinion that yearns for a return to well made gaming. Often thought of as the Charlie Brooker of video games – remarkable due to Brooker’s own history in videogames – his simply animated web series, funny as it is, does little to pioneer a format that is essentially the same kind of entertaining reviews that has been the staple of mainstream journalism in this field.

Where the innovation begins are found in more amateur attempts elsewhere. “Let’s Plays” are now a staple of the video game industry on YouTube. What these consist of are simply video feeds from people playing games, often accompanied by narration of some kind. Maybe its someone playing a game for the first time, and giving you their honest first impressions of a game, reviewing the concept and potential but not the game itself. Usually it is something in Beta that won’t be released for some time, but often it might even be something you’ve played before, but played by a critic you trust, or just like to listen to. I always enjoy seeing films before listening to one of Mark Kermode’s review, just so I know how valid my hand flapping is. I imagine driving cars into walls and watching Clarkson might be similar. Maybe even shoes and a famous woman? I don’t know that world. Sorry. But you get the point.

In other situations, “Let’s Plays” might include games played through in their entirety, from start to glorious finish. The joy of playing the game is deferred to the joy of the game being played, and receiving gratification in this manner. When I rented the bizarre dating-sheep-horror-puzzle-platform Catherine (genuinely, my full review here), I wanted to play it to the end purely driven by the story, but I didn’t have the time despite the game’s wonderful sentiment; I followed up what would happen in cut scenes uploaded onto YouTube – allowing me to also see the ending for being both wonderfully good and devilishly bad (another symptom of the current climate – games now have alternative endings, desperately hoping you play through a game twice and be convinced it was worth all that money). These cut scenes aside, playing a game to completion, often in a series of videos, becomes a staggeringly addictive way to enjoy oneself.

Mainstream TV does occasionally glance past this desire – in Japan at least, popular show GameCenter CX sees comedian Shinya Arino play through retro video games in search of their end screen. The challenges he faces are as much an endurance of will as much as he is hampered by notoriously awful thumbs, and cowardly approaches to bosses and monsters. (If you have an interest and a spare hour, I’d thoroughly recommend one of the most entertaining challenges, in which Arino plays “Takeshi No chousenjou”, a game on the famicon – the Japanese NES – which was designed to piss off those playing it with near impossible challenges and unentertaining sections, and the story that goes with the making of the game.) But even this has only seen a life of its own in the West thanks to YouTube.

Next on our agenda are speed-runs, which has nothing to do with a fast and dangerous form of diarrhea. In speed-runs people demonstrating their uncanny knack of ratcheting through releases at pace, eager to prove their record beating fastest time, and ingenious exploitation of bugs and techniques that make the game move that much faster. For about a month I was obsessed with catching up on the Half Life series like this. Sacrilegious to some, but man I just wanted to know the story – I don’t have the time or the patience (or probably the graphics card) to find out what happened first hand.

Beyond this there are those who are doing so much more than just playing games. It is how these games are used that are fascinating – in PC gaming especially, where games culture their own vibrant community of modders, people add and take away elements of games, create their own worlds, maps and push the games to their limit. GMod is a game developed from this, building on the Half-Life engine, it allows gamers to mess around and create, and has spawned a whole plethora of vidoes that stretch and shoot (for a full history of GMod, check out this and other articles on the development by RockPaperShotgun.com)

But it isn’t just games that are designed to incorporate this playful exploration – on YouTube, the art is making the playing of the the games the entertainment in itself. Some like Yogzcast, among their many video types, use narrative to thread vodcasts of games together, like their quite joyous first encounters with the survival mode of Minecraft. This team has been so successful that they have even spawned their own game Yogventures, having been backed on Kickstarter to the tune of half a million dollars.

One of my favourite channels on YouTube is Dan “NerdCubed” Hardcastle. What he does is play games, and has fun playing them. Sometimes he revisits old classics, and other times he gives first impressions for new titles.  But whatever he does, he has fun playing them, and entwines jokes and structure into the video, so that the joy of someone fucking about in a game – that same experience most players have after being bored and drunk, turning a game into its sandbox alternative seeing what they can do to make things not work, killing oneself in hilarious ways or just shouting at the screen when it wants you to take the game more seriously. Basically  he wants to play games and he is a joy to watch.

Aside from just playing games, he attempts other ways of coming at games, including his epic semi-tutorial “how not to suck at minecraft” series that sees him build things requested by his viewing community. Though not the absolute best architect of the medium, NerdCubed uses a light hearted and energetic enthusiasm, in what could probably be symptoms of some kind of attention deficit,  lends itself to an enjoyable way to watch someone do something remarkable. I cannot put across how much I enjoy what he does. As testament to his raw talents – and this coming from someone who spends their life drowning in the world of stand-up – I’ve spent hours catching up on his shows, and found myself even enjoying him play around in Bus Driver Simulator OMSI (and several other real-world simulators ) without a second thought that I am actually watching someone play a game that I would never play myself. For hours. Just driving a bus. Picking up passengers. Giving them correct change. Occasionally braking incorrectly. It’s hilarious.

