Four years ago, an account named "PewDiePie" uploaded a video to YouTube. It was about Minecraft. The video featured what sounded like a young man laughing heartily at an unlucky zombie that had gotten stuck in a tree. The commentary wasn't in English -- it was in Swedish.
The next few videos on this account focused on commentary for first-person shooters such as Call of Duty. These were in English. While you couldn't see the commentator's face, his style was candid. It was as if he was speaking to a friend standing right next to his computer -- only a bit goofier, as he frequently said word salad, or whatever seemed to pop into his mind.
During one of these early 2010 videos, the man behind Pewdiepie can be heard thanking his fans for helping him reach 100 subscribers:
"To a lot of people 100 subscribers is probably an insignificant number, but to me it means a lot. I just want to thank you guys so much for your support," the young man said. "Some of you have been asking me...what's the next thing? Do you want to be on Machinima? Do you want to be famous? It's a little early to talk about that stuff, but, no, I don't want to be famous."
The Pewdiepie account would go on to upload Let's Play videos -- lots of them. In the videos, you can see a handsome, blond young man freak out at horror games such as Amnesia. Four years later, Pewdiepie -- whose real name is Felix Kjellberg -- is the biggest star on YouTube, with 32,734,954 subscribers and counting. It's the type of following that breeds influence. According to Variety, teens are more likely to consider personalities like Pewdiepie more famous than traditional stars, like Jennifer Lawrence. Games discovered by Pewdiepie, like Slender, can rocket into stardom. This Midas Touch holds true even if the game isn't considered very good, or isn't very polished -- just look at Goat Simulator. People now make games with explicit shout-outs to Pewdiepie, seemingly in the hopes that he'll feature their games on his channel. And it's not uncommon to see up-and-coming YouTube stars trying to mimic Pewdiepie's energetic style.
The thing is, while Pewdiepie is very popular, those among the gaming 'elite' -- hardcore players who might comment on a website like Reddit, Twitter, or even Kotaku itself -- don't seem to take very kindly to him. In an informal Twitter poll, people described Pewdiepie to me as an "obnoxious waste of time", "annoying", and, above all, people told me that he made them "feel old". The press isn't always kind to Pewdiepie. He is often posed as an inexplicable phenomenon, the kind of thing that can make a games reporter sweat with fears of obsolescence. At worst, the press takes potshots. Variety says Pewdiepie's shtick is "blathering like a blithering idiot" and that his videos feature "aggressive stupidity". A recent South Park episode which explored the popularity of watching someone like Pewdiepie play games had one outlet saying they were "sad for tomorrow's gamers".
It seems difficult to talk about Pewdiepie without delving into hostile conversations about whether or not he 'deserves' his success, or whether or not his type of entertainment is 'worthwhile.' Isn't he just a man that yells over video games? What is the world coming to?
It's the sort of reaction that sparks curiosity. Until late this year, I was not one of the millions of subscribers that watched Pewdiepie videos. I avoided him, I think, because I'd heard bad things. But I had to start watching. If he's the future, I wanted to know more about it.
For a few months now, I've been tuning in to the occasional Pewdiepie upload on YouTube. I don't watch every video -- his output is more than I can keep up with. His channel is full of hundreds of videos he's recorded over the years. Remarkably, he does it all on his own.
"My fans don't really care about professional high-end production videos...the fact that people know that it's just me making the videos -- with no crew -- has proved to be a winning concept," Pewdiepie said in an interview with Icon Magazine. "The thing that has made YouTube so successful is that you can relate to the people you're watching to a much higher degree than to the people you see on TV. And that's why I keep doing it all myself, though it would save me a lot of work if I didn't."
For those of you that have never watched a Pewdiepie video before, here's a somewhat recent one, picked at random:
Since the video isn't out of the ordinary for a Pewdiepie upload, it gives us a good sense of what a typical video looks like. Before you click, you'll notice a few things. First, the thumbnail features a glitched-out version of Shrek. Funny Photoshops such as these are common in the thumbnails of Pewdiepie videos. Second, you'll note that the title of the video is almost entirely in capslock. MY FAVOURITE SHREK GAME, in this case. Though Pewdiepie does play popular games, more often than not he'll play the sorts of obscure games that you'd probably never read about on a site like Kotaku. Once the video starts, Pewdiepie introduces himself, often by making silly gestures and saying his own handle in a signature high-pitched voice. Peeeewdiepie! If you watched the South Park episodes on Pewdiepie, it's the same way that Cartman says the catchphrase "Cartman Brah."
