Beyond Pixels: Zach the Decade-Long YouTuber Reflects on Kindness, Compassion and Leaving Behind His 'Shy Shell'
“Hey guys and girls, this is Zach from SwitchForce ... and also from GhostRobo!” he says with signature enthusiasm. Today, we’re sitting down with YouTube content creator Zach to find out all about YouTube’s changing landscape, what it takes to keep at it for a decade, and why we should promote kindness and compassion wherever we go.
Zach’s been creating gaming videos on his GhostRobo and SwitchForce YouTube channels almost daily since 2010, and he tells us they’ve totalled almost one billion views. “We’ve played all sorts of Nintendo, PlayStation, and Microsoft titles, plus some very silly taste tests and a bunch of unboxings that were way too much fun. But as time goes on, I like to think of myself as a whole person as well, not just a YouTuber, so I’m also Zach from life, who loves Disney, the Detroit Lions, board games, and my family.”
He’s come a long way and seen a great deal of success, but Zach’s YouTube journey started in the state of Indiana in the summer of 2010 and was born out of a period of stasis in his life. “I was a shy 20-year-old, terrified to move across the country to USC Film School, but also incredibly bored with my job working tech for a local clothing company.”
One day, he decided he would use YouTube to share his passion for games with the world. “I have loved video games since I was 4 years old, and I knew I wanted to do something cool, unique, flexible, and that would share my effervescent enthusiasm and positivity with the world; plus I needed a good excuse to not journey off to college.” So, of course, his GhostRobo channel came into being.
YouTube wasn’t the giant that it is today, however, having only been in existence around five years at that point. “YouTube gaming was such a microscopic fraction of what it is these days, so I figured with a mic and a recording device, I could make it happen. It started very slow, and my first videos were really crappy, but everyone was very supportive, and my mom actually loaned me the money for that initial equipment.”
Even though he was taking steps into terra incognita, Zach was astute and identified a gap in the market. “My ‘big break’ moment was deciding to pick games up at midnight launches. Believe it or not, nobody did that back then, and it really helped me grab some late-night eyeballs when new releases first dropped,” he says.
“My family was really struggling financially at the time, and it allowed me to contribute to my parents and brothers quite a bit.”
Things really took off for him with the release of Rockstar’s L.A. Noire. “That game and that series helped catapult GhostRobo into the main YouTube gaming sphere, and I didn’t look back from there. I never imagined reaching my goals as quickly as I did, but I was very confident I’d find a way to make this my full-time thing.” Zach tells us. Things escalated quickly from there, and he gained 100,000 subscribers in his first year on the platform.
It wasn’t all roses, though; his family was down on their luck at the time, so the success was a welcome reprieve. “I didn’t earn a penny during the first 6 months of content creation, but it skyrocketed from there. Not only was this fantastic for me, but my family was really struggling financially at the time, and it allowed me to contribute to my parents and brothers quite a bit.”
“It also helped me bust out of my shy shell,” Zach says, referring to how the success helped his self-growth. “You see, I was a very loud and confident kid, but I lost almost all of that during my high school years. YouTube success helped me branch out, feel cool, and opened many doors in terms of new opportunities, travel, friendships, and more. I knew I could grow this channel, and as it happened before my eyes, I started believing [in] myself as a person as well as a personality.”
“I didn’t cheat, I didn’t trick, I didn’t hurt, and I didn’t fake. I kept being family-friendly, and true to myself.”
During this time, he held on to his altruistic beliefs and let his morals guide him. “The journey from 100,000 to 1 million subscribers feels like a blur in my memory, and I really made some silly business mistakes along the way,” he says, joking with us about how he’s saving the details for his someday-book, “but I’m most proud that I retained myself and my priorities and my values throughout it all. I didn’t cheat, I didn’t trick, I didn’t hurt, and I didn’t fake. I kept being family-friendly and true to myself, which didn’t feel hard for me at the time, but in hindsight, I’m really proud that I did.”
