Toward a simple theory of YouTube and gaming

Outsiders and critics often think of YouTube and computer gaming as entertaining and quite superficial modes of cultural consumption.  I have increasingly moved away from that point of view, and to pursue the argument I will note that lately my favorite YouTube video is Magnus Carlsen doing 100 chess endgames in 30 minutes.  That is not recommended for most of you, but I believe that is part of the point.  I now think of YouTube as a communications medium with (often, not always) high upfront “investment in context” costs.  So if a lot of videos seem stupid to you, well sometimes they are but other times you don’t have enough context to understand them, or for that matter to condemn them for the right reasons.  This “high upfront costs” model is consistent with the semi-addictive behavior exhibited by many loyal YouTube users.  Once you start going down a rabbit hole, it can be hard to stop, and the “YouTube is superficial” models don’t really predict that kind of user behavior, rather they predict mere channel-surfing.

Did you know that Yonas, my Ethiopian contact in Lalibela, and recipient of royalties from my book Stubborn Attachments, loves YouTube videos on early Armenian church history?  He seems to know all about that topic.  A lot of those same videos would not make much sense to me.  I could follow them, but they wouldn’t communicate much meaning, whereas the Ethiopian and Armenian Christian churches have a fair amount in common, including in their early histories.

Has the popularity of PewDiePie — 103 million subscribers — ever mystified you?  I have in fact come to understand the material is brilliant, though not in a way I care about or wish to come to grasp in any kind of detailed way.  For me the entry costs are just too high relative to the kind of payoff I would achieve.  You really have to watch a lot of videos to get anywhere with grasping the contexts of his various jokes and remarks.

This also helps explain why there is no simple way to find “the best videos on YouTube.”

Perhaps computer games have some of the same properties.  They have great meaning to those who know their ins and outs, but leave many others quite cold.  Sometimes I hear people that things like “Twenty or thirty years from now, computer games will develop into great works of art.”  I doubt that.  To whatever extent computer games are/will be aesthetically notable, those properties are probably already in place, just with fairly high upfront context costs and thus inaccessible to someone such as I.

The high upfront costs, of course, mean a high degree of market segmentation and thus perhaps relatively high profits for suppliers, at least in the aggregate if not in every case.

Could it be that these top cultural forms of today have higher upfront costs than say appreciating 18th century Rococo painting?

In any case, trying to understand the cultural codes of 2020 is a truly difficult enterprise.

For this material, I wish to thank a related conversation with S.


For future reference, use the term "video game" instead of "computer game" unless you want to sound like a caricature of an out of touch old person.

I remember video games! They helped keep Australia's economy afloat in the 90s. They made millions in the US:

Video games can never be art. Art is expressive, enumerative, and speaks to the soul. Digital ephemera can at best be toys.

Crikey's Conundrum: The strongest evidence something is art is people denying that it is art.

Art is what you can get away with.

The vast majority of photos are both taken and viewed digitally. are they not art anymore?

I like your “upfront cost”/“rabbit hole” paradigm. In the early days of computing gaming (pac-man, donkey kong, etc) in the 80s, I once spent an entire two week vacation playing these games in my apartment. I enjoyed them——to the extent one can call “obsession” enjoyment. I have never played any game since. About 5 years ago, I decided to play chess with my iPhone. I was never a good chess player, but I wanted to see if I could improve. I played it when I went to bed with no particular expectations. I ended up playing all night and moved up a few notches. I realized, of course, this was just another version of Pac-Man obsession. I have never played chess again. My only point, really, is for me these are extraordinary wastes of time—-I emphasize for me, not others. Obsession is often the driver to being very good at something. Unless I enjoy something—-and it has utility for me—-I stay away from the rabbit holes.

The nuances of learning by doing in a game create an amazing artistic expression that no other medium possesses. The obvious games I know are braid, limbo, and undertale.

Each takes an understanding of the typical genre learning curve, ie how you play the game, and uses that to tell the story in a way I couldn't imagine without those mechanics.

Watched the Magnus video the other day. Was surprised he didn't get 100%. Very casual player but enjoyed it. Pewdie pie and the like are watched by a lot of children who have no concept of time, its scarcity or what is worth investing in.

