Live from the Couch: Game Grumps and the Revolution of Talk
The “Let’s Play” has replaced the official review as the popular means by which gamers are informed about new products. PewDiePie’s channel has the most subscriptions of any on the site, and it has practically no remnant of the information distribution for which the Internet was originally sold. It is only entertainment, turning a video game into a passive experience that can be watched with 10% of your attention, during a lonely breakfast, or after a long day at work.
When everyone is playing Skyrim, you select PewDiePie’s or Markiplier’s Let’s Play because you like their persona. The game (or especially the specific entertainer’s reaction to it) is still the reason you’ve come.
But the tendency to overreact, scream, talk constantly, makes many of these channels aggressively unfunny. Watching many YouTubers feels to me like putting up your feet after a long day at work and watching something cacophonous, like a Transformers film. Watch Markiplier with headphones – it’s like sharing a cab with the Mad Hatter.
When I get home from work I want to watch Frasier or The Big Bang Theory, shows that are droll and noninvasive. The GameGrumps conversational model is so earnest in translating this experience to a modern platform that I think other channels should have sprung up in imitation. I don’t know why they haven’t. I don’t know why they have 7% of the subscribers that PewDiePie has, because I think they’re the most eminent and watchable personas working within that model.
It’s a model they represent more purely than the other channels, since the games themselves have even less to do with the appeal than the videos. Many of the games they play aren’t modern or related to recent news. Like MST3K, the GameGrumps seem to select games based only on the potential riffs, not the quality of the games. Right now, they’re playing a Chuck E. Cheese’s party game for no reason other than the mundane hilarity of a terrible competitive cash-in game. The channel is focused entirely on talk – it could be an audio book.
Their two-person model, featuring talk between Arin Hanson and Jon Jafari or Dan Avidan, makes them the most conversational Let’s Players. Not only have they relinquished any pretense of a reviewer but, unlike their contemporaries, they aren’t play-testers either. Often the games won’t ever come up in conversation, as in the commentary over the Pokémon series that just rambles and devolves into life experiences, philosophy-lite, bad dating advice, and general comedic mayhem. When you sit celebrities down for a talk, you ask them mundane things: their favorite food, most embarrassing moments, most outrageous opinions. You don’t always talk to them about their work. GameGrumps is like chatting with celebrities in this way, like a version of The Tonight Show where the host and the guests are the same person, or the same two people constantly switching roles.
This doesn’t stop them from inviting celebrities onto the show, the likes of Jacob Anderson of Game of Thrones and Dan Harmon of Rick and Morty. The mission of their channel becomes even clearer in those episodes, when they invite famous people onto their couch and purposely pick the most eye-gratingly horrible games to subject them to. With Anderson it was Wheel of Fortune on the Wii and a random SeaWorld game; with Harmon, it was a game based on The Cat in the Hat film.
The GameGrumps are admitting that the games don’t matter except as a platform of continuity to draw in a like-minded audience. GameGrumps’ real commodity is the talk: profane, self-indulgent, and always human. They’ve even recently developed a smash hit on Steam called Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator, and it has nothing to do with the game (if their goal was game development, they would have made something more like The Legend of Zelda). Dream Daddy is basically just an over-elaborate bit, further proof that what’s important to them is making a comedic connection using video games as a medium of communication. This is why the game itself doesn’t matter, and why you won’t see anyone else online playing M&M’s Beach Party.
Watching them in their more serious stretches playing through an entire difficult game never ceases to be an exercise in delightful frustration, as they are, quite unlike many of their contemporaries, desperately awful at almost all video games. And despite dying innumerable times, or repeatedly using an attack the opponent Pokémon is immune to, it’s completely random whether they’ll notice the game and make corrections or keep talking about their girlfriends and their GI tracts.
Nothing could more effectively explain their specific appeal. Despite their obsession with anatomy, they have mined the industry for an old-fashioned purpose, one based entirely on banter and entirely not on media. The closest comparison I can think of is to NPR’s Car Talk, a show obsessed with the interplay between the Tappet Brothers, and absolutely never about their own ability to drive the cars they riffed about.
I often stop in on the GameGrumps channel, not to watch a whole video but just to hear Arin and Danny’s voices for a few minutes. Unlike actual Let’s Players, who are ironically so aloof despite having a cut-away of their faces in the corner of the screen, the GameGrumps are like friends you can invite over to your living room. By never showing themselves, they create personas in the mind of their audience, ones that you think will come over any time, as if they know you as well as you perceive to know them. They’ll show up with beers and no pants and a copy of Bratz Girls Racing and make you laugh for twenty minutes. It’s very like a true entertainment of the future: spending time with virtual presences without continuity or acknowledgement or contact, without any purpose other than pure vicarious communication.
Meeting them in real life must be terribly disenchanting, to discover that they don’t know you at all, that the couch was all in your head. But that’s the revolution in talk: the creation of virtual friends, whom you call by their first name, hang out with on a daily basis, and turn off when you’re done interacting today.