It all began on September 9. YouTube’s (and the world's) most popular gaming personality, Felix ‘PewDiePie’ Kjellberg, was livestreaming the game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. He was becoming increasingly frustrated, attempting to eliminate someone who’d killed off his playing partner, when he blurted out the words, ‘What a fucking nigger, jeez—oh my god.’
After taking three days to gather his thoughts, Kjellberg responded to the controversy with a heavily edited apology that ticked the necessary boxes, but didn’t really acknowledge why there’s such anger over his casual use of a word steeped in a dark, deep history of oppression and hate. In short, he said ‘Sorry’, sidestepped the issue and moved along… just as before. This is a huge problem with internet culture, and it's not just PewDiePie at fault, it's something rife in the community as a whole.
Like many other people of colour who happen to work in the games industry, I refrained from immediately commenting in depth for a couple of reasons. Kjellberg’s casual and multiple uses of such a racist epithet angered me beyond belief, and I didn't want to play straight into the Angry Blackman stereotype, which would only reinforce the negative opinion of black males clung to by mainstream media and pockets of society. Besides, many other people were able to wonderfully articulate their thoughts in a way I couldn’t at the time, and the general (and expected) feeling from across the industry was that what had been said was wrong and there’s no place for it in video games, and definitely not in society. The problem was there were so many opinions and questions, but no answers or solutions.
As a person of mixed heritage (I’m a mix of black African-Caribbean and white North-American) it’s difficult to hear, or even read, the word nigger and be ok with its use. Sure, it’s pretty common in media, and even as part of black ebonics. People of colour can and do continue to use the term as an affectionate, almost endearing one towards one another, and for black people it’s an opportunity to take back ownership of its use. This doesn’t make it right, but at least you can begin to understand (even if you don’t agree with) its usage, sometimes seen almost as an attempt to dilute its effect.
The term nigger is ultimately derived from the Latin word niger, which means black. Originally the word was considered to be a neutral term, especially during the early 16th century where its use described a dark-skinned person. In historical terms it wasn’t widely considered as negative until the early 18th century, where it became synonymous with hatred, belittlement, oppression, and of being beneath someone or a certain sect of society. It’s a word whose very history is fractured, opprobrious, and innately confusing. It should never be used unthinkingly, especially by a person who’s a) white, and using it without context, and b) oblivious to the hurt it causes when used flippantly.
When I saw and heard PDP say it multiple times during his livestream, I was, and continue to be, increasingly furious with him, and myself for being so hurt by what happened. I thought to myself at the time, who does he think he is using this term? What gives him the right? Does he even realise what it signifies? How often does he use the term to have it so casually ‘slip out’? There were many questions, and no suitable answers other than the simple: he’s a racist. I’ll share some sage advice with you: if you’re engaged in conversation and you happen to use a racially pejorative term, willfully or not, you’re a racist. So defend him all you like, but PDP’s one of many racists that are out there. It's a shame that he holds such disdainful views, yet is still held in such high esteem himself, and defended as though he’s the victim in this instance. He isn’t, he never was, and any attempts to make him one are futile and should be immediately disregarded. He’s just extremely ignorant, and unless he wants to seriously change, it won’t happen.
As a child, and teenager, I heard the word used on an almost daily basis, whether it was from friends reciting song lyrics, colloquially endearing themselves to one another, or on the numerous occasion someone has used it to refer to me, and definitely in a negative sense, and it’s still surprising how common this is. One particular memory has stuck with me from childhood. When playing Goldeneye on the N64, one of my white friends blurted out ‘Fucking nigger!’ after losing in a game. It wasn’t even directed towards me, it was just a frustrated ten-year-old. He immediately recoiled in self-disgust, apologised profusely and begged for forgiveness. He still apologises about it now. I forgave him as a friend, but never for his use of the term. The word was clearly entrenched in his vocabulary with a negative connotation, and it’ll forever remain. The difference here is, unlike PDP, he would never consider using it again, automatically filtering out the word as a no go, whatever the situation. Everyone says stupid things when they’re angry and frustrated, which doesn’t make it right, but it can be remedied somewhat when people are called out for its use. Just like my childhood friend Ben: he retains that memory and he’s a better person for it. I hope.