I haven't watched the Magnus video, which is based on Jesus de la Villa's "100 Endgames You Must Know" book, which is from, in visual media form, from and has a tie-in with Carlsen, but from the comments I understand Magnus solved a lot of these puzzles just by calculation, seeing them for nearly the first time, rather than having memorized them from seeing them before. That's impressive, and the fact he solved them in blitz time.

In other words, there's a large amount of cultural context needed to properly appreciate the chess on display, and it might otherwise seem superficial. Whereas Tyler seems to be implying that the forms of entertainment that he likes have some Platonic aspect that elevates them above such considerations.

Well said. Even modern art ala the works by Picasso involving elongated abstract figures were borrowed from the Geometric period of ancient Greece (which may have borrowed from Africa, as African DNA is still found in Greek islanders). So to appreciate something you have to have an Aristotelian understanding of that thing, based on a Rev. Berkeley-type empirical understanding, not an abstract Platonic Ideal.

Bonus trivia: in response to Anonymous in another thread, I explained the secret to life itself, but, due to WordPress and the new Edge browser, the answer was never posted. Sigh. Maybe I'll repost it someday, or probably not. It did involve patents and "I, PENCIL" by Leonard E. Read.


I feel the same way about a lot of classical music, you have invest a lot of time to appreciate it. But in deciding to invest that time you have to consider the opportunity cost of other forms of entertainment. Of course with classical music you also get status which you don’t get with video gaming, in fact the opposite. It would be fun if in 70 years PewDePie becomes part of high culture due to nostalgic zoomers and thus you can get status by knowing his videos.

I think that's basically inevitable. The vast majority of cultural products seem to just automatically become considered more highbrow each year after their release, and especially after their original creator passes away, which probably has a lot to do with the increasing difficulty of understanding something as it becomes more and more outdated. Someday I truly believe that even Family Guy and South Park will be considered elite high culture only accessible to the educated and intelligent.

Yeah, for me it's jazz. Some of it is very easy to listen to and enjoy. But to understand and appreciate the fine points, and the more challenging jazz, takes what I would call "investment in consumption" (rather than "investment in context" as Tyler does). Actually I think there's already an economic term for this concept, but it escapes me at the moment.

It's one of the things I figure I'll do more when I retire: learn more about jazz. As well as read more long novels.

"learning curve."

First, you would have to know who (or what?) PewDiePie is to even be aware of the number of subscribers, apart from fairly out of context mentions such as this. And in 1850, appreciating 18th century Rococo paintings had much higher upfront costs for anyone in England than whatever video games and youtube involve today. However, people were willing to pay it, and even in 2020, such painting is considered worth viewing.

One can doubt that this will be true in a couple of centuries concerning video games or youtube videos of this era, assuming that such is even available. Excellence is filtered over time, and over generations.

I can say in defense of YouTube that, used judiciously, it can make for great family Q&A time. I have two curious kids, ages eight and four. Once a week for 20 minutes or so we pull up YouTube and explore a few random things they want to know more about.

- How do we build dams?
- What is hair made out of?
- Can we see some Larry Bird highlights?
- How big is the sun compared to the planets?
- How do they make chewing gum?

And then there's stuff that they don't know to ask about because they don't even know it exists, but I can show them.

- Check out these statues on a place called Easter Island.
- Look at this clip from a 1981 Flyers game when they wore pants!
- This is how an industrial corn harvester works.

There is almost always a decent video to be found, and most videos of this sort are just a few minutes in length.

This happens in my house as well. We had a new well installed at our home this fall and my kids wondered how it worked and we spent an hour on YouTube learning about how people get clean water around the world.

In Tyler's house, children just gather around him to ask those questions.

This site is Tyler’s house.


Your kids are lucky.

"In any case, trying to understand the cultural codes of 2020 is a truly difficult enterprise."

Wrong. It's never been easier with the internet. At your fingertips you have access to social media, online forums, chat rooms, and Google to unravel any seemingly impenetrable subculture. There's always someone who is too happy to share what they know just by asking.

