In which I self-indulgently question the basis of youtube lets-player’s profession (A fictional meta-analysis of sorts)

Fredbert once asked me what I thought about his profession. At the time, I wasn’t particularly in a position to critique his work – I’d written a few articles, presented at a few conferences, fiddled with a few bits of audio, but my ability to interact with people consistently on a day to day basis and still pretend to enjoy what I did, was not what you could call admirable. I’d seen his videos – he was persistent if not talented. But then again, I wasn’t exactly a stellar performer. His recordings were less polished than other Youtubers I’d subscribed to, the Fredtho’s and Friestau’s of the virtual at particular world, but there was an openness, lack of judgement and selflessness I’d seldom witnessed in anyone other than the best of bartenders.

Eleven hours into a drunken stream, FredUnfred and Fredrikar thought it would be the height of entertainment to harass other members of the Fredstick Network via Skype – at what eventuated to be about 6am in his timezone, Fredbert was the only member online to answer their calls. FredUnfred was always a little immature, and prone to fits of suggestion and idiocy, the fools’ favourite (but with a heart of gold) whereas Fredrikar was more the damaged outsider. Intelligent, yet underappreciated, and in his drunkenness there was an element of danger – an anti-social tendency, self-recrimination and loathing, along with more than the usual dose of repressed sexual anxiety…

On that particular night, witnessed by myself and maybe a few hundred others of which I know very little, part-way through some forgettable action-RPG, FredUnfred seemed to have passed out (or his connection failed, depending on who’s account you believe), leaving Fredrikar and Fredbert in an awkward repose. Fredbert’s tolerance towards Fredrikar was admirable beyond expectations. I had always perceived him as belonging to a similar sensationalist, shallow lineage as that travesty of entertainment known as FredieFry, however he never once succumbed to the temptation to ridicule his very drunk (and vulnerable) host, let alone reach hysterics. Fredrikar was clearly suffering from a lack of appreciation, and his erstwhile friend FineFeldsparForelimb had the interests of The FredNetwork ahead of their friendship. I felt a degree of sympathy for Fredrkar – one does not simply broadcast one’s self-pitying alcoholism over the internet without due cause. I was struck at that time by both sympathy for Fredrikar, and respect for Fredbert – at some point each of us has been confronted by a friend, family member or acquaintance well beyond their limits, and it takes a certain compassion not to exploit their weaknesses.

On another occasion, I recall a relative newcomer to The Network asking FredSwag whether he would choose the Red pill or the Blue pill – The Matrix Paradox. FredSwag said he would gladly choose the blue pill (blissful ignorance over the painful agony of reality) this struck the newcomer as a surprise given FredSwag’s tendency towards the logical and technical details, however to me, this distinction seemed an essential element of the profession. To choose a professional life making videos of video games, and making them freely available to others, with the promise of a certain percentage return on revenue generated from advertising, involves a certain rejection of what others might regard as objective reality… If your life’s ambition is to complete a world record speed-run of Sonic the Hedgehog, clearly you have either exhausted the opportunities available to you in the real world, or else you have opted out.

I  still have trouble answering Fredbert’s question – his profession involves a necessary denial of the real world, yet there are moments of profound humility in his work – the excitement of committing to outlandish goals which are at once fanciful, aspirational and yet ultimately arbitrary; the enthusiasm of the beginning, the sensation of achievement, and finally, the frustration of reaching the limits of one’s ability and failing to meet previous expectations (whether your own or those cultivated by others) – all are profoundly human sufferings. That he has chosen to document these undertakings in more-or-less real-time is laudable, yet his choice of a fundamentally fruitless undertaking causes one no small degree of agitation. His chosen craft lies entirely within the trope of mainstream entertainment, however there is an underlying premise of rejecting certain societal norms (relating to what is or is not a means of making a living), yet an acceptance that big companies will continue to produce games for him to perform within… I find the contradictions inherent in his undertakings difficult to rationalize.

