ChapterPDF Available

Playing for Work: Independence as Promise in Gameplay Commentary on YouTube

Authors:
!
!
!
!
!
9 Playing for Work
Independence
as
Promise
in Gameplay
Commentary
on Y
ou
T
ube
!
Hector
Postigo
!
!
!
On March 5, 2011 a
seventeen-year-old
YouTube video game
commentator
posted on his channel a
“thank
you” video for his subscribers. In his
video,
the
“commentator”
panned the
handheld camcorder
close to his face
and
began to list all the good things that had come to him from his Y
ouT
ube
channel. With more than half a million subscribers (and growing) and
a
YouTube
partnership
that was increasingly generating revenue, this
com
-
mentator
noted that he had been able to afford his first new car, save
enough
money to go to college and even lend his parent some cash. Beyond being
a
“thank
you,” this
user-generated
video was a form of “set up” film, a
genre
that
commentators
use to show to their subscribers their gaming “set
ups”
letting their viewership see the extent of their
“geekiness”
or
technophilic
commitment.
The
“set-up”
that this
particular commentator
was
showing,
however, was his new
car2011
Mercedes E350 Coupe, valued at
almost
50,000
U.S. dollars. Quite an achievement for a
seventeen-year-old whose
only source of income came from a YouTube advertising
partnership.
In
this
chapter I focus on the
independence
of video gamers/fans who have
con
-
verted their gameplay into work. I trace material and cognitive shifts
among
“YouTubers” producing commentary
to
first-person
shooter video
games
from 2010 until 2012 when their content became increasingly
popula
r
.
The video game industry has grown into a major
entertainment business
in the decades since it began in earnest with the
manufacture
of home
con
-
soles and games for the personal
computer.
During that time the
industry
has
expanded,
developing novel technologies, games and business
models.
Video games, once confined to the personal
computer,
are now on
mobile
phones, mobile consoles and dedicated home consoles. Like other
media
businesses the industry has seen
consolidation. Nintendo, Microsoft
and
Sony, for example, now
dominate
the home console
market.
Game
devel
-
opment, the work of making games, has also experienced
consolidation.
Many formerly
“independent development
companies are now
housed
under larger publishing businesses like Activision Blizzard, Electronic
Arts,
Sony and
Nintendo.
This chapter explores
independence
in relation to individual
workers’
experiences of creative freedom and economic
reward. Independence
here
!
!
!
!
Playing for
Work
203
!
is
understood
as an ideal that one can not only work free of a
corpora
-
tion’s influence, alienating
structures
and
routinized
work processes,
but
also that one can engage in
“passionate labor
that is at once
personally
fulfilling and financially
rewarding.
Such a view of
independence
has
been
important
in the professional imaginary that frames game
development
as a career (Lange 2007; Perelman 2000; Postigo 2009). After all, if
game
designers and developers are anything, they are gamers first: men
and
women who ultimately want to turn their passions into a job. The
notion
of
independence
in ones work is not unique to the game industry but
a
value held by anyone who seeks creativity and fulfillment in work.
Cer
-
tainly, YouTube in its early years (before its
acquisition
by Google)
traded
exclusively on the notion of
independent
media
production,
leveraging
user-generated
content for value and
positioning
itself as the
“celestial
bullhorn
of
amateur
video
production.
No longer would video
produc
-
ers need
transmission
towers, access to satellite feeds or the
transmission
spectrum to massively
distribute
their even most whimsical
creations.
All
they would need was a webcam and an idea.
High-capacity
mobile
phone
data towers and
smartphone adoption
ultimately afforded an even
more
expansive vision of video capture and
distribution
within a matrix of
Web
platforms,
apps and mobile devices that has grown into a major
media
business.
Video gameplay
commentators
engage with the notion of
independence
as a
“promise
for a
particular
form of creative labor. Video game
com
-
mentators
have come to call themselves
“directors,
the term
denoting
their
transition
from
hobbyistproviding
footage of their gaming
experi
-
ence on
YouTube—to conscientious craftspersoncreating
and
purpose
-
fully
formulating
a novel
entertainment
experience. The use of the
term
“director
is primarily a custom of
commentators
who have been
asked
to join the YouTube
partner program
or signed content sharing
contracts
with
Machinima.com
to distinguish themselves from the wider
commen
-
tary
community.
Their
understanding
of their place in leisure
communities
(video gamers) as labor and the “game
industry
proper positions
inde
-
pendence differently from how it has been
understood
in media
industries.
Their practices did not begin as
interventions
into an existing
industry
,
but rather as corollary
production
to content and media
platforms.
Unlike
other
interventions
in the name of creating
independent
media
experienced
in other systems (see
Chapter
3 in this volume), their work was not
an
attempt
to break the
monopoly
on game design or video game
distribu
-
tion. In other words, their form of
independence
did not
reproduce
the
narratives produced
by established media players, but
borrowed
them
as
raw material for their own form of entry into the industry. They
created
a whole new ideal of what the video game experience can be: a
spectator
sport.
Analysis of the most widely watched
commentators,
their videos,
their
communities
and their practices, shows that while they started
their
!
!
!
!
204 Hector
Postigo
!
YouTube
“careers
as
independent producers
of
game-related
content,
they have, over the eighteen months of research
conducted
for this
chapte
r
,
become deeply embedded in the processes and
structures
of the
mainstream
mass media industries. The
independence
of their work belies a deep
reliance
on audience tastes,
platform
business models (the video game industrys
and
YouTubes) and the dynamics of a
consumer/producer community
that
takes
place across digital
networks,
trade conferences and personal
relationships.