After achieving his goals with the GhostRobo YouTube channel, Zach began to feel the constant grind weighing on him; the thrill of the chase was wearing off and it left him unfulfilled. Then there was the mysterious and almighty algorithm to deal with.
“There isn’t much rhyme or reason to YouTube success, and that has become exponentially true as the years pass by. This type of thing is nauseating for me because there is so much randomness involved with growth/success. I felt burnt out, annoyed, and honestly confused as to what to do, what videos to make, how to connect with the new era of viewership. I needed a fresh start, a new project to pursue, and so I created SwitchForce with my brother Jake and my best friend Gabe.”
“Through all of that, I’m more proud of the content I’m making now than I’ve ever been.”
Zach felt the new channel was something positive Jake and Gabe could focus their energies on, and the initial concept was that he would never do it alone — it was to be a collaborative effort. This idea quickly crumbled as his brother left the channel after a year to pursue his own ambitions and Gabe was forced to leave in 2019 due to personal reasons. But Zach spun all of this into a positive and seized the moment to shift efforts away from his GhostRobo channel and start afresh.
“I have always loved Nintendo the most, so I was more than happy to move to SwitchForce as my main focus. The joy of gaming begins with Nintendo, and they are a company that hasn’t wavered from their values; I respect that so much. SwitchForce has evolved, devolved, and re-evolved again in its four years of existence. We’ve seen massive views, tiny views, huge partnerships, and complete irrelevancy. Through all of that, I’m more proud of the content I’m making now than I’ve ever been.”
He’s found his groove with SwitchForce, then, and his passion for Nintendo burns bright even after four years, evidenced by his new daily Nintendo news show, Good Morning Mario. “[It] strikes the exact balance of chill vibes, passionate fun, and high quality and speedy production values that I wanted to achieve for so long. I’m used to a lot of viewership, and so it has been a tricky task to balance my mindset when things haven’t been going as good, but I put the work in and the videos post consistently. That’s been my bread and butter; I don’t quit.”
The Changing Landscape of YouTube
Zach has just celebrated his ten-year YouTube anniversary. He’s seen a lot of changes in that time, both in himself and the platform in general, and not all of it for the better. “My outlook has changed dramatically over the decade, as I [have] grow[n], and as YouTube grows. The kind of content that is most popular now, the way social media has morphed and expanded, I’m really not a fan,” he says.
“I am forever grateful for this job, for this opportunity, and especially for the fans and viewers that write to me.”
“YouTube is now something that has so much awesome impact and so much potential, but also so much chaos and so much insanity. It’s a weird place, and I feel like the ‘good ol’ days’ of making video game walkthroughs … man, that was such a great time. But now we’ve got TikTok and drama and it’s just kind of a mess. I feel like I’m still trying to find my niche, and I think about all of this stuff way more than anybody probably could guess. I always want to do better, do more, make a difference, find success, all without changing who I am, and that is a real challenge. Especially when you have to go toe to toe with an algorithm that refuses to ever give you a real answer.
“But I am forever grateful for this job, for this opportunity, and especially for the fans and viewers that write to me. The ones who say they’ve watched for years, and thank me for shaping their mindset. The ones who just found my channel, and appreciate the positivity and kindness. The ones who let me know that no matter the view count, I have made a mark on YouTube, a good one ... a hopeful one, and that I continue to do so,” Zach says, smiling.
Kindness, Compassion, and Where It All Goes Wrong for Internet Personalities
It’s no secret that Zach advocates for kindness and compassion, so we asked him to elaborate on this. Where does he see the problems creeping in when it comes to the pursuit of success, and how do others get it wrong? “I don’t want to call anyone out or accuse any channel of anything, but I’ll just say that any time large amounts of money are involved, there will always be shady behaviour,” he tells us.
“I find myself confused at some of the behaviours of literal millionaires, and I think if fans knew how much some of their favourites were profiting, they might view their antics a bit differently. Then again, I think many YouTubers and social influencers as a whole struggle with the fame, the money, the adoration, the chaos of it all. How many times do you see these guys and girls fall apart, step away, issue an apology, vanish? It can be hard to lead a balanced life in the face of all this stuff, and it’s honestly one of the reasons I never made it as far as I could’ve. I don’t have it in me to set aside my family, or my health, or my values.”