The same attitude goes for the use of any term which has negative connotations, whether it be for race, sexual preference, gender or more. As a child we tend to repeat what we hear, but as adults we don’t have the same excuse, because we should be more cognisant of how our statements can be perceived. We should have the maturity to exhibit self control, whether that’s out of respect to another person or because it’s simply not acceptable to say certain things. It’s important that people continue to bring instances like PewDiePie’s use to light, because the only way we can progress and improve is if people do not tolerate hate speech in any form. This isn’t about being a 'social justice warrior', or any other term that people wish to twist into something negative. It’s about being a good person, and one who respects others.
The fact of the matter is that the word nigger is of huge embarrassment historically, for both black and white people. Not only for its links to continued subjugation, but also the many failed attempts of black people to emancipate themselves from the burden of a term, and a one that recalls the stain and shame of African slavery on white modern history.
Its use is a huge part of the reason you’ll currently see people ‘taking a knee’ in the USA. It’s not just a word, it’s synonymous with a need for a cultural, civil, and societal shift. Everyone should acknowledge its lingering negativity one last time, before consigning it to the bin of despicable words. Never to be used again. Nigger, quite simply, cannot be watered down, diluted or digested. It's immersed in hate and should never be a part of anyone’s everyday vocabulary, regardless of colour, and especially if you’re the blonde-haired, blue-eyed figurehead of a YouTube channel that flouts all decorum in the name of ‘comedy’.
My younger family members have watched this guy online espousing hate speech with a giggle, reinforcing negative stereotypes (such as the laughably insensitive ‘yurgay’ username) and then dropping racial terms with reckless abandon. When all is said and done, these children take that experience away with them, and it affects them. It belittles them for the sake of a caustic internet funny.
When news of PewDiePie’s actions broke on September 9, I went online to see what people would say about it. As it turns out I didn’t need to wait too long. On September 10, the Firewatch developer Campo Santo publicly distanced itself from PDP, and was swiftly followed by the developers of Year Walk and Device 6, Simogo, who requested that PDP delete his Year Walk Let's Plays. Many outlets reported on this news, including us, and many failed to offer an insightful opinion other than that PDP is naughty, and he done goofed, again. Some went further with op-ed pieces such as Waypoint, who excellently broached the topic of racial slurs, hate speech, and how easy it is to fall into a trap. Polygon also published a couple of insightful pieces on the subject. I felt proud to be writing amongst a field of peers who touched on a subject with sensitivity, respect and honesty. In the time that's passed I still haven't seen many pieces from people of colour. Maybe there just aren’t enough voices of colour in the industry to respond. But I can understand why many wouldn’t touch the topic with a bargepole; the internet can be toxic like that.
Unfortunately, these feelings weren't mirrored in the gaming community, especially in the audience of PewDiePie himself. It was as though someone had tolled a bell for an assembly of apologists, or entitled folk, to come to the fore and explain why PDP said what he did, and proffer reasons why he isn’t and couldn’t be racist. This was followed by a plague of naysayers who attacked those who’ve had the temerity to stand up and speak out against hate speech. Campo Santo’s Firewatch was review-bombed on Steam, which is getting off lightly considering the hate and bile that the gaming community can sometimes direct towards individuals. PewDiePie's followers just completely glazed over the fact that he’d used the word multiple times, and instantly forgave him — they even wished him well, as he was the obvious victim in this whole debacle. You need only take a look at the litany of comments below his YouTube videos, where plenty of his followers are more than willing to look past these instances time and time again.
There are many ‘apologists’ who would (and continue to) argue that using the word is a way of disempowering it. The core argument used by many people who propagate the casual use of the term is simply that ‘it's just a word’; it’s said in anger or frustration and it’s not aimed at anyone in particular, so it’s fine to use it. Then there are the quite frankly deluded folks who lean on the misguided idea that the word cracker is just as offensive.
When I read comments like these, it makes me want to tear those people out of their sheltered vortex, their blanket of security, and get to work on schooling them about the extensive and appalling history and civil issues that are associated with the word nigger.
PDP could’ve done more in response to his created controversy. It’s not about shedding crocodile tears, feigning ignorance, and then blaming it all on stupidity. Yes, his use(s) of the word nigger was stupid, yet he almost repeated it within days of the ‘apology’. PDP has had ample opportunities to, properly, own his choice of verbiage. He could’ve used the platform he stands atop so proudly to educate not only himself, but those who follow him, and this is a problem many people have with a persona like PewDiePie. When something’s gone wrong, and PDP’s at fault once again, the ensuing apology loses all of its meaning when it’s mocked in a follow-up video which has clearly had more time put into it. It stinks, it’s not cool, and it's disrespectful.
PDP said, ‘It’s not like I think I can say or do whatever I want and get away with it, that’s not it at all — I’m just an idiot.’ He isn’t an idiot; he's clearly intelligent, so maybe he’s actually choosing to maintain this air of ignorance as part of his character. Regardless of how you feel about him, he's also quite talented. He just happens to be a bigot, and it’s down to him to change that perception — if he so wishes. He could perhaps share this experience, and better practices with his community, and become the bigger and better personality because of it. Just saying.
So, how do we move past this and turn this moment into something positive? It’s nigh on impossible to let something of this magnitude go, especially when it repeatedly crops up like this, but the industry can, and should learn from instances like these. Some people will discuss these incidents and then say that the industry is still so young, and that it’s still growing. Those excuses are no longer acceptable; there’s a tipping point. As an industry and entertainment medium, games can only ever be as mature as we allow them to be. Sure, games are meant to be entertaining (and I’m certain that will remain the case) but we should be taking a public, collective stand against hatred and negativity, and that refers to everyone: the corporate side, games media, and the surrounding communities.
Everybody makes horrendous mistakes, and we may end up involved in situations where no one comes out looking good. Perhaps in this instance PewDiePie just made a mistake, three or four times. While I don’t agree with how he dealt with it, it’d be good if PDP took it upon himself to reach out to people of colour in the industry and sought a way to improve on his understanding of race culture, and his missteps when it comes to using such regressive terminology. I’d gladly sit down with him and discuss how he can seriously educate himself to remove such draconian words from his vocabulary. Then we can move onto the casual homophobia. Baby steps, and so on.
As much as I personally wouldn’t want to give my time to bigots, and purveyors of hatred or intolerance, perhaps that’s the approach that's needed. Sometimes, we have to put aside personal feelings, to an extent, and help people who take missteps to improve as people. Ignorance breeds hatred, just like violence begets violence. As an industry, we shouldn’t tolerate hate or ignorance. But we should also take steps to make it more inclusive at the same time, and be willing to help improve the behaviour of folks like PewDiePie. Regardless of whether we like someone like him or not, he’s unfortunately the person that those outside the industry immediately link to the entire medium. He’s the one who gets mainstream media coverage; he’s an influencer and a role model, even if he’s a terrible one. Maybe we should offer to help him (and people like him) become a better person.
Some of you will and say, well, what if we’ve tried to help him, and nothing good has come of it? How many chances should PDP get to redeem himself in the eyes of the many? There are a lot of people for whom PDP is simply a lost cause, and they choose to ignore him, which is fair enough. But that doesn’t solve the issue. While there’s no immediate answer or solution, I take heart from the words of progressively-minded people like Michelle Obama, who said, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ Only by taking the moral high ground can things improve, but it needs people to want that to happen. We need to lead by example, and be willing to educate, share good practice, and respect one another.
There are plenty of organisations in the UK that focus on inclusion and equality within games. Women in Games is a non-profit organisation that’s geared towards supporting women in the games industry, and BAME in games is focused on encouraging more diverse talent to work in games. But rarely do we see the games industry and games media band together with organisations like these to make an attempt at effective change. It’d be interesting to see something like this happen— a platform of discussion if you will. I’d like to see the industry as a whole embrace and celebrate the rich mix of cultures, and openly discuss not only the issues present, but also praise media that broaches the subject in an effective manner, and even highlight the strides being made when something has effected a meaningful change. There are many places that could host things like this; there could be more panels on the matter at our key events like E3, PAX and even the likes of EGX in the UK (PAX East and West each have just one event bout diversity in general on their schedules, for example).
This can also be supported by more op-eds from industry writers, and games media routinely discussing these themes alongside everything else that makes up the medium of video games. The only way to avoid these situations cropping up continuously, it seems, is to openly discuss them from the outset, and make a point of it as an industry. I’d rather people tried to discuss things and take missteps rather than not discuss these issues at all. It’s not about forcing politics down people's throats, it’s about creating a dialogue and taking ownership of a prevailing problem, getting to the root of the issue and flushing it out. Then proactively progressing as a creative medium, outlet and art form.
In this very instance, the collective will only be able to get better, provided that the individual wants to push for reform.