Their foray into media
production
has historically been a pursuit of a
hobby
with the promise of
independence
from otherwise alienating labor,
when
revenue models became part of the video game
commentary
production and
distribution experience.
Video game
commentary
may be a singular case of media
independence,
but findings are generalizable. Many of the forces that shape the
valua
-
tion of UGC on Web 2.0
platforms
are present in the
popularization
of
gameplay
commentary. Independence
is both a promise kept and lost
for
gameplay
commentators.
As this chapter argues, eventually some
compro
-
mises are made by
commentators,
which bring them into the orbit of
the
mainstream
media
production
ethos. As a basis for building theory
about
working in digital spaces,
independence
is not unlike a
boundary
object
(Bowker and Star 1999; Star and Griesemer 1989). It straddles
multiple
life worlds and provides multiple ways for making sense out of
subject
positions related to work life. Within the YouTube
platform
and
business
model,
independence
defines the successful
commentator
as private
con
-
tractor
or
entrepreneur,
yet
paradoxically
success is precariously
depen
-
dent on not only
producing
content that will drive views, but also
on
the
continued
success of the video game franchise that the
“YouTuber
is
commentating
on as well as on initial investment of free labor, a point I
draw out explicitly in the sections that follow. Within the
community of
commentators, independence
is a
rhetorical
device, an
argument
for
why
the work is
worthwhile
as well as an ideal, one that motivates but
that
often is not completely within reach. In the
introduction
to this
volume,
James Bennett rightly points to the complexity of
“independence
in
media
production:
its meaning in theory and in practice is a tapestry of
visions,
technology and techne that orient
practitioners toward
media
institutions
old and new,
capturing
them in their gravity while
simultaneously
afford
-
ing the promise of escape velocity. If this
metaphor
should hold we
can
envision
independence
as the tenuous arc of
planetary
orbit, and
those
traversing it sometimes losing their place or
maintaining
it as they gaze
at
stars and YouTube
stardom.
Gameplay
commentary
as an
instantiation
of
independence
is seen by the
community
as convincing
enactment
of
free
-
dom but contested as
institutions
draw them
in.
This chapters empirical base is taken from eighteen months of
partici
-
pant
observation
in the YouTube video game
commentator
community
.
It follows the life cycles of two of the most
popular
games ever
designed
for console: Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (CoD
MW2)
2009 and
Call
!
!
!
!
Playing for
Work
205
!
of Duty Black Ops (Cod
BLOPS)
2010. The great majority of the
videos
produced
and the
community
activity studied centered on these
games,
but it also included content for CoD Modern Warfare 1 (CoD 4)
and
CoD World at War (CoD
WaW).
These last three games came before
CoD
MW2
and
BLOPS,
but remained favorites that
commentators
played
and
commentated
on on occasion. Being a gamer myself, I feel a deep
connec
-
tion to those whose love of gaming is so strong that they are
compelled
to share recordings of their joys and
frustrations
with millions of
others.
Like other online
communities,
the YouTube game
commentary
commu
-
nity can have its unsavory dimensions. They have
“trolls
of every
stripe:
racist, misogynist and
homophobic
discourses
abound,
rage is a
com
-
mon emotion and conflict often not neatly resolved. But there are
also
moments of great
empathy,
of reaching out and
understanding,
of
teach
-
ing and learning. There are moments in some videos when content
that
paradoxically
depicts playing at warfare also provides, in
commentary
,
the most enlightened of human discourse. In those moments the Y
ouT
ube
game
commentary community
is not so different from others online
or
offline. The
community
is a complex collection of individuals in the
pro
-
cess of meaning making, engaged in ritual, conflict and alliances.
They
embrace
humanistic
values as well as a sort of nihilism that takes the
form
of trolling and hate. In the case of games with large
multiplayer
compo
-
nents or online fan
communities,
the ethos of
community
becomes part
of
the game experience. Perhaps, as Lisa
Nakamura
argues, we should
not
hate the player but hate the game for its most egregious ugliness
(Nakamura
2013). But that would divorce and absolve the
platform
and its
design
from its
structuring affordances
that make
community
dynamics part
of
the game
experience.
The research for this chapter took three forms: in the
participant
obser
-
vation work I watched videos, played the games,
commented
on videos
and
made
commentary
videos of my own. The analytical
portion
of the
project
took the form of field notes consisting of memos and notes on videos
and
commentary,
paying
particular attention
to the discourse and practice
of
producing
content that straddles leisure, hobby and professional
aspira
-
tions. The design assessment of the project made note of the technical
archi
-
tectures within which
“YouTubers
went about their routines and how
that
architecture
afforded video game
commentary production
independence,
but also required a form of
production
along lines defined by viewer
tastes,
the video game’s
popularity/commercial
success and resource
allocations
and
maintenance.
Thus the
gravitational
pull of
traditional
mainstream
media
production
practices are
reproduced
and inescapable. Niki
Strange
rightly
wondered
in the editing of this chapter if that pull is
inexorable.
I would say some elements of
platform
and practice cannot be ignored if
YouTube
stardom
is desired. By ignoring their pull a
YouTuber
of any
sort
risks obscurity, forgoing the roar of applause
instantiated
as likes and
chan
-
nel
subscribers.
