Opinion: We Need To Talk About PewDiePie
Yesterday, Felix Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie, uttered a racial slur while streaming PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. We wrote a news piece about it. The responses to the article were a mixed bag. There were plenty of readers who were appalled and disturbed by the instance. However, in the past 24 hours, supporters have come to Kjellberg's defense, saying that he's not a racist, that he said what he said in a "heated moment of gaming," that he's a shock jock, that the media is out to smear his good image, that people who play Call of Duty say these things all of the time. Perhaps the most disheartening response was that Felix Kjellberg spouting a racial slur was not news in the slightest.
We're Game Informer. We are not a gossip rag. When we write the news, we do not deal in hypotheticals, and we do not take for granted the sacredness of facts in an age where people distrust the media at every turn. Kjellberg, the most popular YouTuber on the planet, was streaming one of the most popular video games and called an opponent a "N*****" (for a nuanced look at why that word is unacceptable, head here). Afterwords, he immediately 'corrected' himself by saying "a**hole," demonstrating that he's aware of the slur's use as a pejorative. This is a fact. There is video evidence you can watch for yourself right here. Now, admittedly just because it's fact doesn't make it news, so what does make it news?
Gaming's problem with toxicity is not a secret. Anytime you load up Counter-Strike, Overwatch, DOTA 2, PUBG, Call of Duty, you're opening yourself up to the possibility you will hear insults, racial slurs, and other bigoted remarks. Gaming should, by its nature, be an inclusive experience where people feel safe to experience the richness of this medium, whatever form it takes, without having their ethnicity attacked. This is a problem in our backyard, one that we've cultivated over two decades by letting trash talk fester into something toxic. It's a multipronged failure. A failure on the part of developers to create sturdy systems that punish harmful players for their remarks. It's a failure on the part of gamers to step up during multiplayer matches, in forums, in public places when someone screams racial slurs because they're angry or having "a heated moment." And it is also, let's be very clear about this, a failure on the part of major outlets like ourselves to work toward making video games a place where everyone feels welcome.
Kjellberg has an audience of over 57 million subscribers. He is, by all definitions, a public figure.
We wrote an article about Kjellberg not to smear him, not for clicks, not to jump on some controversy. We wrote the piece because it is a fundamental chapter in a huge story that's been playing out over decades, a story that's about who gets to play games without fear of being attacked for their identity. The reason is that Kjellberg saying that slur is news when your average Call of Duty player saying it isn't, is because Kjellberg wields an influence that most people do not have. You may find yourself balking at the idea that a YouTuber gets to shape culture, but that's how reinforcement of ideas happen, especially when you cater to an audience that large, undoubtedly comprised of young people.