Man, being a kid growing up in the 90’s was great. You had your walkmans, the GameBoy (with its monstrous 4 AA batteries), shows like ReBoot and the original Poke’mon series… I get series nostalgia for the era of technology’s awkward growing pains! Everything today is so sleek, so elegantly designed, but back then, it was a question of discovering new things and how to make them work with the available hardware. You got some pretty cool, weird stuff.
Some of my earliest memories were of being over at my brother’s friend’s house. He had a Super Nintendo (which I wouldn’t get for a while), and I sat in utter fascination on the couch watching him play Chrono Trigger and Super Metroid, Megaman X and Demon’s Crest. Because I was also about four years old, I was also very fascinated with his little oil-and-water bubble things that you flip upside down to make the wheels turn. And lava lamps.
My love of video games persisted a little more deeply, however.
Not to be autobiographical, but a lot of my fondest memories (even some very recent ones) involve playing video games or watching other people play them. Single player games like Final Fantasy IX had to be played in turns by me and my brother, but it was a ton of fun to put our heads together (and occasionally bickering bitterly) to solve one problem or another, to get through a difficult battle, to find an elusive secret treasure. I’d watch my best friends murder their opponents in 2v2 Starcraft via LAN. I’d cringe as I saw my buddies get overwhelmed by the Flood in the original Halo. I’d chat with my cousin Marie about the art and dialogue choices in games that she knew and loved, but I was playing for the first time.
But the sweetest of times were those where we’d go head-to-head or team up to beat down the baddest of baddies. I stood on a stool to reach the controls of an old, dusty Simpsons beat-em-up arcade cabinet to play with my bro. We got to Mr. Burns in his robot suit once, but never beat him. Super Smash Bros consumed our waking days years later. The first time I played Halo on PC I got creamed because I didn’t know how to use WASD controls. It was on the Beaver Creek map, and we only had rocket launchers (if you want to ride the nostalgia train to its final stop).
And we’d talk about life. While grinding up some XP or slaying demons and zombies in Diablo II while blasting Metallica, we’d talk about who we were, what we wanted to be, what we thought about life. A lot of times, we’d discover something new about ourselves, our friends, or our family because we bonded over video games.
Video games have changed. It’s undeniable. I’m not going to weep over days gone by and say that it was better “way back when.” I think video games are awesome in 2016! I think it’s amazing that I can do some of those same things with friends in Germany or Malaysia (or even those guys who live 15 minutes away but never leave their house). I think building a city with people you’ve never met in Minecraft is a deeply satisfying social experience, no matter what the folks with a Bachelor’s in Psychology and a chip on their shoulder tend to say. It’s a different world now, but it’s not worse.
Yet… there’s something so heartwarming and appealing (for more than just nostalgia’s sake) about watching some people play video games and talk about themselves and their lives. There’s something positive about being silly with a controller in your hand and making (or laughing at) stupid jokes. And more than 600 words into this rambling blog post, I’m getting to the point: that’s why the world needs the Game Grumps.
It’s not just them, of course. PewDiePie, Markiplier, the awkward yet sharply intelligent Penny Arcade folks, and a slew of Twitch and YouTube personalities have decided to be themselves on the internet, and endear themselves to us through their honesty. We’re the friends on the couch, and it’s cool just to watch and listen. Sure, you get the commenters, but the reason we’re watching in the first place is to chill, get deep or be stupid while muscling our way through whatever video game happens to be up on the screen. The people who are successful at that brand of “entertainment” don’t give their viewers the Facebook version of themselves, where they only talk about their achievements and the positive things in their life. I hear Arin from Grumps talk about depression, and I see Markiplier’s hospital photos, and it makes me like them more because I feel like I don’t have to put them up on a pedestal to like them. We all know that the buddies we gamed with had their own problems. The gaming couch wasn’t a place to judge people.
Being honest here, this sounds like the strangest, most ridiculously one-sided relationship ever. What kind of egocentric person would make a career out of talking about themselves?
Okay, but seriously, it is a bit one-sided: on our side. They get views and comments, sure. We, as viewers, get to actually know someone we’ve never met. Not just their internet persona, not just their Facebook profile, but their real struggles, their real emotions, their real histories. And we get to bond with them over the one thing we knew about them before we started watching: that we both love video games. Beyond that, we even get to feel better about ourselves, for liking someone in spite of their flaws. It feels genuine and mature to do that, even as we laugh about their opinions of their privates.
Maybe the Game Grumps know what they’re providing. Maybe they understand the reason they’re popular (and they have to know by this point that it’s not because they’re any good at video games). But maybe they don’t. Maybe they think their product is successful because of the people they are. The reality is that they’re successful because they’re people. They are real human beings on display for us to see, and as long as they’re brave enough to do that, it feels pretty wonderful to be the guy on the couch watching two friends play some games.