The future of television: Zombie gamers gone wild

The Machinima network succeeds by giving the "lost boy" generation exactly what it wants: Terrible TV

Published May 10, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

    (Facebook/Zach Schrock)
(Facebook/Zach Schrock)

"Head shot, bitch, you just got owned! Yo, are you newbies going to help me capture this flag, or are you just going to stand there with each other's dicks in your hands?"

Spoken by a young man in gamer mode -- wearing microphone-equipped headphones, his hands gripping his game controller, staring frownily into his console screen -- those gracious words are the first line spoken in the first episode of "The Clan" -- a comedy series that debuted in April on Machinima Prime, one of YouTube's most high-profile "channels." The opening dialogue is representative of what follows. It's no accident the show kicks off with an aggro verbal fusillade. It's a calculated statement of purpose.

I've watched three episodes of "The Clan" and I am still unsure as to whether the series is best understood as postmodern cynical satire lampooning gamer culture, or is it really a faithful reflection of the emerging worldview of the "lost boy" gamer demographic. Or maybe "The Clan" is just lousy. Does it even matter? Ultimately, such questions are not for me to decide, since I'm not a "lost boy" and therefore I am not of interest to the Machinima "network."

Otherwise known as the prized-by-advertisers "18-34 male demographic," the "lost boys" are so-called because they are increasingly elusive in the context of the larger culture. They're more likely to own a game console than a TV and they certainly don't read print magazines or newspapers (although, when stuck in airports, they might grab a copy of the latest Game Informer). They are the generation that cut its baby teeth on video games; that abandoned Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Channel for YouTube. They're far more comfortable with an Xbox controller in their hands than a bat or football. And they love, love, love to watch videos of other gamers playing video games.

Machinima's got 'em wrapped up, nice and tight. The 13-year-old company is one of YouTube's biggest success stories, delivering gazillions of ads to these young men while they frolic in their native habitats. The company claims more than 2.2 billion videos were watched on its thousands of affiliated channels in the month of March alone. If you want those eyeballs for your own marketing purposes, you need to go to Machinima, a fact that even Hollywood has mastered. A recently released trailer for the apocalyptic loser comedy "This Is the End" opened with James Franco saying, with a wink in his voice, "Hello Machinima." This movie's for you.

Machinima bills itself as "the next generation of video entertainment for gamers." But it's more than that: It's also an interface, where the gamer underground meets the full-fledged consumer society. How it got to that point is a good story of canny exploitation of an evolving medium. Machinima corralled thousands of video-creating gamers into a larger ecology, integrating them as Machinima "affiliates" into an ad-brokering network that has enabled many of the gamers to quit their day jobs. Machinima executed on this task so effectively that none other than Google invested $35 million in the company in 2012.

That story has been told. Where Machinima goes from here might be the more interesting, and open, question. Because the "lost boys" will be easy to lose again -- their attention spans are infinitesimal; they are practically defined by their fickleness. And advertising rates on YouTube are always falling. It's getting harder, each year, to make a living from your Minecraft videos. Machinima has to keep moving and keep upgrading if it wants to keep the revenue flowing.

Machinima is betting that one way to do that, to solidify its position in the entertainment firmament, is to feature more ambitious, professionally crafted content. The Machinima Prime channel is pushing shows with actual scripts and real actors and high production values (well, higher production values). If YouTube is the future of television, then Machinima is a standard bearer leading the way.

But that's where the story starts to stagger, like a streaming video stuck buffering for lack of sufficient bandwidth. The culture at large likes to congratulate itself today for living in the golden age of television. There have never been so many quality dramas, so much gripping "arc" content, so much fine writing and acting and directing and cinematography. But what gets lost in this era of great television is the fact that there has also never before in the history of the universe been such an abundance of horribly awful television. Indeed, there are more hours of crappy video, more boorish, juvenile, mindless culturally irredeemable junk available on YouTube than anyone can practically comprehend.

And more is coming, judging by Machinima's efforts to feed the lost boy beast. A generation of young men are going to get exactly what they want, and it's going to be terrible.

* * *

A few days ago I whiled away some precious hours watching "Black Ops 2 Zombies: Nuketown Round 36 Gameplay/Tutorial!" a video made by Syndicate, one of Machinima's most popular affiliates. I was interested in Syndicate because Kevin Doohan, Machinima's executive VP of marketing, had told me that the 19-year-old U.K. native had bought a house from the earnings he'd made as a Machinima affiliate.

Syndicate is living the gamer dream! He started posting his own videos to YouTube, gained a following, and then Machinima came knocking, asking if he wanted to move up to the big leagues. In the past year Machinima has taken some flak from disillusioned gamers who have gotten their first lesson in exploitative contract relationships from Machinima, but in general, young gamers offered a chance to make money by playing games aren't going to look at, or care about, the fine print. Syndicate is one of the success stories.

I chose the Nuketown video because it was listed as Syndicate's most watched video ever. The numbers take your breath away: A two-hour live-stream of Syndicate killing computer-generated zombies has been watched more than 9 million times since it first debuted last Nov. 13.