!
!
!
!
206 Hector
Postigo
!
MAKING YOUTUBE VIDEO GAME
COMMENT
ARY
AND
INDEPENDENCE
!
Video game
commentary
is a
popular
genre of
user-generated
video
content
on YouTube. At the time of this writing, collectively the top ten
commenta
-
tors have more than 3 million
subscribers.1
That number grows daily
and
their videos have been viewed tens of millions of times both on their
chan
-
nels and when reposted on other
platforms
and channels by other users.
The
videos themselves, be they from the established
commentators
or from
those
with smaller followings, are incredibly rich cultural
artifacts.
They are
not
only
performances
of expertise or gaming prowess, but also serve as
perfor
-
mances of identity,
community
values, conflicts and allegiances,
economy
and creativity. They are a deep ritual. When the videos come from
com
-
mentators
with large subscriber bases they have the power to set the
tone
for discourse and shape the videos of other
commentators
by
necessitating
“response
videos” and more
commentary. Moreover,
YouTubes
comment
-
ing and rating system, which allows subscribers and viewers to speak to
the
commentators
and to other
community
members about videos or other
hap
-
penings in the gaming
community,
generate
interactions
which
themselves
are rich and
meaningful.
Making
commentary
videos starts as a hobby. I’ve seldom heard (or
read
in their comments) any beginning
commentator
say they are doing it to
make
money
(although
perhaps secretly that’s their goal long term) or that they
are
taking it on as a day job. But making a CoD
MW2
or
BLOPS commentary
video is not easy. An aspiring
commentator
will need at least an Xbox
360
(the majority of CoD
commentary
is from gaming done on this
platform),
but because most other
commentators
also have a PS3, then one might
need
that too. He or she will also need some form of video capture device,
either
an HD-PVR or a capture card installed onto a high-end PC or Mac that is
connected to the console and records gameplay in real time. Last, the
com
-
mentator
will need the game itself (valued at near US$70 dollars) along
with
any
downloadable
content (DLC) the game company eventually releases. All
summed up it’s possible that a
burgeoning commentator
will need to
make
a US$5000 dollar investment up
front.
Then the
commentator
will have to practice at the game. The
overwhelm
-
ing majority of
commentators
with large
subscription
bases (and even
mod
-
erate ones) are very good at the game. Gameplay
commentary
is, if
nothing
else, an
exhibition
of great gaming skill. The overwhelming majority of
CoD
gameplay
commentary
is of online
multiplayer team-based
matches
(players
play against each other on teams of six or nine, not against game AI). By
their own
admission, commentators
post only their best gameplay, but
they
also post their
“combat records,”
which the game software keeps
updated
and then shares with an online
database
or
leaderboard
so that players
can
see how they stack up against others
around
the world. The top
commen
-
tators have win/loss ratios typically above three (most players have
match
!
!
!
!
Playing for
Work
207
!
win/loss ratios of 0.5 to 1) and their kill to death ratios are also high
(typi
-
cally between 3 or 4 where most average players are between 0.5 and
1).
Together this means that the aspiring
commentator
has to be able to
win
three online matches for every one he or she loses and they have to
win
80 percent of their virtual gunfights even when they are on a losing
team.
This is not easy at all. Even if
commentators
are blessed with
natural skill
and quick reflexes, the games highlighted here are designed to allow
tactical
players to win out over the
naturally
gifted. There are countless places
to
hide on a map, choke points where mobility is limited and congested
and
a
thousand
ways for a player’s game
character
to be shot, stabbed,
blown
up, bombed,
burned,
bitten by a pack of attack dogs, shot by
helicopters,
AC 130s or
predator
drones and even blown up by a tactical nuclear
device.
In short, merely staying alive in the
multiplayer
game is an exercise in
skill,
luck and tactics. Excelling at the game at the level that most top
commenta
-
tors do is difficult in the extreme and requires lots of practice. The
average
top
commentator
will have committed between thirty or forty days of
game
time in a
ten-month
period. That’s about 2.4 to 3.2 hours of gaming a
week
on average. Many do more than
that.
There are only a few top gameplay
commentators
that do not
regularly
post great scores and or gameplay on videos. These are typically trick
shot
commentators
specializing in in-game
demonstrations
of skill such as
jump
-
ing off a cliff doing a 360-degree turn while getting a one-shot kill
with
a sniper rifle or
commentators
that are more like radio
“personalities,”
deploying humor or making amusing
observations
about the game. The
rest
have to be, as the
community
calls them,
“beasts”
at the
game.
Last, the aspiring
commentator
will have to be good at
commentating.
They will have to provide something other than gameplay to keep
play
-
ers engaged. This means they will need to give “tips or tricks” for
success,
develop
commentary
that conveys useful strategies or tell interesting
stories
while their gameplay runs on video. This requires a good speaking voice
and
style, a quality
microphone
so that the
commentator’s
voice doesn’t
sound
muffled and good video and sound editing software and skills to
combine
the
captured
gameplay with the recorded
audio.2
If the
commentator gets
more
exposure,
they might want to design a video
introduction
to their
vid
-
eos with customized theme music and graphics. Some top
commentators
do
this,
although
it’s not terribly
widespread.
Ultimately the
production quality
for many of the videos
produced
by top
commentators
is quite
high.