Is his body of work subversive, or does it reinforce the current trend towards gamification of everything? Relating to the former, Fredbert’s series aiming to reach 10,000 points in Mario Kart 8 seems to have reached a dead end of frustration, random misfortune and the occasional ‘return to mediocrity’. Sure gamification serves to promote a “self-less” state of flow which makes any job easier, however like most forms of self-delusion, leads ultimately to insanity – ones-own limitations prevail, and just about any undertaking imaginable can become the bane of your existence. The series chronicles Fredbert’s attempts to earn 10,000 points in online, peer-vs-peer races. Points are awarded according to places earned in races against real people playing online. As one progresses, one is matched against more expertly skilled racers. The first 8,000 points were achieved within 90-odd episodes, however in the last 20 or so episodes, less than 200-odd points have been earned. The series has become less about the achievements of a skilled player, than of the frustrations of game design and balancing. In this regard, the series is still highly engaging, and the reception of each episode is dependent not just on Fredbert’s performance, but also on how he reacts to his performance (or expected performance). Often the result is self-admonition (which for some viewers is no doubt entertaining), an appeal to kharmic forces, or a commitment to improvement. Nevertheless, the series is revealing in its attempt at achievement over entertainment (c.f. Space Engineers or Minecraft episodes on the same channel).
Recent research suggests that in many human endeavours the greater the skill of the competitors, the more likely the result is determined by chance. So Fredbert’s progression in MarioKart leads to him competing against other players at a similar level of skill/talent, and the results are driven more by the random mechanics of the game rather than by skill. This can lead to stagnation (the curse of meritocracy), false over-confidence, or (as evidenced in Fredbert’s recent endeavours) unjust recrimination, depending on the outcome.  The result is often a rapid rise in fortunes followed by a long period of mediocrity, if not outright decline. If this isn’t an entirely human story, I don’t know what is.

I can understand the creative desire to make something for one’s self, the need for independence, and to make one’s own schedule, yet I struggle to understand the choices Fredbert has made, let alone FredSwag, FredUnfred, FineFeldsparForelimb, Fredricar, and the likes – if reality is not to one’s liking, surely one has a responsibility to tear it down and recreate it in one’s own image, rather than create some masturbatory analogue of reality…

However is there any difference anymore? Is this the future being sold to us by corporations, or are these purely emergent phenomena? Are these internet-famous characters and the fanbases they create the modern-day equivalent of partisan newspapers and tv channels beholden to advertising revenue? If the (often creative) content they generate is confined entirely to a fictional universe accessible solely through financial transactions, does this render their efforts a surplus of creativity, or an elaborate marketing campaign? What if Fredtho, Friedstau and FredXMac were real astrophysicists and spent their time solving real-world issues, designing factories, programming space missions, chopping trees or marketing automobiles – would they command 100,000+ viewers of their work? Somehow I think not. It seems that in this day and age fiction has overcome reality.

I don’t mean to lessen the achievements of these individuals – fuck knows I’ve spent more time as a consumer than as a creator, and a framed piece of gold-plated Google-tat is far from my Pool Room wall, but I can’t help but think that the world is falling to shit when this seems to be the best option out there for so many intelligent individuals (members of this place included).

And yet, there is something undeniably real to this virtual world – an entrepreneurial spirit, an acceptance of differences within a collective, relationships formed and broken. I still struggle to accept this as the new world order, but to some extent I am forced to recognize that I am a relic of the old way of doing things. I am opposed to the current modes of organisation of human activity, but I am reluctant to accept this as the way forward… I still retain at least some allegiance to objective reality.

If we take all this as the start of some form of cottage industry (which some seem to advocate for), where does that leave us collectively? If we all spend our time producing content, consuming or liking/subscribing/favoriting/commenting on youtube/reddit/etc, when will we have the energy to solve the real problems of our time? Do any of us care about the future of the real world, or do we all hope for Facebook’s Oculus to take us away from it all? Is there some middle ground in which games can inspire creativity in reality rather than substitute for it? Will the legion of Lets-players and their viewer-things ever be more than glorified TV shows/fans? Should they/we be? When will everyone else’s jobs be attributed the same degree of respect?