Performing as video game players in Let's Plays

Josef Nguyen

University of Texas at Dallas, Dallas, Texas, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This article examines the fan practice of Let's Plays—video recordings that video game players create of themselves playing that include live commentary or riffing. I argue that the riffing accompanying game play footage in Let's Plays highlights how players play idiosyncratically by constructing and performing game-playing personalities. These videos emphasize the performative nature of video game players as fans who actively negotiate with the video games that they play through presentations of individual playing styles and experiences. I show that in accounting for how and why they play the way that they do, Let's Players demonstrate what I suggest are various modes of playing in which players can engage with video games generally. Consequently, creating, sharing, and discussing Let's Plays can render visible a wider diversity of game-playing identities, experiences, and styles.

[0.2] Keywords—Fandom; Performance; Riffing

Nguyen, Josef. 2016. "Performing as Video Game Players in Let's Plays." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Let's Plays are videos that fans create of themselves playing video games, coupling game play footage with simultaneously recorded commentary by the Let's Players. While it may include nested video of the Let's Players, this predominantly audio commentary enables Let's Players to remark on game features, share thoughts, and express emotional reactions during game play. These videos as showcases of games and game playing are often available on user-generated content-sharing sites such as YouTube and on streaming platforms like Twitch. Game designer Lucas Pope, for one, credits the creation of Let's Plays of his game Papers, Please (2013) for its success (quoted in Cullen 2014).

[1.2] In this article, I show that Let's Plays demonstrate how players perform processes of meaning-making with video games while they play. Let's Plays stake claims in the interpretation of cultural texts and media, as Let's Players offer their individualized experiences of playing for circulation, consumption, and discussion by fan communities. I argue that through live commentary, known as riffing, Let's Plays highlight the performative nature of video game players more broadly, showcasing audiencehood as a performance in itself. Understanding how players make sense of game playing through performing personalities, in both their performance as distinct individuals who play video games and in sharing those performances, offers an important opportunity for understanding how players locally and individually negotiate, revise, and make meaning about playing video games. Moreover, I assert that in accounting for how and why they play the way they do, Let's Players highlight what I suggest are various modes of playing in which players can engage through interacting with video games.

[1.3] I explore the formal features of Let's Plays, situating them within a larger context of fandom and fan practices. Drawing on work in fan studies, video game studies, and performance studies, I theorize the significance of riffing for Let's Plays in the construction of liveness that I argue is central to the individualized performances of video game player personalities. While I make brief references and offer examples of several Let's Plays throughout, I conclude my analysis with a close investigation of a specific Let's Play to outline the expressive and critical potential that Let's Plays offer video game fans. Let's Plays render visible a wider range of game playing for fans to perform, circulate, and discuss and, by extension, offer a wider range of ways to make meaning from video games and game playing.

2. Video game fandom and fan productions

[2.1] Research on Let's Plays has only appeared in the last few years as such videos have increased in visibility and popularity. Often, studies of Let's Plays examine them as indexes to players' lives beyond video games. For example, Kerstin Radde-Antweiler, Michael Waltmathe, and Xenia Zeiler (2014) explore players' relationships to religion by analyzing player responses to religious game content. While not using the term explicitly, Hector Postigo's (2016) account of video game commentating focuses on how game commentators can monetize their game playing as digital labor. Peter A. Smith and Alicia D. Sanchez (2015) explore how Let's Plays and other online media suggest shifts in digital literacies and learning for consumers. Examining Let's Plays more formally, René Glas (2015) connects these fan videos to the history of early film to theorize the "vicarious play" offered to viewers, while Gabriel Menotti (2014) and Niklas Nylund (2015) both explore how Let's Plays can preserve video games and the contexts for game playing. Rather than focus on what Let's Plays reveal about players' lives or about the relationship between Let's Players and viewers, however, my aim is to examine the formal features and capacities of Let's Plays as they present performances of video game player personalities.

