Let’s Talk: Translating Languages, Building Communities and Playing Games with GirlGamerGaB

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source: Let’s Play Fatal Frame 5 Part 1

Whenever you’re talking to someone online, there’s some uncertainty as to how to address them – and I hit that snag as soon as I start writing the email. On YouTube, my interviewee goes by GirlGamerGaB, but it reads too awkwardly to call her this in an email. Her real name is Evelyn, but I only know this from a passing reference she made in a YouTube video, and it seems too intimate, somehow. GaB, as the YouTube Wiki tells me, is not her name but an acronym for the Dutch words for “for lack of a better,” a moniker she chose because all of her favorite usernames were taken – but it’s the best compromise, and so I begin the email: Dear GaB…

GaB is known on YouTube for making Let’s Plays – long-form video series in which she plays through popular video games, providing reactions and commentary. Each of her videos ranges in length from 20 minutes to several hours, and she has uploaded hundreds. Some Let’s Players – including GaB – make enough money from their practice to pay the bills, but the most popular make far more than that. The promise of being able to make millions from playing video games has inspired tons of people to make Let’s Plays, and in that market, you have to find a niche, she explains to me. I’m a little surprised to find that her voice during our interview is much the same as it is in her videos. In both, she comes off as relaxed – if a little awkward – and genuine.

GaB’s niche was translation. “I was watching Let’s Plays a lot – like six hours a day a lot,” she explains. “There was a game that was releasing called Fatal Frame 5, and Fatal frame 4 only got a Japanese release. My husband and I were talking about Fatal Frame 5 also probably only getting a Japanese release, and my husband was like – ‘if you do the same thing they do but you translate it, I bet you’d get a lot of views.’ Because everyone wants to know what the series is doing, but no one has an English translation.” To her knowledge, she’s the only one who plays Japanese games in translation like this – “There are people that play [Japanese games,] but they don’t translate them on screen. But I take the time to properly translate and put it on screen, so it’s much more legit.” That was two and a half years ago. Now, GaB mostly plays English games, and her videos get between one thousand and several hundred thousand views. Why the spike? She lives in Japan with her husband, and since Japan is twelve hours ahead of North America, games are released earlier there. She takes advantage of the time difference to play games and upload videos before other Let’s Players in America, making her a popular choice for people who want to watch “First Look” videos. She describes running out to the game store as soon as it opens in the morning, buying a game, returning home and playing it as quickly as possible so she can put up a video before anyone else. It sounds funny, I remark – the idea of rushing out early in the morning to play a video game.

As she’s quick to explain to me, though, the work that goes into making Let’s Plays is extensive. On the one hand, there is a lot of management involved: curating her channel, uploading videos, staying on top of the latest games, and so on. But the emotional work seems to be the most taxing. “I get called a retard a lot,” she says. Though her videos involve translating Japanese to English, GaB’s mother tongue is Dutch, adding another layer of difficulty to the tasks of translation and interpretation. Rather than be impressed at the fluency with which she translates across languages, GaB’s fans sometimes make fun of her for her accent or when she makes in-game choices they disagree with. She tells me that this frustrates her – “if only they knew I had a master’s degree in Japanese.” She does sound frustrated, but also sure of herself. That’s not a small feat when you have to filter, read and moderate every comment, including abusive ones.

Networking is another huge component of being a successful YouTuber, she tells me. Her translation work and her location in Japan give her an advantage, since she can have videos up months before her fellow Let’s Players in North America, but even for her, “it’s all about knowing the right people. If you know the right people, play games with them, get featured on their channel, it gives you new subs. It’s all about exposure, getting out there.”

In addition to making the right friends and work connections, GaB has to market herself to her viewers. “Of course, my name being GirlGamerGaB I definitely sell the fact that I’m a woman,” she admits. “There aren’t that many Let’s Players out there that are female – they’re definitely there, but not as much. So if it’s in your name, you get clicks sooner, because people are like, ‘oh, this is a woman, let’s check that out.’” It helps that she’s married, she explains: people who get excited at the prospect of a female gamer tend to lose interest and leave when they are told she has a husband, a fact about which she is very public – her husband sometimes makes appearances on her channel. She generally tries to be as close to her “actual self” as she can, but even that can draw ire – “Sometimes people are like, ‘you’re not scared at all, you probably played the game before,’” she says mockingly. “Because I’m not exaggerating anything.” It’s true: while many Let’s Players are performative and dramatic in their reactions to jumpscares or high-stress moments, GaB is for the most part quite understated. She admits that the funniest moments to her audience are usually unintentional. She laughs at herself at that.

I can understand why viewers are endeared to her. She has a sardonic sense of humor and a warm calmness about her. I imagine she’d be fun to play games with. She’s happy with the way she performs on her channel – “I think it just attracts the right fanbase for me. For a lot of my fellow YouTubers, their fanbase is around fifteen years old, but mine are twenty-five to thirty-five. I think it attracts an older and more mature base – just being more relaxed and not trying to be funny every second. It attracts different kinds of people, which I like.” Amidst endless discussions of networking, expansion and marketing, it’s a refreshing point: perhaps one of the most rewarding things about being a YouTuber is finding a fanbase you can get along with. Sometimes her fans do frustrate her, of course. She describes Metal Gear Solid fans in particular with exasperation: “I get lots of views, but so much backseat gaming, and it drives me nuts!” But for the most part, she speaks fondly of her fanbase. She interacts with them regularly: using a tool called Gamewisp, she offers different streams and services in exchange for money. She has paid subscribers who pay for private streams, others who pay to play multiplayer games with her, and a few who pay even more to exchange letters with her.

That last tier might worry me were I a YouTuber about to write a letter to a stranger, but GaB assures me that it’s all above board. “They’re super sweet,” she says. “They’re just the nicest people ever because they’re the die-hard fans that don’t mind paying extra. So you just get like all the love.” Most of those who subscribe to her private streams watch them every weekend – by now, she knows them enough to call them friends, and they sometimes send her candy she can’t find in Japan, or Christmas presents. “They’re super sweet,” she says again.

“Of course,” she adds, “it’s a little bit weird, it’s a little bit weird, because in the back of your mind you know they’re paying to be there. It was established because they paid money for it. But I’d rather see it as – they want to support you anyways, and instead of a donation they get something in return.” These subscribers know each other, too: GaB has set up a private Discord server where they can all chat, and where she sometimes joins in. “They watch movies together, they play games together, they have a D&D group now. It’s a really great group, they’re really nice… a lot of them also say that it’s so nice to have this server where they can do all this stuff. That it’s given them people to hang out with.” She sounds proud of her fans as she explains them to me, calling them “the community I created” – as if she’s built something. From the sounds of it, she has.

There’s a sense of intimacy to watching a Let’s Play. I think that comes from the spontaneity of the Let’s Player’s commentary, the earnest surprise at a jumpscare or the frustration at losing – you get the sense that you’re sitting next to them on the couch. That intimacy can be a little disconcerting. For Let’s Players, too, the energy they expend cultivating that sense of friendship is taxing, and it often involves – for women especially – dealing with a lot of abuse. But the relationships GaB describes highlight the power of that intimacy, both for GaB and for her fans. As we wrap up the interview, we get to chatting about a game we both play, and to my surprise, she invites me to add her as a friend on it. We end the interview on friendly terms, promising to play games together sometime. I’m still not sure how to address her, but at this point, I don’t think it matters.

CMS graduate student interested in affect theory, transmedia worlds, video games and transnational new media.

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