And this is where the pioneering element of youtube re-emerges in our brief analysis: What with the inevitable demise of the print industry, there is no better place to turn for publishers than the popular blogs and video channels of those. Trusted critic TotalBiscuit now spends his days roadtesting new games, and highlighting yet to be released software as part of his “WTF” series – now well into it’s 18th Season. My new favourite game Faster Than Light I found only through NerdCubed. And I enjoyed him playing the game so much, I actually waited in line – a digital line sure, but I was potentially as cold as had I been waiting outside – for the game’s release the hour it came out.

Where before, the presence of games on the site were examples of the beautiful and the bizarre, such as the notorious Leeroy Jenkins video, or remarkable throwing knife kills. Now the games are themselves a canvas for others to use for their own production. Even South Park has made an episode almost entirely from in-game footage from World of Warcraft – take a look at this by example. The games themselves become a vessel for your puppetry. An artistic medium like any other.

Following Burnistoun’s Robert Florence on twitter, one is so often reminded of the glory days of gaming TV. His work on Consolevania made popular, gaming entertainment for this generation. But aside from this, there hasn’t been a real games culture on television for far too long. My childhood was littered with such experiences; I remember watching Gamesmaster religiously, the squashed head of xylophone enthusiast Patrick Moore guffawing and disparaging the young and the lame (in gamesplaying terms). Other memories include recorded Saturday Morning TV on my VHS, which flashed up thousands of cheats and hints for games in a highly dense minute of television – so fast that unless paused frame by frame, none of the information was visible. It was even through this that I was exposed to comedy that spoke to me – the first times I saw David Walliams was on Sky One’s GamesWorld, where contestants had to beat “The Videators”. This world may be long gone, but there is scope for a re-emergence of the format, as demonstrated by the vast variety of content available, particularly on the Machinima uberchannel – but the key is that of course, the geeks and hobbyists hat dominate the gaming landscape are not ones to watch TV. This is why their world is documented online.

So where next for Videos of Video Games online? The next stage has already been launched, and is hugely popular – a whole service outside of YouTube for watching other people play games called Twitch.tv. Having completely ignored the culture of competitive gaming that is rife in South Korea, and becoming more and more popular in the Global North, we now see this kind of gaming as sports entertainment in the service.

The key to this service is that it is all about playing games, and forefronts content according to different elements that only make sense for video games TV. Live streaming games being played by champions, popular channels, in competition or casually by people you don’t know means that you can access the world you want to access without feeling awkward. What’s more, you can find content according to the game you want to see being played, and the games don’t have to be the twitch style game, the popular shooters that dominate mainstream gaming, but focus on independant platformers and cult classics too. By building on a community exclusively tied to video games, all of which is being live streamed with incredible ease, the service has a bright future ahead of it.

It isn’t necessarily skill that is enjoyed by these kinds of viewers though, but also endurance. Foremost in this category is Charity event Desert Bus which raises thousands of pounds through riotous gamesplaying marathons, all in the name of a good cause. The game in question is “Desert Bus” a simulator spoof that sees players driving a bus across America in an 8-hour trip – and considered to be the most boring game ever created. The live streaming of such an event, made enjoyable by the vibrant personalities that take part, are a remarkable recipe for updating the tired charity events dominated by Red Nose Day and the like. And it makes sense too – why appeal to the everyman, and in the process alienating audiences while embarassing performers having to avoid subject matter and wet, shallow humour, when you can have every appeal that the interested niche could want.

Development too is beginning to incorporate live streaming as part of the process. Watching Minecraft developer Notch playing games on Twitch isn’t where his visibility ends – in a recent event Ludum Dare, he and his team were live-streaming game development to make and build a game in a weekend, again for charity. There is an endless stream of people interested in how a game gets made, and focusing on the community in this way is a fascinating endeavour to building a game’s commercial viability.

Gaming itself has been on the cusp of embracing trends in streaming technology for their ends. LiveOn, though struggling financially, allows people with very limited technology to play the latest games on the best graphics cards possible, by live streaming what they are playing. Though this particular venture hasn’t made it to the astronomical success many hoped for it, the fact that Sony recently acquired GaiKai, a similar service, there may be more for this style of gaming in the next generation of consoles.

When the culture of watching games starts to dictate the directions of games themselves, and the industry in general. One of the biggest revolutions for Halo came in the form of a multiplayer mode that recorded everything you played. To me at least, it didn’t seem that big at the time, but now you can see the passion of gaming that they wanted to tap into – now a game can barely exist without having some relationship to its community. These communities, now often found before a game is released, are the strength and joy of video games and I would argue might struggle to exist, particularly in the mainstream, without YouTube.

Finally, watch this. It’s some soft-core nostalgia with a clip of David Walliams on a segment with the Games Mistress (I don’t imagine I got the strange Masturbation references at the beginning) and think to how far we’ve come. YouTube isn’t half good for nostalgia too.

Once again, I’m interested to hear how you use YouTube – let me know in the comments, or e-mail Hitch@nanu-nanu.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *