Earlier this year, Swedish gaming celebrity PewDiePie (real name Felix Kjellberg) was on top of the world. He had the most subscribed-to channel on YouTube, where people could watch him play video games while he did commentary, and had a deal with Disney’s Maker Studios. Then videos came out where he used anti-semitic imagery, including a boy holding up a sign that said “Death to all Jews” and a man dressed as Jesus saying “Hitler did nothing wrong.” For this, he lost his contracts with Disney and Google. He wrote an apology on his Tumblr, and did a YouTube video responding to his critics at the time, but within the first minute of the video, he accused the media of not liking him because he’s an internet star. (Insert your own comparison to another narcissistic blonde man who rants about “the media” here.)
After this storm settled down, PewDiePie went back to making his videos, but found himself in hot water once again as today, a video was found of him playing the game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and yelling, in frustration, the N-word. Here’s the relevant clip:
This is not the first time PewDiePie has said the N-word in one of his videos this year – a January 2017 video shows him saying the first part of the word 2:00 in before he is cut off. He is also not the first white celebrity to be caught saying it either, as a few months ago, Bill Maher underwent his own firestorm of controversy for using the word on his show. But what’s different about PewDiePie is the fact that he represents an industry – video games – that, for the past few years, has been fighting a toxic strain of racism and misogyny that has done major damage to its integrity. He is not the entirety of the problem, but rather, a disturbingly common example of it.
This problem began in earnest in August 2014, when an ex-boyfriend of independent game writer Zoe Quinn wrote a blog post hinting that she had slept with journalists in exchange for positive reviews of her game, Depression Quest. This became Gamergate, a movement that claimed it was about “ethics in journalism” but was used mostly to harass, bully, and doxx female gamers. It made celebrities out of people like Milo Yiannopoulos, who used the scandal to launch his career writing for Breitbart’s tech page, and caused victims like Quinn to hide at friends’ homes after her address was leaked to the vicious gamers.
But while Gamergate started as a campaign specifically to target women, it is no surprise that, since it began, many of the most famous gamers hold shockingly backwards views on POC as well. This past March, gamer Jon “JonTron” Jafari expressed anti-immigrant viewpoints during an online Q&A, and also said that blacks are more likely to commit crimes than whites. As a result, he was cut out of a game he had provided a voice for. In May, Toronto ‘esports’ gamer Matt “Dellor” Vaughn was fired for a video where, while playing the game Overwatch, he used the N-word upwards of 60 times, posted below.
It seems that using racial slurs in the midst of multiplayer gaming, as PewDiePie and Vaughn have done, are now more common than not. Black and brown gamers have written at length about these incidents and how they are ripping apart a community once based upon shared geekery, regardless of color. “Racial slurs seem to have transcended skin color and are used for absolutely everyone and anyone…traded as insults between white players,” writes Ariana Musnamy, a twenty-nine-year-old female Indian gamer wrote this past July. Asher Primus, a “blerd” (black nerd) who loves video games, wrote powerfully in Afropunk about the problems he faces as a black gamer, where often, he witnesses white gamers test the limits of what they can say to his face – one asked his black friend if he was worried Asher would steal the PS4 his friend wanted to sell him, “because [he] has dreadlocks.”
At the moment, it appears PewDiePie may pay for his behavior: Sean Vanaman, the founder of game production company Campo Santo, has filed a DCMA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) demanding that all PewDiePie videos featuring a clip from one of his company’s games be pulled from the internet. Vanaman has rightly called him “a propagator of despicable garbage that does real damage to the culture around this industry.” Incidents like these do not exist in a vacuum, particularly in the gaming industry, which may be at its most technologically advanced but still has a long ways to go in terms of making amends with the women and POC gamers who have been wronged over the past few years. Backing away from untalented frauds like PewDiePie, who use their platform to spread hateful views, is a good way to start.
NOTE: The original version of this article stated that the video game PewDiePie said the N-word during was Campo Santo’s Firewatch. Viewers have brought it to my attention that it was during PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and it has been amended to reflect this.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.