[2.2] Radde-Antweiler, Waltmathe, and Zeiler note two key features of Let's Plays. First, Let's Plays allow Let's Players to create and disseminate a localized and particular instance of video game playing (2014, 17). The rise of Internet-celebrity Let's Players, including PewDiePie, GameGrumps, and the Yogscast, demonstrates a growing popularity of Let's Plays as performances of individual game players playing games. Postigo's study of video game commentating, for example, shows that such videos are not only about the games being played but also about how specific players play them (2014). Let's Plays often provide one vehicle for these Internet figures to showcase their personalities, since their channels might include reviews of games, original comedy sketches, and alternate kinds of content. Game Grumps, for example, is a group of Let's Players who play a range of newer and older video game titles. The main duo forming Game Grumps, known as Egoraptor and Danny, define their personalities in relation to being "gruff." In addition to videos of game play in varying degrees of "gruffness," such as a Let's Play of Pokémon: FireRed (2004) (video 1), the Game Grumps' YouTube channel also includes original comedic commercials for merchandising related to their Let's Plays and other channel content, which they note as part of their "reputation for making the stupidest commercials ever" (video 2).

Video 1. "Pokemon FireRed: Sexy Widdle Baby—PART 28—Game Grumps" by Game Grumps, March 5, 2014.

Video 2. "I Burgie Burgie—NEW SHIRT!!" by Game Grumps, August 14, 2015.

[2.3] Second, Let's Plays enable conversations among a community of video game players and Let's Play watchers about opinions and interpretations of not only the video game played but also the Let's Plays, the Let's Players, and the playing experiences of those watching (Radde-Antweiler, Waltmathe, and Zeiler 2014, 17). Let's Plays grant game players occasion to discuss games, gaming cultures, and gaming experiences through presenting individualized video game playing to consume. Critical work in fan studies demonstrates how audiences actively engage with the media that they encounter (Jenkins 1992; Lewis 1992; Hills 2002; Sandvoss 2005; Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2007; Larsen and Zubernis 2012; Standfill and Condis 2014). Fan productions, such as Let's Plays, highlight the various ways that fans stake and circulate claims to participate in meaning-making practices surrounding cultural texts, objects, and phenomena. Henry Jenkins (1992), for example, demonstrates how fans draw or "poach" from mainstream television to create original works, including stories, videos, and songs. Jenkins argues that textual poaching reveals specific modes of reception, interpretation, and production practices among fan cultures (1992, 1–2).

[2.4] Similarly, John Fiske (1992) outlines textual productivity as a key category of fan creation. In addition to semiotic and enunciative productivity, which describe individually internal and socially external constructions of meaning-making, respectively, textual productivity accounts for fans generating texts, performances, and artifacts inspired by the media they consume (Fiske 1992, 37–39). Examples of textual productivity include fan fictions, fan videos, cosplay, and other circulatable creations. Through textual productivity, fans also perform the roles of author, director, costumer, musician, and other creators in their encounters with media. Matt Hills (2013), however, notes how Fiske's categories, which are drawn from pre-Web fan practices, become difficult to distinguish with increasing use of Web-based authoring and publication technologies. In particular, Hills argues that attention to the many kinds of expertise necessary to account for the range of digital fan productions—from videos and fan fictions to comments and status updates—demonstrates how "digital fandom collapses semiotic and enunciative productivity into hybridized or generalized textual productivity" (2013, 150).

[2.5] In Stuart Hall's (1980) model of media consumption, he suggests three different ways that audiences actively make meaning from the texts that they consume. While even he has later clarified that his model was not meant to present a grand theory (1994), Hall's articulation of dominant, oppositional, and negotiated modes of reading offers a heuristic describing how audiences can make meaning through a range of dispositions that they may shift among in their encounters with media texts. For example, to read under the ideology of a media artifact and its systems of production is to read in the dominant mode (Hall 1980, 132). Dominant ideologies in video games, in particular, dictate the contours of legitimate and illegitimate games, players, and playing styles (Sicart 2003). Video games present ideologies through a complex of rules coded in the hardware and software that reward and punish player behaviors and through social conventions from surrounding gaming cultures, which are also called the hegemony of play or the values at play (Fron et al. 2007; Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014). All of these elements in and around video games posit an implied player, drawing on Wolfgang Iser's (1981) concept of the implied reader (Aarseth 2007; Iversen 2012). The implied player is the kind of player, or kinds of players, that the video game as well as the gaming cultures in which it is embedded suggest is necessary for playing (Iversen 2012).

