August 30, 2016

Real Fake Beats Fake Real

Growing up in Minnesota, the old summer joke went that there were two seasons: winter and road construction. Living in a house with three school-age boys, I have come up with a new version of this old chestnut. For parents in 2016, there are two seasons: school and Minecraft (or to be exact, Minecraft videos on YouTube). Having spent the entire summer hearing about mods, mobs, and creepers, I thought it worthwhile to contemplate just why this bizarre genre of content has so successfully taken over our lives and what does it teach us about the future of TV.

1. Minecraft Provides a Real Experience in a Fake World
From an adult’s perspective, the world of Minecraft is totally ridiculous. The blocky graphics are reminiscent of the 8-bit video games today’s parents grew up on, and the computer-generated characters (i.e., creepers and other mobs) veer between the silly and the downright absurd. Minecraft does not represent reality in any conceivable way, shape, or form. On the contrary, its very cheesiness (fakeness?) is pretty clearly the whole point.

And yet…. Like other versions of cyberspace dating back to Second Life and even early online bulletin boards like the Well, what people (i.e., kids) do inside Minecraft’s virtual world is very real indeed. Minecraft players start from nothing (like virtual Robinson Crusoes) and have to find a way to survive, building their own shelter, finding food sources, and battling hostile intruders. Once basic survival has been assured, players proceed to explore and develop their worlds, finding resources (diamonds!) and constructing wildly elaborate structures. Play is open-ended and persistent. Pretty much every action has a permanent effect on the world. Instructions are minimal so learning is essential, with folk wisdom passing endlessly between kids outside of the game. At my house these sessions are called ‘dinnertime.’

Most importantly, Minecraft lore is learned by watching other people play the game on YouTube. Minecraft video channels have become a massive category. The top ten Minecraft channels (as of August 2016) all have over five million subscribers and more than one billion total video views each. The 50th (!) most popular Minecraft channel has over one million subscribers and over 300 million views. The format of these channels never varies. The videos consist of a real person playing Minecraft. The screen shows what they see as they play the game, and the audio includes both the sound effects of the game and their voice-over commentary about what is happening. The production cost of such videos is (for all practical purposes) zero, which is evidenced by the fact that many kids cross over and post a few videos of their own. My kids’ fifth-grade classmate has a channel with a couple of videos on it.

I have concluded that the appeal of these videos is not that they (or Minecraft) are fake, but that they are real. The person is real, their actions inside a particular Minecraft world are ‘real,’ and (most importantly) their experience and reactions to those actions are authentic and unscripted. The effect is similar to sitting in the same room with a friend who is playing the game.

This is true for e-Sports of all kinds (which could be considered a superset of the Minecraft genre), but Minecraft has the additional benefit of being more available and accessible to kids. That is, kids can take what they learn in YouTube videos and duplicate elements of it in their own Minecraft play. This makes the experience that much more real and is much, much tougher to do with fast-action team-based games like Dota 2.

Bottom line: For most kids Minecraft videos on YouTube provide an authentic experience that seems more ‘real’ than what other video entertainment provides. How can this be? Read on.

2. TV is Good at Providing Fake Experiences Based in the Real World
Traditional TV is based on two ingredients: the camera and the script. The camera means that TV occurs in the real flesh-and-blood world that the rest of us inhabit. When a show like CSI is set in the gritty streets of New York City, the images are of the real city. Sitcoms like Big Bang Theory that are filmed primarily on sound stages try to create apartments that look and feel like they belong in the real world (only cooler). Even shows built around superheroes, vampires, or other supernatural goings-on place these characters and events in the real world captured by the camera’s lens.

The script, of course, means that the content of the story is an invention of the author. High school chemistry teachers don’t really become drug lords (I hope). Reality TV is not actually that different. The show concept takes the place of the script, providing the frame within which the action plays out for the camera. Twenty strangers do not actually find themselves on a deserted island, form two tribes, and then vote each other off one by one. (At least I hope not.) In both cases, TV provides a facsimile of reality with the intent to entertain.

In this way, much of traditional TV reminds me of Las Vegas. Las Vegas is real (in the sense that it is physically there and can be found on a map, if necessary). At the same time, the experiences one has in Las Vegas tend towards the simulated. The typical bachelor party is more highly (socially) scripted than a 70s episode of The Love Boat. These experiences also lack persistence. A weekend in Las Vegas is like a weekend watching a Two and a Half Men marathon. Both may be good for a few laughs, but the experience is immediately forgotten. (You’re not even supposed to talk about it afterwards.) Perhaps more importantly, both of these experiences require a massive suspension of disbelief. People who can’t get past the fakery of it all end up not having a good time.

Games like Minecraft are rewriting the rules of entertainment. Today’s kids crave real experiences, even if those experiences take place in utterly artificial worlds. Much of the infrastructure of the legacy TV industry is still delivering the opposite, and the kids are voting with their feet (and eyeballs).

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel Espelien is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.

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