Playing to the Crowd

We live in an age where millions of people tune in on a daily basis to watch other folks play video games.  New releases showcased by YouTube personalities, retro games chronicled by historians, marathons of oddball titles for charity; there is pretty much every sort of game being played across the internet.

Generally speaking, I would much rather play a video game myself than watch a stranger make his/her way through one.  The lack of control tends to take me out of the experience.  But I certainly understand the appeal of watching these videos, particularly when the game being played is not accessible to the general public.  There are so many games that are simply unavailable to buy, borrow, or even download in less-than-legal ways, so it makes sense to record and display videos of this near-forgotten gems.

Outside of the hard-to-find titles, there is another type of video game that works well in the realm of let’s plays and livestreams: bombastic and absurd games that seem tailored to a crowd of viewers.  Now that I have been on the other side of the screen, I have come to find that certain games are much more fun with an audience cheering you on.


Just looking at the list of games from the U-Pick Video Game Marathon for Charity, there were some clear choices made for games that would be delightful to watch.  Weird titles like Incredible Crisis and Cubivore are the sort of games that are both rare and super odd, making for a worthwhile experience akin to seeing a goofy animal in the wild.  Watching a Japanese family battle giant robots and flashy covert ops agents or witnessing a bestial cube devour other more passive cube-animals for better limbs is a great way to pass the time.


Other games like Steel Battalion are a sort of extension from the arcade days of old, where increasingly complex controls beckoned players and gawkers to spend their quarters.  The gigantic mech-pilot controller (complete with floor pedals!) is such a cumbersome device that anyone who sits behind it feels like part of a silly performance piece.  Most of the fun watching this sort of game is seeing the player react to the myriad of buttons and flashing panels on the instrument in front of them, while the action on the screen becomes background noise.


The most obvious kind of game to play with a group are mediocre titles that are laughably lackluster.  For U-Pick, games like Ninjabread Man and Hannah Montana were the cream of the rotten crop.  This sort of experience is familiar to anyone who has sat down to riff on bad horror/sci-fi films (a la Mystery Science Theater).  Watching someone struggle through frustrating controls, bad voice acting, and a terrible premise becomes a sort of shared suffering; where telling jokes and laughing at glitches is a soothing balm for their weary brows.  The entire act becomes even sweeter when everyone involved wants to see the player succeed against poor design, so it becomes a gauntlet of gaming with a cheering and jeering crowd.  That final moment of play and the resulting credits screen means victory for all, and never playing that crap again.


I am starting to realize that the practice of viewing let’s plays and livestreams on YouTube is kind of like sitting around the television, watching your friends play video games.  As Laura makes her way through Hatoful Boyfriend and I struggle with the controls of Octodad: Dadliest Catch, it has become clear that certain games practically require an audience to complete the experience of fun.  So maybe I will start to make exceptions to my hard rule of “playing over watching,” and make a better attempt to understand the culture of YouTubers.

In reality, I will just watch the occasional broadcast from my friends at U-Pick.  Baby steps, Chip.  Baby steps.

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