Which children’s programme, made on no budget in a single room, attracts over 2 million viewers per daily episode? The YouTube videos of ‘Stampylongnose’ (or ‘Stampylonghead’ or just plain ‘Stampy’), devoted to the hugely popular computer game ‘Minecraft’, have gone from targeting a niche gaming fan base to capturing a large audience of children. With nearly 4 million subscribers Stampy’s is one of the top ten most-viewed YouTube channels in the world. The channel is the creation of 23 year old Joseph Garrett from Portsmouth, who, amongst other gaming content, posts a video per day of himself playing Minecraft, through his Avatar, Mr Stampy Cat or ‘Stampy’. However, the format of his show is much more sophisticated than what we might expect of simply watching someone play a computer game. A short Telegraph article on Stampy by Theo Merz reported in July that his advertising revenues from the site might be earning him as much as £200,000 a month and that he is ‘currently testing the waters in Hollywood and has plans to launch a second, educational YouTube channel’. Much of Stampy’s fame comes on the back of the huge popularity of Minecraft, a videogame in which you ‘mine’ ores to ‘craft’ different building materials and tools, and in which, like Lego, using simple blocks users can create their own world and come together with others to build things. Created by Swedish programmer Markus Persson for indie game developer Mojang, the game has been a huge international phenomenon, and its sale to Microsoft was recently agreed at a reported cost of $2.5bn.
Watching Stampy’s first postings of himself playing Minecraft as a novice over two years ago, it’s clear that he originally believed he was addressing a relatively small adolescent/adult gaming audience; He adopts a casual, conversational tone as he muddles through the game, swearing frequently. Seeing these old videos, in which he often mumbles and repeats himself, and clearly has not pre-planned any particular content, throws into relief both how polished and confident a presenter Stampy now is, and how well-crafted his current videos are as children’s programmes, in their mode of address, structure and content.
Stampy’s reinvention of himself as children’s presenter and producer has led to plenty of vicious comments being posted by old fans, expressing their contempt for the new, child-friendly guy, who has not just dropped the swearing, but forged an entirely different persona and video format (‘I hate how 5 year olds ruined Stampy he would curse and now he HELLO WELCOME TO MY WORLD’ (sic) (Sir Doge); ‘Sadly he converted for little children. It’s bullshit’ (Morgan Tulk)). Stampy could also be perceived as having ‘sold out’ gamers as his videos’ presentational and narrative format is appealing entertainment even to those that don’t really play the game much. Although I can’t substantiate how many of his viewers don’t actually play Minecraft, anecdotally, Merz’s nephew and niece say they ‘prefer Stampy’s videos to playing Minecraft themselves’, and my son and his friends certainly seem to spend as much time watching these videos as playing the game.
While there are vast quantities of videos on YouTube about childrens’ games, (videogames and otherwise) what interests me about Stampy is how clearly he has cultivated his videos’ appeal to children and how far he employs strategies commonly used in ‘traditional’ broadcast television programmes. While his videos have many recognisably televisual features, there are, of course, fundamental differences from television. The viewer always shares the perspective of the gamer (the videos are created using Hauppauge HD PVR/Elgato HD Game Capture), creating a distinctive sense of immersion in the game and vicarious involvement in the activities conducted there, which are circumscribed by the rules and possibilities of the game. Stampy’s posts are still essentially gaming videos but the gaming content is shaped by and presented within an increasingly child-friendly and televisual programme format.
Stampy’s ‘Let’s Play’ strand, one of several concurrent series he has running on YouTube devoted to different computer games and audiences, ‘showcase(s) what I have been getting up to in Minecraft and everything I have built’. In each episode he either builds or plays a new mini-game within his world, introducing variety within an established format. I’m going to refer to his last video at the time I began writing this, ‘Orca’ (237) (which has currently received 2,279,997 views, a figure which will certainly have risen further by the time you read this), but his subsequent ‘Let’s Play’ videos, ‘Player Launcher (238)’ and ‘Whale of a Time (239)’ share the same features identified here.
