by Nick Iannitti

To the uninitiated, the notion of gamers watching other gamers play games for hours at a time seems…disconcerting.  It’s a waste of time, mind-numbing, and just plain strange.  But the numbers, as we’ve seen over the past few years, paint an extremely different picture – 'Let’s Play’ videos aren’t just successful, they’re the #1 content on YouTube.  Their popularity goes beyond simply the largesse of the game industry, the charisma of the creators, and the ease of consumption; watching other gamers play one’s favorite game online has effectively taken gaming out of a decade of basements and lounges, and back into where it first came of age: the arcade.

Thirty years ago, video games were a social experience very much based around spectating: the all-star kid at the Pac Mac machine, heading toward the kill screen as throngs of fans stood incredulous as he flew past Blinky, Inky, Pinky and Clyde at ever-increasing speeds. We know videogames have always been something people were willing (nay, enthusiastic) to watch, but entire swaths of certain generations have forgotten it. Now, the very parents who were those children in the arcade are baffled to find their kids glued to YouTube watching the likes of PewDiePie, Toby Games, and Stampy.

More Than Just Entertainment

Ok, yes, it’s natural, and will likely be eternal, for parents to find their children’s media pastimes bizarre and unsettling – from the first generation to listen to electric guitars, to the first generation whose parents were uncomfortable with them watching The Simpsons.  But is there something inherently different about Let’s Plays? Is there a factor in the specific details of the trend that speak to a deeper truth about today’s young consumers?ILikeToWatch1-web For one, it takes any criticism about spending too much time playing video games and adds a new parameter to it. Gaming fans are now blissfully consuming videos of spirited players recording their own gaming sessions and posting them as videos often 30 minutes or longer.  And, on many popular channels, that’s only part one of 26 of the series...

The videos aren’t simply entertaining (these creators are often fast and furious with the jokes as they commentate), they’re now the most popular channels on YouTube.  Straight from WikiPedia, these videos are “focusing on an individual's subjective experience with the game, often with humorous, irreverent, or even critical commentary from the gamer, rather than being an objective source of information on how to progress through the game.”  In short, the game itself being played is almost inconsequential – the spectators are fans of the on-screen personalities through and through.

What these video creators have touched on is one of the truest facts of the gaming industry: gaming is fully, completely mainstream. And along with this reality, there is a vacuum across all media within which communities will form, communities that have taken gamers out of the confines of their private gaming dens and into the loud and flashy spaces of the internet, TV and stadiums.  PewDiePie hasn’t done anything unusual – he made a show. He was just one of the first to do it for games, and gamers banded around him.

From Community to Collective Consciousness

The proof here is that we’ve simply not yet grasped the full capability of how people will truly be social and form communities in the coming years.  If our social profiles have made it seem like digital exhibitionism is the grand scope of human achievement, the other corners of the Internet are rushing to prove that assumption wrong.   Crowdfunding is one other remarkable example of a shift in social power – and yet, even that is still only scratching the surface.  What of crowdsourced solutions to social ills? Crowdsourced governments? Laws? Philosophies?  The stage is set for each and every one of these avenues to quickly be edited by the power of the hivemind.

What’s prompting this new collective behavior? It’s not new — the crowd is simply following the preexisting laws of nature in something called Emergent Behavior. We can observe emergent behavior in everything from ant colonies to the largest of cities. The premise of emergent behavior is that we are all connected through networks (both online & offline) and that we naturally self-organize across our networks to form higher levels of order. Think about what happened with the Arab Spring, Occupy Movement, Gamergate and #YesAllWomen. Communities are drawing lines in the sand, and the Internet is allowing a very powerful (yet sometimes convoluted) way to collectively process vast social issues in a matter of weeks and months, not years – sometimes with government and military responses, to boot.

Planetary challenges are, after all, quite likely to require the attention of a planetary mind, and crowdsourcing initiatives like those above already provide some of the best examples of how that mind may be starting to emerge. Today, most people may connect online in virtual social communities. But increasingly, the activities in which people engage online may prove to be transformative and productive as well as social. We have now built the platform of the Internet. But it may well be that we are only just starting to discover what we can really do with it.  And all the while, we will continue to watch ourselves do it.

As an astute parent blogger put it: “I wonder if there was a point back in the olden days where people who grew up playing baseball or football on the playground scoffed at the notion of crowds gathering to watch other people play their sports. I mean, what kind of loser wants to watch a bunch of dudes toss balls around when they could get their own ball and be doing it themselves?”