Each fiscal year, Emerson’s Office of Research and Creative Scholarships awards a number of Faculty Advancement Fund Grants, which help “sustain academic excellence in teaching, research/creative activity, and service.”
This year, nine faculty members teaching in five departments were awarded FAFGs to complete scholarly research, books, and films. Emerson College Today asked the recipients to talk a bit about their work.
First up, Assistant Professor Tylor Orme of the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies.
Project: “Semi Legal Semi Substitutes: The Impact of ‘Let’s Play’ Videos on Video Game Revenue”
What classes do you teach?
I mostly teach classes that cover the economics of creative and cultural industries (e.g. film, television, theater, etc.). These include EC 204: Cultural Economics, EC 310: Internet Economics and Digital Media, as well as topics courses on the history of economic thought and the economics of Hollywood.
Why research this topic?
Most of my research focuses on the economics of piracy in the film and television industries. The largest problem that I’ve run into with this research is that it’s nearly impossible to find data on how many people illegally download films, since people are necessarily secretive about their illegal behavior.
“Let’s Play” videos on the other hand are openly distributed and consumed, but work as a substitute to video games in the same way that piracy works as a substitute for movies. This access to data about a closely related field to my own attracted me to expand the industries that I analyzed.
It also doesn’t hurt that I’m an avid video gamer who regularly watches Twitch.
Let’s back up. What are “Let’s Play” videos?
“Let’s Play” is a type of video (usually posted on YouTube or Twitch) where people record themselves playing video games, often while providing some type of voiceover commentary. They can include instructions for how to complete difficult parts of the games, or simply be designed to be entertainment. In recent years, they’ve become big business, and make up the majority of videos on sites like Twitch that specialize in videogames.
The interesting question that hasn’t been asked yet is not about who posts the videos, but about who watches them. Basically, I’d like to know, are the people watching “Let’s Play” videos doing so to supplement playing the game themselves, or are they watching these videos instead of playing the game? This is an especially important question for narrative games, where watching a “Let’s Play” video could spoil the ending and make someone less likely to buy the game, in the same way that watching a pirated video makes someone less likely to buy a movie ticket. This research attempts to determine whether these videos take away from game sales or not.
What makes them “semi legal”?
There is an open question [of] whether posting gameplay from a copyrighted game constitutes a violation of copyright law. For example, if I record myself playing Call of Duty, is this video my property because it is my gameplay, or is it using the game developer’s copyrighted material without their permission?
Some game studios have embraced “Let’s Play” as not being copyright infringement, and have encouraged the videos. Others (most notably Nintendo) have attempted to get YouTube and Twitch to remove any video that includes unauthorized clips from their games.
Have they faced many legal challenges, and if so, what are the courts saying?
I’m not aware of any case law at present where a clear precedent has been set on this. There have been related cases attempting to clarify how fair use relates to game footage, but not specific to “Let’s Play”. At the moment both YouTube and Twitch are willing to remove videos that developers perceive as copyright infringing, so these cases haven’t made it to the courts.
Are there any analogues of “Let’s Play” videos to other entertainment industries?
Depending on your view of whether the videos are copyright infringing there may be many analogues. If you think of “Let’s Play” videos as illegal copies of gameplay that people watch instead of playing the game themselves, then these videos are very similar to something like a pirated movie or a downloaded music album.
On the other hand, video games are much more personalized and experiential than most movies or music. There’s very little value in watching someone else watch a movie, because it’s the same movie for them that it is for me. On the other hand, watching someone play a game differently than I would could produce value separate from the gameplay. Because of this, it’s difficult to find a direct analogue in other industries.
What person or persons, living or dead, would you most want to review this research?
Usually my answer to questions like this this is people who are long-passed, but I’m pretty sure none of them would know what the Internet is. That being said, I think that I would love to hear what game studios think of this research. If I could be a part of shaping the response to this emerging technology, that would be wonderful.
What field of study outside your own areas of expertise do you wish you knew more about?
Growing up I always thought that I would be a cinematographer/director and work on film sets. My penchant for math and economics quickly changed my path, but I wish I had more of a hands-on knowledge of the film industry.