Any given video takes about ten to fifteen hours to produce if not
more,
taking into account time to game,
commentate,
produce, render and
post.
Some top
commentators
post two to three videos a week. This is not
a
hobby for those who are terribly pressed for time or have extensive
family
responsibilities,
thus a great majority of gameplay
commentators
are
young
and still in high school or college. A few have professions outside the
game
industry and families to
support.
These
commentators
are usually
record
-
ing and
producing
late at night or early in the morning while their
families
!
!
!
!
208 Hector
Postigo
!
sleep or before they have to attend to their regular jobs.
Independence,
the
ability for a
commentator
to choose the content and
presentation,
is
dictated
in many ways not only by their personal choice but also by the game
they
choose to play and the platforms various ways
independent promotion of
the content can be achieved. YouTube’s
architecture
is designed to
translate
the video into views. It relies on the technical
affordances
created by its
fea
-
tures
(communication
and
distribution)
to create social
affordances (buzz
around
a video and community) to increase views. There comes a
moment
in a gameplay
commentator’s
engagement with this practice when he or
she
must make a choice as to the way the content will be
produced
and
their
status as
amateur,
professional or
“pro-amateu
r
.”
It is
important
to note that a significant
proportion
of CoD series
game
-
play
commentators
are men. There are some women and since this
writing,
their subscriber base has grown
significantly.3
The CoD gaming
community
is a gendered space and
performance
of gameplay is defined by the
predomi
-
nantly masculine identifying viewership. Women
commentators
with
large
subscriber numbers will perform a sexualized feminine persona; whether
the
persona is
imported
from their lives outside the
commentary community
or
ascribed and
adopted
for the purposes of addressing masculine
audiences
remains to be
determined
in my research. To what degree either reason is
the origin of those personae is expansive and liberating for womens
perfor
-
mance of gender identity in a gendered space remains open for analysis
and
beyond the scope of this
chapte
r
.
A prevailing question among scholars who study hobby culture and
its
relation to consumer culture and capital has been: When does a
hobby
become work? The answer is not easy. Some say it is always work if
capital
can capture its value; others suggest that there is a duality to certain
forms
of hobbying that makes it both. For many hobbyists it is also a
compli
-
cated answer. The majority seem to say that once you are paid for it,
the
hobby no longer is a hobby or at least the
“job
aspects of the
activity
are so prevalent that they cannot be ignored. As the hobbyist
becomes
dependent
on the pay or responsible to an employer, the freedom or
inde
-
pendence of
production
as hobby is lost. Often game
commentators
who
are being paid either by YouTube or
machinima.com
use this
language.
4
They note how they have to produce a video even if they don’t want to,
or
that other work
responsibilities
prevent them from
producing
the
videos
they want to
make.
After the video is completed the
commentator
must release it on his
or
her channel. The
platform
does a lot of work once
uploaded
to Y
ouT
ube.
The video is
announced
in subscribers’ inboxes; it is viewed,
commented
on,
ranked,
favorited,
linked and so forth. To follow Sut Jhallys notion of
the
working audience, the video and YouTube
architectures
capture
subscribers’
clicks and views, organize them and make them available to others
(Jhally
and Livant, 1986). The intent is to, first, encourage
community
activity
and,
second, to
translate
it into more views for the video. It is in YouTubes
best
!
!
!
!
Playing for
Work
209
!
interests that all videos get as many views as possible, and its technical sys-
tems are designed to facilitate
that.
But the features alone cannot achieve this.
Commentators
must
market
their videos to subscribers, encourage their responses and seek new
audi
-
ences, all in the hopes of increasing video views. Top
commentators are
motivated
by both the social capital earned in the
community
when a
video
garners
thousands
of views (the well-studied YouTube Star status) and
the
financial return (Senft 2008). To this end the top
commentators
use
Twitter
and Facebook to reach out to their subscriber bases. They tweet about
vid
-
eos, they update their Facebook pages and they engage users. The
video
s
success is closely tied to the personal
connection
that
commentators have
with subscribers, so
commentators
often organize “open game
lobbies”
where they invite subscribers to play a few matches of the game online,
hold
“question
and
answer”
sessions via chat, live stream gameplay with
sub
-
scribers watching and asking questions, and have
“giveaways”
(an
activity
that brings with it some
controversy,
discussed later in this chapter). The
top
commentators
that want to garner the goodwill of the
community
must
do
all this
without
seeming to be trying too hard. For the
community, releasing
a video on YouTube and then advertising it and raising awareness about
it
is
analogous
to going out and seeking friends; if it’s done too aggressively
or
without
nuance, then the
community (through
comments and ratings)
will
punish the
commentator,
calling him or her out for fishing for
subscribers.
Often
commentators
will end their videos with the tag line, “If you
liked
this video . . . or even if you didnt, please rate, comment and subscribe . .
.
it helps the channel
grow.”
Asking for feedback, any feedback,
inoculates
against
accusations
from the
community
that the
commentator
is fishing
for
positive ratings or
subscriptions.
When this study began, the
standard
of content quality was not
defined.
Commentators
could simply post gameplay to music, or rants about a
par
-
ticular game style, or even about their personal lives; as the genre
gained
more views on YouTube, that changed significantly. In many ways,
those
commentators
who were first to market and garner viewers were in
the
happy position to define not only the
standard
of gameplay
commentary
but also the
standard
of online play. Video game culture, as it is
manifested
in the CoD online gaming
community,
shaped that
standard
of play
and
was shaped by the
standards demonstrated
by
commentators.