Then, once the video gets rolling, Pewdiepie -- who is sometimes accompanied by his girlfriend, Marzia, or one of his pets -- reacts to whatever is happening on-screen. Being that he's a cheerful guy, much of his reaction to everything is a joke, or a laugh. It helps that many of the games he plays are absurd, and that his style of commentary is random and raw. You never really know what Pewdiepie is going to say next, though you can count on hearing curses, as well as off-the-cuff remarks. Sometimes, what Pewdiepie says doesn't really make sense. But, as someone who dips her toes into things like streaming from time to time, it's hard for me to hold something like that against Pewdiepie. It's difficult to sound smart in the moment, as you're playing a game that demands your attention. I give props to anyone that can pull it off.
I'm inclined to call Pewdiepie's brand of video harmless entertainment...mostly. Pewdiepie is also known to be profane, crude and arguably insensitive. In the video above, for example, when two characters stick closely to Shrek, Pewdiepie yells "stop molesting me!" Correction: we originally wrote that Pewdiepie said "get raped" in this video. In actuality, he's saying "get wrecked," but with an accent that made it sound like something different. While Pewdiepie has come under fire in the past for making rape jokes, we apologise for the mistake here.
The way some of the internet tells it, a Pewdiepie video is supposed to be all shrieks and yells -- the sort of immature thing that would become grating after a while. And sure, Pewdiepie isn't always speaking in an indoor voice. He'll readily admit that it's a part of his act. According to an Adweek interview, he likes to "[keep] it more energetic, crazy." But, after watching many of his recent videos, I'm not sure people wholly get who Pewdiepie is now, in late 2014. It's true that he got famous for screaming his head off at horror games. It's also true that, this year, Pewdiepie's channel doesn't feature as many horror games, either. That's intentional. While popular horror games such as Five Nights at Freddy's rake in the views for a channel like Pewdiepie, 2014 is the year that Pewdiepie seems to be pushing back on what some fans demand of him. Instead of limiting himself to horror games, Pewdiepie is now actively playing more things that interest him. We've seen instances when games render Pewdiepie speechless altogether. Watching a recent video now, you get the sense that Pewdiepie is changing, perhaps maturing a tiny bit. Maybe it's the beard tricking me though.
I couldn't help but wonder: what else do people get wrong about Pewdiepie? Can I trust when a self-identified gamer sneers at someone like Pewdiepie when a lot of our hardcore culture likes to celebrate personalities that flaunt how cynical, jaded, annoyed or angry they are? Annoyed Gamer. Cynical Brit. Angry Joe. Yahtzee. Francis. These are the sorts of old-school personalities that gaming seems to welcome with open arms. On the other hand, personalities that are too happy, or too hype, like HipHopGamer and Pewdiepie, meanwhile, are openly mocked. People can like what they like, of course, and there's room for all these personalities.
I decided to go straight to the man's fans. What do they think of Pewdiepie? What do they see in him? Why do they like them so much?
With these questions in mind, I made an account on Pewdiepie's official forums, where Pewdiepie's "Bro Army" discusses his latest videos. It's the community that Pewdiepie reads in lieu of YouTube's messy comments. While I was logged on during American work/school hours, there were only 36 users who were logged in, and there were over 700 people lurking on the website. The forum isn't anything special, though I was amused by weirdly specific rules like 'Try to have a conversation and not shout Pewdie quotes constantly,' and 'Don't post lyrics.' But beyond that, standard fare. You've got your threads about Pewdiepie's latest videos, you've got threads about games, you've got threads about random junk.
Most responses to Pewdiepie videos never seem to be more than a sentence or two. To quote a few examples of replies to some threads about Pewdiepie:
"Ha! This looks like a good game for my boyfriend and I to play too!"
"I loved this video it's cool to see you two play together."
"Right now I only play with my boyfriend and his friends and I'm getting tired of all the testosterone!"
"All I do is play games and watch Pewds and Marzias videos to hold me over to the next day! Sad panda."