[2.6] Rarely, however, do players—and consumers of media generally—align perfectly with implied audiences, since attention to fan productions demonstrates ways in which audiences oppose and negotiate with dominant codes while consuming media. In contrast to the dominant mode, resisting the ideologies of media artifacts and their systems of production involves identifying the dominant codes at play. Hall defines this mode of reading as oppositional, where the reader "detotalizes the message in the preferred code" to reject it and reveal how it operates (1980, 137–38). Oppositional readings identify and critique the dominant code, which Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, for example, does both to video game representations and to dominant misogynistic gaming cultures (video 3). Sarkeesian launched Tropes vs. Women in Video Games during the summer of 2012 as a crowd-funded project on Kickstarter for a documentary web series to provide feminist commentary identifying, critiquing, and opposing the degrading representations of women, people of color, and other marginalized figures in video games (2012) (for more discussion of gender and video games, see Cassell and Jenkins 1998; Kennedy 2002; Nakamura and Wirman 2005; Chess 2011; Kafai et al. 2011; Shaw 2014; Chess and Shaw 2015). The intention of Sarkeesian's project, like all oppositional readings, was not only to say something critical about media but also to say something that would stop its propagation. But as the caustic responses to Sarkeesian's project show, oppositional readings may meet hostility from those supportive of the dominant framework (Moore 2012).

Video 3. "Damsel in Distress: Part 1—Tropes vs Women in Video Games" by feministfrequency, March 7, 2013.

[2.7] To the dominant mode and the oppositional mode of reading, Hall articulates an alternative option. According to Hall, the negotiated mode lies in between these two extremes, suggesting a wider range of possibilities for how audiences make meaning from the media they encounter (1980, 137). In negotiated readings, audiences accept and reject select elements of a cultural text, a process that enables more nuanced and particularized media consumption. Fan productions often fall into the negotiated mode, because they operate as fan-created supplemental material that implicitly or explicitly suggests that the originary media is lacking even while consuming it. In her study of The Sims 2 (2004), for instance, Hanna Wirman describes how the female Finnish players whom she interviewed created custom content, drawing on more local brands and icons such as textiles and patterns from Marimekko and Moomin, to negotiate "the game's 'Western,' if not North-American, white suburban lifestyle" into one more Finnish (2014, 62).

[2.8] While other fan productions seek to negotiate the dominant codes in the meaning of video game playing, Let's Plays do so by emphasizing individualized performances of playing through live commentary. Custom maps, levels, and modifications to the game code—or mods—for example, open up video games to alternate ways to play but do so by directly changing and augmenting the video game platform. (For a further discussion of modding, see Kücklich 2005; Postigo 2007; Sotamaa 2007; Postigo 2010; Scacchi 2010; Sihvonen 2011; Lauteria 2012). Let's Plays do not require such modifications, though Let's Plays of mods to games are common. The British Let's Play group Yogscast, for example, recorded a Let's Play demonstrating a Pokémon-themed mod called PokeMobs for the massively popular video game Minecraft (2009) (video 4) (note 1).

Video 4. "Minecraft—Mod Spotlight—Pokemobs" by YOGSCAST Lewis & Simon, August 20, 2011.

[2.9] Let's Plays share similarities with machinima as both contain video footage recorded from playing; however, fans create machinima by repurposing recordings from video games to create original cinematic productions (Lowood 2008, 165). Machinima focuses on video games as generators of computer animation, often for use in original fictional narratives (Menotti 2014, 84) (for more on machinima, see Hanson 2004; Lowood and Nitsche 2011; Johnson and Pettit 2012; Ng 2013). Like Let's Plays, walkthroughs focus centrally on playing; however, walkthroughs are typically crafted as guides detailing how players should play video games (Consalvo 2003, 327–28) (for further discussion of walkthroughs, see Ashton and Newman 2010, 2011; Newman 2011). While walkthroughs are often instructional materials emphasizing expertise and thoroughness, which some Let's Plays also provide, Let's Plays often feature uncertainty and error as central to individual playing experiences. Through expressions of confusion, frustration, delight, surprise, and embarrassment, Let's Players react to and comment on not only the game but also their actions and consequences in playing.

