“Teach me the fastest route to the ending.”
“Show me the cleverest tricks you’ve got.”
“Tell me everything you know.”
“Make me laugh.”
These are the standard demands that an audience makes of a Let’s Play video. If you’ve ever wondered why someone would choose to watch another person play a game instead of simply playing it themselves, the reason is likely one or even all of the above. Distill it even further and you have the answer to why we’re willing to watch anything that we could instead be doing: for information and/or entertainment. But there’s a subset of Let’s Plays that don’t quite fit that bill; ideally they’re not too exciting, nor too entertaining, nor too engaging. In fact, the best compliment you can give an ASMR Let’s Player is to literally fall asleep while you’re watching it.
I’m not sure how old I was when I first experienced ASMR, only that I was young enough for my classroom to be in the newer section of the otherwise antique school I attended. It was one long hallway lined with rooms on either side that jutted out from the original structure like a bird drying off one of its wings in the sun. I sat out in that hall often, reading or drawing after I’d finished some piece of work a little quicker than planned. It’s around then that I first noticed a very mild tingling in the back of my head whenever I heard someone’s footsteps echoing down the length of that quiet space. It was like a cluster of very small, very gentle pin-pricks. For most, it’s something they’ve felt without fully understanding since childhood. “I’ve experienced ASMR sensations since I was a young girl,” Brittany Connolly (known online as BrittanyASMR) tells me, “And they came in the form of tingles and kind of a ‘light’ or airy feeling throughout my body, and this was usually triggered by my mother or aunt reading to me, playing with my hair, or watching extremely mundane tasks. Movie scenes triggered me more as I got older, like that scene from Edward Scissorhands where Edward is having his scars covered by makeup. It was gentle and calming. I honestly thought the tingles were something everyone experienced until I found out that, well, they weren’t.”
Through the years whenever I tried to explain the sensation to friends I was met with a lot of raised eyebrows and thin, nervous smiles. ASMR (which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) isn’t something that everyone experiences. For many of those that do, the feeling they get in response to certain sounds or actions (“triggers”) has become a vital tool in dealing with anxiety, stress and insomnia. Precious little research has been done on the subject of ASMR, and everyone’s triggers vary (though some are more popular than others.) Soft sounds and gentle actions are the common thread connecting most of the online community that has formed around the phenomenon in recent years, both of which can be relaxing (along the lines of white noise) even for those who don’t experience ASMR.
Connolly’s YouTube channel, BrittanyASMR, has over 30 thousand subscribers and nearly 3 million total views. Amid the videos catering to various ASMR triggers you’ll find her quietly sifting through her Pokemon cards and game disks, or playing various games while narrating in her usual half-whisper. As of my writing this, she’s guided 22,396 viewers through the entirety of Dear Esther, her voice drifting back and forth from one side of their headphones to the other as the story unfolds. Connolly, who shared her boundless love for Pokemon Red and Silent Hill early on in our exchange, describes the motivations behind her ASMR Let’s Plays as initially selfish because she enjoyed watching other peoples’ so much. “I used to watch regular LPs long before I started my channel for nostalgia’s sake, and much of the time I found that they were pretty ASMR-y.” She continues, “I play videogames to relax, I watch videogames to relax. Not everyone might be like me, but I am sure at least some people are. Watching LPs gives you a way to disconnect from the stresses of life and submerse yourself in a totally new environment without actually having to be in control of the game.”
This sentiment is echoed by theASMRnerd, another member of the ASMR community who built his channel specifically around his “geeky” hobbies and interests. “Given my love of gaming, ASMR Let’s Plays felt like a natural thing to do,” he tells me.“I’ve seen some people suggest that ASMR and gaming don’t mix, that games are supposed to be exciting and interesting, whereas ASMR videos are often intentionally boring. I’d argue that it’s all in the presentation. For those watching purely to get ASMR, common triggers are there in the form of whispers, keyboard sounds, mouse clicking, controller noises, and occasionally in-game sounds, like crunching footsteps, or rain.
“I sometimes get comments from people who watch my Let’s Plays even though they don’t experience ASMR; they simply find the soft sounds and pretty visuals relaxing in the more traditional sense.” This is undoubtedly why some of the most popular games for ASMR Let’s Plays involve more calm exploration that they do action. Minecraft and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim dominate the world of ASMR Let’s Plays as much as they do its more mainstream cousin, both because of their popularity and the ability for the player to immerse themselves in a massive and minimally threatening world. When making an ASMR LP, theASMRnerd shares, the way the game is presented is just as important as the game itself. “In my Skyrim wanders, I disable enemy AI so a dragon doesn’t swoop in and ruin my day. In Minecraft, I play on peaceful mode. In Civ 5, I’m going for a cultural victory and trying to avoid unnecessary combat, and in Landmark there’s no conflict at all, just gathering and building. […] Generally, games that involve slow-paced, atmospheric exploration, or simple, calm tasks like gathering and building make good candidates.”
But no matter what game you choose and no matter how carefully you present it, it won’t be for everybody. Connolly tells me she’s had more than her fair share of baffled comments demanding to know why she’s whispering, while theASMRnerd’s LPs has received some slightly more pointed attention. His ASMR Let’s Play of Sid Meier’s Civilization 5 was the subject of a recent video on infamous Let’s Play parody channel Retsupurae. Retsupurae, in theASMRnerd’s words, “is a channel that basically mocks poorly done LP’s by overdubbing sarcastic or derisive commentary. ASMR is pretty easy to poke fun at,” he continues, “And the Retsu guys were more irreverent than mean-spirited. But their response is demonstrative of the general reaction from the uninitiated: kinda weirded out, kinda bemused. On the upside, some people who had never heard of ASMR before watching the Retsu vid found it surprisingly relaxing, so they sought out the source and have been enjoying my videos. So it works both ways I guess.” Interestingly enough, Retsupurae’s video (titled “Sucks to your ASMR”) has twice as many comments and significantly more downvotes than other videos on their channel with a comparable number of views. Much of that discussion and dissent undoubtedly came from ASMR community members eager to defend one of their own, but there are also a surprising number of comments from regular Retsupurae viewers in defense of ASMR and its “creepy” corner of the Let’s Play world.
Ten—even five—years ago, the vast majority of video content available for games was marketing material. It was meant by its very design to get you interested in and excited about a product. As the production of video content has shifted more and more into the hands of fans, we now have access to both more content than ever before, and content much more varied in nature than we could have possibly imagined. Our game videos can be about speed, they can be about skill, they can be entertaining, they can be relaxing. They can even put us to sleep… And that’s not a bad thing.
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.