For,
example,
because CoD online play is often fast paced, players who chose to linger
in
locations hiding behind corners to catch
opponents unawares
were
labeled
“campers,”
a
derogatory
term used by gamers to berate players
through
online
communication
in game lobby chat and messaging. Thus
commenta
-
tors who exhibited a proficiency in a “run and gun” style of play were
typi
-
cally lauded in the YouTube
community
as opposed to those who
“camped.”
If camping was a style of play that garnered
harassment
for any given
CoD
gamer who chose to adopt it, the style became more widely
understood and
rejected after YouTube
commentators
used the tensions in the two styles
of
!
!
!
!
210 Hector
Postigo
!
play as foil for their
commentary.
Although some top gameplay
commen
-
tators do camp, they let their
commentary
create the
entertainment value.
Those
commentators
late to arrive to the increasingly fixed milieu of
video
game culture, who are not as proficient at fast-paced play, had either
to
find new ways of meeting the existing
standard
or,
through
their
creative
personae,
to develop a new
“hook”
for
viewers.
Game designers, for their part, have played close
attention
to
these
dynamics in the
hardcore
gamer
community.
Subsequent
iterations
of
the
CoD franchise have patently eschewed design elements that allowed
users
to camp, making the “run and gun” style the one most likely to bring
suc
-
cesses
through
design
affordances.
In this way, one can argue, game
design
interferes with
commentator independence
in
production. Without game
design that affords plasticity in play style,
commentators
are locked
into
a
particular
form of content based on a defined play style if they want
to
garner viewers and a
reputation
as a gifted CoD gamer. One example in
the
design history of the CoD series that illustrates these design changes
includes
the removal of game features that allowed a player to remain unseen
by
an
opponent
team. By removing the ability to remain unseen the
designers
took away
affordances
that allowed players to
“camp.” Without
the ele-
ment of surprise, the “run and gun” strategy became the only viable
option
for
gameplay
.
Ultimately for video game
commentators,
what began as an exercise
in
leisure and creativity in video gameplay and
independent
media
production
was
captured
in the calculus of mass media audience taste and
creation. This
form of capture affords
commentators
an
opportunity
to create
audience
taste and
production standards
but ultimately locks them into a
particular
gameplay style and video game franchise.
Commentators
are not
ignorant
of this dynamic. They express their
disappointment:
!
once you start doing something for money it loses a lot of the fun it
once
used to have and that’s where video games have gotten at this point
in
my life. I do them for money. A game like Fallout New Vegas
comes
along I don’t want to monetize that. I want that to have the fun that its
always had. I want to just sit back and play the
game.
(Wings Response to Hutch and
Woody
2010
)
!
Whereas this
particular commentator
still uploads
commentary, others
left a potentially lucrative
independent entertainment
practice on Y
ouT
ube
because they lost that
independence
and joy,
surrendering
it to the
demands
of audience and pecuniary needs. If
independence
acts as a
boundary object,
it does so in the sense that it constitutes a subjective experience that
straddles
life worlds and helps
commentators
talk about their hobby and work
as
synergistic sides of the same coin. When that synergy is lost
through the
inescapability
of audience taste, preference and
commentator
reliance on
the
social and material capital that YouTube affords, the
boundaries between
!
!
!
!
Playing for
Work
211
!
hobby and work become
impermeable
in
commentator
discourses
about
their
techno-practice.
At times they are even
incommensurate.
Intellectual
property
(IP) concerns have recently impacted
commentator
independence
in the
production
of video game
commentary.
As the
video
game
commentary
genre has become more
popular,
game companies
have
taken note. A key element of copyright law in the United States calls for IP
owners to assume an ever-vigilant stance over derivate uses of their
valuable
IP. Should IP owners not police
appropriation
of their IP, they risk
losing
their
properties
to the public domain. When it became evident that
some
commentators
were developing lucrative businesses made from the
public
performance
of gameplay, some companies used the stringent
protections
on
public
performance
and use of
copyrighted
content to argue that Y
ouT
ube
and the
commentator community
remove some of their content.
Nintendo
was the first to demand that video using its content not have ads
associated
with it and some
commentators
refused to play any
Nintendo
games.
Nin
-
tendo eventually reversed its claim and other companies publicly
supported
the presence of video gameplay
commentary
on YouTube (Futter n.d.;
Gera
n.d.; Reed n.d.). At the time of this writing, it remains unclear how that
will
impact the long-term viability and
independence
of video game
commenta
-
tors. Much of the success that some
commentators
have reaped has
been
tied to the commercial success of the game titles they choose to use for
com
-
mentary. The CoD franchise, because it holds sales records for a number
of
its titles, has provided a rich content source for
commentary.
Using CoD
as
a
platform, commentators
have
subsequently
ventured into
commentating
over gameplay in
lesser-known
games,
transforming
themselves from
hob-
byists to
independent
game reviewers for new releases.
Copyright problems
notwithstanding,
the use of a very successful
platform
can serve as a
vehicle
to
maintain
the viewership that incentivizes and affords the creative
latitude/
independence
to post gameplay of
lesser-known titles.
Game companies seek
partnerships
with the
best-known commentators,
providing them with early copies of a
forthcoming
game and inviting
them
to premier events usually reserved for
journalists.
