If you went back in time to its inception and tried to predict some of the trends that would become popular on YouTube, you’d be surprised by what you missed. For a site built around a myriad of videos, from historical documentaries to ice bucket challenges, YouTube has seen its most meteoric content come not from the ranks of celebrities and traditional entertainers, but from surprising new genres and hosts. The combination of video game ‘Let’s Play’ videos and the underground ASMR movement is one of the oddest.
Let’s Plays are insanely popular, with thousands of people recording themselves playing video games. Watching other people play games online has become almost just as popular as actually playing games. Popular Let’s Play gamers dominate YouTube views these days, like PewDiePie, who makes more money off YouTube than any other person on Earth. His videos are usually loud, funny, and bombastic.
There is no singing, jump scares or silly faces. Just a quiet voice and the game.
ASMR is another strange phenomenon that has been present in ourselves and our societies for a long time, but it’s only really come to the fore thanks to its popularization on YouTube, exposure on podcasts, and on sites around the Web. ASMR videos attempt to trigger an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response in the viewer. It often manifests as a tingling sensation, commonly in the scalp or neck, happening to some people when they hear certain sounds, though some describe it as merely relaxing or an aid for sleep.
What happens when you take something like ASMR, which is aimed at relaxation and combine it with Let’s Play content that is more typically aimed at excitement and humor? Something like this:
ASMR Let’s Plays combine the standard game streaming elements of watching someone play — though often sans the webcam feed in the corner — with commentary. But instead of being loud, obnoxious, or silly, they’re very quiet, sometimes to the point of whispering. In general, they remain very calm and take you through the game at a pace that is much more relaxed, and in some cases more in-tune with the game world itself. There is no singing, jump scares, or silly faces — just a quiet voice and the game.
“I think gaming is such a rich and enjoyable hobby and the same qualities transcend into ASMR,” Ben Nicholls, otherwise known as the ASMR Gamer told Digital Trends. With ASMR, “people who usually watch gaming channels can now relax whilst watching more of their favorite hobby.”
There certainly is a very different feel to watching a game stream when the player is whispering to you instead of shouting or screaming. That tends to lend itself to different types of games, too. Open world, exploration-driven titles like Fallout 4 and Skyrim make for relaxing walks without much action, though it doesn’t feel too intrusive when there is some, as in-game sounds are usually kept low.
“I think we can all agree that horror is probably a genre that wouldn’t suit ASMR very well!” said Nicholls, citing perhaps the most popular of traditional Let’s Play genres.
But more relaxing, open world games? Those offer something that traditional Let’s Plays don’t: “ASMR Let’s Plays can offer the same personality and information as standard ones yet provide a more pleasurable viewing experience.”
Pleasurable is a subjective word, especially when it comes to entertainment. In the case of ASMR Let’s Plays too, entertainment is not even necessarily the goal; relaxation is more important.
That’s how Paul, otherwise known as Ephemeral Rift, sees it. He’s produced ASMR videos for the past few years, with a focus on role play and pantomime, often employing costumes, voices, and a whole host of characters he’s created within his ASMR universe. He’s dabbled in Let’s Plays as well, and sees them as an interesting branch of ASMR, that has the same core principles, but with a different presentation style.
“ASMR [is a] medium where folks from all walks of life, both creators and viewers alike, create and enjoy a plethora of audio and visual works … helping folks sleep, relieve their headaches, relax, ease their minds, etc,” said Paul.
“I do not believe that ASMR Let’s Play will become the norm any time soon.”
With Let’s Plays, he believes “the end game is still providing a relaxing experience.”
The production is certainly different. Without needing to worry about outfits, makeup, camera angles, lighting, and all of the other visual elements that make up his traditional ASMR videos, Let’s Plays are comparatively simple.
That’s not to say that they do not require skill and nuance. The big challenge, Paul explained, is in balancing audio levels.
“I think one of the technical reasons (among others) that the current broadcasters speak so loud [in Let’s Plays] is that games can have unpredictable audio that varies in volume and in order to speak over the game’s audio means speaking louder than it. With ASMR videos the creator is either whispering or speaking in a softer, more subdued manner to create a relaxing experience for the viewer. So for me, I have to contend with the game’s audio levels, which can spike depending on the circumstance.”