The following items are included at the beginning of each episode:
1) Stampy introduces his videos with the same opening sequence: He begins from the same position inside the front room of his large house, moving out onto his balcony to survey his world, then returning inside, while giving an exuberant introductory speech: ‘Hello! This is Stampy and welcome to a Minecraft Let’s Play video. Another video inside of Stampy’s Lovely World’. Tinkling music added to the soundtrack under his voice, like a theme tune, and the visual dynamism of the sequence, opening on him in motion, increase the sense that this is a sophisticated production rather than an amateur gaming vlog.
2) He introduces the other regular characters that will be joining him in the video (in this episode, Fred the Enderman, Esther the Chicken, Squaishy the Duck and Lee the Bear) and gets them to perform a simple funny action. In ‘Orca’ they are told to spin around as fast as they can, then eat a cake, (familiar activities in Stampy introductions).
3) There is a quick fun, physical challenge near to Stampy’s balcony early in each episode. In Orca, it’s the ‘Hop and Splash’ game in which each player must jump onto a series of pillars, then into some water. Stampy tells us that as it’s been running for a while it will soon be replaced by a new game.
4) He moves smoothly on to his ‘Love Garden’ in which viewers who have made Minecraft pictures, cakes etc, have photos of their achievements shown, and their names added to a sign in his yard. This episode features Lily who made a Stampy costume with her mum and wore it to a convention.
5) Stampy chooses a dog from his own large collection in his Dog Room, to accompany him during an episode: This time it is ‘Benjy’.
6) He then heads into a different part of his world where he builds, improves and/or plays a new larger scale or more complex game for the remainder of the episode. ‘Orca (237)’ takes place in his ‘Funland’, a vast area resembling a theme park or fair containing many games and rides built by him.
The features up to the point when Stampy goes to his Funland take less than five minutes in total to complete, the fast pace of the various segments leaving no time for the viewer to get bored, while their recurrence over numerous episodes establishes a familiar format. The physicality and humour incorporated into video, the characters’ initial spinning around and the jumping involved in the Hop and Splash game, appeal to children and echo the kinds of rituals and physical challenges often found on kids shows (eg: CBBC’s Splatalot and The Dare Devil) and the choice of accompanying dog is another fun element. The Love Garden segment enables Stampy’s viewers to engage with and be featured on his show, just as childrens’ programmes and channels, such as Blue Peter and CBeebies regularly feature audience creations, birthday cards and photos during special scheduled slots. Hence, although this video is set within Stampy’s Minecraft world, the opening few minutes are not really about playing Minecraft, but rather, utilise the bright, colourful constructed environment as an appealing backdrop to the characters’ formulaic fun and games and shared expressions of Minecraft and Stampy fandom.
Stampy’s presentational style is crucial to its child appeal. Merz cites a description on Mumsnet of Stampy’s voice as ‘a combination of Noel Edmonds and Jimmy Carr’ (whose laugh is identical!), but I also hear a large dose of Chris Evans in his relentlessly cheerful tone. Whereas other mums are quoted as finding him incredibly annoying, I must confess to secretly quite liking his seemingly effortless, happy-go-lucky demeanour, untainted by cynicism, like that of an experienced children’s TV presenter, a ‘safe’ person to leave your child with. Stampy incorporates lots of laughter, childish forms of speech and expressions into his mode of address, at one point when introducing Lee the bear, spontaneously breaking into a rhyme: ‘ Lee the Bear, and I’m not sure how you got there, and you’re covered in hair’, and, after falling during the Hop and Splash, screaming with frustration in a child-like outburst. His banter reminds me of the kind of chatter that childrens’ presenters often engage in (for my generation, within the BBC children’s TV ‘broom cupboard’) and he is sometimes joined by his friend and fellow gamer, Iballistic Squid, with whom he forms a double act (a la Dick and Dom).
