games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: YouTubers

November 2, 2020 | Posted by Jed Shaffer

Cool’s eternal, but it’s always dated.
– Fugazi, “Facet Squared”

Like everything else in life, not understanding what your kids enjoy is something for which you can find referenced in The Simpsons. In this case, the scene comes from the classic episode “Homerpalooza”. Early on in the episode, Homer tries to relate to Bart and Lisa by extolling the virtues of musical legends like Grand Funk Railroad and The Alan Parsons Project. Horrified by Homer’s terminally antiquated musical preferences, Bart and Lisa inform him with no delicacy whatsoever that his music sucks and he is decidedly UNCOOL. Homer refuses to believe this; in his mind, he’s still young and cool, a real swell dude. His reality dam starts to crack when he remembers a time when he actually was young and, well, as cool as Homer could be, and his dad barges into the room with an ominous warning:

We all love that scene. It’s classic Grandpa Simpson. Like the best jokes, there’s an element of truth to it, exaggerated enough to be funny. Here, though, they didn’t really have to exaggerate; they just made it seem silly with word choice and who delivered it. That’s because what Grandpa says is 100% true; once you become a parent, you will, one day, stop being with “it”, or even know what “it” is. It’s an immutable law of nature. You can tell yourself you’ll always have your finger on the pulse of cool. It’s a lie. You’ll discover that, in truth, you have your fingers in your ears and your head shoved up your ass. It doesn’t happen the moment the baby’s born. It’s not as though you’ll be jamming to Jay-Z one day, and the moment you install a car seat, you’re wondering why social media is fascinated with a horse named Megan Thee Stallion, and why its owner can’t spell definitive articles. It’s a gradual process of erosion. You won’t notice it until you hear or see something so befuddling and stupid, you’re left scratching your balding head, looking down at your ill-fitting, threadbare t-shirt from Soundgarden’s ’95 tour that barely covers your expanding waistline, trying to figure out when you got … old. No, worse. When you became your parents. In that moment, you will realize you are, now and forever, divorced from cool.

I remember the process with my parents. First came music; 80’s metal was noise, and 90’s alternative was too angsty for them. Then came Wayne’s World. Even though they’d liked Saturday Night Live since Chevy Chase was falling into a Christmas tree, Wayne’s World was a bit too counter-culture and youth-oriented. They couldn’t see the humor in Garth stabbing the doughnut man, or the sponsorship scene. MTV’s slate of animation was way too much to handle. But all of that was stuff specifically designed for youth culture of the era, so it’s excusable. I doubt their parents understood SNL or Easy Rider or Led Zeppelin. If they truly got the humor of Beavis & Butt-head and jammed out to The Butthole Surfers, I’d have considered calling Child Protective Services.

The final straw came on March 12, 1996, with the premiere of The Dana Carvey Show. This was a series designed by Boomers, mind you, yet had a Gen-X mentality. If you haven’t seen it, you really should go hunt it down right now. It is side-splittingly hilarious, and it was a tragedy it only lasted seven episodes (eight were taped, but the last never made it to air). At the time, Boomers were still the dominant market force, and they did not get it AT ALL, which led to the show’s demise. It was like an American version of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with little to no transition between sketches, and the humor derived out of circumstance or premise, rather than punchlines, like “Skinheads from Maine” or “Germans Who Say Nice Things”.

If you can sit there when Steve Carell bellows “You are not getting older, you are GETTING BETTER!” and not laugh, I don’t know what to say. I friggin’ died watching that the first time, and I still giggle 24 years later. The show was sharp, irreverent and bizarre, and it delighted in pushing the boundaries of humor in a way that Boomers weren’t ready for. I couldn’t understand why my parents didn’t like it; they loved SNL, which had plenty of off-kilter humor to it. They liked Andy Kaufman. This was a step too far for them. The flexibility of youth had succumbed to the rigor mortis of time. This show was the Rubicon I could cross and they couldn’t. I remember thinking what I’m sure my parents did when their parents came into their room, telling them to turn down those Buffy Sainte-Marie LP’s or stop watching The Flying Nun:

“That’ll never happen to me. I’ll always keep an ear to the ground to know what’s cool!”