I have always found it self-evident that video games can be great art. I am wondering what games I would recommend to someone who is dubious about the proposition. Probably something like Skyrim, Infocom's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, FFVII, GTAV, and DOTA/LoL.

Role-playing games can be great art, too.

Tyler, you should try both types of games. I really don't see the upfront costs exceeding a couple of hours for video games and zero hours for RPGs, assuming you sit in with an existing group with a good GM.

Nothing new under the sun. Becker (and Murphy?) spoke of the importance of habitual capital.

I'm not sure how anyone can dislike YouTube, unless they just don't know that it is an AI they must train. Search for whatever floats your boat, including literally boats, and it will evolve to present you with the right choices.

I think I have good YouTube habits, and for that reason essentially all of my recommendations are how-to videos for skills that I value. Ah, also "meet the dog protecting planes from bird strikes." Well, that's good too.


You can learn almost anything on YouTube, or enjoy things you would never otherwise have the opportunity to explore.

I am using it to learn to read, write, and speak Thai.

I'm sorry I called you the "mouse". No more of that.

+10 internet points for civility. It's getting better around here.

This also helps explain why there is no simple way to find “the best videos on YouTube.

The 'best videos on YouTube' is not a coherent category. There is obviously no objective measure, nor is there any cultural consensus, nor are there any elite cultural authorities who can award 'bestness' ribbons and have those designations stick. And of course it's not just YouTube. Every year, fewer and fewer people tune into to see who's just won an Oscar, Grammy, or Tony award. Or a Nobel prize in literature.

I'm reminded of a bit in A Room with a View where the heroine is wandering in a church in Florence without her guidebook:

Of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper. But who was to tell her which they were? She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.

We seem to be rapidly passing out of an era where people are looking for authorities to tell them which sepulchral slabs (or YouTube videos) they really ought to appreciate. I would think that the author of In Praise of Commercial Culture would be fine with this.

Tyler, for an appreciation of video games as art try Kentucky Route Zero and/or Disco Elysium. They are simple to play, with dialogue choices and very basic movement. No combat, no reflex challenges, no weird controllers or input formats. Just amazing, emotional interactive stories.

Jason Roher is arguably one of the few people who make video games that are art. He has a talk on the changing economics of the indy game developer community that seems to corroborate the above thesis. He points to shared story creation leading to gameplay videos on youtube replacing first day game sales driven by magazine reviews as the driver of success.

He also successfully defended himself in court from his neighbors for failing to mow his yard and allowing it to become a natural meadow.

I think you err in trying to understand video games and YouTube watching as similar or related phenomena. Mostly they have in common that both became popular fairly recently, and many YouTube videos reference video games.

You also err in assuming video games inherently have high up-front context costs. Some do, to a ridiculous degree, but that's by design. It appeals to the sense that their practitioners are part of a select group, and that everyone else doesn't get it, or isn't made of the right stuff. It also comes from the need for sequels go beyond what the previous iteration delivered. And some of these games are multi-player games were the upfront costs are little different than the up-front costs of learning to play baseball on a team.

Other games are accessible to children and casual gamers with a few minutes to kill on their smart phones, as well as literate adults with virtually no gaming experience. Some deep and complex games effectively embed the game-play learning curve in the game experience itself (Half-Life 2 is my favorite example of this). This is not a chess vs. checkers kind of thing -- some of these easily accessible games have the potential for complex play and rich experiences. Of course you have to be familiar with how typical game controllers work, but counting that as a high up-front cost is like saying understanding and appreciating any written literature has a high up-front cost because you have to know how to read and have to have a sufficient vocabulary.

Of course, if you haven't played video games by the time you're 30, gaming is going to leave you cold. As you know, our tastes are pretty much set in stone by young adulthood. And for a better analog to Rococo painting, I'd try graphic design. Little of either qualifies as art, most is completely forgettable, both mean to communicate something to the viewer that is less about a deep experience and more about signalling. Ultimately, comparing art forms is futile, and predicting what will be considered art in the future perhaps equally so.

Sorry to follow up my own post, but the more I think about this "theory," the more harebrained it seems. Replace everything Tyler wrote about 'YouTube' with 'televised organized sports' (and sports commentary, which both has dedicated cable channels and is also huge on YouTube). And replace everything Tyler said about 'computer gaming' with the actual organized sports (like baseball, basketball, football, in case my meaning of organized sports isn't clear).