[2.10] Let's Plays value personality over mastery, although demonstrations of mastery might serve to construct a Let's Player's personality. In a Let's Play of Kirby's Dream Course (1994), for example, the Game Grumps remark on the difficulty of this Kirby-themed golflike game as player competence becomes a central topic of discussion during the act of playing (video 5). In another example, two other members of the Game Grumps channel, Barry and Ross who form Grumpcade, play the drawing game Pokémon Art Academy (2014) by revising the demands of the game to suit their own playing styles (video 6). Instead of complying with the expectations of the game to draw the frog Pokémon Froakie, the Let's Players impishly draw and joke about the title character of the animated television show Hey, Arnold! (1996–2004). What is critical to Let's Plays is the simultaneous commentary offered by Let's Players during an individual instance of playing—expert, exploratory, or otherwise—that fans can then consume and discuss.

Video 5. "Kirby's Dream Course: Arin Immediately Hates Dan—PART 1—Game Grumps VS" by GameGrumps, April 4, 2014.

Video 6. "Pokemon Art Academy: Hey Froakie! —PART 2—Grumpcade" by GameGrumps, July 18, 2015.

3. Riffing live

[3.1] Audience reception is always performative (Bennet and Booth 2015). For example, Hills argues that discussions about the television show The X-Files (1993–2002) in the newsgroup demonstrate how fans construct themselves in "a mediated and textual performance of audiencehood" (2002, 181). Although performances of fan consumption manifest in a range of fan productions, the different media used for textual production function on different temporal relations between fan consumption and production. For example, in Jenkins's study of Survivor (2000–), online fans of the American reality television show perform as collective investigators who engage in forum discussions to predict how the season will unfold (2006, 25–26). These textual traces record how fans discuss the show after viewing an episode by identifying clues, debating causal links, and revising their own theories.

[3.2] Let's Plays rely on construction of simultaneity of both fan consumption of video games and fan production about video games, as Let's Players record both playing and commenting. This simultaneity allows Let's Players to perform extemporaneous narration of individual experiences of playing. While Radde-Antweiler, Walmathe, and Zeiler write that "Let's Plays present an individual's subjective experience of a game," their description assumes that Let's Plays offer transparent and direct presentations of player interiority (2014, 17). Instead, I contend that Let's Plays as recordings of video game playing do not offer subjective experiences but rather constructions and performances of playing personalities.

[3.3] Rather than limit conceptions of game performance to in-game presentations of self or virtual avatars, Let's Plays demonstrate how video game playing should be understood as localized and embodied performances where players execute the role of video game players. Garry Crawford and Jason Rutter, for instance, assert that it is important to understand "gaming performance within a wider social, cultural, and media audience framework" beyond the boundaries of the virtual game world (2007, 276). Regarding video games in particular, Wirman (2009) argues for nuancing what constitutes the range of productivity for fandom beyond textual productions, since players are always producers even in but also beyond their acts of playing. This oversight that Wirman identifies reinforces Peggy Phelan's argument about the ephemeral and disappearing nature of performance (Phelan 1993, 146). Regarding this issue, Nylund (2015) suggests that Let's Plays, along with walkthroughs, can preserve contexts of game playing. If video game playing is performance, and performance always disappears without a record of it, then Let's Plays offer an index to the productivity of game playing as a record of that performance.

[3.4] Let's Play commentary presents players narrating their thoughts, strategies, ideas, and reactions live as the game play unfolds or is believed to be unfolding, since liveness is constructed. As Philip Auslander argues, liveness often opposes mediatized performances, defined as products of recording and reproduction technologies (2008, 5). Liveness is always a contextual phenomenon produced through constructions of "intimacy and immediacy" (Auslander 2008, 32). In his study of rock music, for example, Auslander argues that the focus on live concert events allows rock musicians to construct the authenticity of their talents by contrasting them to the mediatized studio and radio recordings of popular music to value what is considered performed live over what is previously recorded (2008, 65).