Many of the users claimed to be from around the world -- people said they were from places like Italy, the U.S., Asia. Pewdiepie's audience seemed remarkably international. Naturally, many people had avatars of Pewdiepie himself, with some people actively pretending to be Pewdiepie -- it made reading the forum a bit bizarre. Another interesting thing I noted was that many of the people in the Pewdiepie forums seemed to be girls. Young teenagers. Perhaps that isn't surprising, given Pewdiepie's boyish look, and his willingness to be vulnerable, intimate -- many of his videos are shot in his bedroom -- and even feminine, on-screen.
It's the sort of approach to YouTubing that can lead to scenes of Pewdiepie in an airport that look like the Beatles have just flown in town:
It's also the sort of following that makes it easy to see why people would make so much fun of him. As I argued in my piece about the Kim Kardashian: Hollywood game which is also popular with young girls, society loves to tell teen girls that their interests are stupid, vapid, and not worthy of respect. It's not just teen girls, really. The internet has made a sport of mocking teens growing up on the internet. It's easy to forget that we might have once been like that too, only our embarrassing origin stories aren't archived on the likes of Tumblr.
When you take into account what Pewdiepie is doing with this audience of teens -- making people spectators in the games he plays -- it's also not surprising that some of the 'gaming elite' dislikes the guy. Our culture is built on playing the games, weathering the hardship and challenges yourself. A gamer is not born, this mentality posits. Gamers are made after running the gauntlet. What do you mean these people just want to watch? Meanwhile, sites such as Twitch that let people broadcast their games are exploding because there's a growing audience of people who want to watch other people play games. It's like how someone might want to watch a sport, but not actually play it. Anyone who cracks jokes that are along the lines of, 'back in my day, kids actually played video games,' -- and those are some of the jokes I heard on that South Park episode and have heard from Pewdiepie's many critics in and outside of the press -- is getting left behind.
Sometimes Pewdiepie actually gets people into games though. A friend told me that her twelve-year-old sister, who never showed an interest in games before, suddenly wanted to try out all the horror games she could find because of Pewdiepie. This little girl is not someone that a website like Kotaku could normally reach, I don't think. They're a part of a new generation of gamers who don't necessarily read or trust gaming sites, but they're still interested in a reliable source when it comes to game recommendations. This source doesn't have to say anything smart. They just have to play the game, let people see the thing in action. The fact that you only see raw reactions in Pewdiepie's videos works in the game's benefit. You get to see an honest take on a game. Traditional game reviews, meanwhile, are inundated with meaningless marketing buzzwords like "visceral" and jargon like "framerate." These are things that may inform purchases for people like me, but they aren't useful to anyone who isn't already immersed in hardcore gaming culture.
Let's go back to talking about the Pewdiepie forums. I hopped into the forum's chat, where some people were arguing with each other about how old they are. Most claimed to be over 20 or 30. My guess is that only people who aren't that old would feel the need to convince strangers on the internet that they're over 18, but, who knows!
I told the chat I was writing about Pewdiepie, and I asked them: why do you guys like Pewdiepie? Immediately, one person responded saying that it was because Pewdiepie is so "fabulous." Another person had a more hot take on Pewdiepie, shouting "IT"S SIMPLE! HE'S FUNNY!!!" I could practically see the massive eyeroll through the computer screen.
Then I asked the chat, do you feel like people who don't watch Pewdiepie get him all wrong? Someone calmly responded, "People [have] their own opinion. That's all. We can't explain everything." And at least one person tried to troll me, claiming that they thought Pewdiepie was shit (despite, you know, being in a chat for Pewdiepie fans on a Pewdiepie forum). This response was met with hostility with some of the other chatters, but I got the sense that they were all already familiar with this person's cranky disposition.
Eventually I left the chat, and started perusing other threads. One thread, which catalogued how people heard about Pewdiepie in the first place, was particularly enlightening. Most people say they heard about Pewdiepie through word of mouth, often through other friends. Some people said that they came across Pewdiepie after running YouTube searches for games they were interested in, or they came across him randomly while in a YouTube rabbit hole. Google notes that 95% of gamers frequent online video like the ones hosted on YouTube to consume gaming media. "Go to YouTube in an incognito mode window," one Redditor on r/pewdiepie instructs. "Enter without a login to any account and without having browsed anything on Google. "Around half the videos recommended and pushed to you will be of video game's players and video game's commentators mixed in with the cat videos and talk show clips. It's not just a thing, it's a whole entertainment genre," they wrote.
