The potential of ‘Let’s Play’ videos as sites of new literacies

A hybrid of game play and video production, “Let’s Play” videos (LPs) are made by gamers using video and screenshots to document their play.  Posted on sites like YouTube, Steam, or Twitch, these videos are accompanied by commentary and reactions that review the game with humour or critical observations. With over half of the top 100 YouTube channels featuring LPs, these creations are highly popular with diverse audiences, especially young people.

Games have gained a significant place in popular culture around the world. Beyond the games themselves, gamers also engage with ‘paratexts’ such as merchandise and user-generated artwork, reviews, FAQs, as well as LPs. As the creative, critical, and collaborative potential of video games is recognized, their ability to promote thinking and learning is being explored in various contexts. This prompted Dr. Catherine Burwell and PhD student Thomas Miller, from the Department of English, to investigate the pedagogical potential of LPs, particularly as sites of new literacies.

Meaning-Making in LPs

The researchers collected and reviewed LPs, analyzing their commentary, performance (e.g. tone), visual strategies (e.g. style, editing), and purpose (e.g. instructional, satirical). They also looked into viewer responses, as well as publications with LP stakeholders that appeared in the media. This enabled them to gain a sense of user, producer, and audience perspectives.

Their analysis highlighted how LPs change the meaning of the games. These videos allowed their creators to focus on interpreting the ‘text’ of the game, and interacting with their audience, rather than just playing the game itself.

These games also highlight how meaning is made. Through their commentary, the gamers reveal how they play, but also what they think, know, and feel during their experience. This meaning-making includes decoding words, actions, and symbols, responding to different cues, and extending this outward into the community to build meaning together.

In the Classroom

The team considered how LPs might be taken up in the classroom to promote multiple literacies. Importantly, these videos should not just be seen as artefacts, but sites and practices that enable the sharing of interests, play, dialogue, and learning.

LPs allow viewers to reflect on meaning in games and gaming, as well as to discuss and review media and its interpretations more broadly. They can also be used to prompt investigation into ideas of intellectual property, media industry, and ownership – as LPs have been on the forefront of legal discussions of copyright.

These videos can also serve as models for engaging students in different types of media production. Remixing, making new content and meaning from combining and repurposing sources, is a fundamental element of LPs. Their creation requires technical skills, but also a critical awareness of text, culture, and literacy conventions (audience, narration, purpose, genre, etc.). This can add to discussions of effective communication in different mediums, and how belonging and meaning-making are experienced through creating, critiquing, and remixing.

LPs and their host sites continue to be frequented by gamers looking for information, entertainment, and community. In the classroom, these may bridge traditional literacies and game literacy in a medium that is engaging and relevant to many students. This creative and critical practice is increasingly important in the media-rich environments that students engage in, both in and out of school.


See more from Dr. Catherine Burwell on her profile


Connected Citations

Burwell, C., & Miller, T. (2016). Let’s Play: Exploring literacy practices in an emerging videogame paratext. E-Learning and Digital Media, 13(3-4), 109-125.