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Opinion: Let's Play crackdown is an attack on game culture

Nintendo recently claimed revenue on a number of Let's Plays videos, leading some YouTubers to avoid its games. Kris Ligman believes that if this continues, we'll lose more than a few silly videos.

Kris Ligman, Blogger

May 30, 2013

13 Min Read

Gamasutra news editor Kris Ligman believes more will be lost than a few silly videos if game studios like Nintendo continue to crack down on Let's Play videos of their work. Let's Plays: They're videos of captured game footage, usually with voice commentary. Occasionally interesting, often terrible. What more needs to be said? A lot, actually. Recently, Nintendo claimed the rights to an untold number of Let's Play videos on YouTube, taking over ad revenue which previously went to uploaders. So what's the problem? Turnabout is fair play, isn't it? What I most worry about is the precedent it sets.

"I wanted to show people outside the game community"

A bit of a history lesson. The first Let's Play was produced in 2003, by writer and experimental videographer Jim Munroe -- before terms like "Let's Play" or "machinima" were coined. Titled "My Trip to Liberty City," it featured Munroe roleplaying as a Canadian tourist (Munroe is himself based in Toronto) exploring the city of Grand Theft Auto III and getting into trouble, mainly by accident. The video caught the interest of the Canada Council of the Arts, which awarded Munroe a grant to produce further videos. He developed these into the series Pleasure Circuit Overload. "I wanted to show people outside the game community how lovingly detailed the world of GTA was, considering it could have been (for the purposes of the game) a caricaturish sketch of urban blight," Munroe told me. "I like the idea of game commentary outside of the review paradigm, and I think this format encourages it." A world away from Munroe's avant-garde digital cinema work, in 2006 denizens of the Something Awful forums began posting complete playthroughs of their favorite childhood games, typically as text interspersed with screenshots. Videos took off as a medium of choice after forum moderator slowbeef posted his video walkthrough of Electronic Arts' The Immortal, which can still be viewed today through the Let's Play Archive. "Let's Plays have moved on from exclusively showing off a game just for people who haven't played it," Baldur Karlsson, administrator of the Archive, said in a 2011 interview. "There's a lot more to LPs now, both in terms of value-adding to a basic playthrough, and in doing something different." The Let's Play Archive was founded in 2007 by Something Awful forumer From Earth, who passed the site onto Karlsson in 2008. In the same year, Karlsson was approached by one of the curators of the Internet Archive, Andrew Anderson, who offered to mirror the Something Awful Let's Play videos on archive.org's servers. "It was actually very fortuitously timed," said Karlsson. Not long after Anderson approached him, Vimeo -- a popular host for Let's Plays at the time -- began disallowing game videos on its site. "We were able to upload a lot of LPs that would otherwise have disappeared." At present, the Internet Archive is either the mirror or exclusive host of over half of the Let's Play Archive's 703 videos. Almost all of them originated from Something Awful's forums. This, naturally, presents its own issues as far as self-selecting a particular style or approach to Let's Plays, even as the format has evolved. "I do get requests from people outside SA looking to archive their LPs, but I tend to refuse," Karlsson acknowledged in 2011. "Having SA as a quality filter saves me the problem of having to implement perhaps subjective standards."

"A coarse and unfair generalization"