People play organized sports for a wide variety of reasons. And for substantially different reasons, many people watch those sports, and comment on them, and enjoy hearing/watching experts comment on them. Many of the people who love to "consume" sports formerly played them, but many hard-core fans never played sports at all. Both playing organized sports, and consuming organized sports, requires substantial up-front learning, practice, and context. And to those who don't have the up-front investment, either on the experiential side or the viewing/history side, will be left quite cold.

So what insights or explanatory powers does this "theory" gain? And moreover, who ever assumed that game devs or gamers care if video games are ever considered "art"? None that I know, and I know quite a few.

Tyler -- I would highly recommend you watch something from Joseph Anderson's YouTube channel. He creates deep, illuminating, and often exhaustive critiques about videogames that would be easy to digest without much background context due to his complete they are. To gesture at the craft of what he is out, the guy has been working nearly full time (~4000 hours) on a critique of a single game (The Witcher) for the last year and a half.

I'd recommend starting with his video for "What Remains of Edith Finch" because that particular game is more of an interactive story than anything else, so you'd need zero game mechanic context going in. It's about 50 minutes at 1x speed.

I was just talking to a friend and he brought up the MASH finale that had over 100 million people watching. Does anybody talk about MASH anymore? I don't think its a stretch to say it has basically zero cultural relevance. Why is Kew-de-pie going to be any different in 30 years?

Yes. Most things -- however popular at the time -- are forgotten. But that doesn't mean that you must try obsessively to identify the few that won't be and focus on those. Go ahead and enjoy the culture of your age despite its ephemerality. There are no prizes in the afterlife for having guessed right about which things will endure after you're gone.

+1. While there's no point in dwelling too much on things which will likely be transient, it seems like a mistake to avoid bonding with your fellow creatures over unique shared experiences and insights that you would have together as the only generation of humans ever to experience X or Y as a fresh, new phenomenon, in exactly the context it was born in. Not for preference of meditating alone on the eternal classics from before your time.

(Even if you take a "long view", some future AI or cultural archaeologist scouring the entire recorded internets is more likely to care about what you thought about cultural phenomena of your time, in preference to what you recapitulated about, say, Shakespeare that millions of thinkers had already thought, each more distant from the context of his original plays.)

"Like what you like". I agree completely. Some of my all time favorite movies- Caddyshack, the Naked Gun to just name two- I fully admit are not 'great films' but they give me a lot of joy and I don't for one minute apologize for that.

But I thought that TC was saying there was something culturally valuable in this Youtube stuff that has some kind of lasting value. That it is in fact, 'excellent'. If not, then this blog post seems pretty banal.

I'd like to hear why Kew-de-pie is excellent but Mash (to take one example) isn't basically. Saying there's 'up front costs' to truly understanding it is a bit of a cop out.

Ah, OK, yeah, agree with that then!

Trust me, the US is always doing things that remind us foreigners of MASH.

Still, probably better than the UK doing things that remind one of Blackadder Goes Forth, or the Germans doing things that remind us of "You can't actually make a comedy about it that's funny because it's so bleak".

Today's videos and games will be superseded by technological advances. Art forms or not, they'll be obsolete and almost entirely forgotten.

One day the dominant medium will be virtual reality. Never mind all the premature hype and false starts, within a few decades we'll finally have the real thing. No more bulky glasses, we'll have contact lenses or retinal implants. Augmented reality will be a major steppingstone toward the ultimate goal, it will help move the technology forward. And eventually we'll have neural interfaces that deliver all five senses plus balance and kinesthesia (proprioception) for a seamless immersive experience.

Ancient purely audio-visual experiences will be culturally irrelevant. When was the last time you watched a play that wasn't a school production with your own child participating? Or a silent black-and-white movie?

Or consider radio plays. For a few decades in the first half of the 20th century, they were enormously popular. The Goldbergs made Gertrude Berg the second-most famous woman in America after Eleanor Roosevelt. But then appointment television killed appointment radio. Today, the Internet has lifted the "appointment" constraint, but the art form of audio-only drama or comedy remains dead as a doornail.