Zach continues this train of thought, telling us why he thinks life is more about helping build each other up so we can all succeed together, rather than trampling over each other in the quest for sole glory.
“I guess a better way to say that would be that I’m blessed with a lot of gratitude, and a really strong family core that loves me a lot, and has helped me to see what’s really important and keep that as my priority, which is why advocating for kindness and compassion is so important to me. There’s no paycheck or view milestone that is worth sacrificing myself for. And more than a gamer, more than a content creator, I’m just a nice guy trying to help people out and enjoy my family. Being a good person means the most to me, and I’m unwavering in how I interact with others and situations in this regard. Kindness and compassion shouldn’t be hot commodities, but since they are, I hold them very close to my heart. I try to promote that amongst my fanbase, in hopes of spreading that goodness that I’m lucky to have inside me so that it can multiply and grow exponentially.”
He sums up what he’s trying to say:
“It’s pretty exciting to watch the views skyrocket, but there’s success in passing on kindness too.”
When discussing his videos, we wondered how tempting it could be for someone who makes a living from YouTube to create a public persona different from that of their private one.
“I’m me in my videos. There’s very little act there, very little facade. Yes, I may up the excitement by about 20%, but I genuinely am this way. Like, the nice, wholesome, genuine dude you see in the videos, idyllic and kind of innocent … that’s me. I really never had anything to hide, and I’m beyond thankful that my downs were so manageable. I hope that’s not arrogant to say, I just have never felt the need to be anyone else or to dramatize any aspect of it.”
He’s not keen on the idea of capitalising on emotions for views, he tells us. “I’ve always been happy to talk about my anxiety, my family, etc, but I’m also a pretty level headed individual. I never wanted to sensationalize, or gain money off of drama. I really enjoyed sharing my experiences, my travels, my family, even some of my relationships. I’ve definitely reduced that exposure over the years, but more because of how things have evolved around me, rather than a desire to hide anything.”
“It feels like most everyone says the same things, quotes the same lines, does the same trends.”
In the early days, he found himself sharing things online just for the sake of it. “I wanted to do goofy taste tests, and that’s how close and silly my brothers and I are, so we filmed it. And I wanted to capture some moments of our lives, and so we did. I wanted to Tweet out my quirky thoughts because it felt natural. I had my fair share of ‘cool guy’ Instagram posts and whatnot, but it was so innocent compared to what we see nowadays,” he muses. “I don’t share as much anymore. What I do share is wholly honest, and I have no problem saying ‘hey, my parents went through a super messy divorce and it sucks!’ There is value in showing the good and bad of life.
The shift from the early days of social media and content creation, where everyone was a pioneer in an unexplored space, has come to an end, and a new era of copy-cat sensationalism and ultra curation so that people only see the best parts of their favourite creator’s lives is something Zach doesn’t gel with.
“I just feel like everything is amplified to the max. It feels like every single person posts. And so much of that is so overboard in terms of emotions, and exposure, and it’s all just a bit much for me. I had to step back in that way because I can’t compete with these people in terms of drama and overreactions and constantly needing to turn your life into a post. There’s also this weird thing for me because I do think and experience life very differently. And if you’re against the grain, or have an atypical opinion, all that does is hurt your numbers these days. It feels like most everyone says the same things, quotes the same lines, does the same trends. Social media in 2021 makes me feel so abnormal, like I’m from another planet. I just don’t relate to much of what is popular and pushed.”
“Then there’s the obvious part, which is that I’m 31 now. I’m way less interested in posting my lunch than I was ten years ago” he adds, chuckling.
The Cult of Personality and the Death of the Let’s Play
Zach gained prominence in the age of the Let’s Play. As we’ve seen, it’s what helped his GhostRobo channel take off in the early 2010s; it was a fresh, new, exciting concept. The playthroughs of more narrative games, where the audience and player live the experience simultaneously, has been replaced with live-service titles, where the games themselves aren’t what people tune in for but the people playing them.
