YouTube, Let’s Plays and Cognitive Capitalism

PLEASE NOTE: this is reblogged – with some minor changes – from my personal website.


Has anyone wondered why Flappy Bird made such big waves last year? Well, it’s because of a phenomenon know as “let’s plays” (LPs) on YouTube – basically people posting videos of themselves playing computer games. It’s like spectator computer gaming. To some this may seem totally weird, but it’s a significant proportion of YouTube’s ‘business’, as it were (and it is a business).

Last year, Flappy Bird was showcased by PewDiePie – a Swedish let’s player (LPer) – and hey presto it then went vital. You might ask who is this PewDiePie? Can he really have that influence? Well, PewDiePie has more YouTube subscribers – at 29.8 million and rising by 1 million a month – than Miley Cyrus and is one of the most popular attractions on the internet (alongside porn and fluzzy kittens, although not those two together since that would undoubtedly break the internet!).

Yet something like LP videos – watched and enjoyed by millions, myself included – barely surfaces in mainstream media. It remains unknown – and maybe unfathomable – to most people out there. It probably sounds strange, in fact, the idea of watching other people play computer games. Surely the point is to play them yourselves? With others if you want. What LPs illustrate, however, is that the image of geeks playing alone in their rooms is outdated … WAY outdated. In contrast, LPs provide a glimpse into the creativity, interactivity and community possible as part of Web 2.0. It is driving new forms of gaming and new forms of leisure as computer gaming overtakes traditional entertainment industries (e.g. film, publishing, theatre, etc.).

Lets Plays on YouTube

I came across LPs a few years back – I think it was in 2009 or 2010. I was either ill or hungover and was thinking about playing Deus Ex again but wasn’t sure if it’s was worth the time. I looked it up on YouTube and came across an LPer called Kikoskia who does a brilliant turn at sardonic commentary – see here. I ended up watching 100+ videos, several hours worth of clips all told. I then explored more LPs, looking up games I’d played previously or never finished playing. Since then YouTube and LP videos have basically replaced TV for me. I watch something every day, sometimes several videos, and follow a number of LPers.

Here are my favourites:

  • Obviously Kikoskia: amusing and wry commentary by a British guy, who knows who he is, on various RPG games that frequently takes me back to my youth (well, younger days!) when I played games like Ultima 7, Deus Ex, Baldur’s Gate, NeverWinter Nights, etc. Funny, poignant, nostalgic, entertaining …
  • Then there’s Helloween4545: another British guy, active on Twitter as well, who focuses on horror games. First started watching him because he did an LP of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, which I never finished because I found it too terrifying to play. Interestingly, he now does commentary on gaming issues (e.g. conflicts of interest in games reviews, DRM, in-game advertising) with other LPers like Kikoskia. He also does multiplayer LPs with people like Kikoskia and Klyka, an intermittent German LPer.
  • Next, Necroscope86: yet another British guy (there’s probably a trend here) who does various RPGs and strategy games. He also does video blogs (VLOGS) about his personal struggles with depression alongside gaming.
  • NerdCubed: a British guy who has nearly 2 million subscribers and basically does 20-30 minute showcases of games, including new independent games. He’s amusing and pretty blunt in his reviews, which is nice to see when it comes to something like Dark Souls (which I don’t understand the attraction of at all!). What is interesting, though, is that he has become increasingly influential in the gaming world and beyond, evident in his interviewing of Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who fame).
  • Bajan Canadian: finally, a non-Brit! A Canadian teenager – or just out of his teens – who specializes in Minecraft (the best game ever!) modded games, especially a version of Hunger Games in which players fight each other to the death until only one remains. He has over 4 million subscribers and seems to have a pretty adult head on his shoulders – which is more than can be said for many YouTubers.
  • LifesAGlitchTV (LAGTV): another Canadian channel, this time comprising a couple of guys (MaximusBlack and NovaWar) who commentate on StarCraft games, mainly amateur ones rather than professional (yes, there is such a thing as professional gaming!). Their commentary regularly veers off into other subjects as they forget the game at hand. They started out, it seems, with a series called ‘When Cheese Fails’ in which one player tries a ‘cheesy’ tactic instead of playing normally (and then loses). Probably more pre-pubescent humour than the others, but both casters also do other videos on things like the mechanics and economics of being a YouTuber – i.e. how to make money from it.