These things are hard to predict. Television reduced radio theatre and comedy down to a small subset (though the Archers and comedy podcasts certainly are not dead), but music television did not really kill purely audible recorded music.

Some of this depends on whether an artform really becomes a thing unto itself, and whether extensions and tools to it are something few talents within it would choose to opt out of (visual gesture and spectacle), or is sort of the product of a transitional phase artists who really want to do something else working within the limitations of medium that are quickly shucked as soon as possible.

Its hard for me to imagine that Tetris will become substituted by VR; although it may be by some absurdly upgraded "Tetris Effect" future variant. It's easier to imagine that GTA will be replaced by a VR dream-version. That said, I am informed present day VR games are basically all pitched as 20 min experiences, because they make players sick and disoriented to play much longer - maybe this will always be so, or maybe not.

There's a sort of school of thought that might see 2D animation, for instance, as a transitional state of insufficiently developed realistic CG. I think there is a compelling argument that it remains a vital artform of its own, though, which will be augmented in its own ways by technological change.

TwoSetViolin (2 mil subs) on classical music and 1Million Dance Studio (19.6 mil subs) on Korean Dance are my two favorite channels currently. Both are filled with insider aspects but enjoyable nevertheless. The former even has fan channels that explain the insider references.

A Jesuit friend took a survey comparing two types of music in church, Renaissance polyphony and the modern John Denver sounding stuff. The students preferred the modern materiel. I was not surprised nor did I take this as evidence that the modern song in question was better. Since art is produced within some tradition, all art has entry costs of some sort, even if the tradition is not very deep. So while polyphony *is* frequently stunningly beautiful, one has to be "educated" into it.

The book [i]Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy[/1] makes a pretty compelling case that classical music and jazz have immense riches to offer once you are initiated, but until then the foreign sound, while it might be pleasing, is not necessarily intelligible. I tell my students the same thing. You need a lot of exposure and to practice paying attention to different elements of art and music to really appreciate a tradition.

You say aesthetically notable as though works of art deal in the aesthetic. You've not played Final Fantasy 7, and I assume you won't play the remake. The aesthetics were awful, but the game's popularity and intense fan enjoyment has spanned generations based on its story and character development. It also has transmitted timeless environmental and ethical messages to young men (and some women surely) who perhaps would not get them elsewhere. And, if you look at whether a cultural artifact is a "great work of art" based on the economics of something, your average 5-star video game would make much more money than the Mona Lisa could ever sell for.

Videogames are such a wide art form that it's not even a sensible idea to treat them as a single thing anwyay. It's akin like saying that ones likes music, without any filtering or regard on what kind of music it is. Yet, if anything, the field is wider, because the interactions with the games are more varied.

There's games that are closer to playing sports. Others try to be interactive movies. Some are supposed to be enjoyed for 5 minutes, others to be explored for years. Some are time wasters that bring a bit of short lived joy others try to educate us. In many cases, they are. multi purpose.

And yes, there is quite the barrier of entry. The games that are accessible to a child are very different to those geared towards adult women on their phone. Many require years of practice in other games not not be horrible exercises in frustration, but are wonderful once you have the skillset required to engage with the game. It's not unlike that Carlsen chess video: It's great if you ever were at least a 1500 chess ELO, and even more fun if you are far higher up and can compare your analysis to his, but otherwise it's as hard to. understand as a gaming video.

But still, we'll always have games that are easy to understand and maybe mean something. For instance, Lucas Pope has an old flash game, call Republia Times, about propaganda. I don't see how it's not well in Tyler's skillset.

We can also expect your average person to be more acquainted with the language and skills of video games as boomers keep dying. We have interviews of NFL players talking about their favorite Pokemon, and they argue with publishers regarding their skill level in NFL games. It's just that old people that don't understand video games will not be alive to see it.

I have over 5000 hours played in Dota 2. I am in the top 1% of ranked players worldwide. Even so, I BARELY noticed the game winning play Ana made here - - that won his team millions of dollars. Not in a million years would I have made a similar play myself.

Oops, wrong video. This is the right one:

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