“Let’s Plays have been swallowed whole by streaming,” Zach says. “I don’t even want to get into my take on content creators directly profiting from their viewers via subs/donations, but Twitch, and of course YouTube streaming, has really killed the old fashioned walkthrough. If you’re not the top guy, it’s a very hard content path to pursue. I would say personality has become the newest trend, on top of the infinitely popular games like Fortnite and Minecraft and Roblox.”
“The best videos aren’t the most viewed videos. The nicest people aren’t the most successful people. When there are 10,000 people all playing the same new game, so much of this comes down to random luck.”
Not being a fan of those types of games or videos and unable to predict what kinds of personality equals success in this growing trend, Zach finds himself with an increasingly difficult dilemma. “YouTube is evolving, the audience is changing, how the heck do I change too?” he ponders. “The best videos aren’t the most viewed videos. The nicest people aren’t the most successful people. When there are 10,000 people all playing the same new game, so much of this comes down to random luck. My bread and butter has declined rapidly, so I’ve basically stopped walkthroughs. It’s weird to have that avenue of YouTube tank, especially when it was the source of explosive growth for so many of us.”
One strategy he regrets is trying to overcorrect his content instead of keeping at what he was known for. “Even though I wasn’t chasing a trend, I was chasing numbers. Variety is very easy to maintain and very hard to maintain, all at the same time. You try to adjust so quickly that you lose out on some things that could’ve been really good had you kept at it. It’s frustrating even to type that because I know where I goofed.”
We’re clearly in a time of upheaval when it comes to gaming and content creation on the internet, so where does Zach think it’s heading? “That’s such a tricky question,” he says. “It really feels like it’s heading towards a streaming-focused future. A personality-focused future, with very relatable people finding the most success. A hive-mind future, where the same games and the same groups feed off of each other, and it’s very hard to break in. A future where the content is far less important than the conversation. There’s good and bad to that.”
Journalism Versus Influencers
There’s no doubt we’re in strange times, then, and one of the issues we are eager to bounce around with Zach is the differences between more traditional games press and influencers, and whether people know the difference anymore.
“The line is definitely blurred,” he tells us. “I think there are some YouTubers that do it better than traditional press, and then I think there are a lot who just say whatever they need to say to keep their audience interested. Games journalism tries to distinguish between fun and good (there is a difference), but YouTubers will always gravitate more towards fun than good. Which [therefore] makes the fun [games], the good [games]? Or at least that’s what public perception will tell you.”
“Gaming companies would rather have positive and enthusiastic coverage than critical coverage. And for the content creator, it’s pretty hard to grow a channel or a stream by hating the game you’re playing.”
Zach thinks legal disclosures and requirements have developed over the years to the point where ethics aren’t as big of an issue for influencers, as they have to state things such as what is a paid promotion clearly now, but a creator’s intent is still to be examined critically.
“I guess I’d think more along the lines of ‘what does this person have to gain by hyping up this game?’ Or similarly, ‘what does this person have to gain by trashing this game?’ We live in an era where almost everything is the best thing ever. It’s so much easier to post that you love The Mandalorian than to question or critique The Mandalorian, you know?” he says. Ah, yes, that ever-growing no-grey-area Twitter take.
“Gaming companies would rather have positive and enthusiastic coverage than critical coverage. And for the content creator, it’s pretty hard to grow a channel or a stream by hating the game you’re playing.” Zach carries on, making an interesting point. “The other side of this is that most people seem to just want enjoyable entertainment. I’m a very logical person, a very detail-oriented critical person, but is that really what you want to see after a long day at your 9-5? I don’t fake positivity, I just try to avoid the things that I’d be negative about because that seems kind of counterproductive for myself and my viewers. Especially when you have the oddball opinions and taste that I have!”
Video Games or Not, Work Is Still Work
There is an aphorism that says do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. While we understand the sentiment, anybody who has turned their passion into their career will also know that work is still work, and this is something that Zach has first-hand experience with.