[3.5] The liveness of Let's Plays seeks to shape specific understandings of authentic and inauthentic game-playing experiences, player personalities, and meaning-making. Although it can be fabricated to appear as such, the commentary part and parcel to the video footage of game play is constructed as recorded live alongside the act of playing, suggesting that the commentary, reactions, and jokes are spontaneous and unscripted. Perceptions of the commentary as spontaneous and unscripted rely on assumptions that responses produced after the experience of playing, such as written comments, are less authentic and more calculated. Even audiovisual commentary that discusses previously recorded game play footage lacks this construction of immediacy to the experience of video game playing that Let's Plays purport to present. Rather than reflecting back on the experience of playing, Let's Play commentary presents players as reacting to playing live.

[3.6] Live commentary is also known as riffing—comments made by viewers about a text while consuming that text (note 2). For instance, by commenting on a film's plot, its similarities to other cultural touchstones, and even the scene of viewing, filmgoers can construct their own more expansive version of the meaning of the films that they watch. As Ora McWilliams and Joshua Richardson argue, riffing "is always a grab for ownership, a vital tool in the struggle for the meaning of texts" through producing new material out of audience consumption of media (2011, 118). For Let's Plays, the concurrence of the riff with the playing of a video game constructs the media encounter as live, and it is this liveness that engenders the riff's power to perform the construction of subjective audiencehood.

[3.7] Let's Plays emphasize the constructed performance of live, spontaneous, and authentic subjective experiences through riffs showcasing a range of feelings and responses by video game players as they performatively make meaning of game play. Instead of focusing exclusively on presenting mastery, Let's Players often mobilize their mistakes, discoveries, and surprises as significant opportunities for performing their individual personalities through expressive reactions and thoughts. For example, the Let's Player Markiplier is famous for an aggressively loud style of reacting, which he demonstrates in playing mostly survival-horror and action games like Nightmare House 2 (2010) (video 7). In his videos, Markiplier plays these tense, creepy, and violent games by vacillating between reacting confidently and methodically and reacting tensely and skittishly. The performance of surprise and fear when contrasted to his more prominently calmer playing style works to construct the commentary and attendant playing as authentic and unscripted.

Video 7. "Nightmare House 2 | Part 2 | I'M SO STARTLED" by Markiplier, May 27, 2012.

[3.8] Because Let's Plays present performances of individualized experiences of playing, they showcase how fans can engage in idiosyncratic processes of learning, experimenting with, and adapting to video games. As discussed earlier, however, it is important to recognize the performative nature of these reactions rather than assume that their constructed liveness authenticates Let's Player actions and thoughts as transparent. Through their riffing commentary, Let's Players mark their individual reactions, strategies, playing styles, and experiences as important in the meaning of the video games that they play.

4. Making meaning of playing

[4.1] Key to riffing is the attention of audiences to their role as such, recognizing it as performance and production, since audiences can riff on the contents, forms, and contexts of the media that they encounter. As Beth E. Bonstetter contends regarding film riffing, for example, riffing requires audiences to understand media conventions, popular and political history, and personal reactions and responses as tools "for remaking a closed film into an open, new, meaningful experience" (2012, 103). Riffing suggests the ways in which viewers of films recognize their dual capacities as theatergoers and onlookers, terms coined by Erving Goffman to describe the dynamics of theater spectatorship. For Goffman, the theatergoer is aware of the construction of the fantasy, the drama, while the onlooker is an accomplice in the act of role-playing presented (1974, 130). To watch a drama purely as an onlooker is, in part, to subscribe to the dominant code. Spectators, however, are never fully one or the other but are always oscillating between onlooker and theatergoer, capable of producing criticism not only on the internal diegetic narrative—characters and causal trajectories, for example—but also external references to other media and to the viewing context itself.