Deferring to Something Awful's community as the primary gatekeeper frees up more time for Karlsson to see to the Let's Play Archive's administrative needs -- it's a weekend project, after all, and Karlsson works full time as a game programmer -- but that hasn't prevented Let's Plays from proliferating outside the scope of the Archive. From straight-forward walkthroughs to silly reaction videos from internet personalities like PewDiePie, YouTube is not lacking for variety. Karlsson displays a certain disdain for Let's Plays that are outside of the archive. When I asked him about his thoughts on Nintendo's ad revenue claims, he said the Nintendo Let's Plays aren't that great in the first place. "If I had to pick a coarse and unfair generalization, then 'Nintendo LPs on Youtube' would be a pretty good one for 'generally low quality,'" Karlsson told me in a more recent interview. But the giant range of Let's Plays that appear across the internet, inside and outside of the Archive, affords a great deal of experimentation not to be found through members-only forums. On the critical and avant-garde side of the practice, Jake Elliott -- one half of Cardboard Computer, currently working on Act II of Kentucky Route Zero -- recently headed up an impromptu Let's Play exhibition in Chicago. The event featured videos from the likes of Liz Ryerson (dys4ia) and Robert Yang (Radiator), among many others. Munroe was present in person with a live Let's Play of Vectorpark's Windosill. "Some people have a certain view of what Let's Play is, that's defined by the most well-known Let's Players," said Ryerson. "It's not necessarily the most accurate." "Everyone had different ways of approaching the idea," said Elliott, speaking of the experimental nature of the event. "It was pretty natural and positive." You can take a look at some of the exhibition in this public playlist. The entries range from a finely deconstructive analysis of the first Half Life, courtesy of Robert Yang, to Liz Ryerson's video review (below) of a pair of Doom mods she refers to as BioShock Infinite, "by Cliffy B." "I knew that would probably stick in [Ken Levine]'s craw majorly," Ryerson remarked when I asked her about the video's production. "I don't know much about BioShock. I just avoided the whole critical thing, but I thought it would be funny for the event to mention it, sort of beating a dead horse." Ryerson's "review" is either annoying or hilarious, depending on how seriously you take your BioShock. For my part, I thought it was a great takedown of the sort of overly ambitious, poorly researched critical work I find myself sifting through most weekends for Critical Distance. And that's the whole point, of course: you get out of a Let's Play what you read into it, so the idea that Let's Plays serve only one specific purpose or audience is limiting and unproductive.

"He's an advocate. A taste-maker."

"A lot of the videos [on Youtube] are really obnoxious, but I still value them highly," said Elliott. He believed that if publishers started proactively suppressing Let's Plays it would potentially "shut out a lot of really important conversations that are happening." And, he said, there was the issue of access as well. Elliott related a story of one of his students uncovering his game work through Let's Plays, just as he himself sought out videos of hard-to-find games on ZX Spectrum years earlier. For many, Let's Plays are a way by which players can look in on games that are otherwise out of their grasp. Bruno de Figueiredo's tribute to experimental horror game D by the late Kenji Eno, shown at the Chicago exhibition, is a sterling example of this. It isn't always an issue of commercial accessibility, either. Many fans of Let's Plays find the videos more approachable than the games themselves for reasons of ability, or because they simply enjoy experiencing a game through another's eyes. In the case of Elliott's student, "That was her point of entry into video games culture, that she likes this guy who does these Let's Play videos, and she follows what he's doing. He's an advocate. A taste-maker." But are people who watch Let's Plays really experiencing the game? Is that a valid criticism, or just another means by which to police who a "real" player is? "It depends on the kind, but I think there are a lot of games where you can get a pretty darn good sense of what the game is going to play like from watching it," Ryerson said, with some amusement. "If you've played games before you have a pretty good sense of how games play."

"They don't like that someone could experience this game without them getting any money for it."

Classism also bears upon access to games in ways often felt but seldom articulated. Not everyone can afford every game for every platform. "Maybe you want to watch someone going through the game but you can't afford this game," Ryerson pointed out. "[Or] you can't afford the computer or the system to run it. Then on average you can at least see what the game is about and have that experience." Above: the first part of a 32-minute speed run of Dark Souls. Speed runs may not be considered the same breed as Let's Plays but they definitely belong in the same genus. While Nintendo games aren't generally known for their difficulty among core players, they come with prerequisites: disposable income, leisure time, a certain playing vocabulary. These factors likely don't elude the company. "Nintendo senses that people are using Let's Plays as a way to substitute for their experience of actually playing the game, and Nintendo has shown that they're trying to get money out of every possible avenue that they can," said Ryerson. "And therefore they don't like that someone could experience this game without them getting any money for it." Karlsson added, "It was going to cause an uproar one way or another. I would guess that most of the loudest complaints will come from people who actually won't be significantly affected by it at all... I'm not going to shed any tears about it."