If gameplay
commenta
-
tors lose access to posting
commentary
over the most
popular
titles,
these
important
elements of their business model will be lost. As has been
the
case in other instances, restrictive IP law intended to protect creators is
also
likely also serving as an
inhibition
to novel and creative business models
that
afford consumer
participation
(Cohen 2012; Lessig 2001, 2004;
Postigo
2012a; Samuelson
1999).
Not long ago I sat for lunch with
corporate
legal counsel for a
major
U.S.
telecommunications
service provider. He turned to me and asked
what
should companies like his do with customers using the Web to
broadcast
content that can be
competition
to
proprietary
content delivered by
institu
-
tional
telecommunications
companies. I answered, “Let them be and
learn
from the business models they are developing out of their
media-centered
hobbies.”
The notion of a
“hobby”
is
important
here. First
contemplated by
!
!
!
!
212 Hector
Postigo
!
Thorstein
Veblen in 1914, it has come to be
understood
as a bridging
prac
-
tice between
humanistic, community-related
endeavors and the
industrial
arts and
capitalism.
As such, the notion of
“hobby,”
the logic of
accumula
-
tion and the social class strata ordered by a capitalist market system,
posi-
tions leisure into its calculus (Veblen 2011, 2013). Video game
commentary
as hobby is not exactly the practice of a “leisure class,” but its not
removed
from values that draw the work of hands away from
alienation
and
drudg
-
ery. The
instantiation
of that hobby in
infrastructure
designed to
extract
value for third parties like YouTube, however, slides hobby into work
and
so positions it within the orbit of IP laws (meant to create markets in
the
expression of ideas) and logics (meant to
accumulate
wealth by
extracting
value from
labor).
!
!
AFFORDING
GAMEPLAY
COMMENTARY ON
YOUTUBE:
THE ARCHITECTURE OF INDEPENDENCE AND ITS
SURRENDER TO AUDIENCE TASTE
!
One ultimately cannot ignore the role of YouTubes search
algorithm in
the
production paradigm
of video game
commentary.
The
algorithm maps
into features that allow for
production independence
and creativity and
also
affords sociality,
capturing
that dynamic in the calculus of media
produc
-
tion within YouTubes business model.
Technological
features
structure how
community
is
performed
on YouTube and how revenue is
extracted and
shared.
Channel subscribers, for example, may get e-mails
summarizing
new
con
-
tent on their channels. YouTube’s commenting system provides the tools
for
users to post comments on any given video; the comments can be
directed
to
commentators
or other members of the
community. Commentators can
address their subscribers directly
through
the comments system. By
afford
-
ing audience
maintenance,
YouTube’s
architecture
provides the means
of
socially
integrating
channel subscribers to a “video
on-demand”
logic
in
media
consumption.
YouTubes advertising strategy on videos is also
important
for the
com
-
mentators independence.
Video creators who are part of the Y
ouT
ube
Partners Program receive a share of the monies garnered by YouTube
from
advertising placed on or near a video. The advertising can take the form of
a
banner ad, a pre-video commercial or an in-video box ad. The system
moni
-
tors unique video views, ad clicks and other metrics that
translate
the
videos’
popularity
(gauged primarily in terms of the number of views) into a fee
that
can be charged to advertisers and then shared with Partners. The
advertising
system and the YouTube Partners Program form the central financial
driver
for
commentators
now that the genre is established on YouTube. The
system
makes clear the
importance
of UGC as a revenue stream. It frames the
game
commentary
videos so that viewers and
commentators
are not
ignorant
!
!
!
!
Playing for
Work
213
!
of the value
extraction
system.
Commentators
talk about the system;
they
tell their subscribers about it and often show off the things they have
been
able to buy or experience because of it. The system gives life to a
narra
-
tive of
entrepreneurial independence
among many
commentators.
In
these
moments
commentators
begin to refer to themselves as
“directors,”
effec-
tively
admitting
both the financial drivers and the staged nature of
gameplay
that is presented as
natural
talent. But such
narratives
of
accumulation
live
in tension with other
community
norms, such as passion for a craft,
hobby
-
ing for hobbyings sake, staying in touch with your subscribers and
staying
true to the values of sharing your passion for video games. This
tension
is so strong that many find themselves in the most
awkward
moments
of
cognitive dissonance. Often the most successful
commentators
(in terms
of
ad revenues and subscriber base) are the most vocal in
bemoaning what
“money has done” to the
commentator community.
As noted earlier,
the
discourses regarding productive practices when they become divergent
and
incommensurable
cause
independence
to lose its bridging power
between
hobby and
work.
Ultimately, the
video-ranking algorithm
is
important
in creating the
social
capital that motivates many
commentators
and it is
important
in
defining
how YouTube extracts
maximum
value from videos for both its parent
com
-
pany and for directors
partnered
in the
revenue-sharing program.
The
ways
YouTube ranks videos as relevant to a search query or eligible for
presenta
-
tion on its homepage is still
unknown.
Google, YouTubes parent
company
,
has not made the ranking criteria public in detail. Analysts have noted
that
community
activity
around
a video is a
component
of the ranking
system
(Gabe n.d.). What is known,
therefore,
is that search return rank is
depen
-
dent on the social
momentum around
a video in the form of likes,
com
-
ments,
subscriptions
and so forth. Ironically the very features that
provide
commentators
social and
monetary
capital and provide them
independence
also lock them into the
marketplace
of taste and
mainstream production
standardscausing
them to
surrender
that same
independence
and
elicit
the ire of game companies who jealously guard their intellectual
property
against these new forms of
participatory culture.
