Nerd Culture 2.22: You Can (Not) Be Content

An exploration of nerd culture through the vast enterprise of Let's Plays.

June 20, 2018 at 9:00 am

Let’s Play Nerd Culture Part 1: A Very Long Opening Cutscene

To many, Let’s Plays are yet another cog in the content machine that has dominated our lives. But for others, they are and have been a portal to intimate connection with a stranger.

I can remember being sixteen years old and sitting at the kitchen table, watching in wonder as I binged all sixty episodes of NintendoCaprisun’s Let’s Play of Super Mario Sunshine. Now a loyal Let’s Play follower for eight years, having plowed through hundreds of playthroughs, this run still stands out to me as one of the most engaging.

NintendoCaprisun’s commentary to the playthrough is loaded with memories and stories about his life, and even some meta-commentary in later episodes where he finds himself rushing through the game to appease the masses. It’s a series where a thirty-year-old fogey is unapologetically himself, and by the end of the sixty-episode run, you feel like really you know him. Despite not caring much for the game itself, it brought him back to the day he quit smoking. He would use the game as a crutch to distract himself from smoking the ol’ wacky tobacky; this unusual yet still candid fight against addiction is what propels this Let’s Play into glory.

As a sixteen year old, this Let’s Play was like my version of a film school kid studying all of Christopher Nolan’s movies. I was enraptured by how candid he was and how different his stories were from my own. It was also the first time I got to see someone take one of my favorite things seriously. This was a man who cared about collecting all 240 Blue Coins as much as I did, if not more. Sometimes, he even knew tricks that I didn’t, and vice-versa. Our differing gaps of knowledge, when united, created a unique vision of Super Mario Sunshine that only I can have. When you are young and growing through a storm of unwanted puberty, drama, and college applications, this unexpected validation of childhood, while maybe not the most empowering, feels very nice

Let’s Play Nerd Culture Part 2: The Scripted Boss Battle Where You Die

Every summer, through high school and into college, there we were — me and NintendoCaprisun — 100%ing the game together. It was the fulfillment I thought I needed and it came at a time when I had not much else in respect to friends.

I can remember a very specific day early into my first Fall semester of college — criss-cross applesauce in the hallway of my dormitory, brand new MacBook Pro in my lap, desperate to be noticed. My eyes hungrily observed the screen, a Yoshi’s Island runthrough playing, face saddled with a goofy grin that begged for attention.

Did I have headphones in? I want to say yes but I just know that I didn’t.

A Cool Film Kid™ approached me like George Lucas would approach new green screen technology. What are you watching, he asked with forced mundanity. I looked up like John McClane about to declare his final Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker and said, NintendoCaprisun’s Let’s Play of Yoshi’s Island Part 16.

His mouth shot into his cheek as he scrunched his lips together. You should just play Yoshi’s Island, dude. Let’s Plays are dumb.

Blink. Blink. Perhaps a spit take. Um. Excuse me.

The sheer impact of the Anonymous Cool Film Kid’s diss sent ripples through my timeline. My mind surged with questions of lost time and fears of over-validation. Had I traded over artistic inclinations for regressive nostalgia? Was my brain disintegrating into mush and I wasn’t even aware? Could I ever be seen as smart?

As we age, we lose our flexibility to find new adventures. We become more likely to stick to name-brand products and proven concepts than to experiment with the unknown. My love for animation and musicals stems from my time lounging around in high school adoring those things. Now, as a busy adult who needs to spend a full hour every weekend baking granola, I have less time to find new passions, so I hold onto the old ones with an iron grip.

Even if they are the scourge of college kids’ resentment.

Let’s Play Nerd Culture Part 3: A Belated Tutorial

Let’s Plays are not just a nerdy thing that all of a sudden became cool a few years ago; they were a platform for communication on forums back in 2005. Users would post screencaps from their playthroughs in message threads followed by descriptions of their journeys. It was only in 2007 that slowbeef adapted the format into video.

