Minecraft has impacted children’s lives around the world over the past decade more than most other popular culture examples. It is far more than a best-selling video game. It is an example of what Marsha Kinder referred to in the 1990s as a children’s media ‘supersystem’. Minecraft has a presence in children’s lives across gaming, toys, video content, merchandise and books.
One aspect of the Minecraft supersystem is the rise of ‘Let’s Players’ – individuals who record themselves playing and narrating their Minecraft play with the aim of entertaining and informing their audience.
Let’s Players use Minecraft as a media production platform to create content for YouTube. Players can make money from this via Google’s AdSense system, which rewards creators for attracting viewers to the platform’s advertising content.
Watching Let’s Play content, however, is not just about entertainment – it may also be considered a form of connected learning. Children watch the videos to become familiar with the game and learn gameplay strategies, how to act and socially interact in and around the game, how to make connections across various types of Minecraft information, and how to participate in popular culture.
I set out to understand these dynamics by undertaking case studies of ‘family friendly’ Let’s Players and their videos for my book Peer Pedagogies on Digital Platforms – Learning with Minecraft Let’s Play Videos. This includes case studies of U.K. Let’s Play pioneer Stampylonghead (7.4 billion views), U.S. Let’s Player and children’s author StacyPlays (900 million views) and Canadian 12 year old Let’s Player KarinaOMG (2 billion views).
The book’s central argument is that family friendly Let’s Players are hugely popular because they provide children with models for Minecraft Play and they do this in entertaining and authentic ways.
Opportunities for ‘peer pedagogies’ emerge between Let’s Players and viewers because unlike the expert/novice power structures that tend to dominate in formal schooling, on digital platforms there is greater opportunity for learning relationships to form based on shared passions and interests. These dynamics are similar to those identified in previous work on connected learning and affinity group learning.
I argue that within ‘peer pedagogies’ learning often occurs as a result of the development of a para-social ‘friendship’ between a Let’s Player and a fan, and overall community involvement may play a secondary role to this, at least from the child viewer’s perspective.
A major aspect of Let’s Players’ success is their ability to come across as accessible, friendly, ‘everyday’ and authentic. They are approachable, trustworthy and reliable. Let’s Players actively cultivate their familial personas through what Nancy Baym calls relational labour. They actively set out to reduce the social distance between themselves and their fans in an effort to remain ‘peer-like’.
So what did I learn from Stampylonghead, StacyPlays and KarinaOMG?
- Friendships play an essential role in the relationships that develop between Let’s Players and their fans. When ‘everyday people’ become an entertainment source for millions of children around the world, authenticity becomes a significant barometer of success. Fans become emotionally engaged with Let’s Players and see them as ‘friends’, even if the relationship is imagined rather than real. To remain authentic, Let’s Players tend to reveal information about themselves and their personal lives as an aspect of their ‘relational labour’.
- One way to understand the ‘family friendly’ Minecraft Let’s Play community is to understand it as a ‘microindustry’. Most of the Let’s Players I studied support each other, appear in each other’s videos and cross-promote one another. This is important to their success because most of them produce videos on their own at home. They are not part of a traditional media industry structure. It is revealing to consider how this group has developed Let’s Play genre conventions over time as they have experimented and learned from each other about what kinds of content appeals to children.
- Successful Let’s Players understand and respect the deep passion Minecraft players have for the game, and they rarely speak down to their fans. In addition, each Let’s Player has a highly sophisticated understanding of their fan base and has developed techniques and strategies for remaining accessible to their followers, even when their fans number in the millions.
- Over time, successful Let’s Players become sophisticated video producers with specific strategies for addressing their audience, and for developing their personal ‘brand’ and appeal. They create a unique and attractive style of voice over commentary and use particular visual and stylistic features within Minecraft. They often develop and use a catch phrase that makes them immediately recognizable to their fans.
- Fandom is central to the community that develops around Let’s Players. In the past, this has included fan comments on YouTube videos, although since the beginning of 2020, comments have been disabled on most videos that attract children under 13 as part of YouTube’s safety and privacy policies. Fan practices also include fan art, and family friendly Let’s Players may invite children to send them drawings and other creative responses to display during an episode of their show. Fan fiction featuring Let’s Players on platforms like Wattpad is also popular amongst some Let’s Play fans.
- In the book I draw on Basil Bernstein’s theory of pedagogical ‘classification’ and ‘framing’ to show that there are differences in the techniques Let’s Players use to share knowledge about the game. Videos may be presented more or less formally, and Minecraft knowledge may be presented as being more or less important. This also extends beyond Minecraft knowledge. StacyPlays, for instance, includes information about the ethical care of pets in her videos, which she often presents in a more formal and serious manner than her general play sessions. Both Stampylonghead and StacyPlays have also made video series in Minecraft about school-based curriculum content. I analyse these examples to consider how well Let’s Play techniques translate to classroom-like learning.
The book’s final chapter focuses on the media literacy implications of peer pedagogies on digital platforms. It argues that some Let’s Players, particularly Stampylonghead, have aimed to use their influence to help children think about the challenges of the online world. Stampy has drawn attention to online harassment, self-representation online, and the challenges of being an online celebrity. There are also broader questions to be asked about the downside of peer pedagogies, which are established on ideals of friendship and trust. There is no shortage of ‘un-family friendly’ Minecraft Let’s Players on YouTube. What children learn from their heroes may not always be positive. This raises questions for parents, educators, policy makers, the digital platforms and researchers as we aim to understand how to provide children the best opportunities to flourish in the online world.
Guest post by Michael Dezuanni
Associate Director, Digital Media Research Centre
Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia