PewDiePie, a.k.a. Felix Kjellberg, has more subscribers than anyone else on YouTube. And on Sunday, he angrily used the n-word during a livestream that has since been seen by millions.
In the now-deleted video, Kjellberg was streaming himself playing “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.” Furious at another player during a tense moment in the gameplay, the influential gaming personality said, “What a f—— n—–.”
“Jeez, oh my God, what the f—,” he said. “Sorry, but what the f—. What a f—ing a——. I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
Kjellberg has used racist language and imagery in his videos before. And when he’s condemned for it — by the media, by advertisers or by YouTube — his defenders often rally behind the accusation that he’s being unfairly taken out of context. The Nazi jokes that, thanks to a Wall Street Journal report, resulted in the YouTube star losing his premium show on the platform’s subscription service and his deal with Disney, were supposed to mock Nazisim, not promote it, the defense went.
This time, he had used the n-word, in anger, at another person. There’s no additional context to be missed.
On Tuesday morning, Kjellberg posted a video in response in which he agreed there were “no excuses” for what he said.
“You probably won’t believe me when I say this,” his response begins, “but whenever I go online, and I hear other players use the same kind of language that I did, I always find it extremely immature and stupid and I hate how I now personally fed into that part of gaming as well.”
Kjellberg said he used the word “in the heat of the moment,” and chose the “worst word I could possibly think of.”
“I’m disappointed in myself,” he added. “It seems like I’ve learned nothing from all these past controversies.”
Kjellberg holds a singular, and increasingly unsettled, place in gaming and YouTube culture. He rose to fame years ago for his Let’s Plays — or videos where gamers record themselves playing a video game, often with humorous commentary. PewDiePie’s specialty was scary games.
As his fame grew (he now has a staggering 57 million subscribers), his videos started branching out into vlogs, comedy videos and rants about a variety of subjects. A running theme of his recently was attacking institutions such as YouTube as a corporate entity. Sometimes he’d turn his anger on the mainstream media, whom he believed were, at best, guilty of not understanding him and his fan base; at worst they were out to take him down.
PewDiePie’s online persona is something of a paradox. Whether intentionally or not, it shifts as needed during a controversy to allow him to position himself in the ideal defensive crouch. Kjellberg is a professional entertainer, one who makes millions from his comedy and gaming videos. As YouTube’s biggest personality, his actions — good and bad — are often seen beyond the platform’s core community as representative of all YouTube creators. His audience is immense and overwhelmingly young, and he’s an influential figure to many of his followers.
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.” Even the name “PewDiePie” sounds silly when juxtaposed next to serious issues or accusations.
It is true that Kjellberg has his vocal defenders after this latest incident, including some of the same right-wing personalities who helped marshal more widespread support among YouTubers in the wake of the Nazi joke controversy. But based on his apology, even Kjellberg is speaking about his wrongdoing in the context of his own influential role in gaming and YouTube culture, and not as the grown child who sometimes appears in its place.
“I know I can’t keep messing up like this,” he said. “I owe it to myself and to my audience to do better than this, because I know I’m better than this.”
The question is: How many chances does he have left to prove that he’s not the Nazi-joking, racial-slur-uttering gamer his own content has helped make him out to be?
In the hours after his livestream, one game developer started reporting PewDiePie videos that contained footage from his games for copyright violations, to get them removed from PewDiePie’s channel.
I am sick of this child getting more and more chances to make money off of what we make.
— Sean Vanaman (@vanaman) September 10, 2017
And it was just a few weeks ago that Kjellberg had told his viewers that he wanted to change his content for the better. After the violence in Charlottesville, he released a video in which he promised that he would no longer make Nazi jokes on his channel.
“If for some reason Nazis think it’s great that I’m making these jokes, I don’t want to give them that benefit,” he said. “So, I’m gonna stop doing it. Nazi memes, they’re not even that funny anymore. It’s sort of a dead meme.”