Why Your Kid Loves Watching People Play Video Games on YouTube

Kids can't get enough of Let's Play videos. Is this something to be concerned about?

Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
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Randy Kulman, Ph.D.
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Many parents are making a perplexing observation: Their children seem to prefer watching videos about their favorite video games rather than actually play those games.

Kids are spending an increasing amount of time watching “Let’s Play” videos, narrated videos of other people’s gameplay that are peppered with humor and personal observation.

Let’s Play videos have been among the most popular videos watched on YouTube in 2015, and many adults are understandably confused as to why kids would want to watch somebody else play a video game rather than play it themselves. When it comes right down to it, though, the phenomenon is no different than watching someone play golf, tennis, poker or any other professional sport on TV. It is for this very reason, however, that parents have a legitimate concern about how much time their kids spend watching these videos.

Why do kids love these videos?

Kids enjoy watching Let’s Play videos for a good number of reasons:

  • 1. Skills boost
    Many kids just want to get better at a game and learn new strategies from an “expert.” They might use a video as a walkthrough that helps them get past a difficult section of the game. Kids expend a great deal of cognitive energy thinking about their gameplay and want to learn how to do things themselves — just as they might watch videos of people dancing, skateboarding or doing bike tricks so they can learn how to do those same moves and stunts. Developing an expertise and improving a set of skills is common and constitutes a desire for personal growth.
  • 2. Social connection
    There is also a social component to Let’s Play videos. Kids share these videos with their peers and often watch and discuss them when they are together. Some kids watch these videos because they can’t afford to buy the game or because it is rated M and their parents won’t let them play it; they can watch others doing so on YouTube and therefore stay in the loop with their peers.
  • 3. Entertainment
    The most common reason kids watch Let’s Play videos is because they are entertaining. The entertainment value is not simply in the game itself but in the person who has made the video. Kids may be attracted to the charisma of a particular YouTuber and feel as if that person has become their friend. They get to know his or her personality and look forward to the interesting things that YouTuber is doing in their videos and may subscribe to their channel. The most popular YouTubers are funny and responsive to their audience. Many kids feel particularly connected if they make a comment and get a response from a YouTuber they follow. Popular Minecraft YouTuber Stampy has a “Love Garden” where he features kids’ submissions:

What to watch out for

While watching Let’s Play videos can help a child determine if she might be interested in a particular game or reflect a desire to improve her skills, it is often a very passive activity. It is far more similar to watching TV than engaging one’s brain in the cognitively challenging process involved in playing most popular video games. As a result, limits on watching Let’s Play videos may be more like limits on television screen time than those for video game play.

In addition, parents should be aware of the content of the videos their kids are watching. YouTubers who produce these videos may use salty language or touch on topics that are inappropriate for a younger child. PewDiePie has the most popular channel on YouTube and is known to use iffy language:

Parents can use the new YouTube Kids app and a variety of others along with recommendations from websites to help younger kids find Let’s Play videos that are appropriate for their age.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of LearningWorks for Kids

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