YouTube star and gaming phenomenon Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, caused controversy last week by using a racial slur to angrily describe a player in a video game, while being filmed on a livestream with thousands of viewers, including children. Viewers, journalists and developers took to Twitter to denounce Kjellberg, with some such as Firewatch’s Sean Vanaman even attempting to take down all the multimillionaire’s videos that included his company’s game. For many it was a step too far for the Swede, who has garnered a huge online following of over 50 million YouTube subscribers (making him YouTube’s biggest channel).
This isn’t the first time he’s been caught up in racially charged controversy: Kjellberg’s string of offences include some heavy use of Nazi imagery, paying $5 to have an Indian pair on the website Fiverr hold up a anti-Semitic sign, and controversial humour that has seen him lose the patronage of company Disney. But Kjellberg’s actions are not just heaping pressure upon him; they’re having a massive impact on YouTube’s gaming community, and must be seen as part of a much wider debate around ethics in gaming which has been raging for years. Kjellberg and the subsequent reaction to his controversial actions, are symptomatic of this division within the gaming community.
Kjellberg, the man at the centre of gaming on YouTube, is a clear example of the troubling attitude at the core of this culture. Some commentators argue that many gamers hold racist, misogynist and hateful views that are only perpetuated by such a character. The view of the hateful gamer of today can be traced back to the stereotype of the angry gamer, throwing slurs and insults online, which emerged slowly during the mid-2000s with the release of the Xbox 360 and the PS3, the period where online gaming really kicked off. At this stage, it was a relatively benign image, more attention was hurled upon the violent content of video games than the gamers themselves. But as politics outside the community changed, so too did politics within.
Beginning in 2012, commentators like Anita Sarkeesian drew attention to misogyny within video games themselves, an idea that particularly came to the fore upon the release Sarkeesian’s series Tropes V.S women in video games. The huge attacks she received in return only served to prove her and her followers’ belief of the sexism inherent in the gaming community. Fast forward to 2014 and the so-called ‘gamergate’ controversy where, in short, a reactionary group in the gaming community sought to challenge progressive elements, in a huge debate around ethics in journalism, sexism and the very nature of the community itself. Three years later, and even now Sarkeesian and Gamergate are as divisive as ever. Only this year, YouTube’s “Adpocalypse” the changing of the algorithm with which it determines what content to monetise, created havoc amongst gaming channels, who lost thousands of pounds overnight in ad revenue for discussing controversial topics or even referring to specific groups such as Jewish people or the LGBTQ community.
The debate around the treatment of marginalised communities in video games is far from over. However, it’s really worth remembering who’s actually having these debates. It’s important that gamers and especially people with no interest in games (even though over half the population of the UK do play them in some form) understand that this trend of deep moral debate could never have been imagined when Atari created Pong in 1972.
The conversation surrounding social justice and games has truly elevated video games to a new level of significance. Most gamers play for fun. They don’t quietly debate what the trends of the day can tell us about wider society, or about how sexism permeates the community when certain people who play games disagree with the political opinion of others. Some games go out of their way to be art, to make a point, but from Candy Crush to Call Of Duty, the majority of games will always be focused on people’s enjoyment. The extension of an unhealthily politicised debate to gaming distracts from the millions of gamers and developers who simply want to make popular products, in response to a rapidly changing market, that is starting to catch up with the hundreds of thousands of women gamers who have had little representation in video games and their development.
One YouTube celebrity saying a racist slur in frustration doesn’t illustrate the racism in the gaming community as a whole. Gaming was never meant to contain such a political charge. Where gamers are hateful, they should be challenged; where there can be more representation, there should be. But the PewDiePie racism controversy is just another step in dividing a community. Instead of being passed off as a stupid, wholly inappropriate comment, it’s being neatly fitted into a debate the totally misses the spirit of video games – one of inclusivity and fun, that should be free from divisive politics.