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Can Copyright Law Bring Down PewDiePie?

The mega-popular gaming vlogger’s use of the n-word in a livestream Sunday has drawn both expected criticism and a surprising new tactic for addressing racism in gaming

PewDiePie Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Sunday, the massively popular YouTube personality PewDiePie — a 27-year-old Swede named Felix Kjellberg — streamed several hours of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), a survival shooter game on PC. In a fit of frustration with a fleeing opponent, PewDiePie shouted, “What a fucking nigger!” into his mic. The livestream picked this up, of course. Several of PewDiePie’s 57 million followers circulated the footage of him shouting “nigger” (and then giggling apologetically) quickly via social media.

Not long after the footage went viral, the popular games designer Sean Vanaman took to Twitter to announce that his studio, Campo Santo, which produced the popular game Firewatch, would file a copyright claim against PewDiePie’s YouTube account to disable all Firewatch-related content on his channel. Campo Santo is a small studio, and its DMCA complaint is a small threat for a giant YouTube star, whose regular videos typically clock 3 million to 5 million views each — unless several other studios take out similar complaints against PewDiePie’s account. “I’d urge other developers & will be reaching out to folks much larger than us to cut him off from the content that has made him a milionaire,” Vanaman tweeted.

It’s an instantly controversial strategy — and also one of the first that could feasibly shake up the whole games-streaming economy, beyond PewDiePie and his outrageous ilk. If a major games publisher such as Microsoft Studios (which publishes PUBG) or Activision pressured Google to pull their content from PewDiePie’s YouTube channel, it’d be a remarkable blow to his $15 million per year business. But even a broader coalition of much smaller video game studios might work to disrupt PewDiePie’s livelihood with a wave of content takedowns. As much as that might intimidate PewDiePie, it might also go a long way to discourage similar behavior among streamers and the fans who obsessively follow them. That seems to be Vanaman’s aim, at least — leaning on copyright law to ameliorate gamer racism, of all problems.

While online gaming culture is full of right-wing trolls, this particular backlash — which has been picked up by Variety, The Guardian, and Vox as well as traditional video game media — couldn’t have happened to a more divisive gamer. As popular as he is, PewDiePie is a controversial web figure given his history of bigoted stunts and remarks, which he and his followers defend as “comedy.” In February, Disney severed ties with PewDiePie a month after he produced one video, supposedly a prank, featuring a sign that read “Death to All Jews.” The controversy surrounding “Death to All Jews” was the first, full-blown PewDiePie scandal, but the mega-popular games streamer has a longer history of rape jokes, neo-Nazi trolling, and other reactionary provocations. PewDiePie has been streaming since 2010, and followers have chronicled his offenses as early as 2012. For the past year now, PewDiePie’s so-called comedy has spilled into popular notoriety beyond just gaming culture due to the sheer size of his audience, which eclipses every other YouTube vlogger of any given genre (games, beauty, food, you name it).

PewDiePie’s occasional, reactionary irreverence has become a core component of his appeal. Likewise, for critics and fans who value inclusivity — and among outside observers who view PewDiePie’s conduct as inexplicably frequent in the news — PewDiePie represents all that is wrong and alienating about games culture. “Gaming’s problem with toxicity is not a secret,” Javy Gwaltney wrote for Game Informer on Monday. “The reason 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.”

In his videos, PewDiePie is childish, and his fans cite the obvious silliness of his schtick as cover for any serious offense one might take from shouting “nigger,” with or without the hard r, whether it’s pure reflex or part of a bit. PewDiePie isn’t a comedian in any conventional sense, but his hosting style is loopy and irreverent in the extreme: He’s a little bit stand-up, a little bit shock jock, a little bit 4chan bottom-feeder. (On a PUBG stream from August, PewDiePie and his frequent streaming partner Brad WOTO can both be heard dancing around the word repeatedly as a running joke.) He’s by no means serious. “I’m just a guy making jokes on the internet,” PewDiePie says in a recent video on his YouTube channel, where he offered his most straightforward repudiation of neo-Nazis following last month’s violence in Charlottesville. “I don’t think anyone that watches me think I’m an actual Nazi, but I know a lot of people still might have doubts, mainly because of all the jokes that I’ve been making. At this point, I really just want to distance myself from all of this.”

But in this latest case, PewDiePie’s typical distinctions between comedy and sincerity matter less since he shouted “nigger” in pure, acute, articulate frustration; all his ironic pretensions are stripped away. What remains is the standard, racialized hostility that’s dominated the multiplayer voice chat channels of countless mainstream video game titles for more than a decade now. To see PewDiePie’s right-wing fans defend this sort of outburst as standard-issue gamer rage is unsurprising. His followers are just as fervent in their defense as his critics are in their opposition. Currently, if you search “Pewdiepie nigger” in Google, you’ll see web articles about the backlash only after a first page of redundant video uploads with laudatory captions. “HEIL PEWDIEPIE,” reads one. Immediately, PewDiePie’s fandom has closed in on him in protective embrace. In the offending PUBG stream, once PewDiePie realizes that he’s shouted a racial epithet to a live web audience, he spends the next several minutes mumbling about how the media will inevitably cite the outburst as evidence of prejudices that he disavows. His friend Brad WOTO, the one other voice in the chat, assures PewDiePie that the inevitable criticisms will be frivolous and unfair. Brad and PewDiePie then compare the latter’s outburst to the recent racial misadventures of YouTube vlogger Tana Mongeau, who has faced backlash for saying “nigger” in her videos despite criticizing other white streamers for their use of the epithet. “Guess it’s me and Tana Mongeau now,” PewDiePie laughed a few minutes after he shouted “nigger” into his mic. “We’re on the same team.” For once, they’re losing.

PewDiePie is a uniquely embattled figure within gaming culture, where the subjects of right-wing insults and harassment have only recently learned to fight back against advanced right-wing trolls such as PewDiePie and his followers. He may be a YouTube king, but PewDiePie is nothing without the original content that he repurposes to build his fan base and reputation. If Vanaman has his way, a coalition of games publishers might do more to undermine PewDiePie’s influence than even Disney ever could. The thought of PewDiePie’s critics mounting a real, coordinated punishment of his repugnant conduct is an unexpected relief with potentially widespread ramifications if publishers subsequently apply these standards to other games streamers. Against all commercial odds, PewDiePie has defied several outrage cycles at this point. But Vanaman is playing a new game.