What should be obvious right away is the gender imbalance here – this might be my own fault (in terms of what I watch), but it is very noticeable that women are under-represented in the LP world. They are not missing, there are several women LPers with significant followings (e.g. RPGMinx, YOGCASTHannah) and, of course, others without. They are not, however, the dominant voice in the LP world.

Monetizing Personality: Affective Economies and Cognitive Capitalism in Action!

What is clear is that computer gaming has changed and is changing as the result of greater interaction and multiplayer formats. It is likely that games like World of Warcraft, Sims, Second Life and so on drove greater demand for interaction through social media like YouTube – for example, WoW came out in 2004 and the first lets play (LP) video was supposedly created in 2007. The growth in gaming itself, whether online, on smart devices, etc. has no doubt contributed to the emergence and growth of LPs as well. One particularly important gaming development, in my mind at least, was the (full) release of Minecraft in 2011. For those living in the desert for the last three years, Minecraft is a sandbox, survival game. You start in a world and then collect resources and build things; there is no real goal to the game or limits on what you can do within it, which makes it totally different from most other games out there. It is, moreover, rather ugly – blocky, pixelly, etc. However, the freedom it allows players has meant that people can create their own worlds – in creative mode – and then play games in them with other players online. As I mentioned in the last post, one popular Minecraft game is a version of Hunger Games.

Anyway, alongside the social aspects of LPs (and other online gaming), there is an economic aspect to them as well – especially on YouTube. What YouTube allows players to do is monetize their videos – i.e. videos of themselves playings computer games. Any YouTuber can do it, not just gamers. The basic dynamics are as follows – also see video by LPer NovaWar on whole process:

  • You start a YouTube account and start uploading videos (of whatever);
  • Once your videos start getting 10k views, YouTube invites you to become a ‘partner’;
  • Once you become a partner, you can monetize your videos (through account settings);
  • Monetization basically means attaching various types of adverts to your videos (e.g. before it starts, as a transparent overlay, alongside);
  • You get revenue from advertising per 1000 views (or similar);
  • YouTube gets 45% of revenues from these adverts, which is how it makes its money;
  • … that’s basically it.

All this might sound wonderful – “money for nothing”. Videos of cute things – e.g. animals (especially fluffy ones), babies, etc. – can make a mint; aside from the fortune that Grumpy Cat has brought it, other examples include the video of the ‘stoned’ kid coming back from a trip to the dentist. But not everything is rosy in the garden. Advertising revenues on YouTube, for example, are declining and there is growing competition from other YouTubers. These things aside …

Making money, as is probably obvious, depends on how popular your videos are, which is based on how popular you are, how popular what you do is, and also (probably) has a lot to do with how interactive you are (i.e. making comments) on YouTube and other social media formats (e.g. Twitter).

Ok, let’s get “academic” about this then – not that I’m first to do this, obviously!

To me LPs represent a great example of what autonomist Marxists call ‘cognitive capitalism’ (Yann Moulier Boutang), ‘immaterial labour’ (Maurizio Lazzarato), ‘affective economies’ (Christian Marazzi), etc. Basically, what these thinkers are highlighting is that activities, relationships, emotions, behaviours, tastes, personalities, etc. can all be exploited like physical labour in capitalism. So, when it comes to shopping, we are putting in work as arbiters of taste (e.g. buying fashion magazines, following trends, etc.) as much as labourers in factories somewhere overseas – we are “prosumers”; when it comes to something like social media, we are putting in work through our emotional and social connections to friends and families – Facebook can exploit these links through selling advertising but only because we manage these relationships; when it comes to something like YouTube, we are putting in work as personalities – we are being funny, interesting, etc. in order to monetize our videos. While most LPers are not necessarily doing this – most seem to need to continue in other forms of work – this form of (cognitive, immaterial, affective) work represents both a possibility for liberation from capitalist imperatives and the subsumption of our personalities, emotions, relationships, etc. to those imperatives.

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