[4.2] A key site for shaping meaning in video games is attention to how players play and make choices in video games (note 3). Consequently, player input and decisions as well as their consequences afford central topics for riffing. Like Goffman's model of theater spectatorship, we can identify a related refraction of roles with video game playing. Where players participate under the ideology of a video game or cultural expectations for its consumption, within its rules and codes like an implied player, we can recognize players playing through the dominant mode. Where players resist or negotiate against the goals of the game or of the gaming cultures in which the game is embedded—through such acts as trying to discover the game's limits or to break the game or even refusing to play—we recognize players playing while aware of dominant codes. As such, another way to negotiate the meaning of video games is not through modes of reading but through modes of playing.

[4.3] Cornel Sandvoss, however, reminds us that while "fandom can be subversive" it need not be (2005, 29, emphasis in original). While I argue that examining Let's Plays as a form of fan production reveals how fans negotiate the meaning of video games through performances of player personalities, it does not suggest that Let's Plays are innocent in reinforcing hegemonic codes and ideologies of games, gaming cultures, and popular culture more broadly. As the Let's Play Social Justice blog demonstrates, many prominent Let's Players, whom the site seeks to critique, repeat the misogynist, homophobic, and racist comments that reinforce dominant conceptions of gaming cultures and game industries as oppositional to marginalized, peripheral, and undervalued players and experiences of playing (letsplaysocialjustice n.d.). PewDiePie, for example, has been criticized for his frequent use of jokes involving rape, which trivializes the experiences of victims of sexual violence (note 4). Such marginalized identities and players represent what Adrienne Shaw (2014) refers to as players at the edge of mainstream gaming cultures.

[4.4] By recognizing the negotiated potential housed in Let's Plays and other similar fan productions, however, we can expand the meaning-making possibilities of mainstream video games and video game play through increased creation, circulation, and discussion of alternate experiences, styles, and intentions of playing. In the introductory video for his Let's Play channel, for example, AngelArts articulates explicitly that he plays and approaches video games from the position of a gay male player (video 8). As Mia Consalvo argues, we need to recognize and study how video game players perform "different ways of playing and enjoying games" because "player agency is central to understanding games as well as the development of the wider game industry" (2007, 2). Part of this research requires understanding how different players from a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and positions experience the video games that they play. Suzanne de Castell and Mary Bryson similarly assert the importance of fracturing, fragmenting, and dispersing differences in video games rather than attempting to consolidate representations and experiences of gender and, by extension, other identity categories (1998, 254).

Video 8. "Intro to AngelArts's Channel" by AngelArts, November 24, 2013.

[4.5] I turn now to a specific Let's Play to show how, as in Hall's modes of reading, we might identify modes of playing in dominant, oppositional, and negotiated valences by examining riffs describing different engagements with video game rules. This analysis is not meant to be exhaustive of all Let's Plays but rather to illustrate the potential for negotiating the rules and codes that shape cultural expectations, discussions, and productions of video games and game playing. My aim is to describe, like modes of reading, the potential housed in various modes of playing available to players for widening the visibility of game-playing experiences and to advocate for the creation and circulation of more fan productions that do so.

[4.6] For this analysis, I have chosen a Let's Play of DUALHAZE's indie game Date the Boss (2014), a point-and-click adventure and puzzle game following a young male protagonist who must obtain a job and affection from his potential female employer, Alicia Beaumont. The Let's Play features a pair of female video game players and commentators named Stacy and Mari who go by Geek Remix (video 9). Stacy and Mari, in this Let's Play, perform as video game players interested in both completing the game and making fun of the game as one that objectifies women. In this way, Stacy and Mari are playing a heterosexual-male-targeted game through counter-playing, what Nakamura and Wirman describe as a style of playing that identifies and negotiates with the rules, expectations, and logics of a video game to suit players' preferences (2005). During the early part of this Let's Play, Stacy refers back to a previous Geek Remix video, noting that "some of you [their viewers] may have seen the shorter—short—video that we did to take a look at this [game] a couple months ago. We decided to come back, because this seems to be the highest quality of all the boob games." Her ironic marking of Date the Boss as "the highest quality of all the boob games" underscores the many registers to which "boob games" refers: games about boobs (breasts and women), games for boobs (idiots), and games made by boobs (idiots).

