In the past few years, there has been a surge in popularity of long-form videos analyzing games. These video essays range from thirty minutes to six hours long. The popular videos in this genre have between 500,000 and 1,000,000 views, with a few reaching ridiculous view counts like 11 million. I am encouraged that serious analysis of games is apparently so popular. However, there are a few worrying issues that accompany my enthusiasm.
The first issue is that I can’t be sure people watch these videos seriously. Judging by the comments beneath these videos, many people use the soothing sound of the critic’s voice to fall asleep. How many viewers merely use these videos as a sleep aid, background noise, or just as edutainment without really engaging with the claims in the video? Many YouTube critics also mix comedy, even elaborate skits, into their criticism. This further blurs the line between serious criticism and thinly-veiled frivolous entertainment. How many people are here for the criticism but enjoy the jokes too? How many people barely even care about the criticism and only enjoy the jokes? I can’t know.
Second issue: I can’t be sure people are watching these videos critically. A viewer may take the video seriously, but may not think about it critically. If viewers uncritically accept whatever a critic tells them, then the seriousness with which they take the analysis will be useless. They will just go around parroting the last opinion they heard in a long-form YouTube video, with all the tenacity of someone who takes video game criticism very seriously. This is how tastemakers and their fanboys are made. Fans are convinced these critics generally have correct opinions, so they just accept whatever they say without serious thought.
Those two issues are problems with basically any form of popular criticism. There are some issues that are specific to YouTube criticism, though. First: YouTube is notorious for fucking up their own website. It seems like every month there is a new controversy about copyright, monetization, subscriber counts, advertisements, or general site design. YouTube has held together so far, but its user base won’t stick around forever. Should YouTube finally fuck up badly enough to scare off a large amount of its user base, I doubt those viewers will try hard to follow the critics they subscribe to on other platforms. In short, criticism on YouTube is generally consumed as a part of the viewers’ YouTube diet, not out of pure independent interest in games criticism that will follow them outside of YouTube.
Here’s another problem specific to YouTube criticism: YouTube critics don’t seem to be in touch with games criticism outside of YouTube. I am not someone who thinks everyone needs to pay respects to academia, but YouTube critics are fumbling in the dark without important knowledge you get outside of YouTube. They stumble upon ideas they think are new, but have been well-trodden. They misuse established terms. They take ideas and arguments from popular gaming discourse without examining them critically. They express themselves in vague ways because they haven’t learned the formal vocabulary of games, and because they don’t understand how certain feelings about a game can be precisely explained with the right know-how. For example, a YouTube critic might call a level “forgiving,” but usually won’t describe exactly how the level makes the player’s mistakes less consequential.
Because YouTube critics do their work on an island, their viewers can be given the impression that there isn’t good games criticism outside of YouTube. If YouTube critics occasionally cited a game design article or book, more of their viewers would have the correct impression that YouTube criticism is only one small part of the games conversation. YouTube should be a bridge to a wider conversation about games, but it’s more like an isolated community. The YouTube community would be enriched by it, as would the gaming conversation at large.
Another problem of games criticism on YouTube is that YouTube traffic and monetization algorithms don’t encourage good criticism. There are probably some people who can pump out good 10-minute-long game design videos a couple of times a week. For those people, YouTube monetization will work. For the rest of the critics though, good games analysis doesn’t fit into 10-minute chunks and can’t be produced at such a fast rate. Luckily, Patreon is picking up the slack in this area. Many YouTube critics are sustained not by YouTube itself, but by their viewers donating to them on a monthly or per-video basis. As long as Patreon sticks around, this should not be a huge problem.
Games criticism on YouTube isn’t without its merits. The most obvious merit is that it’s accessible. Anyone can go to YouTube. You don’t need a university’s access to academic journals. You don’t need money to buy game design books. You don’t need to dig through game design blogs that aren’t really connected to each other. Not only is it easy to access, but it is easy to consume once you have it. You don’t need specialized knowledge knowledge to understand these videos, and the humor makes it easy to keep watching.
Here’s another merit: despite my complaint that YouTube is too isolated, it can still turn people toward gaming criticism outside of YouTube. The fact that these videos reach millions of people and are attempting to seriously analyze games is encouraging. Some of those millions of viewers will inevitably be inspired to think about their favorite game in a critic way and to search out game design outside of YouTube.
The biggest merit, of course, is that the video format makes more sense than text formats when talking about video games. Instead of painstaking description or still images, a critic can just talk over footage of the game. This is why the trend of YouTube criticism is so exciting to me. It’s obvious that video games are best analyzed with video, and YouTube is a super popular and super accessible video platform. Millions of people watch hour-long videos of critics trying their hardest to seriously analyze video games. This is all relatively young now, so hopefully years down the road some of the issues I have brought up will be solved. Maybe in ten years, these types of videos will have their own website that better encourages thoughtful participation, better rewards long-form analysis with views and money. and better connects with the conversation outside of that one website.