“Let’s Play”

With over 101,000,000 subscribers, PewDiePie is the second-most-subscribed to YouTube channel in the world. Swedish YouTuber, Felix Kjellberg, has been uploading “Let’s Play” gaming videos, meme reviews, and nonsense content for over ten years. His channel boasts over 3,500 videos with over 23 billion views.

What makes this channel so popular? Well, take a look at some of his average content. Note: This video is pretty long. Three or four minutes should give you the idea.

Didn’t make it to the end? I don’t blame you. This isn’t the most interesting content on the web. Kjellberg has famously said that he started making these videos because he was bored. No kidding. And this video is fairly tame compared to his usual uploads. He has described his own videos as “aggressive stupidity.”1 His channel has been described as obnoxious, stupid, over-the-top, while filled with profanity and politically incorrect statements.

Many people have wondered at the title of the channel: PewDiePie. According to Kjellberg, the name is a composite of three things. First, the “Pew,” as in the sound of a gun or laser; then “Die,” as in when you’re shooting up a bad guy on a game and yelling “Die!;” and then “Pie.” Pie was apparently added to the original title “PewDie” because Kjellberg forgot his username and created a new account name that was slightly different from the old one.2 That should give you an idea of the intellectual level of the content that he is producing.

Reversing the Trend
Kjellberg is out front in a phenomenon called “Let’s Play.” What’s it all about? Basically, “Let’s Play” is where you watch someone else play a video game as the gamer gives commentary on his subjective experience of the game. That’s it. What’s fascinating about this is that tons of people are doing it. The website Twitch, which is dedicated to “Let’s Play” videos, is one of the most visited sites on the web, receiving over 20,000,000 visits every month.3 Apparently, watching someone else play a video game is more entertaining for some people than actually playing one themselves.

“I am obsessed with forming healthy communities, and that’s why I started Twitch.” So says Emmett Shear, founder of Twitch. In a TED Talk, Shear argues that entertainment was originally shared in community, but television broadcasting drove a wedge between the creator and consumer. It was “one-way” entertainment and it encouraged people to be entertained alone. According to Shear, multiplayer video games are reversing this trend. They are like “a shared campfire. They are both interactive and connecting.”4

Furthermore, Shear pointed out that games today are different than they used to be: “They’re deeply complex, more intellectually stimulating, and most of all, they are intrinsically social. Games . . . are the one form of entertainment where consumption truly requires human connection.”5

Shear makes some good points about how a lot of modern media has encouraged us to consume alone, and the popularity of “Let’s Play” videos speaks to the yearning that people have for community. Shear speaks of multiplayer entertainment as people “bonding over a shared passion.”6 Kjellberg made similar comments saying, “Many people see me as a friend they can chill with for fifteen minutes a day,” adding, “the loneliness in front of the computer screens brings us together . . . I just want to invite them to come over to my place.”7 Bonding over shared passions and chilling out with friends are good things, and Shear and Kjellberg are right to note these things.

Forming Healthy Communities?
But if Shear is “obsessed with forming healthy communities,” it’s hard to see how people like Kjellberg and others on Twitch are helping to do that. While it may be fun to hang out with Kjellberg for fifteen minutes a day, at the end of his videos, you aren’t really any better off then when you started. You’ve just spent fifteen minutes watching utter nonsense. The description of his channel simply states: “I make videos.”

Known for his raw, unfiltered commentary, Kjellberg is perceived as real and authentic. One commentator on Kjellberg wrote that the YouTuber’s “chosen mode of sharing his critique happens to be ribald entertainment, an unmediated stream of blurted jokes, startled yelps, goofy voices, politically incorrect comments, and pretty much nonstop profanity.”8

In Shear’s TED Talk, Shear invites another gamer to highlight the connection and community that is happening on the chat room for his Let’s Play stream. It consists almost entirely of emojis and short statements about how awesome the community is and how it makes the viewers happy.

We can appreciate both Shear’s and Kjellberg’s desire to bring people together, but if this is their notion of healthy community, we probably need to rethink what a healthy community is. To say that games today are “more intellectually stimulating, and . . . intrinsically social” is a blanket statement with almost no support. They may be more complex, but intellectually stimulating? Watching fifteen minutes of Kjellberg playing Minecraft or cutting zombies into pieces is hardly intellectually stimulating.

And what about Shear’s statement that “Games . . . are the one form of entertainment where consumption truly requires human connection?” This is sheer nonsense. Shear seems to be referring primarily to video games, but what about going to a play or an orchestra concert that involves audience participation, watching a ball game with friends, going swing dancing, playing a board game with family, reading a story to your children? All of these forms of entertainment require far more human connection than watching someone else play a video game online.

Shear’s campfire analogy breaks down as well. Entertainment and storytelling are certainly an important part of forming healthy communities; but healthy communities are not simply formed around people entertaining themselves, much less people watching others play video games. Furthermore, sitting around a campfire with friends telling stories is hardly comparable to sitting alone in front of a computer screen, watching someone play a video game to an endless stream of emojis.

There may be nothing wrong with hanging out with Kjellberg for fifteen minutes a day on YouTube, but let’s not pretend like this is healthy community. The word “healthy” carries with it a sense of wholeness and well-being, so when we apply the word “healthy” to the word “community” it has to mean more than just hanging out. Healthy communities require that people know and are deeply known by one another; that people work together toward some shared goal; that they provide support for each other in difficult times; and that they celebrate with one another. Few of these things can be accomplished on Twitch in any really meaningful way.

Of course, there is a reason that so many people are turning to this form of entertainment to find a community. Perhaps it is because their traditional communities have failed them. Perhaps it is because it is easier to have a sense of “community” from behind a computer screen than it is to actually make friends with your next-door neighbor. We needn’t make this an either/or.

Though community requires a lot of effort, we should, like Shear, be concerned about forming healthy communities. After all, we were made for relationships and community; but not just any kind of community. Not all communities are healthy, online or otherwise. We don’t have space here to explore all of the elements of a healthy community, but it starts with loving, self-sacrificing relationships between real people in real places; and it’s really hard—but it’s deeply fulfilling.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.