I suppose using slang from the 1930’s like “ear to the ground” might suggest I never had a bead on what was cool to begin with. My current awareness of youth culture is about on par with a penguin’s awareness of trade deficits between Pacific rim nations. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had some variation of this exchange with one of my older boys:

Them: “How can you not listen to XXXTentacion? He’s everywhere!”
Me: “He’s not anywhere I listen to music.”
Them: “How? He’s all over TikTok!”
Me: “I have an iPod, and Extension isn’t on there. What does the fat, gold robot from Return To Oz have to do with this?”
Them: [horrified stare, presumably praying they’re adopted]

Really, though, do you pronounce all the X’s? Are some of them silent? Do you say “Triple X”, like you’re talking about porn? And what the hell does that name even mean? Remember when Ol’ Dirty Bastard kept changing his name to stuff like Big Baby Jesus and Dirt McGirt, and we thought that was stupid?

Not like the prodigies we had in our time.

To be fair, there’s a little overlap in our cultural Venn diagrams; we all love the MCU. And video games, natch. We all like The Mandalorian. And … umm … I don’t know, dinner? Yeah, that’s about the extent of it. Would it be nice if they gave bands like Faith No More and Garbage a chance instead of groaning when they come up on the car stereo? Sure. Does it make any sense to me how they ignore single player experiences like God Of War and Spider-Man in favor of the latest version of Tom Clancy’s Call Of Battlefront? Not one bit. But I was once in their seat. I considered living under a bridge when I was forced to listen to The Eagles or watch John Wayne’s 13th cowboy movie. I get it. I’m not supposed to get all the things they like, and vice versa. That’s not how life works, and I’ve accepted it.

But there’s one facet of youth gamer culture that I don’t get that does bug me, and not because I want to like it, but because I am perplexed that anybody does at all. Its existence confuses me, and that some of these people have audiences who pay them makes me consider the priesthood to escape the insanity of it all. I speak of gaming YouTubers and Twitch streamers.

Now, before I see the comment section explode like I just endorsed a political candidate, give me the chance to elaborate. There’s a kind of YouTuber/streamer I’m speaking of here. I follow quite a few YouTube channels related to gaming, but they’re all what I’d call episodic content; an editorial, or a review, or a look at something in video game history. Channels that either impart knowledge, or entertains through wit and observation.

That is most definitely not what the kids these days are watching. The younger kids – the age that still get excited about Chuck E. Cheese – watch videos of other people playing video games like Minecraft and Roblox. People like PrestonPlayz and ThinkNoodles set up a scenario of some kind – whether it’s playing a specific game mode, or a far-fetched scenario of their own design – and then play through it and see what happens. Fine so far, right? Inevitably, the gamer runs afoul of something, or comes across something that they didn’t expect (or, they play off as they didn’t expect), and they react … let’s say … strongly.

I wouldn’t make this face if I discovered a dead body in my wife’s car.

Coupled with this exaggerated and frankly idiotic expression is a noise that sounds like a tornado alarm and fingernails on a chalkboard blended together. And there are hundreds of YouTubers like this, trying to make derp-face a valid form of entertainment. Some specialize in one game; some cater to certain age groups, or a specific gender or sexual identity, or fanbase. Whatever their niche, they all sound like a fork in a garbage disposal and emote like an alien imitating human expressions. Why do they do this, you ask? For the life of me, I don’t know, and you bet your ass it keeps me up at night. I don’t know if they think that low of their audience and this is a way to keep their attention like shaking keys at a baby, or if they genuinely believe screaming like an angry baboon=funny, or if this is just the cost of doing business with YouTube’s mysterious algorithms. All I can tell you is, if you have younger kids, trust me, they’re watching this shit. They’re watching it, and you will encounter it. I cannot tell you how many Saturday mornings I’ve come down the stairs, ready to queue up whatever game I’m working on, and only to hear “WHOA IT’S A PIG HOW DID THAT GET HERE?!?” and feel all hope and light bleed out of my soul. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered if throwing a shoe through my TV was worth the sacrifice to not hear these chodes ever again. They’re bad enough for just a few minutes; imagine watching these people screaming and mugging for the camera for an hour straight like they’re seeing Godzilla stomping through their neighborhood wearing a clown suit. I know torture has been disproven as an effective method of extracting information, but I’m convinced watching these videos might be effective in a way waterboarding isn’t.