Video 9. "2 Girls 1 Let's Play DATE THE BOSS Full Walkthrough: Satanic Lesbian Cult" by Geek Remix, February 22, 2015.

[4.7] As the two Let's Players proceed through the game, they each read dialog aloud in different voices to participate in the dramatic performance of the virtual game world. Stacy reminds their audience, however, that "at a certain point, like every other game, we kinda forget which accents we assign to each character, so the voices change every time." This riff indexing previous performances by the Let's Players not only highlights their performance history but also demonstrates how Geek Remix incorporates a video game not explicitly designed for them by producing individualized performances around that very exclusion, especially in the failures of their own voice acting. As Mari declares, "There'll be funny voices and boobs for everybody" where the veracity of "boobs for everybody" is what they investigate.

[4.8] We can identify Mari and Stacy's commitment to completing the game as participating in the dominant mode of playing, to comply with the demands and rules of the game uncritically. As an example, that they must purchase the various items they need in the game, such as a business suit, is not initially questioned, so Mari and Stacy go about various options provided in the game for obtaining money, including monotonously gambling at a slot machine. The dominant mode of playing, then, requires completing the tasks of the game as a compliant implied player. To play under the dominant mode is to obey the rules and codes, akin to how Bernard Suits defines the player of a game in its most earnest form (1978, 47).

[4.9] In contrast, we can articulate the oppositional mode of playing as refusing to play or participate in the fantasy of the game by drawing attention to its rules and construction. Consequently, Suits's characterization of the spoilsport as one who denies the validity of the game, its rules, and its goals aligns with this oppositional mode (1978, 47). Because Mari and Stacy are committed to completing the game, they do not offer instances of the oppositional mode of playing. As a potential example elsewhere, however, we can draw from Nakamura and Wirman's proposal for counter-playing tactics, including the potential embracing of nonviolence as one such playing style (2005). In a video game that values violence such as a war game, for instance, such a counter-playing style refuses the explicit rules and expectations set by the game. This conscious refusal, however, should not be confused with a mistaken or erroneous strategy, since this counter-playing demonstrates not only an awareness of the rules but a commitment to its opposition at the expense of winning.

[4.10] Instead, we can see Mari and Stacy offer instances of negotiated playing throughout their Let's Play. For example, while interviewing with Alicia, the potential boss and love interest, the Let's Players are asked for the capital of Kenya amid a barrage of trivia questions irrelevant to the specific position being hired. Mari proceeds to address Stacy and the viewers by saying, "Stacy, look this up. Hold on, Guys. We're gonna cheat real quick." The Let's Players advance in the game by looking up answers to the trivia questions, explicitly framing this as cheating—opposed to the rules of the game but without denying the game's existence. After additional cheating, Stacy laughingly declares that the game is "gonna think we're a fucking genius, but we're googling everything," poking fun at the ease by which players can bypass this challenge. Rather than only pointing out the arbitrariness of this game element or complying with the game's rules, Mari and Stacy allow the game to continue operating but by taking advantage of resources beyond the game's scope. In this way, we can associate one operating under the negotiated mode of playing with Suits's articulation of the cheater, who recognizes the goals of the game but not all the logics of its rules (1978, 46–47) (note 5).

[4.11] The negotiated mode of playing, like all modes of playing, requires engaging with the rules of the game. When players cannot express agency, they do not have access to opportunities for negotiating the game's rules through playing. For instance, when Stacy remarks on the scantily clad female workers of the massage parlor by saying "to make myself feel better about this, I'm gonna pretend that all of these girls are very well taken care of, well paid, and respected," she is engaging in a negotiated mode of reading the video game. Stacy produces additional narrative content to ameliorate her anxieties about the exploitation of women and, in doing so, highlights her negotiations with the game's objectification of women. This comment, however, signals a moment of reading the dominant code of the game rather than playing in or against it. Stacy and Mari have no means of playing to demonstrate this, since this riffing does not augment, alter, or defy the rules of the video game.

