Analysis and Opinion

Words: 2403 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

Since I enjoy video games so much, one thing I do for entertainment is watch other people play games. A good deal of that has been watching streamers, but before that I would watch Let’s Plays on YouTube. There’s something about watching other people play a game, especially one you know well, and seeing their approaches. Sometimes it can be frustrating to watch, sometimes it can be fun, and sometimes it can provide you with insights into your own approach and how to improve.

But there’s something I’ve noticed in the behavior of the people who play games for an audience. It’s something that I never really thought about until recently, and yet in doing so have realized how often I do it as well. And now that I see it, I find it hard to unsee.

The phenomenon is the attempt to analyze a game once it’s done.

To explain, imagine that you’re playing a game on your own. You beat the final boss, see the final cutscene, and the credits start to roll. What are your first thoughts? I think for a lot of people, it’s a sense of completion, perhaps some kind of emotional catharsis depending on how the ending went, and some vague feeling of how you felt about the game. “That was awesome!” or “I really didn’t care for that.”

What I don’t think people do – or specifically what I don’t think most people do – is try to analyze their experience with the game, explaining what they did and didn’t like. What was done well, what was done poorly, and how things could have been improved. What is different is the attempt to formalize those generic thoughts into something approaching a “review” of the game.

And yet, it feels close to universal that whenever a streamer or YouTuber finishes a playthrough of a game, they’re going to offer this kind of analysis while the credits roll (assuming, of course, that they provide commentary in the first place). It’s not merely a voicing of those initial inner thoughts, but an attempt to justify those thoughts – and perhaps even temper those feelings one way or another to make the analysis feel “consumable.” I’ll explain this more a bit later.

So I wanted to take a moment to examine this behavior. I don’t think it’s wrong, so much as odd. There are a lot of reasons why content creators do it, and perhaps understanding those reasons can help us put into perspective what those analyses mean – both as a viewer and as the speaker.

Analysis as Performance

Let’s start with asking why we would be analyzing these games in the first place. Not in the sense of “why analyze games period,” but “why would we want to be spending our brainpower on this task after we’ve gone through the whole process of beating the game?”

One very obvious reason is the fact that as a performer, a content creator needs to fill time. Once credits roll at the end of a game, there’s not really anything to do. There’s not much to comment on. The creator could make jokes, but often the humor that stems from these activities comes out of what’s happening on screen. Maybe they could talk about their experience, but it would be hard without just engaging in analysis. So analysis basically becomes an easy solution to filling the silence. You need to say something.

There’s also a kind of pressure that comes with publicly playing a game. People who watch – especially if they are watching because of the specific game being played – want to know your reaction and feelings about the game. And so at the end of the game, that question is going to be directly asked, or else waiting in the wings: “what did you think of the game?” And of course, answering that question will generally invite – almost demand – analysis.

There’s also the fact that other people will probably be engaging in that analysis. Whether it’s chatters in a stream, or co-hosts, it’s very possible to see others doing analysis and want to be part of that process. Perhaps because you have something to say, perhaps because you disagreed with something, or perhaps because you just want to feel part of the group. Whatever may be the case, there can end up being a sort of bandwagon effect to analyzing.

But the cause that has most piqued my curiosity is…notoriety? Fame? Attention? These words don’t quite feel right, because they suggest both manipulation and an attack. As though I’m saying that people are engaging in this analysis because they want their channels to become big. As though the pursuit of viewership is conscious and the performance that goes into it is equally conscious. That’s not really true, which is why it’s so hard to explain this phenomenon.

Perhaps I can take the long road around.

For the past few decades, we’ve likely grown up not just with video games, but with video games media. This could include game reviews, story and thematic analyses, retrospectives, skits and movies, fan theorizing, Let’s Plays, and so on and so on. The universe of media about games basically overpowers the games themselves. It’s hard to escape it all. Magazines, websites…hell even this blog is a part of that.

And of course, with all of that comes a certain degree of respect…or envy? Whatever you’d like to call it. The idea is that people have become successful in these fields. They have devoted their lives in one way or another to video games. Not to making video games, but essentially to playing and talking about video games. It is the childhood dream made reality: you too could make a living playing video games. All you have to do is break into one of these roles.

Naturally, those roles are tough to get into. Or if they’re easy to get into, they’re hard to make successful. Becoming a professional writer (not just some two-bit blogger) requires a good deal of skill and luck. Becoming a full-time streamer requires finding a niche, being insanely skilled, having just the right kind of personality that can appeal to a wide swath of people…and also a good deal of luck. We can probably think of the success stories that mark the titans of the industry – the most successful streamers, the most prominent YouTube channels, the best game reviewers, etc.

But I’m not focused on the difficulty in and of itself. I’m focused on what that knowledge does to our brains merely by existing. The fact that you know that you could become a success by starting up a blog and writing about games or starting a Twitch stream or making a YouTube channel and having it one day blow up. What kinds of behaviors does that enable?

