Video Essays, Video Games

What’s the best way to talk about video games? There’s something pleasant about the video format – it allows you to offer quotations, direct gameplay clips, which demonstrate the flow of the game and maybe make your point in a more emphatic way. They allow you to comment on the complete experience, on the total combination of dialogue, plot, art direction, environmental design, sound design, player interface – you can talk intelligently about all of those things at once, because you can show an audience how they interact. At the same time, there are things I prefer about the written medium. For one, the audience has much more control over the pacing. Did you read the full list of video game elements that I listed above? Dialogue, plot, etc? Or did you read the first couple and skip ahead, confident that you had a sense of what I was talking about? Either way, you read it at the speed you thought it deserved. That’s something that’s harder to do with video essays. You can click around in the video if you want, try and skip bits that are boring, but you’ll usually end up coming in halfway through another sentence, or you’ll miss a connecting point and have to go back to clarify the context of what’s going on – meaning more clicking around. Ugh.

Let me try and outline the difference between the two forms, at least as I see it. These terms are inappropriate for a bunch of technical reasons, but as a gesture towards what we’re talking about, we might say that for the audience, watching a video is a passive, temporal experience, while reading an essay is an active, spatial experience. These – again, they’re inappropriate terms, but they can maybe initially set us on the right track. With a written essay, it’s organised spatially on a page. Even with the digital page of this article, it’s spatial – the previous paragraph is up there, and the next paragraph is down below. That’s a spatial organisation. Text runs from left to right, from top to bottom. Ideas are organised into paragraphs, which are divided by a separating line (and sometimes a picture if you’re lucky). By contrast, videos are organised temporally. There’s one single space, the video screen, where images and sound come and go in a strict temporal arrangement. In Joseph Anderson’s four hour video on The Witcher, the first twenty minutes are introduction, and then minutes twenty through sixty-five are the first phase or chapter of the argument, titled ‘Fear The Chipmunk’. These different forms lead to the active or passive nature of your engagement. When you’re watching a video, to some extent you have to just sit there and listen to the person speaking. You have to wait for them to finish what they’re saying. With reading – for me at least, I always feel like I can attack a written text. You skim, you skip, you re-read – and the spatial organisation makes it so easy to navigate your way through the text with a fluidity and speed that just doesn’t exist with a video.

And again, I have to keep emphasizing that these terms are genuinely insufficient. It’s more complex than ‘time vs space’. For example, in a YouTube video, time is represented spatially by the little gray track slider that shows you where you’re up to (as pictured above). And with a written essay online, the spatial organisation is made visible by a series of changing images on the single screen of your computer or phone, which sounds more like our description of film or video. It’s not as clean as the concrete physical space provided by a sheaf of pages. Similarly, the terms ‘active’ and ‘passive’ are just totally inappropriate. It is possible to be a very active consumer of video essays – obviously you can skip around if you want, watch it at 1.5x speed – people do navigate through video essays, just as they do with written texts. My argument at least in that aspect is more about a difference of degree than of kind – that is, it’s not that you can’t manipulate a video essay at all, it’s that navigating a written text is easier.

However, I think by using these terms, even temporarily, we can articulate some of our common experiences with videos and written essays. When you’re dealing with an argument, you usually expect one kinda key point or idea for each paragraph – and you can usually find that key idea summed up in one key sentence. So if you’re trying to decide whether an essay is worth reading properly, you can skim through and look for the key line in a couple of different paragraphs, and see if you like the gist of what they’re talking about. Here, for instance, the key line in the first paragraph – maybe the key line and a half – is about how you read at the speed you think something deserves, and how that’s harder to do with videos. If you go and look, it’s pretty easy to find that key line. You’ve got the whole paragraph right in front of you, and you can ferret it out pretty quick. Again, that’s not the case with videos, which you move through in a moment-to-moment fashion, and where a word or phrase vanishes as soon as it’s spoken. It’s harder to skim for the key idea, because you have to wait to hear what the speaker has to say rather than being able to read over the full text and find the idea at your own pace. I think that ultimately creates a barrier to entry. It makes it harder to judge quickly whether a video essay is worth your time.

And I’ll acknowledge here that some of this is fuelled by my own individual preferences. I prefer the written form for analysis and criticism. There are ways to avoid or mitigate the issues I’m talking about – like watching shorter video essays, instead of the four hour ones – but I’m honestly just not interested. My terms of active and passive could easily be mapped on to my own media habits. I watch YouTube when I’m chilling out and I read essays when I’m working. As a result, I get frustrated watching YouTube criticism. It’s too slow to be like reading an essay, but too much like work to be relaxing. Where I do watch video essays, they tend to be about games or films that I haven’t played, things I’m not working on or thinking about – or they’ll be by creators who I’m already heavily invested in. That’s the other thing about the video essay, isn’t it – as a viewer, you form a relationship with the person in front of the camera. You enjoy seeing them and hearing their patter, the rhythm of their speech. Video offers a sense of human connection that just doesn’t exist in the written form. It’s good for building a brand, good for getting people in the door and listening to what you have to say. In other words, even though I have my own preferences, I’m not arguing that one mode is objectively better than the other. Rather, by acknowledging and understanding our reaction to media, I think we can come to a better understanding of how these different forms behave. That’s valuable in itself.

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