Let’s Play: Interactivity by Proxy in a Web 2.0 Culture (Complete Series)

Photo credit: Sean Dreilinger

With the surprise interest in my series on Let’s Plays on PopMatters, I’ve revised this post to include links to the entire set and other resources of interest.

Part 1 – Vectors for Audience Engagement
Part 2 – Experts and Chroniclers
Part 3 – Comedians
Part 4 – Counter-Historiographers

Original paper – “Let’s Play Super Rutgers RPG: Interactivity by Proxy in an Online Gaming Culture” for Game Behind the Video Game, Rutgers School of Communications, April 9 2011.

Original conference slides

Hit the jump for notes and reflections and all that jazz.


I became interested in game watching while studying television audience studies in my third year of undergrad. With the guidance of my thesis advisor John Caldwell, I developed a senior research paper devoted to game watching and the sorts of play which attract audiences. It was subsequently published in the online peer-reviewed academic journal dichtung-digital. You can view the paper in full here.

Game watching is interesting to me because it’s a very common practice and yet doesn’t have a great deal of literature written about either within or outside of games studies. In pursuing my master’s, I made clear this was an area I wanted to expand upon. Because game watching in general was a broad subject, I honed in specifically on one particular practice which I knew about but was not personally invested in, the better to stay objective and call things as I saw them.

The Paper

A colleague at Northwestern forwarded me the CFP for a games studies conference at Rutgers. Expecting no particularly great things to come of this (being accepted to a high-profile conference on your first application is quite rare), I revised a hypothetical paper proposal and sent it off. My response upon being accepted was, in brief:


followed by,

“Oh, crap.”

I will be the first to fully acknowledge that the paper is wanting in many areas. I have published it online here because of repeated requests, but I do still caveat that the PopMatters articles are the superior version. This will become exceptionally evident in the later sections from which I copied nearly word for word, bar some edits and pretty pictures.

The paper feels rushed, and the accompanying Powerpoint presentation (also viewable above) only underscores this. While I like my subject matter and am grateful to the Let’s Players who graciously took the time to speak with me, this is not my research’s ideal execution at all. Furthermore, I learned that I violently dislike academic conferences.


Sue me, Pokemon Black/White had just come out and I had these dry academic articles on my hands. I figured they’d be catchy. They ended up corny. Better luck next time.

Not Srs Bzns

On this matter I beg to differ.

The attempt of my paper was not to be prescriptive, but descriptive. It was talking about what I saw, which may be an inaccurate perception but was tackled with as much depth and nuance as time and space allowed. It does indeed work by broad strokes– I fully acknowledge there is a great deal of complexity involved here that defies simple categorization. I also understand that categorization at all may strike some people as a waste of time, but studies of media are very useful things under the right circumstances. My aim was to showcase a fan practice that academics and industry types could both be excited about. For some, paying any manner of attention to a hobby at all is time ill-spent, but again– I don’t agree.

It’s important to remember that games studies is a young discipline, much younger than film and television studies, both of which have had several decades to build up a subfield of audience studies. While you still frequently hear people say “It’s just a movie” or “It’s just television,” games are unique because they also work as a hobby– a thing you do, not just a thing you consume. As a result, there are many people in games studies who are interested in what sort of behaviors get built up around these games and conversely, a lot of pushback from others who don’t see the point.

Mine is not the role of the arbiter defining what is and what isn’t valid culture. It’s all valid culture, whether you take it seriously or just play it for fun. I saw an area of my field which was not being adequately covered by its existing writers and attempted to cover some of it, not to say something definitive but to say something preliminary. There are a lot of veins in academics which begin, expand, and wither out by collective agreement/disagreement about their importance. We have had one such “war” already between ludologists –people who study games as systems– and narratologists –people who study games as texts– and if film studies is any model for comparison, we can look forward to the field expanding, contracting, and expanding again as the field continues to establish itself.

…That was a long sentence so, tl;dr: play may not be serious business but talking about it is. Google “games studies.” Yes, it’s a thing.

You Didn’t Interview Me/You Left This Out/You Got This Wrong

I am, as always, quite open to comments and feedback. Feel free to leave a comment below or email me.

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