ProtonJonSA, one of the O.G.’s of Let’s Playing became popular because of the way his generally cool demeanor would explode with just the wrong tap of a button; his straight man act was put to the test through a gauntlet of Super Mario World ROM Hacks. Chuggaaconroy, with his whopping one million subscribers, made videos that were peppered with professional graphics and trivia — a raw passion for gaming paired with a family friendly attitude. NintendoCaprisun was a then-thirty-year-old donut fryer living in Wisconsin, who would share just about anything from his slice of life, even videos of him farting in his sleep.

In 2011, these three champions united for a crossover of epic proportions: a collaboration channel called TheRunawayGuys. I can remember feeling exactly how comic book fans the world over did when The Avengers trailer dropped.

Talking about Ye Olde Order of Let’s Playing like this makes me understand how Barry Jenkins must feel when showing off his Criterion Collection.

For so many kids growing up, these fellas were our heroes. Before the internet, nerd culture was inaccessible, unless you had friends. For all you youngins, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that you could talk to some stranger in Timbuktu about the various ways to get to the top of Tick Tock Clock in Super Mario 64.

Having no friends in high school, it was refreshing to watch someone play through my favorite games with all of the attention of a doting mother. But unfortunately, it wasn’t quite the journey that I needed. At that time, I had wrongly deduced that people didn’t like me because I was a nerd, so I pulled my nerdom in with a snide grin, succumbing to a rebellious adolescence I had always thought myself above.

But the reality was that people didn’t like me because they could tell I was different — I am trans, and though no one quite had the vocabulary to say that, it has always been there. Still, I continued to binge these playthroughs to fill in that big gap in my heart. But then, the game changed.

Let’s Play Nerd Culture Part 4: Make Content, Throw Content

At the time of writing, NintendoCaprisun is averaging 22,000 views a day. While this may seem like a ton, that Super Mario Sunshine playthrough from 2009 averages about 200,000 views per video. If you take his Paper Mario run from 2017, a 59-video run (only one video short of his Sunshine run), he has about 450,000 total views. That’s fewer views for an entire playthrough than for a mere three of his old school videos.

At some point, there was a change in the market itself; it now favors personality. YouTube began as a means for people around the world to reach out and feel a little less lonely; now it’s a conglomerate of side hustlers entirely localized in Los Angeles. It’s all monetized with careful branding and strategy. Faces are plastered all over thumbnails, each video seems to be getting longer and longer, and right as you finish you are redirected into the next War & Peace-length video essay.

Before this Content Boom of The Mid-2010s, the Let’s Play community was made of fellas like NintendoCapriSun — nerds who were not necessarily businessmen, who just liked talking about games. It wasn’t a means to an end, but rather the endgame. Now, it’s loaded with comedians and animators and other sorts of Renaissance Men.

Had Leonardo Da Vinci been born in 1982, instead of 1452, he absolutely would have become a Let’s Player.

Take Game Grumps for instance. They are a hugely popular Let’s Play Channel hosted by animator Arin “Egoraptor” and musician Danny “Sexbang” Avidan. They use the old Let’s Play formula but mix in their own personal flare for improv comedy, and suddenly the gameplay doesn’t matter so much anymore. With a team of 10 people, they can upload three times a day and generate an average of two million views every time.

All over YouTube, new channels like Game Grumps are exploding — Oneyplays, Super Beard Bros., The Yogcast, Continue?. We have shifted from independent creators like NintendoCaprisun to massive teams like Game Grumps who have their own office for content creation.

Even someone like Chuggaaconroy, who has one million subscribers, only gets about 150,000 views a day. Considering he is just one person and not a talent conglomerate, there’s just no way for him to compete with channels like Game Grumps, especially since his once universal style of Let’s Plays has fallen into a niche.

Let’s Play Nerd Culture Part 5: The Penultimate Dungeon

On a bad day, I might go see Avengers: Infinity War — even though I really don’t feel like it — because I want that old superhero flavor. But I may only do that because it’s easier than being conscientious of myself and thinking about what I really want. In this case, that old superhero flavor might be the next volume of Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye run that I can get from the library.

It takes vulnerability to seek out the art we need for our souls, but vulnerability is scary. It’s easier to withdraw and settle for what the studios execs in big hats want for us.