I know what some of you are gonna say; “this isn’t for you, Jed! It’s meant for young kids!”, and here’s my counter to that, imaginary debate partner: so is Sesame Street, and it doesn’t treat its audience like they’ve been huffing paint since birth. “For kids” is not an excuse to be insulting to the audience’s intelligence. Pixar puts out at least a movie a year, and, with the noted exceptions of Cars 2 and The Good Dinosaur, does not assume their audience is comprised of the “special class” kids in the “You Only Move Twice” episode of The Simpsons (SEE?!? YOU CAN RELATE ANYTHING BACK TO THEM!!!). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect YouTubers to be teaching my kids Euclidean geometry. But I also I don’t expect these channels to be devoid of ANYTHING that might even accidentally trip over the concept of intellectually stimulating. I even asked my oldest boys, who watched YouTubers of that ilk when they were younger, if they still watch these people. The incredulous laughter could be heard for miles. When I asked if they could, in retrospect, explain what they saw in those videos, neither could offer up anything. It’s become that thing in their own cultural past that they look back upon and regard with shame.

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

But I will give these YouTubers credit in one regard: they are, by and large, wholesome. You will never have to worry that these YouTubers are going to say something so profane, it’d be censored on the dark web. That’s what you, parent, need to keep in mind as you try not to facepalm so hard you forget your mother’s name. Watching Sketch and GamerGirl and Leah Ashe may be like soul-kissing the tailpipe of a cross-country Greyhound bus to us, but to them, it’s harmless fun. It’s the histrionic style of a Saturday morning cartoon, mixed with video games they enjoy. It’s empty calories, intellectually speaking, but so is a lot of what they watch. My youngest will spend four hours a day watching reruns of Nickelodeon tween sitcoms like a conspiracy theorist studying the Zapruder Film. If watching one of these screaming ninnies on his Switch, in his room, can spare me seeing Nevel Papperman try to rid the internet of those darned iCarlys one more time … well, there’s worse things in this world. Scroll back up to that last pic, for instance. At least when my youngest queues up one of these human ambulance sirens, I know I won’t get a question later asking what “rimjob” means.

Teenagers, on the other hand, aren’t typically interested in keeping things G-rated. So that brings us to the barren hellscape that is YouTube for teenagers. Don’t worry, your skin wanting to not just crawl but jump off and run a marathon to get away is a normal reaction. My twins have shown me what they find “funny” on TikTok, and I am left wondering two things: 1) where I went wrong as a parent, and 2) if they’re aware of the definition of “funny”. Unlike my eight year old, they don’t take over the Roku and subject everybody else to their tastes. They sequester themselves in their room and watch on their phones or their PS4’s, giving the whole endeavor a shadow of shame and secrecy.

I’m sure the 15 minutes YOU spend in the bathroom are working on a physics thesis, right?

I honestly wasn’t sure what they watched anymore. My imagination ran wild, and so did my nausea. My mind immediately went to the stereotypical foul-mouthed 12 year olds describing in lurid detail all the household items they’d violate someone’s mother with. So, to get to the bottom of it and so I could not spend my days concerned my teenagers would become the kinds of psychos you see on Criminal Minds, I sat them down and asked them, and let me tell you, I was shocked.