“I will never look at games the same. And that stinks,” he says. But he doesn’t consider it wholly negative. “I’d say it’s a worthwhile trade-off. To have a fun, enjoyable, flexible job that allows me to directly connect with so many, and make a positive impact … that is definitely worth viewing games through the lens of ‘what video can I make out of this?’“
It’s not just the constant exposure to the medium that is desensitising him, though. “It’s also interesting because the industry is going a certain way, and I wouldn’t have chosen that if it was up to me. So there’s this double whammy of games being viewed as a means for me to do my job, and then the games that I love are less and less prevalent. It is very hard for me to sit down and play a game for fun, during my free time. I do this and think about this constantly (YouTube), so playing more games is often my last priority. I have worked to incorporate some fun game time with my brothers as of late, and gosh that has been rewarding.
“It’s still been a dream though, I can’t complain,” he adds.
“Give kindness, get kindness back. Share positivity, receive positivity.”
Being a public face for ten years is taxing, especially when your public is the denizens of the internet. We asked Zach how he was holding up. Does he feel the pressure? Has the way people treat him changed?
“I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to do this as long as I have. Is it to some astronomical level? No. But I have made a full time living on YouTube for over ten years now. I’ve changed channels, I’ve added people, lost people, switched the content, focused in, broadened out. I feel that it is much harder now than it was, both for new creators and even longtime creators. It takes intangibles, it takes luck, it takes confidence and perseverance, it takes commitment, and I’d like to think it takes some kindness too.”
He’s grateful that he is still able to make a living doing what he loves after making mistakes and while maintaining his morals and values. “I know that I am much more successful than I probably should be at this point, and others have told me this too, specifically because of how I’ve conducted myself the entire time. So no matter what, be a good person. And in that way, the pressure has never really gotten to me. I mean, I put crazy metrics on myself, but that’s just my overactive mind.”
Although there have been difficult times for Zach, he still puts great emphasis on how others act outside of their public persona. “A lot of negative things have happened that nobody knows about, and nobody really needs to. I’m so much more concerned with how someone carries themselves off-camera than on-camera. And I think because that has been my guiding focus since I began this whole thing, I’d say most people perceive and treat me as they would’ve with or without these channels. Give kindness, get kindness back. Share positivity, receive positivity.”
He’s quick to make it clear that this isn’t naivety speaking. “Now, that’s not always how it goes! But we must try not to let the bad change us. I have a very small circle, like we’re talking single digits, so I’ve never lived a super social, crazy, nonstop life, and those people know I’m the same Zach that I’ve always been.
Where Does the Future Lead?
We ask Zach what the future holds for him, and he shoots the question right back. “Here’s the answer that I’m currently looking for! What does the future hold? Got any good input?”
Jump Dash Roll is often pondering the same question, trying to find new and fulfilling creative endeavours that our audience will like. We find it good practice to bounce ideas off like-minded individuals; get the ideas out in the open where they can evolve into something new.
“I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s kind of all I know. Like, my adult life is YouTube. The good and the bad of it. Moving on to something else feels completely confusing.”
He doesn’t really have a solid idea of what it might be, but he’s open to exploring avenues outside of gaming. “I’d like to create something fun and memorable for kids. I’d like to write a bit. Maybe speak or share this whole kindness and positivity thing. I’d like to find my other passions, and maybe find something that I’m even better suited for than YouTube.”
For the time being, though, he insists he won’t be leaving the platform anytime soon and tantalises us with some super-secret news. “I actually have a crazy opportunity in the oven that I cannot speak a word about, so cross your fingers that that works out this summer! Good Morning Mario will hopefully grow, and I love that show, so I really hope it can be a beacon of informative fun for Nintendo fans everywhere.”
It’s not all about work, and Zach’s thinking about what he wants from his personal life too. “I’m also just so about loving and enjoying my family, and eventually creating my own family too. I think one of my greatest successes of the last few years has been living across the street from my family. That sounds really silly, but getting to see my mom and brothers every single day is a dream come true. I’d also like to travel again.
