Like most parents I know, there is a yawning chasm between the kind of parent I would like to be and the kind of dad I actually am.
In my fantasies, I picture myself teaching my kids Chinese and urging them to pay a little more attention to their ukulele practice while the whole family sits around the kitchen table eating the delicious salad leaves they have grown in their gardens.
In reality, the ukulele lies with broken strings among the pile of rejected toys in the playroom, we never got past podcast one of the Chinese lessons and I just sprayed the tangled triffids of the so-called vegetable garden with weed killer. We’ll try again next year.
But a new low in inadequate parenting was reached this week when I found myself actually begging my kids to play computer games, because anything would be better than listening to the nasal whine of YouTube stars Captain Sparklez or Stampy Longnose for another hour.
For those of you not in possession of 9 year-old kids, let me back up a bit.
“Let’s Plays”, as they are known in the trade, are videos of other people playing video games. They usually feature one very long video screengrab, so you see the game-play screen the player was seeing when they recorded it, and they are almost always accompanied by a shouty commentary, in which the person playing the game tries to be funny.
Needless to say, the chaps (and they are nearly all chaps) recording the videos are usually pasty, 20-somethings with bad skin who don’t appear to get out much.
Such criticisms are as likely to trouble the Let’s Players about as much as water troubles a duck’s back. I’m just another moaning adult – but Let’s Play video channels are now the most popular and most subscribed-to channels on YouTube.
The overall number one channel on YouTube features the Let’s Plays of Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg.
PewDiePie has more than 30 million subscribers and hundreds of millions of views to his name. In 2013 he reportedly made around $4 million from ad revenue.
(FYI, the number two spot is held by YouTube’s own YouTube Channel, at three is the Chilean Spanish language comedian Germán Alejandro Garmendia Aranis, known as HolaSoyGerman, at positon four is another Let’s Play channel, Smosh, and rounding out the top five is YouTube’s own Movies channel).
The ‘Let’s Plays’ my kids are addicted to are created and voiced by Stampy. Stampy, the biggest YouTube star this side of the pond, is also known as 23-year-old Joseph Garrett from Portsmouth. He has a voice not dissimilar in timbre and penetrative ability to the incredibly annoying comedian Stephen Merchant. His ‘Let’s Plays’ have made his YouTube channel a serious player in the youth advertising market with a staggering 3.7 million subscribers.
Advertising revenue on his YouTube channel earns him an estimated $100,000 a month.
My kids are big Stampy fans because each and every day, Stampy posts a new Minecraft video, a game they are obsessed with (my son is currently working on a 93-story hotel. Each room has its own swimming pool and sliding walls made of glass. Guests are transported from one area to another via ‘minecarts’ which run on a monorail suspended several hundred feet above the ground).
Like most parents we went through a cycle of emotions when our kids first became addicted to Minecraft – self-delusion that it might be creative followed by despair, deeper despair and finally the inevitable, doomed attempts to impose time limits.
We specified three hours of Minecraft on Saturday and Sunday mornings, preferably before we, the lazy parents, got up. That would be it.
It was the same evening that we attempted to impose time limits that we first heard the decidedly undulcet tones of Stampy reverberating through our house, “…And, look, just round this corner, here’s Rover, he’s a dog I trained…good boy…come on Rover…Oh No! NO! ROVER!!...JUMP BOY…JUMP!!”
“Hey,” I said, “No more Minecraft today, you remember? And why are you playing it on my laptop?”
“It’s not Minecraft, Dad, it’s YouTube. I am watching this instead of watching telly.”
“Oh...er…right..well, look, you can watch a bit of telly before bed, but you can’t watch this.”
“Why not dad? I am allowed to watch cartoons on YouTube instead of telly. What’s the difference?”
“I mean, it’s no worse than watching telly, is it?”
‘Why do you want to watch someone else play Minecraft?’
“Because he’s really funny! And look at the stuff he has built!”
“But why do you want to watch someone else playing it?”
“Because he’s really good! You like watching people who are really good play football, don’t you?”
“It’s the same thing, Dad.”
And that was the point at which I retrieved the iPad from its hiding place and said the words I thought I would hear myself saying, “Look, wouldn’t you rather actually play Minecraft yourself?”
No, he wouldn’t.
He would rather watch Stampy playing it.
Multitudinous efforts by the Daily Beast to contact the bigger stars of the Let’s Play world were met with deafening silence (emailing Captain Sparklez is akin to sending an email to Angelina Jolie), but eventually, Sep, one member of the German Let’s Play collective Pietsmiet which has a far from shabby 1.7million subscribers responded to my queries.
Three of the six members of the group work on the channel full time, but Sep has a full time job as a mechanical engineer. He spends most evenings and weekends either playing with the other five members of Pietsmiet, or cutting, rendering and uploading Let’s Play videos to Youtube. He describes these tasks as “more work than most of the subscribers think”.
So, why does he think kids like watching videos of other people playing video games?
“We are a group of six friends who are battling and challenging each other,” wrote Sep, “Our style and talking reminds our subscribers of their best friends. For many people we are good friends for them - and like them.”
It is this ability to directly relate to the stars, not their proficiency at the games, that is, I suspect, the ultimate key to the extraordinary success of the Let’s Play industry.
For the kids watching, they really are “just like us” - and, just as importantly, every kid can dream of becoming a Let’s Play celebrity and millionaire themselves - whatever their inadequate parents try to tell them about the importance of learning Chinese.