In the opening five minutes the actual Mine-crafting gaming content is pretty minimal, and where included it is offset by other visual or aural elements that keep the video engaging for non-gamers. For example, on his way out to play Hop and Splash Stampy creates suspense when he picks up a diamond from one of his chests, and invites the viewer to try to guess what he will use it for later on. Later, after trying, unsuccessfully, to craft it into a new shovel, he reveals that he will be doing something ‘very dangerous’ later, which, he explains, will almost certainly lead to him dying (not the end of the game in Minecraft as you can ‘respawn’ immediately), so, according to the rules of the game he must therefore safeguard his possessions so as not to lose them in this eventuality. These practical gaming preparations are inserted in between established elements of his introductory sequence (the Love Garden and choosing a dog). As these procedures may be instructive and interesting to players of the game, but confusing or boring to non-players, Stampy’s voiceover often diverts us from them by using suspense about what will happen later (eg: ‘I’ll give you a clue: I’m carrying TNT’).
Interest is also sustained through the spectacle of the many different structures and spaces within his world. After Stampy’s attempts at making a diamond shovel fail, his change of plan necessitates a journey through his house to a different room where his Ender Chest is kept. (I confess that I myself don’t fully understand Minecraft’s many rules, but he tells us that this is where he can keep his belongings safe.) As he explains his change of plan, however, my attention was not so much on his voice as on the visual appearance of the interiors we were passing through: wooden and stone corridors, a glass room and a library, and the interesting angles and perspectives generated by moving through them.
Such immersive engagement with the spaces of Stampy’s World is, I think, one of the main pleasures of his Let’s Play videos. Stampy’s World is a virtual space that, like animation, bypasses the physical and geographical constraints of any ‘real’ television studio set or location, containing extensive and diverse buildings, mines, beautifully landscaped gardens with parks, and the Funland, full of colourful and fascinating abstract structures. As well as being a pleasurable environment, the landscape is an exciting showcase for the game demonstrating the infinite possibilities for shaping a world (having all been built by Stampy). Passing the different spaces and objects must also prompt regular viewers’ memories of when they were created, or when different features added to them in previous episodes: The history of the programme is hence contained within its spaces, like the Blue Peter garden writ large.
Once Stampy has entered Funland, the rest of ‘Orca 237’ is more obviously devoted to playing Minecraft, as Stampy builds his new game, a giant killer whale from which players will be able to shoot themselves through its blowhole into the sky using a ‘player launcher’ device. Stampy builds a mock launcher first and tries it out with his friends before building the whale (even though this means he must later build another launcher inside it) presumably choosing this order to demonstate the launchers’s dynamic thrills (my son was whooping as he flew through the air) before commencing the more cerebral construction activity. Subsequently he does not go into a lot of detail about his construction techniques for the whale, favouring speed of creation over thorough instruction.
While perhaps sharing the creative, DIY imperative of childrens’ art and craft programmes (from Take Hart to Mister Maker) the building project is only one ingredient of the entire experience offered by this video. Although Minecraft offers the medium within which to create them, the programme is more about the pleasures of Stampy’s familiar characters and rituals, imaginative spaces and enjoyable games and devices than the processes and rules of a computer game. Far from being an unmediated solo gaming experience, ‘Orca 237’ is a carefully planned and constructed production that uses aspects of TV formatting and presentation to attract children and keep its viewers’ engaged. I wonder how far, as a winning formula, it takes the convergence of gaming and television a step further and confirms Youtube as the next generation’s medium of choice.
Dr Leah Panos is a Post-Doctoral Researcher on the Spaces of Television project based at the University of Reading. Recent case studies for the project include work on the use of the Steadicam in Brookside, the television plays of Howard Schuman, aesthetics in the TV studio musical Rock Follies, and the role of the designer in 1970s dramas using Colour Separation Overlay.