“Mask up and be smart, please, so we can all return to a normal life at some point!”
We couldn’t agree more.
The Important Things in Life
“I’ve had years where I made so much money, and it didn’t build my happiness like you might think it would.”
Before we part ways, Zach shares some personal experiences as a warning to those who think internet virality and the pursuit of never ending riches are the be-all and end-all of happiness.
“Social media would have you think that fame and fortune is the most important and glorious thing in the world. It’s super cliche, but I’ve seen so many ruined by this, and many really crappy people that act like they’re awesome, when they’re not. If I could Thanos snap social media, I probably would. Life is so much more than a sassy IG photo, or a ratioed tweet. I spend my life on YouTube, so it’s probably weird coming from me, but the human body and brain just aren’t made for this way of life. Get outside. Marvel at a tall tree. Hug your mom. Go to bed earlier. I sound like an old man, but wisdom does come with experience. I’ve had years where I made so much money, and it didn’t build my happiness like you might think it would. Well, maybe I needed to make more, there are plenty of millionaires and billionaires out there … but I don’t think that’s how this works. Security, opportunity, those are valuable things. But it’s not like more clothes or more games or more fans ever filled me with real contentment. Love does though. Care does though. Compassion does though. Being your best does though.”
To illustrate this, he tells us a story:
“It was 3 or 4 a.m. in the Chicago O’Hare airport. I was 24 years old. Our connecting flight had been cancelled, and people were not happy. It’s the middle of the night, everyone is tired, and now they’re not gonna get home in time to kiss their spouse, or make their meeting, or I don’t know, watch Netflix in bed. Passengers are slamming their hands on the counter, they’re yelling at the gate agents, they’re making angry phone calls, and just, most people were so agitated. Now, they had a right to be, or at least most probably did, being stuck in an airport at three or four AM kind of sucks. But in this moment, I achieved more personal growth than in years of therapy. It’s just not that serious. I was going to get home later than I expected. The airport wasn’t the most comfortable place to spend the hours as the sun rose. But it’s just not that serious. There was nothing that could be done. Couldn’t rewind time. Couldn’t redo the flight. Couldn’t teleport home. No matter how much these people yelled at the gate agents or stomped their feet or mumbled cuss words, guess what? We were all going to land in Indiana at the exact same time.
“So I took a deep breath, and I made some phone calls. I left some messages. I read some articles. I just took life as it came. I kept myself calm and happy. I’m not saying disregard your feelings, or find a way to become some zen shell of a human. But learn to shift quickly. Learn to have your 60 seconds of frustration, and then find the fun again. Find the gratitude in your life. Find the goodness of each moment. You will never know what is coming your way. You can’t control time, and you sure can’t control others. But you have total control over how you react to situations, both good and bad. You have total control over how you treat those around you.
“Kindness, care, empathy, and acceptance. And a little levity! Next time you miss your flight, or your friend says something stupid, or your favourite influencer tweets something stupid … let it go. Think of five things you’re grateful for. And never leave a loved one without forgiveness and a hug.”
From this interview’s conception, we weren’t sure what to expect; Zach’s reputation of kindness and compassion preceded him, but what people say and do for their own content and what they are like off-camera are often at odds. There is always a lot of hesitancy on our part with interviews like these because we have to report objectively and impartially, and the thought that we might have to contradict someone’s persona is uncomfortable.
We’re happy to say this notion was quickly dismissed as we found ourselves nodding along in agreement with Zach’s statements about positivity, kindness, and compassion. He’s also just as affable off the record as he is on, never treating us as a nuisance and willing to help out with whatever we needed when he could have just as easily been perfunctory. His sincerity is just as genuine as his passion and benevolence, demonstrated by his open-book, altruistic nature. It’s refreshing.
And you can’t fault his Vonnegut-esque message: be kind, compassionate, and good to each other above all else.
You can catch Good Morning Mario every weekday morning on https://youtube.com/SwitchForce.
There are over 8,000 videos up on https://youtube.com/GhostRobo if you want to relive the glory days of YouTube gaming with Zach.
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