[4.12] Through playing and riffing on Date the Boss, these Let's Players perform how they negotiate with the implied male players while still desiring to win. Humorously, for example, Mari and Stacy make comments such as "This is such a creepy game" and "This is inappropriate" when their potential boss makes suggestive advances toward them, demonstrating a split between themselves as players and the male character they control in the video game world (for studies of players and avatars, see Rehak 2003; Klevjer 2012; Vella 2013, 2014). Upon completing the game, Stacy announces "We did it!" with Mari following shortly after to cheer that "We dated our inappropriate boss!" Such declarations allow Mari and Stacy to revel in playing and winning the game, despite any distance or discomfort produced by playing the game. While acknowledging how Date the Boss is a game clearly constructed around their exclusion, the two female Let's Players still find ways to play the game by complying with it, ridiculing it, and revising it to make their own meaning from it. They produce their own content, their Let's Play, from it to perform and show how it is that they individually and uniquely play the game.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Let's Plays provide opportunities to see players engaging in different modes of reading and playing as they riff on the video games that they encounter. Let's Plays show how fans can perform video game player personalities that in a given playthrough may subscribe to, resist, and negotiate with the demands of the video game and its larger contexts of production, circulation, and reception. Through different relationships with and against the rules and expectations of video games, players perform in different modes of playing, which the live commentary of Let's Plays can highlight. The construction of liveness emphasizes the performative element of Let's Players and their personalities, suggesting that playing video games means performing a role or personality that players can actively shape.

[5.2] As fan productions, Let's Plays offer accounts of how fans engage with video games that also serve as new materials for fans to share and discuss. The viewer comments, blog posts, fan art, and videos made in response to Let's Plays and Let's Players underscore how Let's Plays allow fans to examine, critique, and multiply these individualized performances of game playing. Like other fan-produced media that grapple with how players differentially and idiosyncratically make sense of and perform their audiencehood of video games, Let's Plays offer space to reimagine a wider account of what game playing can mean for a wider range of fans. Unboxing videos, where users record themselves unwrapping a new product for the first time, and other performances of video game fandom, game playing, game consumption, and game making provide opportunities alongside Let's Plays for individualizing and localizing practices of meaning-making through the presentation of video game player personalities.

[5.3] Shaw argues that toward "normalizing video games for all audiences, [we should find] ways to emphasize their 'everydayness' in contemporary media culture" (2012, 40). To emphasize their everydayness and ubiquity, we can increase the visibility of the diverse experiences and performances of video game playing and recognize the ways in which video game playing is constructed and made meaningful. Consequently, we might increase production and circulation of more kinds of fan materials like Let's Plays to discuss and account for more negotiated, more queer, more subversive, more failed, and more confusing game play and player personalities as widely recognized and legitimated sites for making meaning of video games and playing.

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] I would like to acknowledge financial support from IMMERSe: The Research Network for Video Game Immersion sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada as well as the Interdisciplinary Frontiers in the Humanities and Arts in Digital Humanities and Gamification sponsored by the Office of Research at the University of California, Davis. Thorough reviewer comments for an earlier submission of this article were instrumental in its development. The earliest version of this material appeared on a panel with Irene Chien and Christopher Goetz on "Para-Gaming: Gaming beside Itself" at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies 2015 conference.

7. Notes

1. Mojang released early developmental versions of Minecraft in 2009 and the official version in 2011.

2. Critical work on riffing has examined the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) (1988–1999) as demonstrative of the capabilities of riffing in fan meaning-making practices (Weiner and Barba 2011; Bonnstetter 2012). See also MST3K Riff-a-Day, a blog cataloging riffing examples from MST3K (Vorel n.d.).

3. Studies of electronic and digital media have been interested in theorizing the significance of interactivity (Laurel 1993; Aarseth 1997; Murray 1997; Frasca 2001; Galloway 2006; Bogost 2008; Wark 2009).

4. PewDiePie released both an apology on his blog and a video stating that he will cease references to rape (2012b, a). The sincerity of the apologies, however, has been questioned (Hernandez 2014).

5. Consalvo hints at this link between cheating and Hall's modes of reading (Consalvo 2007, 77; 200 note 25).

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