With that in mind, Paul wouldn’t go so far as to say that ASMR Let’s Plays are a better fit for streaming than more typical types, because the purpose for any Let’s Play is to display the game as it is, providing commentary.
But perhaps it could be a better fit. Paul also discussed the potential for a new gaming channel idea he has, to provide a more fast-paced progression in-game, with the traditional ASMR experience.
In some senses, that’s what the ASMR Gamer, Ben Nicholls, is already doing. Along with relaxing wanders through empty landscapes, he also plays multiplayer shooters and titles that are far more explosive than a typical ASMR video.
Although he agrees that there are genres that aren’t the best fit for ASMR Let’s Plays, he differs from Paul (Mr. Rift) by believing that his brand of videos can provide an experience more akin to the original tone of the games in question.
“Let’s Plays often involve multiple videos to walk you through a game and viewed mostly for the personality of the channel,” argued Nicholls. “I think ASMR Let’s Plays can offer the same personality and information as standard ones yet provide a more pleasurable viewing experience.”
That said, he is realistic and knows that as much as he and others may love ASMR Let’s Plays, they aren’t about to become the de facto experience for game streaming. Most people are still going to want the much louder, humor-orientated videos that the world’s most subscribed channels put out.
“I do not believe that ASMR Let’s Play will become the norm any time soon, and that also goes for ASMR videos as a whole,” he said. “However, I do see these videos growing in popularity and as the community grows, the greater alternatives viewers will have.”
As new as the trend is, some see these ASMR Let’s Plays as an important service. Not out of any grandiose sense of self-importance, but as an obligation to give back. Nick, the ASMRNerd, produces ASMR videos on all sorts of game related topics, from sorting Pokémon cards to the sounds of typing. But Let’s Plays are a big part of what he does too, and in some ways, he sees it as his way to say thanks to those that helped him.
“I think that’s a common sentiment among many ASMR video creators, the desire to contribute to a community that’s helped them through hard times,” he said. He too has faced difficulties in his life and turned to ASMR as a source of comfort and relaxation. “Some people even use them to help manage serious anxiety disorders, insomnia, depression, and PTSD.”
That’s not something that’s specific to Let’s Plays though, as all sorts of ASMR videos can help with those sorts of conditions or needs, but ASMR Let’s Plays do offer something unique. And to Nick, something a little better than your average ASMR experience.
Let’s Plays offer a unique way to spend your time and an opportunity to combine two hobbies and interests into something new.
“I definitely think that ASMR Let’s Plays can be more atmospheric and immersive than conventional ones,” said Nick. “A big trigger for many people is feeling like they’re in the video, and that these sounds are happening around them — a sense of tangible proximity. Having a talking head in the corner of the screen kind of ruins that.”
With a slower pace, you get to enjoy more of the game world, focusing on different aspects like the art, ambient sounds, or music. Something that you might miss if the focus was on the commenter, rather than the whole experience.
That can be particularly apparent in games described as “walking simulators,” he said. These include narrative-focused games like Dear Esther or Gone Home, which restrict your actions to just movement, usually at a relaxed pace. Instead of walking through them alone — and having to buy the games themselves — viewers of his and others’ channels can walk through them with a friend — a very soft spoken friend, at that.
As virtual reality spreads out into more mainstream entertainment in the next few years, ASMR videos may grow with it. Some YouTubers are already getting the jump on it. Only a few short months ago ASMRRequests, one of the more popular YouTube ASMR channels, released a 360 degree relaxation video called Dot Calm.
But that will take time, and considering the number of people who seem to be relatively unaffected by ASMR’s ‘triggers,’ perhaps it will never be a mainstream form of relaxation or even entertainment. For those that do enjoy it and gaming though, these sorts of Let’s Plays offer a unique way to spend your time and an opportunity to combine two hobbies and interests into something new.
Both types of videos still have their detractors, as well. There are many people who question why anyone would want to watch someone else play computer games at all — there was even a whole South Park episode about it — and ASMR video comment sections are still filled with many people asking why the person is whispering.
As Paul (Ephemeral Rift) so calmly put it:
“With patience, perseverance, and consistency, hopefully the ASMR Let’s Play genre will be its own monster to be reckoned with one day. Albeit a calm, softly-spoken monster.”