"YouTube should really be front and center in this dispute"

At issue here isn't simply whether Let's Plays are an acceptable form of creative expression, but who has the right to draw revenue from that expression -- the Let's Player or the IP owner. Greg Lastowka tackled much of this in a recent blog post. The gist is that if Let's Plays are considered transformative works -- each playthrough being a distinct, unrepeatable iteration of the play experience, inscribed with the player's stamp or style -- then they should legally be considered the property of the Let's Players who produce them. Another interpretation of U.S. law, however, has Nintendo retaining rights over their IP in all cases, with a non-binding caveat that it allows uploaders to use footage from their games "of a certain length," for fair use purposes. "YouTube should really be front and center in this dispute," wrote Lastowka. "Consider: YouTube created the various 'livelihoods' at stake by starting its Partner Program; YouTube orchestrates and directly profits from the advertising monetization of Let's Play videos; it is YouTube's Content ID technology that is helping Nintendo to locate gameplay videos; and finally, Nintendo could never have usurped Zack Scott's ad revenue streams if YouTube didn't enable that action." In the larger view, the shape of copyright and trademark industries have a great deal more to do with Nintendo's revenue claims -- and YouTube's adherence thereto -- than the actions of individual legal entities. However, it has fallout beyond who gets paid. Critical Let's Players like Liz Ryerson and archivists like Baldur Karlsson aren't involved in Let's Plays for the money, but to say something or leave their mark. Nintendo's revenue claims, on the level of setting precedent, don't really accommodate that nuance. "[Nintendo's actions] are going to make people anxious," said Ryerson. "And the sad thing is that I don't think it takes away anything from Nintendo, other than that this being a public story reflects poorly on them."

"These companies are doing everything they can to declare war on their fans"

However, Ryerson also saw Nintendo's actions as a window of opportunity for smaller developers and Let's Players interested in doing something different with the format. "Hopefully what happens is that people realize these companies are doing everything they can to declare war on their fans and customers, and hopefully more people get invested in and interested in independent stuff," she said. "Start making videos about that. It would be nice to see, because it is really important. There are so many indie games out there." In addition, Ryerson encouraged developers to do Let's Plays of their own work, as a sort of visual post-mortem. Elliott believed it could also serve as a way by which developers can revive work which has become inaccessible, due to incompatibility with modern platforms. Karlsson also shared a bit of optimism for what the news story meant for his Archive and Let's Plays as a whole. "For me though I think perhaps the most interesting part of all of this is that LPs are now big enough of a phenomenon to be reported on widely and even in the non-gaming media," he said. "I'm not exactly surprised, as I figured it would end up this way eventually, but it's interesting to see that what falls almost entirely under the LP umbrella is a big enough 'thing' now to merit reporting."

Cultural Lockdown

For my part, I have been following game-watching cultures in one way or another since 2007. In 2011 I had the opportunity to deliver a presentation on the subject for Rutgers, as part of its Game Behind the Video Game conference. A lot of the material here derives from that paper. In the last six years I have seen video game performances serve as curation, counter-histories and criticism, and I believe any publisher or developer which puts locks on Let's Plays is doing a disservice to its own games, in addition to alienating its customers. Nintendo may, under the current terms, have a right to claim ad revenue on Let's Plays of its games through YouTube. If the fallout from that is that Let's Players will avoid documenting Nintendo games, and even go so far as to pull existing videos, however, that signifies far more than a few poorly produced videos getting shuttered. It's a blow against game preservation and critical play. Like Lastowka wrote in his blog, YouTube and the larger system with which it participates is playing a vital role in this sort of cultural lockdown. I don't want to end on a sour note. For one, I was pleased to see that one of the earliest comments on my original news story was a link to this Reddit thread compiling a list of studios and individuals which allow Let's Plays of their games. That's great to see. For another, those I spoke with regarding Jake Elliott's Chicago exhibition all expressed interest in doing a similar event in the future. I'd like to imagine Let's Plays finding a place beside game tournaments and jams as a way to bring playing communities together. We already like watching people play games -- the rise of eSports should be evidence enough for that, even among those most critical of game watching -- and I believe we've only scratched the surface of what is really possible with the Let's Play format.

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