In particular, people mentioned that they learned about Pewdiepie through horror games. This is common -- like I said, Pewdiepie cut his teeth on horror games, and that's what most people know him for. In the subreddit dedicated to Pewdiepie, one Redditor remarked, "I don't like playing horror games, but I enjoy watching other people play. It gives me the opportunity to experience the story without having to suffer through gameplay I wouldn't enjoy myself." That same person cited that Pewdiepie gave them a chance to experience games without having to invest in a high-end computer or spend money at all.
Another oft-cited video that helped people discover Pewdiepie is called "Happy Wheels." It's about a humorous game with awkward controls the likes of which QWOP, Surgeon Simulator, and Octodad have now made famous:
Eventually, I found myself in a thread that asked people how Pewdiepie changed their lives. This was one of the most popular threads in the entire forum, and it was full of responses:
"He made me respect how much effort some youtubers put into their videos."
"He's not ashamed of Being Weird .. & that's the Thing i liked about him."
"I have actually lost 3 lbs watching PewDiePie for the last 2 weeks... I had read somewhere a while ago that laughing increases weight loss."
"I owe my life to this man."
"Before I discovered Felix I was quite lonely. In a population of 1000 in a small town in Iceland you don't really blend in the crowd, as there are no crowds lol. But anyway, I barely had no friends. I was alone at all times. To be honest, I didn't really care. My parents weren't home much so I didn't have anybody to talk to. Then I discovered Felix. I then knew that maybe I did care after all that time. Because at that exact moment, I was happy for the first time in a really long time. Someone understood me, someone made me laugh. He's like my best friend. I know he doesn't know I even exist. But I know he does care about us bros."
"Honestly I feel like he cares about us. Not for money or fame-but because were just like him. Best of all were considered brothers and not fans. And every video he expresses how much he's thankful for us and its wonderful to be part if a multi-million brotherhood with you guys :) <3."
"I watch him every day, even when i feel sad he makes me happy. He makes the videos with love for his bro's and you see that, thats the reason why he is loved by so many."
"Pewds has changed me from being weird and abashed to being weird and FREE!"
"Put a smile on my face, even after a tough or stressful day."
"He inspired me to start my own charity program!!! "
"He made me feel better about myself because he isnt afraid to be who he really is. I dont like people judging who i am but Pewds inspired me not to care. I try my hardest to ignore it and i be myself no matter what people think. Since my parents divorce i hadnt really laughed as much as i did when i saw pewds videos. I love his videos and watch them whenever i can to keep my spirits high or just when im feeling down."
The responses are astounding. For some it will be easy to get held up on the fact that some of these claims have misspellings, or they're too earnest, perhaps even misguided. For me, it highlights one thing. I don't think people like Pewdiepie are wasting kids' time or making them 'stupider,' as some would claim. I do think he's making them less lonely. We can try to pass the buck to Pewdiepie here, but what did we do as a society that necessitates so many of our kids resorting to a person on a screen to keep them company, to help them through tough spots that they don't know how to navigate? Maybe that isn't the right thing to ask, either -- not when so much of the stress of our lives is mitigated online. I've had countless friends who I only know online. I follow people on sites like Twitter closely, consuming their day-to-day life with faves and retweets, reblogs and comments. I'm not special in that regard, either. Pewdiepie is the natural result of online culture, a type of celebrity who arose because of a specific need.
After reading through Pewdiepie forums, I went back and found a video blog where Pewdiepie wasn't playing a game. He was just talking into the camera to his fans. The lighting was warm, and the focus made everything around Pewdiepie soft, fuzzy. The camera focused on his face. He wasn't yelling. He wasn't doing his silly voices or any of his schticks. He was just talking. Actually, he was apologising for something in an earlier video -- not to anyone in particular, but it felt like he was talking to me personally. It was kind of unsettling. As I looked away from the screen, I thought about something Pewdiepie said in an interview with Icon Magazine. "The loneliness in front of the computer screens brings us together."