Syndicate, aka Tom Cassel,l has an undeniably bubbly personality. He is notorious in YouTube gamer circles for his trademark exclamations "Boobilicious" and "Happy in my pants!" I've never played "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 Zombie," but my own past history as a gamer gives me a pretty good appreciation of Syndicate's mad skillz. The man knows what he is about, wielding his arsenal of deadly weapons with the grace and precision of a ninja ballerina. If you are a gamer looking for tips on how to get through the Nuketown map, you could learn much that would be useful from his tutorial.

The gamers who watch other gamers play videos aren't just looking for tips, however. They're also worshipers in a million different cults of YouTube personality, devotees in a church where they too aspire to preach. Where once young men put posters of Eddie Van Halen or Michael Jordan on their walls, now they watch YouTube videos of people just like them knifing zombies to death with superlative ease. I don't think any of us who witnessed the first generation of computer games saw this coming -- that our heirs would find watching other people playing games to be as gripping and engaging as playing the games themselves; to the point where actual livelihoods could be constructed from feeding their desires. Gamer videos are a marketable, fetishized commodity, one of the early cultural fruits to have evolved from our still new digital landscape.

But there's no getting around it: "Black Ops 2 Zombies: Nuketown Round 36 Gameplay/Tutorial!" is really bad television. There's no narrative arc, the commentary is juvenile -- "This map is tight -- that's what she said!" -- and the mayhem is an unending blur of zombie annihilation. And it goes on for two hours. And millions and millions of people have watched it. In the '60s, the best minds of our generation were destroyed by madness while looking for their angry fixes. Now they're burning themselves hollow watching somebody else's zombie slaughter.

I'm picking on Syndicate's Nuketown video because of its popularity and because he was called out by name by Machinima. But I'm going to be cautious declaring that it is representative of all gamer-created video on YouTube. There's funny stuff out there. There's even beautiful stuff out there, especially if you know how to appreciate the extraordinarily creative worlds that are being built by millions of Minecraft players. There are gamers who narrate their journeys through "World of Warcraft" with wit and insight. There are even indie gamers who counterpose themselves to the "corporate" world of Machinima. YouTube is a big, big world. There's a lot out there. I haven't found much that I personally like, but I am, again, not in the demo.

What intrigues me are the efforts to break out of amateur-land and craft content that is designed to command higher-value advertising revenue while adhering to the same lost boy code that Nuketown sticks to.

Machinima's Kevin Doohan says that "higher-quality long-form serialized content" is a key part of the network's future. When we spoke in early April, he named two shows launching that month as representative of this new push: "The Clan," and "Omega" -- a post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama.

"The Clan" is about gamers in all their loser glory. "Omega" is a first-person shooter come to life. Neither is what I would regard as "good." "The Clan" is like watching a version of "The Hangover" that had all the funny jokes cut out. "Omega" is just boring -- plodding science fiction without special effects or a budget for a quality script.

But that's just me. Doohan makes a good point when he observes that one of the keys to successful Machinima content is executing on the "feeling like an insider" aspect of gamer culture. "A lot of the humor in our videos might be for our audience only, and if you are not in it you kind of won't get it. That's part of the idea."

I can accept that. There is plenty of stuff my 15-year-old son finds hilarious that I couldn't crack a smile at if you were prying at my lips with the Jaws of Life. I will concede that it's entirely possible that a generation that spends countless hours watching "Black Ops 2 Zombie: Mob of the Dead" gamer videos will regard the production values exhibited in "Omega" or "The Clan" as a step up from what they are accustomed to. (I should also note that the newest Machinima show, the graphic novel-influenced "Tainted Love," which debuted just this past week, is considerably better than either "The Clan" or "Omega" in a cartoonish, low-rent Tarantino way.) And whether or not I like Machinima's content is irrelevant to Machinima's goal of delivering the 18-34 demographic to advertisers.

What bothers me is the self-fulfilling prophecy at work here. Pandering to the gamer insider vibe seems to mean producing glossier versions of the same dumb crap, minus the energy and passion that comes from authentic grass-roots creative talent. Machinima has discovered that gamers enjoy videos of gamers saying dumb shit to each other and acting like huge dorks, so it has devoted resources to producing a "high-quality" version of loser gamers acting like irredeemable dweebs. But "Office Space," this isn't. It's little more than slicker-than-usual bad video for an audience that is already accustomed to consuming bad video. It's actually worse than the amateur stuff. Syndicate is genuinely excited when he stumbles on a Bowie knife with which he can more efficiently dispatch zombies and I'm sure his audience is excited right along with him. But there's no similar vibe when the alien-infected humans in "Omega" get mowed down. The gamer thrill is gone.

Machinima believes that it is giving gamers exactly what they want. Ultimately, the viewership numbers will be the arbiter of whether they're right, and not any elitist judgments from retired gamers who have a low tolerance for lowbrow humor. But if the future of television is a million YouTube channels, each carefully crafted to deliver content to a specific demographic that is defined by what it has already demonstrated it likes to watch, then the future of television is bleaker than one might suspect from the quality of programming still available on HBO or FX. It's a future of narrowcasting to our individual brands of stupidity, a future in which we're all standing around with each other's dicks in our hands, watching reflections of ourselves in the HD monitor mirror.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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