Like Ian Malcolm says:

 

So much of media is here now because some scary man with his fingers tented in the shadows decided it to be so, and yes it sounds like I am wearing a tinfoil hat but those principles apply to even the smaller video productions on YouTube. Like Let’s Plays.

The problem is not with the channels that are succeeding, but rather with the art that we choose to change us. What you watch is a form of social currency — we consume media in order to have an opinion, in order to engage with other people in a social marketplace — and as culture becomes more accessible, as technology’s limits disappear, we have fewer excuses to not assimilate. Making the decision to not consume certain media is more of a political statement now than making the decision to pay money to see it.

You can avoid watching Infinity War or Westworld, but you will not be able to hide from the memes and discussions about it on the social media you are supposed to have. You are going to know everything about the movie even if you want nothing to do with it; the pressure to participate in its consumption surrounds you and builds to the point that you might as well just go and see it. All so you can wait next to your enemy in the office who got to the microwave first and have a conversation that goes like this:

“Hey what did you think about last night’s Westworld?”

“Aw dude that robot orgy was bananas!”

“Yeah, right?! Like Robots! And sex! Anthony Hopkins! Good stuff.”

Art is created so we can grow, so we can learn from those who are different from us, or so we can rise up with those who are quite the same. To have the above conversation is a performative stab at connection. While content is being generated at a higher rate than ever, we must remember that much of it comes from people who don’t have our best interests in mind.

Movies like Moonlight are not just things you should see so you can have an opinion; they are messages of understanding that you can only feel if you allow yourself to do so.

(Oof. Not only do I have a tinfoil hat, but I have also tossed on a beret and gone “Hoh hoh!”)

But, if you weren’t ready for Moonlight back when it was in theaters in October 2016, it’s totally okay to put a pin on it and move at your own pace. Don’t let anyone tell you different — even Cool Film Kids who tell insecure Freshman that Let’s Play videos are dumb.

I shouldn’t have let him get to me. I should have shrugged it off and continued to enjoy the things I wanted. Had I done that, maybe I wouldn’t have wasted $20.00 seeing Interstellar in IMAX so I could have an opinion.

Let’s Play Nerd Culture Part 6: Final Mix+

We are surrounded by content; videos and podcasts and Buzzfeed lists and television are all clamoring for our attention. Sometimes it feels good, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s so easy to veg out now and binge the latest serial creation from the boys back in the lab. Why do we do this? Are we avoiding something? Are we secretly unhappy?

I just want to sit down and enjoy something for once, but my mind cannot help but dig into the ethical implications of contributing to our capitalist society. Why am I here? I have to ask myself every moment now.

While I still watch NintendoCaprisun from time to time, his life and personality have relatively stayed the same. I love him, but sometimes it feels regressive to sit down for him. But, I’ve found other channels.

ProZD, a hotshot YouTuber rollin’ in them Crunchyroll sponsorships, has a Let’s Play channel called Press Buttons n’ Talk. I recently finished the entirety of their 99-episode run of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, a game I had just played. Saying it out loud, it seems strange to spend so much time watching someone play a visual novel. But, their videos are hilarious; they go out of their way to establish absurdist continuities through bizarre world building, and I blush as I write this but I have watched nearly all of their 640 videos. Their channel reminds me of what the Let’s Play format can do and I get something out of it every time. It makes me happy, and despite my anti-capitalists inclinations, I engage with it.

Let’s Plays, may seem like content machines on the surface, but they have meant so much to me in my life. While I don’t particularly enjoy the YouTube algorithms that forced their necessity, I search for them and consume them like any other piece of art. They fulfill me.

But some days, I might feel a little weird while watching one of their videos. I’ll check with myself and realize that I am unhappy. Maybe it’s time for me to press Pause. The world is exploding with content and visibility now because of the internet, and I can promise you that there are ten million other things you could experience right now if you let yourself be a little vulnerable for a moment and take a peekaboo at what else is out there.

But if you’re watching Infinity War, or NintendoCaprisun’s Let’s Play of Yoshi’s Island Part 16, and you know you want to be there, that’s cool too.