Controlling IP: Sharing Video Game Play

Sharing the experience of playing video games has always been one of the biggest parts of enjoying this relatively new media experience. As a child of the 90s, I grew up with video games as a part of my household, like many of my peers. Video games were actually a big part of forming personal relationships for me. Whenever there was a big new release, it was likely that at least one person we knew actually had the game. Going over to that friend’s house to check out the new game was a big event. Even if the game was single player, sharing was a large part of the enjoyment of video games. I would form new relationships through them. If I found out that someone I didn’t know much played the same game as me, or was a fan of a particular genre I enjoyed, we would instantly have something to talk about and through sharing our unique individual experiences about the common topic of conversation, we would have no end of material to talk about. Video games also provided an environment to develop friendships. Through playing video games, my childhood friends and I would always have something to do together.

Sharing a play experience of a new game or a game that a friend was unfamiliar with functioned in several different ways, all of them beneficial to the producer (the game company) as well as to the consumer (the gamer). Promotion, community, enhancement of experience, trial plays, publicity. Sharing a game experience essentially allows a consumer of the game to then become not only a producer of content, but a promoter for the game.

It is only natural, then, that as the internet becomes more ubiquitous and it is easier to share media, that we should utilize these materials in order to replicate the experience of sharing gaming. As our society becomes technologized so do our social and cultural practices. When someone uploads a “Let’s Play!” video they are not just sharing the game producer’s work, but they are sharing the work that they themselves have contributed as producer and performer. A video game by itself is just a pile of code. You can load up a video game, watch the pretty title sequences and the beautiful CG pre-rendered sequences that are such a big part of large-budget titles. After this, though, user interaction is required in order to experience the narrative. It is not optional, as some interactive medias are. A video game is nothing without the player. For as much content is created by the coders, artists, writers and producers of a game, without the player absolutely zero of their work ever even comes into existence without the player. If I create a painting or write a story, it will still exist as a physical piece of media, even if I hide it away in a box in my attic and never let anyone see it. A video game that is not played, though, does not exist at all, such is its level of dependency on user interaction. A painting must be viewed or a story read in order for it to become real for the audience. A video game, however, is not created, then experienced. It is created in simultaneity with the player’s experience of playing the game. If a gamer does not play a game or does not do a particular action that is coded in a game, it is not just a work that is not seen, it does not come into existence at all. It is code that is never run, in a sense, because every single instance of every player, every experience, even multiple playthroughs by the same player, are all unique. No two experiences, no two narratives, are ever exactly the same.

This sharing experience has been incorporated into the hardware, software and network infrastructure of the video game industry today and it is a very large part of the media form’s success and recent popularity. The recent boom of networked technologies and convergence with social networks and profiles has made accessing, playing and sharing video game experiences easier than ever.

A relatively new and popular way of sharing gaming experiences with others is through the creation of Let’s Play! videos, which are prolific on the internet. These videos serve many different functions, all of which were part of the way I used to share gaming experiences with my friends, huddled around a computer or a console and TV screen.

One function is simple entertainment. Many of these videos are humorous in nature and cater towards cracking jokes, lampooning or showcasing a bad game in a negative light, which makes a fun experience out of something that is intrinsically not fun (see Let’s Play! videos of such games as Superman 64 or E.T. on the Atari 2600) or providing broadcasts of competitive gaming.

Another is education. Let’s Play! videos can show a prospective buyer or someone who is merely curious about a game that they don’t know much about. Reading about a game can only tell you so much about what it is and what you can do in the game. Watching someone else’s experience gives you much more information on the actual gameplay, since you get visual and audible information from the game as well as commentary from the video creator, even if direct interactivity is missing. Let’s Play! videos are also a good way to find out how to play a game. I would have been completely lost on how to play Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings II were it not for Let’s Play! videos, due to the information overloading nature of the game. Textual guides simply were not doing it for me and just jumping in left me dizzy and completely confused. The act of watching someone play an hour or so of CKII gave me a much better idea of how I should proceed. Watching someone navigate the absolutely insane amount of windows, menus and sub-menus made a lot more sense than reading about them. Watching the Let’s Play! even made more sense to me than the tutorials included in the game. Whereas for me the tutorials compounded my information overload, the Let’s Play! video had more flow and thus I was able to understand the navigation of the menus and how they function in the context of a match.

Recently, Let’s Play! videos have been the subject of discussion in terms of copyright and even of legal action. From Joe Mullin’s article for ars technica:

It looks like LPers are the latest victims. A prolific LPer named Zack Scott took to Facebook yesterday to complain that several LPers had experienced takedowns of the videos including Nintendo games. A company fan like himself wasn’t the right target for automated takedowns, Scott complained, and he said he’d stop playing Nintendo games until the situation was straightened out. “It jeopardizes my channel’s copyright standing and the livelihood of all LPers,” he wrote.

Scott continues:

I got a Wii U at midnight when I already had one in the mail. I’ve been a Nintendo fan since the NES, and I’ve owned all of their systems… I think filing claims against LPers is backwards. Video games aren’t like movies or TV. Each play-through is a unique audiovisual experience. When I see a film that someone else is also watching, I don’t need to see it again. When I see a game that someone else is playing, I want to play that game for myself! Sure, there may be some people who watch games rather than play them, but are those people even gamers?

I would argue that Nintendo’s monetization of the LPers content is actually unfair use on their part. They are an intimate and necessary part of the creation process of the product and their activities are perfectly within their rights of free speech. Nintendo’s advertising takes advantage of the producers of content, falsely claiming that content to be its own. They own the code of the game, but that is only one part of the production of a gaming experience. They do not own the software or hardware I use to run the game, nor the technology I use to record and share my experience with others. They do not own the hardware and software you use to view and share with my experience, and they certainly don’t own the rights to my production of my own play experience. You can easily see how the convergence of media and technology, combined with user-generated content and voluntary consumer participation can complicate these types of situations. Who owns what content, if anyone? When one work of media (like a “Let’s Play!” video on Youtube) has so many different technologies and producers involved, who then is the owner of that work? And who has the right to share it? I don’t know who does “own” the content, but I am quite sure that the capitalist producer does not own my experience and my right to communicate it to others. To monetize on at least that portion of the gaming experience is more than capitalistic, it is fascistic; fascistic in the sense that it is using people’s speech and personal experience in order to control. The legal argument in defense of Nintendo and other producers is that they own the content, which they deem to be the video game that is being played. But that is not necessarily the only form of content involved. The other content is the specific playthrough of the person who uploaded the video, as well as the editing work and commentary that they did. The issue is multilayered and complicated, involving many different producers and it’s hard to tell where one producer’s work ends and the other’s begins, but I’m on the side that says the game producer (such as Nintendo)’s power of control should not extend vertically all the way down the line through the player’s experience and on to hundreds, if not thousands, of YouTube users viewing said experience.