The Joystick is Broken: Watch the Way I Dance

29 Jan

In the initial parts of this rather muddled series of essays, I attempted to show how video games have been a communal function from their inception, beginning with crowds of competitors and onlookers thronging arcades and pizza parlors in the 1980s, and ultimately arriving at online co-op play of games of every type, sometimes including hundreds of people at once. There is another, lesser-known way that people share video games–one very much akin to the origins of video game spectating–and that’s when one records oneself playing games, sometimes with simultaneous commentary, for the benefit of people to watch later. This commentary can be aimless rambling on any number of personal or universal subjects, other times it is structured, scripted role-play and carefully edited video game footage. It seems to me like a new form of expression, one whose implications are interesting to consider as the format invents itself.


Many of life’s most perplexing problems were pondered by yours truly while he played Battletoads and listened to the Dead Kennedys during my junior high school years. Most video games, especially those made before the twenty-first century, are little more than sequential patterns that behave predictably. The first few times you play a game, it’s a matter of discerning these patterns and then anticipating their pitfalls on the next go ’round. By the time you’ve played a game a few dozen times, you’re barely even looking at the screen as the muscles in your hands react to pure timed memory, particularly on the first levels of game that often get played again and again. And it was in these zen moments, playing world 1-2 of Super Mario Bros. for the umpteenth time, that I would ruminate on my life’s deepest issues: at that point, mainly girls and acne. My mind would wander and I would consider events that had happen at school, or concoct complicated dramas involving myself and school crushes. Playing video games becomes a therapeutic, meditative experience at this point, an experience separate from the goal-oriented task of, well, achieving that game’s goals.


Thanks to online video outlets like YouTube and twitch, gamers can now share these intimate thoughts with the world at large. Many of these videos are interesting thematic juxtapositions, as people talk frankly about something like bullying or depression while blowing opposing players’ heads off with a 10mm submachine gun. By adding this layer of soundtrack–their voices–to gameplay, there is created a unique piece of media, presenting elements of watching video games and listening to talk radio, but providing the full extent of neither. Often, the commentary is about events in the game, but it always spirals into any number of subjects on which the commentator wishes to expound. Watching how they play certain games and listening to them speak about particular subjects give the (perhaps illusory) effect of getting to know the person, in ways you might not know someone you merely have lunch with now and again. How people play games and complete puzzles is one of the factors in making psychological and psychiatric diagnoses, and in this way, these viewers of these videos become armchair therapists, offering their support (or derision) in commentary and public responses.


Not all commentators free associate, however, some role-play or even create elaborate dramas that are acted out within the framework of a game. This takes a few different forms: sometimes, the commentary is live and the player assumes the role of an in-game character. Other times, video game footage is carefully edited to present a scene that is voiced-over. In any case, episodes run about ten to twenty minutes in length and are uploaded around once per week (with a potential for higher frequency of episodes in the instances involving live commentary). A YouTube video game commentator will juggle three our four different “shows” at a time, either by playing through a few different games simultaneously, or by acting out different roles in one game, or they’ll do a little of both. Minecraft is a game that is very popular among video game commentators, for two reasons: Mojang, Ltd., the company that owns the game, has given express consent for video of its game to be uploaded to the internet. But the second reason is because Minecraft is a game that is what you make of it, and since everyone plays it differently, there’s merit in watching how disparate people deal with it. Some Minecraft players concentrate on the building aspect, others are more into adventuring. I wrote an essay about Minecraft, so I won’t go into detail about its many facets here, except to say that there are many.


I became clued in to the potential of this new form of entertainment while watching a series by a UK group that call themselves the Yogscast. What began as a normal Minecraft series, featuring two relatively funny guys figuring out how to play the game, subtly became a massive, fantastical drama, rich with a dozen fully-realized locations and a limitless cast of characters that could rival any daytime soap opera. Using various game mechanics and modifications, they’re able to display and exploit the best aspects of the game, making for a show that is as entertaining as it is tutorial (well, perhaps a bit more entertaining than tutorial). Based on their wildly popular YouTube channel, the Yogscast have created a little cottage industry all their own, with a legion of devoted fans who line up at conventions for a glimpse of their heroes in three-dimensional glory. It’s brilliant, I think, and the possibilities for this format are wide open. As computer graphics get better and actual, human actors more annoying, we will probably see more and more cartoon programming, where the only things actors lend are their voices. There’s every reason to think that these cartoons will increasingly be representations of popular video game characters, probably opening a bar together or moving in with their auntie and uncle in Bel Air, or some stupid thing like that.

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