Shocked by how absolutely benign their viewing habits really are. They watch nothing but gameplay videos. Sometimes, it’s to learn strategies and tricks. Sometimes, they use it to preview a game and see if their interest is warranted. Sometimes – and this is the one that really baffles me – they’ll watch all the cut scenes from a single-player campaign, so they can see the story without having to actually play it. And that’s it. I was sure I’d hear something too profane for this earth, but nope. It’s a utility for them, not an entertainment outlet. They both enjoy the Angry Video Game Nerd, because I introduced them to it (my Parent Of The Year award is forthcoming), and the more science-minded of my twins is intrigued by Game Theory’s more math/science-heavy episodes, but neither go out of their way to watch those channels. And they’ve watched some GDQ speed-runs with me, because those fascinate me, but again, the key words are “with me”. Never on their own. Only if I’m watching them and they happen to be in the room will they watch. I don’t know whether to take that sentimentally – that they’d rather share the experience with me – or that it’s just not that high up in their hierarchy. Actually, I do know which it is; I just need to feign ignorance so I can pretend my teenagers want to be in the same room with me for even a few minutes.

Can’t you just ground us instead?

Now, I know that my limited sample size of my three kids and their viewing habits does not represent the pantheon of viewing options YouTube and Twitch offer. I’m sure there’s plenty of streamers who veer closer to, shall we say, the saltier side of content. If you’re a parent, and you’re worried, there’s some solace to be gained in that YouTube and Twitch do have some level of content restrictions. While language doesn’t have any governors on it, nudity and graphic sexual content on YouTube, unless it’s presented in very narrow circumstances (art, educational, medical), is off the books. Twitch’s policy (which has come under fire for it’s admittedly ambiguous wording that seems punitive to any woman with breasts larger than a lime wearing anything other than a turtleneck sweater) is even more strict. This is by no means to say the guidelines are perfect, but it is a step in the right direction for those worried about sexual content. As for violence … well, they’re watching videos about video games. Hate to break it to you, but these streamers aren’t drawing an audience with Mario Is Missing. They pull in viewers with the games your kids are going to play anyway. If you’re fine with them playing Fortnite, watching it shouldn’t be a crisis. And if you’re still worried about what they’re watching? I know it’s a bold step, but you could watch it yourself. Due your due diligence. See if the boogeyman you assume is there actually exists. It’s nothing I would do, because I’ve walked in on enough to know the youngest’s videos should be shown in McKamey Manor. But that’s an issue of personal taste. I’m not actually worried about what they watch. Mystified, annoyed and horrified, sure, but not worried.

And if they’re in that “not a little kid, not a teenager” phase – you know, 10-12, the tail-end of worshiping you as a parent and just before loathing your existence – you could try introducing them to other YouTube gamer content. Nothing wrong with a little cultural steerage. I mentioned Game Theory before, which I really enjoy, and can be quite educational; we all know Ezio wouldn’t survive the Assassin’s Leap into the hay bale, but it’s neat to see the science to back it up. As a history lover, Gaming Historian and Wrestling With Gaming both scratch that itch, looking back at all sorts of moments in gaming’s history, from the tangled story behind Tetris to the tale of the aborted VR helmet for the Sega Genesis. Scott The Woz and RabbidLuigi offer up more editorial views on different topics in gaming, with plenty of humor sprinkled in. Rerez looks at bad consoles and games, similarly to AVGN, but without talk of animal excrement, and with a bit more analysis. You may find you like these channels, or other channels, yourself. It’s okay. There’s nothing in the parenting handbook that says you can’t watch YouTube gaming channels. And there’s nothing that says you have to enjoy, or even understand, the channels your kids watch. It could be a lot worse, I promise.

Just don’t get any delusions that watching YouTube somehow makes you hip. You’re still a parent. You couldn’t be cool now if you lived in a walk-in freezer.

Better get started on that angry letter to Better Homes & Gardens. It’s 4:45 in the afternoon, bedtime’s in 15 minutes!

And in closing …

The GoFundMe for Larry Csonka’s family is still going on. The holiday season approacheth. Let’s make the best we can!

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See you in 2.