Over the past decade there has been a
considerable amount
of work
in
communication,
cultural studies and Internet studies that has addressed
the
issues raised by the promise of
participatory
culture for media
consumers.
A
foundational
critical work on the topic comes from Tiziana
Terranova,
whose
exploration
of “free
labor”
in 2000 framed much of how many
criti
-
cal scholars have come to theorize
participation
in digital
environments.
From
Terranovas
perspective,
networked environments
that foster
and
house social
interactions
form the
framework
for harnessing social
prac
-
tice into the capitalist logic
(Terranova
2000). The outcome is a
“social
factory,”
where our social
interactions
are
captured
and
monetized. Her
work inspired a number of
subsequent
research articles on topics such
as
AOL
volunteers,
video game
modifications,
media work and other types
of
!
!
!
!
214 Hector
Postigo
!
activities that add value to online media business and technology
companies
(Deuze 2007; Kucklich 2010; Postigo 2003, 2009). The overall findings, if
they can be summarized briefly, are that in digital
networks
it becomes
easier
to harness
participation
and to capture all manner of activities in the
“social
factory,”
or to destabilize work into
precarious
labor that is
transient and
contingent.
The manner in which
participatory platforms
invite
independence in
media
production
but
simultaneously algorithmically
valuates it via
search
results and search
promotion
is still in need of
exploration
(see Ross
2013).
The means by which
independently produced
media (be it video game
com
-
mentary or
independent
comedy skits like the
popular
Jenna Marbles Y
ou
-
Tube videos) affords creative and productive license while
simultaneously
organizing markets suggests a
“crowdsourced” programming paradigm
that
straddles old media primetime models and
contemporary on-demand
mod
-
els. In that way, immediately and
algorithmically
measured consumer
tastes
(by way of analyzing viewer rating,
commentating
and subscribing
prac
-
tices) can be
translated
into
positioning
a YouTube video in search
results
as primetime offerings. Earning a place on the YouTube home page,
given
its daily visit count, is not unlike earning a place on the coveted
primetime
programming
slot in television, a position now courted by game
companies
and console developers (Gibbs 2014). Having that video available for
view
-
ing anytime across
platforms
(on a
computer
or cell phone) also gives
it
on-demand ubiquity
.
Prominence,
ubiquity and pervasiveness serve to foster more
indepen
-
dent
productions
and, as previously noted, orient
producers around creating
content that will garner views. In video game
commentary
this has
yielded
some patently open
machinations
and
manipulations
of the ranking
search
algorithm.
For example, the most reviled way of gaming (pun intended)
that
ranking system is the “giveaway video.” In this type of video, the
commen
-
tator will offer some small prize (usually a gift card for points on the
Xbox
Live Gaming
Network)
to be given to a
randomly
selected viewer who
has
rated,
commented
and/or subscribed. If the channel’s viewership is small
this
can have a limited impact (if any at all); if the channel is large, the
giveaway
can have a significant impact, all the more so if the prize given away is
large.
The case of the young man (XJaws on YouTube) who bought his first
car
with his YouTube earnings
mentioned
in the
introduction
to this chapter is
a good example of the impact a giveaway has on a video game
commentary
channel. Following his car video, the same
commentator purchased
a
large
cache of valuable gaming gear, worth about US$3000, and over the
subse
-
quent weeks proceeded to give it away in his videos. To be eligible for
the
prize, viewers had to rate, comment on and favorite a video he
produced.
As
a result of his giveaway and his already larger following, some of his
videos
appeared
on the YouTube home page in the
“Most
Favorited Video of
the
Day” category and eventually in the
“Most
Watched Video of the
Day”
category. The strategy made economic sense; a relatively modest
investment
!
!
!
!
Playing for
Work
215
!
in prizes would return large numbers of video views and then profit
from
advertisers. In response to this strategy, a very
well-known
commentato
r
,5
not in the video game
commentary community,
posted a video giving
away
prizes but asked viewers not to do anything that would increase the
video
rankings. His video was targeted at XJaws, noting that by doing
giveaways
that required viewers to favorite the video, XJaws was cheating his way
into
the YouTube home page and maybe even occupying that space instead
of
some other YouTube UGC
producer
who would have earned his way to
the
home page
legitimately
.
A
communitywide controversy
followed where gameplay
commentators
and other genre
producers
voiced their opinions on the matter of
giveaways.
Eventually XJaws stopped the practice. He noted that he had gotten
“too
much hate” and that even though he believed his practice wasnt
hurting
anyone it just “wasnt worth the
trouble.”
The impact could have
been
significant for
independent production
of video game
commentary content;
if newcomers to the
production
practice hoped to
accumulate
views
and
subscribers quickly, they may have been tempted to follow his lead. But
the
policing of norms
maintained
it a less than acceptable
practice.
By
controlling
access to large numbers of subscribers, a successful
chan
-
nel
commentator
then has a form of
monopoly
power over the content
of
others. With a giveaway, an already
disproportionate
market share of
sub
-
scribers is leveraged to conquer some valuable space on YouTubes
home
page. The large subscriber base also allows for the effective
deployment
of ideology in service of a
particular competitor.
