Over the weekend, YouTube star Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg generated controversy when he used the n-word as an expletive during one of his live streams. The responses that followed over the next day were varied; some supported the embattled streamer, arguing that he should not be vilified for his use of a single word, while others found Kjellberg’s language to be indefensible. One of the strongest reactions in the latter came from Sean Vanaman, a developer who vowed to file Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown requests for any PewDiePie videos that featured his games.
Tuesday, September 12 has brought more updates. Most significantly, Kjellberg posted a new video in which he offered an apology for his behavior. He called the widespread use of the n-word in the gaming world “extremely immature and stupid.” “I hate how I personally fed into that part of gaming,” he added. “I’m not going to make any excuses…there are no excuses for it.”
Given the growing number of controversies that have surrounded Kjellberg since the start of 2017, it is fair to be skeptical of his pledge to do better. On the other hand, more forgiving sorts may find his contrition satisfactory.
Many different members of YouTube’s “Let’s Play” community have expressed thoughts on Kjellberg’s latest bit of headline-grabbing behavior, and several of them have expressed the same concern: With one word, the online video community’s top gamer may have inadvertently made life harder for his colleagues.
Kotaku, in its response to the controversy, noted several tweets from popular YouTubers who believe Kjellberg’s use of the n-word could affect their bottom lines. Jim Sterling called him a “liability,” while Dan Hardcastle of NerdCubed said Kjellberg has “put YouTube in a precarious place.”
Anyway, I’m off topic. Pewdiepie has fucked up. He’s once again put YouTube in a precarious place. There will be fallout from this.
— Daniel Hardcastle (@DanNerdCubed) September 10, 2017
These creators are worried because, for the mainstream media and public at large, PewDiePie represents the YouTube gaming community.
Even if you don’t know what a Let’s Play is and have never played a round of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, there’s a good chance you know about the Swedish guy who makes millions by broadcasting gaming sessions to his 57 million subscribers. If those observers of YouTube now associate the site’s gamers with casual racism, advertisers may be hesitant to partner with them, and creators like Sterling and Hardcastle could lose ad revenue as a result. Given that it’s only been a few months since concerns about “brand safety” triggered an “adpocalypse” that gouged into videomakers’ bottom lines, creators have a legitimate reason to fear that the fallout from Kjellberg’s gaffe will hit them, too.
The most worrisome potential fallout for many gamers, however, is not a second adpocalypse; it’s a possible shift in the legal relationship between developers and creators. For years, it has been unclear whether Let’s Play videos violate the DMCA or if they are protected by the doctrine of fair use. The companies that own video game rights, with some exceptions, haven’t mounted a legal challenge in this area because Let’s Play videos have made them boatloads of money without requiring a significant financial investment. If, however, those developers and distributors start to change their minds about how liberal they want to be with their intellectual property, the legal footing on which YouTube’s gaming community stands could be redefined.
Sean Vanaman may only be interested in weaponizing the DMCA against Kjellberg, but if his actions trigger a lawsuit related to Let’s Play videos and fair use, a dangerous precedent could be set. Both Hardcastle and another prominent YouTube gamer, John “TotalBiscuit” Bain, are worried about this exact scenario.
Heres the thing about “transformative” or “fair use” arguments. They’ve never been tested. If they are and lose then gaming content vanishes — Daniel Hardcastle (@DanNerdCubed) September 10, 2017
The point is they’ve never been fair use and we’ve had a tacit agreement to let it lie, until someone went and fucked it up. — John Bain (@Totalbiscuit) September 10, 2017
Perhaps this whole controversy will blow over and the fears expressed by Sterling, Hardcastle, and Bain will prove unfounded. What’s clear, though, is that Kjellberg’s foolish use of the n-word has put an entire community on edge.
For better or for worse, PewDiePie drives much of the discourse about digital gaming content. For that reason, anyone who enjoys watching those videos should be hoping that the controversial Swede’s latest apology is a sincere one.