This post is the first in a series that addresses the needs of the parent who “just doesn’t get video games.” I’m here to catch you up, Clueless Parent!
Parents all over the country are wailing some version of this refrain: “I kind of get why my kids like to play video games, but why do they constantly watch other people—generally, extremely annoying twenty-somethings—play them?”
We’ll get to that. But first, some background—you’ve got to crawl before you can walk, my dears.
What Is a Let’s Play?
A Let’s Play is a video of a person or group playing a video game—and talking, screaming, and/or making weird noises the whole time. Usually the Let’s Player is trying to be funny. Even as your child is clutching her sides with laughter, you may feel mystified and/or horrified by the post-adolescent Let’s Player’s idea of humor.
Compare this to the same phenomenon that causes you to dread opening your mother-in-law’s forwarded joke-spam: there’s no accounting for taste.
Why Should You Take Let’s Plays Seriously?
Can’t you just ignore the phenomenon of Let’s Plays and move onto the next crazy fad? I don’t think so, and here’s why: The most popular Minecraft Let’s Player is a fellow named Captain Sparklez. He has more than 8 million subscribers on Youtube and he’s approaching 2 billion views for all his videos. TWO BILLION!
What does he do? Turn lead into gold? No! He plays Minecraft and talks about it.
And that’s only ONE guy playing ONE game. There are literally millions of Let’s Players playing video games—everything from Mario Party and Minecraft to Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. The most popular Youtube channel belongs to PewDiePie, who is basically a foul-mouthed, crude, loud, maniacal Let’s Player who does a lot of goofy voices. He has more than 35 MILLION subscribers to his channel.
And that’s just Youtube. There’s also another WHOLE HUGE thing beyond that, and that thing is called Twitch.tv. Twitch.tv is a website and a phenomenon. Basically, Twitch consists of Let’s Players live-streaming. Fast Company says more than 1 million people live-stream and 45 million people watch Twitch.tv each month.
Compare that to Netflix, which has about 40 million streaming customers.
Still, does massive, eye-popping popularity make a thing important? Not necessarily, but as a parent, don’t you want to be aware of what your kids are interested in? Unless you’re incredibly strict or you live in a cave, if your kids are between the ages of about 8 and 15, they probably play Minecraft or other video games—and watch Let’s Plays. This is something worthy of your attention (and probably a little monitoring—see below).
Why Do Kids Like Let’s Plays So Much?
The simple answer is that they are fans. Fans get a lot out of their fascination/obsession with the object of their fan-love, but mainly they get: (1) entertainment, (2) knowledge, and (3) a powerful sense of belonging.
- Entertainment: Some Let’s Players are actually really funny and clever.
- Knowledge: Part of being a gamer is getting good at a game. (Most humans just love getting good at things.) And Let’s Players are generally, though not always, expert players who can teach a gamer a thing or two.
- A sense of belonging: Let’s Players have in-jokes and buddies and a whole milieu that enraptures their fan group.
Here’s one parent’s funny take on what he calls “the addictive curse of Let’s Play’s.”
I have an additional theory about the allure of Let’s Plays that involves family dynamics. Since the late 80s, a lot of kids have grown up watching their parents and older siblings play video games, and they learned to like it.
When my kids were young, there was a period of a few years when my son Chris played and his younger sister Lisa watched. She was three years younger than he was, and she watched him a lot between the ages of 9 and 13. “Old enough to understand what was going on—the plot of the game,” she says, “but before I got to the age where I started doing my own thing.”
Recently I asked her why she was content to spend so much time watching her brother play rather than playing herself. “It was for the entertainment value. It’s like a movie. Especially the RPGs like Final Fantasy, which I remember watching him play the most. They’re very story- and character-driven. So it was like watching a movie except for an added factor of unpredictability because someone sitting right next to you is controlling parts of it. It was cool to see him figure out what to do in real time and how that would advance the story. I also think it helped that he was always really good at video games, because if he sucked at them it would be kind of boring!”
If watching video gameplay still seems incomprehensible to you, my dear Clueless Parent, try comparing it with watching sports on TV. Why do you watch football or golf? Do you enjoy the commentators’ banter? Or if you don’t watch sports, maybe you watch cooking shows. It’s pretty much the same thing.
What Should You Watch Out For in Let’s Plays?
Not all Let’s Plays are for kids. Unfortunately, in the Wild West of the internets there are no rating systems and parental warnings as there are for movies, TV shows, and video games. In Let’s Plays you (and your kids, if you’re not careful) may be exposed to swearing, crude remarks, sexual humor, and (my least favorite) sexist, homophobic, or racist comments. Of course, Let’s Plays for Grand Theft Auto V are most likely to contain this sort of thing, but some of the same Let’s Players who make Minecraft Let’s Plays also make Grand Theft Auto Let’s Plays.
If your kids decide to stop watching Minecraft and click on over to Grand Theft Auto on their favorite channel, they’re going to get the double whammy of uncensored language in the commentary and M-rated content in the game. Here’s an example, and I wouldn’t let young kids watch this unless I was sitting right there talking over all the objectionable content. (Warning! Objectionable content!)
What Are Some Good Let’s Play Channels for Kids?
Geek Dad has a good list of channels that are okay for kids who love Minecraft Let’s Plays. There’s a great channel called Evan Tube, where the kids do most of the talking. Evan and his friends cover toys and games.
And Pixelkin has a Let’s Play channel featuring a dynamic Let’s Play duo—Simone de Rochefort and Courtney Holmes—who offer up content that’s wholesome, warm, and fun to watch!