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In Defense of PewDiePie

June 25, 2014  |  10:45am
In Defense of PewDiePie

I met a woman at a gaming convention recently who has a teenage son and a teenage daughter. Her son visits all the big-name gaming websites for his news: Joystiq, IGN and so on. Her daughter gets all of her videogame news … from Tumblr.

My first reaction was sadness. How could these “boy’s club” sites go about catering to teenage girls and providing them with videogame news they actually care about, without being condescending? But then I remembered that Tumblr is awesome—and so are many other lady-dominated spaces, such as online fan-fiction communities, cosplay and fan-art communities on DeviantArt, and fandoms that surround popular gaming celebrities like PewDiePie.

Have you heard of PewDiePie? He made $4 million dollars last year by playing videogames on YouTube, making funny faces, doing strange voices, and occasionally collaborating with other famous YouTube comedians or gamers in more of the same. In short, he independently produces comedy videos for a living. Also, games journalists hate him.

I didn’t even know who PewDiePie was until about six months ago; I kept hearing his name alongside a scowl of derision from all my games journalist friends’ mouths, especially the guys. “What do people see in him?” “He’s just screaming into a microphone! Anybody could do that!” “Well, the people who watch PewDiePie, those people aren’t our audience.” This PewDiePie guy had become a constant example of how games journalism was going down the drain.

This seemed weird to me, especially coming from folks who didn’t have a problem with the concept of performative “Let’s Play” gaming videos. How was PewDiePie playing games while telling jokes any different from other, supposedly less annoying game-playing comedians like the Game Grumps, or even more “professional” channels like Team Liquid? Those guys “scream into the mic” as well, and their jokes can be repetitive and hit-or-miss, also. Why was PewDiePie causing so much ire? Who are “those people” who like PewDiePie so much?

The anger at PewDiePie has really come to a head lately, enough that I now hear lots of people complain about him, not just jealous journalists. For one thing, his supposed $4 million earnings only recently emerged from a glowing Wall Street Journal profile of PewDiePie (the short video at the top of this article sums up the highlights), who I’m now going to start calling Felix Kjellberg, his real name, for the sake of giving my shift key a break.

Since that profile came out, I’ve learned a little bit more about Kjellberg. For one thing, I know that in 2012 he resolved to stop making rape jokes. He’s raised a whole lot of money for charity. And, in spite of the fact that he lovingly refers to his fan-base as “bros,” said fan-base includes … a lot of women, particularly teenaged girls who find Kjellberg attractive.

It’s pretty easy to see why. He’s got a charming, deferential, I-have-no-idea-how-I-got-famous charm, plus the five o’clock shadow and boy-band-member haircut don’t hurt. Overall, his well-groomed look beats out any other game-playing comedians I’ve seen on the internet (no offense to Team Liquid and the Game Grumps, although I know those guys have fandoms of their own, if significantly smaller ones).

Perhaps as a result of all of this, much of the backlash against Kjellberg’s fan-base is homophobic in tone, since almost nothing about Kjellberg fits the typical masculinity mold seen in other Let’s Players. His proclivity towards cross-dressing, for example, and his lack of shame about his high-pitched screams at horror games, do not give him a typical “hardcore gamer” feel.

As a result of all of this, Kjellberg appeals to The Tumblr Audience, particularly teen girls who probably see little “for” them from other Let’s Players, and I predict that’s the secret ingredient that’s made his pageviews max out over other YouTube gaming stars. Kjellberg may do little more than scream into a microphone, but it’s what he doesn’t do that counts. He doesn’t actively alienate female viewers; if anything, he’s done his best to keep them by toning down misogynistic humor. Girls are playing and enjoying videogames already. They’re just not going to “mainstream” gaming sites, because there’s nothing for them there. But, apparently, they are watching Kjellberg.

Obviously, Kjellberg has a big male audience as well. I would bet that if we could look at his demographics, we’d find he has a pretty strong viewership among both male and female gamers, especially younger gamers who aren’t particularly interested in reading 1200-word think-pieces on The Last of Us and BioShock (see, I can make fun of myself a little bit).

When other games media folks say those teenage girls “aren’t their audience,” however, that concerns me—and so does the bitterness towards Kjellberg’s fame and paycheck. The implication of this jealousy is that being funny on the internet is easy, and that Kjellberg’s audience is too stupid to realize that they’re supposed to be reading long-form feature stories. I would say that my fellow journalists need to think harder about what Kjellberg offers to his audience that they do not.

I guess I’m saying that videogame websites need to hire more hot guys who like balancing spoons on their heads while a cute pug dog walks around in the background. Okay, not necessarily, but I do hope that instead of engaging in scorn and jealousy of Kjellberg, games journalists would think a little harder about what his success actually represents: a changing demographic of gamers, and a new way for the next generation of teens to share and discuss games that they like to play.

There’s a legitimate fear among games journalists that Let’s Players will somehow “replace” game reviews entirely, that long-form features just don’t get as many page-views as fiery opinion pieces or top-ten lists (a concern that all publications, not just gaming-oriented ones, have had to face), and that we’ll all have to adapt to a new landscape of video-centric content and Buzzfeed-esque gif farms in order to finance the “real” content…that content being long-form features. I love long-form pieces, too, and I worry about how the future of the internet will finance them, too. But I worry just as much about how videos like Kjellberg’s will survive in the future. I don’t think Kjellberg is “stealing” money that other games journalists deserve—but Google and YouTube probably will, as soon as they figure out how.

What’s more, there’s also no security in “being popular on YouTube.” Internet fame is a fickle employer. I remember rushing home from high school every Monday to see if the latest Strong Bad email had gone up; it seemed like the comedy reign of Homestar Runner would last forever back then. It actually only lasted for a year. I’ve seen almost zero stories of independent creators who actually succeeded at long-term financial success; Penny Arcade is one of the few to have attained true media juggernaut status and actually hold onto it for upwards of a decade now. They’re the exception, not the rule, and more importantly, they represent the Old Guard now.

I expect journalists to keep being jealous of Kjellberg for a while yet. There’s a lot to be jealous about: his money, his popularity, his willful screaming at horror games, his hair. That stuff won’t last forever, so you can comfort yourself with that, but his audience—his massive, game-playing, fandom-loving audience—doesn’t seem that into you. And if you’re angry at Kjellberg, but you aren’t also angry at Game Grumps and Team Liquid, then you should probably take a long hard look at why that is. Really, it’s games journalism’s collective fault that we let Kjellberg, Tumblr and DeviantArt have the teen girl audience. Games media didn’t think it needed “those people.” But these days, it sure does seem like they’re having a lot more fun than we are.

Hyper Mode is an occasional column by Paste’s assistant games editor Maddy Myers. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.

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