It’s no accident that
the
YouTuber
who accused XJaws of
undermining
the
community
participa
-
tion system was himself an established
“YouTube
Star” who had in the
past
occupied some of the categories that XJaws was infringing on. The
estab
-
lished
YouTuber
effectively used the
narrative
of
meritocracy
to
remove
a
competitor. Independence
in
production
of this sort, then, is not only
a
freedom from media industry control over content frames and
production
aesthetics, but also freedom from a
monopoly.
But it is a freedom that
can
be gamed as
well.
Participatory
culture, then, is not completely isolated from the
drivers
that motivate capital
accumulation
and orient creative practices
toward pro
-
duction of lucrative content. Henry Jenkins has
conceptualized
participatory
culture as a practice whose inner workings are subject to the
rationale of
capital
accumulation, commodification
and profit.
Participatory
culture
s
dynamics are also subject to internal moral economies and
self-defined
systems of recompense and freedom (Jenkins 2006a, 2006b). The
partici
-
patory cultural view on
user-generated
content is more optimistic; it sees
the social and
technological
systems that make
participation
in mass
media
production
in digital
environments
as having
potential
for fruitful
collabo
-
ration,
user input into media discourse and
independent production
in
our
case. In the context of Starrs notion of
boundary
objects, it can
almost
always be a point of
contention
as much as it is a frame for
understanding
!
!
!
!
216 Hector
Postigo
!
epistemological
validity or meaning across the panoply of social worlds
that
it may bridge. He or she who controls the
dominant
frame for the
object
can hold the keys to the bridge between epistemologies and social
worlds.
Independence
is contested by the
structures
of hobby, copyright, capital
and
labor, all orbiting video games and play and media
industries.
The best way of seeing video game
commentary
as an example of
inde
-
pendence in video game culture and industry is to view it from both
an
economic perspective and one that still sees it free of the influence of
capital
accumulation,
social or economic. There are game
commentators present
on YouTube that eschew CoD and the genre
standards
established by
the
top
commentators.
They run the risk of being a whisper in the
cacophony
of YouTube’s
“youness.”
Whispers among a roar of voices screaming,
“look
at me!” That level of
independence
remains a risk in so much as the
chan
-
nels may languish and vanish, but it’s also a risk that can pay dividends. A
few
commentators,
once having gained
prominence
while defining or
play
-
ing within established video game
commentary
tastes and
standards,
devel
-
oped other content. These
commentators
utilize skilled
performances and
entertaining
personae to serve as the central draw to watch
commentary
,
rather than the
popularity
of a CoD game itself. Seannaners, a video
game
commentator
whose subscriber base is more than 1 million, decided to
stop
playing CoD and play
Minecraft,
an
independently
(in the sense of
outside
the
mainstream
games publishers)
produced
video game, instead.
Minecraft
gained a large number of players after Seannaners started playing it for
his
1 million viewers. The gameplay is nothing like the
standards
he
helped
define in CoD, but his YouTube persona deploys humor and a great
amount
of speaking talent. So his channel continues to thrive and his content
helped
Minecraft become a
popular
sensation
(SeaNanners
n.d.).
!
!
CONCLUSION
!
YouTubes
architecture
is founded on a set of
communication
features
that
create technical and social
affordances.
The technical affordance
structure
allows for the
distribution
of video, advertising,
communication between
commentators
and subscribers, subscriber
recruitment
and
retention, and
community participation.
The technical
infrastructure
also allows for
the
effective collection of data in the form of a log of the number of
views,
which, along with the advertising system, can be
translated
into
revenue
for YouTube and the video gameplay
commentators
and allow for
indepen
-
dent
production
and
distribution.
While on YouTube primarily, videos
also
find themselves embedded on other
platforms.
With
Twitch.tv, gameplay
videos are now a live
broadcast
enterprise. The social
affordances frame
practices such as
community participation,
systems of subscriber
recruit
-
ment and exchange and
valuation, competition, participatory
culture and
so
forth. There is a tension between those
sociotechnical affordances
that
serve
!
!
!
!
Playing for
Work
217
!
independent production
and its
translation
into revenue for
commentators
and Y
ouT
ube.
The subscriber is the basic currency in YouTube road to
stardom
and
suc
-
cess. Subscriber
recruitment
and
retention translates
into revenue for Y
ouT
ube
and into views for gameplay
commentators. Commentators
will share
sub
-
scribers with other
commentators
by hosting other
commentators
in
dual
commentary
episodes of gameplay. They will also subscribe to other
com
-
mentators’ channels and make that decision public. Caught in the
momen
-
tum of reciprocity and social proof, one channel’s subscribers will follow
a
commentators
lead and subscribe to the hosted
commentator. Gameplay
commentators
also serve as
“agents”
whose work in creating gameplay
and
fostering gameplay audience
community
helps YouTube retain viewers
for
the genre. Once part of the
revenue-sharing programs
on YouTube,
video
game
commentators
are seen by the
community
as
“stars.”
This
moment
of ascendance to YouTube
stardom
enables the top video game
commenta
-
tors to control significant social and material capital but at the cost of
the
freedoms they enjoyed when they were relatively
unknown.
Importantly
,
subscribers and game
commentators understand
the tension between
their
independent passionate production
of content and the
surrender
of
creativ
-
ity and
independence
that YouTube
stardom
might require. “Selling
out”
is a common
derogatory
term used by the
community
to describe
those
commentators
who have lost sight of the moral economy that fueled
their
creative
appropriation