PewDiePie, the Gaming Community, and the Normalization of Racism

Recently, internet personality and Let’s Player PewDiePie found himself in hot water again through his use of an undeniably racist word. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the original controversy he found himself in was because he had paid two men to hold up a sign that said “Death to all Jews.” It is worth noting that the men in the video are also people of color who were paid $5 to hold the sign by PewDiePie. Corporate sponsors dropped him, and the internet came to his defense. PewDiePie himself posted a response video on his YouTube channel, in which he says that everything was taken out of context.

So what has he done this time? During a live stream of him playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, he dropped the N-word as an insult for a player he was trying to shoot. For those of you who don’t understand context, he later amends the word to another negative one. He meant it as a negative word to use against a player he was angry with. He apologized once he realized what he had said. He knew immediately that the word would not be acceptable, but given that he had originally used it as a negative, it’s clear that his intention was to equate the two words as a negative toward the other player, as if they’re equivalent words with the same meaning.

Again, the internet has come to his defense. Most argue that he was in the heat of a gaming moment, and it slipped out. That argument does not fly. As someone who regularly plays video games, I have never once let a racial slur “slip” while angry at a video game or a player. That is not a word that just pops into your head without some regular use. His fans and some gamers again say that he apologized, and so he should be forgiven.

My question is, why is the internet so willing to defend this person who is willingly and openly engaging in blatantly racist rhetoric? Why is he allowed to get a pass just because he says he isn’t racist?

The Washington Post says,

But when Kjellberg does something offensive, he’s defended as though he were a naughty child, just a random guy who plays video games on the Internet who can’t help but pick up on some of the crudeness of “gaming culture.”

PewDiePie and his defenders are symptomatic of a bigger issue in gaming. It is largely an immature, offensive, racist, homophobic, and sexist culture. It is not uncommon to play games online and hear homophobic, sexist or racist slurs said as a derogatory towards other gamers. To some gamers, to be considered anything but a white straight male makes you lesser, and that’s part of why it is acceptable in the culture to use these slurs against people you are angry with. There are plenty of negative words one can use when angry, but gamers specifically use these types of words and defend those that do as well. You can only use the excuse for so long that it is a joke before people outside that echo chamber realized that you’re most likely just a person with no respect for people who aren’t just like you.

Video gaming has always been very much rooted in a white, middle class reality. PewDiePie is very white. Most of the people that I’ve seen defending him are also white. They argue that African Americans often use the N-word, so it has lost its racial connotations and thus is a fair game phrase. They cite people like Dave Chappelle who are African American and use the phrase often in their comedy or hip hop artists who use it in their lyrics. While I am not an expert on reappropriation, it is a choice that African Americans made to reappropriate the N-word, and that is not automatic permission for people in a place of racial power to use it as a slur against people they are angry with.

I write about video game history for a living. I am constantly surrounded by the sexist and racist language and behaviors that have been with video gaming since the 1970s. As a woman who plays video games, I’ve always felt a sense of the “other.” Movements such as GamerGate have not helped that situation much. Current gamers generally see themselves as a larger community who have been victimized, and they gatekeep those that they feel do not belong. People have been fighting for representation in video games and the industry that creates them for decades. People defending PewDiePie are engaging in a method of gatekeeping by accepting his behaviors as normal, rather than acknowledging that it is not okay to use this type of language under any circumstances. They see it within the community and feel it is normal.

People like PewDiePie and his defenders are a huge problem in the gaming community. It’s unacceptable to use this type of language, make these types of jokes, and to assume that it is okay because there was an apology issued. Gaming deserves better as a medium, and the gaming community can do better than this.

One thought on “PewDiePie, the Gaming Community, and the Normalization of Racism

  1. Zach

    I’ve never liked PewDiePie. I never understood the appeal of the content or what the intention or interest was that garners the insane viewership it does.

    It is absolutely frustrating, and your article is well addressed and deserved. There are over two hundred thousand some spoken words in English language, and he openly chose to use one specifically. There is no valid defense for this behavior.

    Hopefully developers and game companies follow the lead of Sean Vanaman, co-developer in Santo Campo and makers of PUBG, and at least take away enough of PDP’s media platform. If we’re lucky, game companies will take notice and begin to condemn such behavior rather than the blind eye they have kept toward it so far.


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