Which leads us back to analysis. A good chunk of games media is focused in one way or another on analysis. Game reviews are one of the most common in this respect. How does the game feel mechanically? How well does the game tell its narrative? How good are the graphics? All sorts of details like that are common fodder for a review, and even if we don’t regularly read reviews, we’re probably familiar with the basic framework, and we could easily write up our own reviews if we wished. Indeed, it’s a common thing for bloggers to do – offer reviews of new games, or games you love.

Of course, that’s not the only form of analysis. There are tons of channels that focus on game design and storytelling and thematic analysis and theorizing. All of that goes into the pot as well: the kind of analysis where you try to dig down into a game at a more “fundamental” level. Does the game invoke any kind of ludonarrative dissonance? Does the game really offer itself as something unique – as a piece of media that could only be a game? What are the themes of the story, and how are those themes conveyed not just through dialogue, but the environment, by character movements, and so on? This is just a tiny selection of possible questions, but hopefully they get across what I’m going for.

So all of this can race through a person’s mind while they’re, say, streaming. They’ve reached the end of a game, and what do they do? They analyze. In part, because they’ve been trained to do that by this media. But also, there’s something deep down – likely something that they’re not even aware of – saying “hey, what if you were able to say something so insightful that people paid attention…and then you got big!”

Again, I am likely making this sound like something bad, but it’s not. There can be bad aspects to this behavior. For example, there is a tendency for negativity to draw attention. We usually focus more on scathing takedowns than on joyous uplifting. Which means both that we see a lot of negative opinions rise to the top (therefore skewing how we see the games universe), and we associate negativity with success. Being heavily critical of a game and focusing on what it did wrong will drive discussion far better than talking about what you loved.

By a similar token, we associate criticism with intelligence. A good number of prominent figures in games media are respected for the smart things that they say, and many of them are engaged in explaining how things don’t work. Why a story is poorly written, why a piece of dialogue is bad, why a game is encountering ludonarrative dissonance, etc. That kind of criticism – whether it’s being done well or poorly – gets associated with being clever and smart. And so if we too are more critical of the games we play, we too are smart. We should be on the lookout for poor writing, bad dialogue, ludonarrative dissonance, etc.

A wonderful dilemma here is that criticism isn’t wrong. Sometimes – perhaps even a good portion of the time – this kind of criticism is warranted and well thought out. The problem is that sometimes the criticism is going to be bland, or inappropriate – it is repeating ideas that we heard elsewhere without really thinking about what those ideas mean. And it becomes difficult to tell the two apart – especially when we’re doing it. Am I saying that this particular scene created a sense of ludonarrative dissonance because it did…or because there was just something I didn’t like, and using that term gives my dislike a sense of respectability? How do we, the person saying the thing, really know?

The paths I’m taking to get here are filled with so many twists and turns because there’s not really that much clarity that can be brought to the topic. It’s not a problem, it’s just something weird.

Perhaps the only thing I can offer is that maybe we should be skeptical of our first impressions. At least in thinking about what those first impressions mean. For those who engage with a given game more periodically – say those who play through a game once a week and might take a month or more to finish – the way in which we experience a game is going to impact those impressions. Those impressions, in turn, will probably be quite different than if we’d played the game in a fairly short amount of time. Or perhaps the pressure of needing to be “on” for an audience impacts our enjoyment – we start to associate the stress of “work” with the game we’re playing. Or we just miss stuff and get lost because our attention is divided. Whatever the case, those frustrations wouldn’t exist if we could play the game in the comfort of our own rooms, in private.

It is essentially a supreme irony that the place where we are most inclined to reveal our impressions and transform those impressions into analysis – during a live performance – is the place where those impressions are most likely to be…corrupted? Perhaps not the right term. But the kind of analysis that we want to provide – the really careful and thoughtful ideas that we see others give – is probably the kind of stuff that we should be chewing over for more than just thirty seconds before running our mouths.


Once more, it probably sounds like I’m saying that we should stop talking over the credits. Or if we do, we shouldn’t offer any kind of analysis of the game we just played. We should stop trying to write blog posts about these games – whether we like them or dislike them. I am aware that this could sound like the conclusion we should reach, and it would be incorrect.

In part, because we can’t really help ourselves. I know that this behavior is something I do as well. I will often provide a summary of what I think a game did well and did poorly when I finish it on stream, and I’m sure I’ll do it again…probably soon after this essay is published, in fact. And the fact that most of the content I write for this blog is video games analysis of some kind is not lost on me. We aren’t doing this stuff simply for fame and fortune. It’s just that those ideas are going to lurk in our mind, regardless of how much we try to push them away.

Rather, I am saying this all merely to reiterate that so much of the analysis that we see – especially in videos and streams, is performance. It is a person doing a “bit” for an audience. We can be sincere in what we’re saying, but the performative nature of content creation is always going to have us in its clutches. And that performance is going to change our behavior, sometimes in big ways, sometimes in little ways.

It’s just being aware of that performance – whether it is the performance of putting on a stream or the performance of writing a blog post – that helps keep us grounded. Am I offering this criticism because it’s a problem I saw…or because I needed to see a problem so I could offer a criticism? Was I disappointed because the game was poorly designed…or because I had the wrong expectations going in? Being able to ask questions of ourselves and what we’re saying is the toughest part of the job, and yet it’s probably the most important part.

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