The video that led me to Nick, known on YouTube as the ASMRnerd, was "Soft-Spoken ASMR: Elder Scrolls Maps." I have no idea how I found it -- probably late at night in a semi-conscious YouTube trance. "Join me for a relaxing cartographic journey across Tamriel and its provinces," the description reads. "Triggers include paper sounds, pointing and tracing, and soft-spoken rambling."
In the video, Nick spends nearly an hour tenderly describing the mines, mountains and forests of the Elder Scrolls world as seen on a set of five glossy maps. The paper makes delicate swishing noises under his fingers. He drags a wood pointer over the Empire of Tamriel map, explaining the lore of Valenwood, the homeland of Wood Elves. Every topographical detail is chronicled with immense precision.
Nearly 270,000 people have viewed that video since last October.
"I feel my brain melting," reads one comment.
Nick's videos regularly show up on /r/GamingASMR, a subreddit for the laughably niche community that combines video games and ASMR, the acronym for "Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response." The videos are tagged with words such as "Clicking," "controller sounds," "ear to ear," and "soft-spoken." Also referred to as "head orgasms," ASMR describes the mellow, tingly sensation select people get while watching something deeply relaxing. Classic "triggers" include tapping fingernails, whispering, hair-brushing, page-turning and any task completed with intense concentration. Not everyone experiences it, which is likely why the community and its celebrities have a cultish vibe.
One of the few studies on ASMR compares it to the quality of "flow": a "state of intense focus and diminished awareness of the passage of time that is often associated with optimal performance in several activities." Its community lives primarily on YouTube, where so-called "ASMRtists" (pronounced "ASM-artists") garner millions of views whispering into super-sensitive microphones and doing weird things on camera. The more popular ASMR-provoking activities include head massage, medical role-play and pouring water.
Gaming can seem antagonistic to the sort of tingly relaxation ASMR videos aim for. At any moment, a dragon can swoop in and ruin your day. What if a bandit knifes you from behind when you're admiring the greenery?
"From the outside looking in, it can seem strange and questionable," Nick, 28, told me. "But video games are largely about escapism. With intricate fantasy worlds like Skyrim, I can let my thoughts go. If I'm thinking about work and bills, I won't get the tingles."
Nick is big on YouTube for whispering into a binaural microphone and streaming Skyrim. In his "ASMR Gaming Whisper: Wandering in Skyrim Part XVI," the view is stunning: a forest panorama at dusk overlooking the quaint settlement of Dragon's Bridge. An ambient string track swells. Nothing is happening. All you can hear are his footsteps as he softly describes everything around him, from wildflowers to explicit topographical details. On YouTube, he has nearly 34,000 subscribers.
Nick first experienced ASMR when he was about seven, lying on his grandfather's floor watching the painter Bob Ross on TV, a reportedly common origin point for ASMR heads. Ross slowly and confidently etched out a few sunlit trees and Nick's body went a little numb. "I realised that I was triggered watching someone talk about what they're passionate or knowledgeable about," Nick explained.
At night, years later, Nick would search for YouTube videos of drawing tutorials or origami folding to attain the same feeling. However, he didn't know that ASMR was prevalent until he stumbled upon a stranger's AskReddit thread questioning whether other people experience "brain tingles." Commenters linked to a few YouTube videos, which immediately clicked with Nick's tingly sensations.
Nick, who has always been knowledgeable about gaming, realised that he could help viewers unwind by whispering over Let's Plays.
Since Nick's first ASMRnerd video three years ago (he is mumbling and unwrapping Pokémon cards), the gaming ASMR community has swelled. Although /r/GamingASMR only has about 1,200 readers, YouTubers like The ASMR Gamer and MissFushi regularly earn thousands of views with their videos.
Predictably, unboxing videos are an ASMR gaming staple. The combination of fingernails on cardboard and crinkling plastic is a known ASMR trigger, but mixed with the capitalist euphoria of a new purchase, these videos are hits. The ASMR Gamer's unboxing videos for Animal Crossing and Twilight Princess average at about 10,000 views.
MissFushi, a 26-year-old who works at an insurance agency, got into making ASMR Let's Plays when a subscriber to her gaming channel suggested it. "He said my normal voice gave him the tingles associated with ASMR," MissFushi explained over Gchat. "I watched a few ASMR videos and wondered if I could do that sort of thing while playing a peaceful game." After studying ASMR YouTube sensation HeatherFeather, MissFushi recorded a video of herself whispering over her Minecraft Let's Play. Ever since, she's done the same with indie titles like Stardew Valley and the macabre side-scroller Limbo. (The ASMR Gamer published an ASMR video streaming Call of Duty: Black Ops III beta. Assault rifles are not a trigger for me, but his 20,000+ viewers might disagree).
Nick sticks with more ambient games. "Skyrim is a really good one because it's a fully immersive fantasy universe. There are huge natural areas and gorgeous visuals," he explained.
Unlike channels like GentleWhispering (685,000 subscribers), MassageASMR (390,000 subscribers) and Ephemeral Rift (280,000 subscribers), gaming ASMR is still pretty under-the-radar. Nick said he initially felt embarrassed explaining to friends and family what he did after his grad school homework. Recently, he's opened up about his ASMRnerd alter-ego, citing Bob Ross's videos as an easy introduction. He receives polite interest.
On the internet, most commenters express gratitude as they drift off into sleep. For others: "Can't fall asleep because I fear that someday he will put a jumpscare in the middle of one of these."