Internet celebrity Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg lost two of his biggest business partners this week after Wall Street Journal reporters did something those partners apparently hadn't been doing: They actually watched his videos. The newspaper found that since August, Kjellberg had repeatedly invoked Hitler, Nazis and anti-Semitism in his jokes, which included using the freelancer site Fiverr to pay two Indian men to hold up a sign saying "Death to all Jews."
In a post on his personal blog, Kjellberg defended himself from criticisms that he was promoting anti-Semitism, saying, "I make videos for my audience. I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary."
That sounded very familiar to me, probably because I've heard it from more AAA game developers than I care to remember. Last year's Deux Ex: Mankind Divided "Augs Lives Matter" controversy was the latest example, but variations of that theme come up almost anytime a company makes a game it says tackles some heavy issues from the real world. Infamous: Second Son and Watch Dogs did it with the surveillance state, while Army of Two did it for private military companies like Blackwater. They are all too happy to get whatever marketing bump and attention comes from rubbing up next to serious real-world issues, but when it comes to actually saying something about them, the best you'll get is a quote from a developer saying they didn't want to preach, that they'd rather let the players decide for themselves.
What developers should take from the Kjellberg incident is that creating entertainment without serious political commentary is not an option once you go out of your way to bring serious political subjects into your entertainment.
The problem is that when you add that important subject matter to your fun game, you're implicitly suggesting your fun game is important, probably because it has something to say. You've invited people to read meaning into it. And if you don't put that meaning in there yourself in a way that you can clearly articulate and defend later on, you're inviting others to step in and fill that void, much like neo-Nazis have done with PewDiePie's videos.
As Kjellberg said in a follow-up video after apologizing for some of the jokes, "I do strongly believe that you can joke about anything, but I also believe that there's a right way, and [then] not the best way to joke about things. And I love to push boundaries, but I would consider myself a rookie comedian."
I'm inclined to agree that it's possible to joke about anything, with a very important caveat. The fact is, any comedian considering a joke about the tragic and the horrific needs to think very carefully about that joke, make absolutely certain there is a thoughtful, well-considered point to be made with it, and know they have the capability to get that point across in the telling.
Kjellberg repeatedly evoked the horror of the Holocaust, Hitler, and the Nazis in his videos, but with little justification for it beyond shock value. In explaining the Fiverr video bit, Kjellberg said his intention was "just to show how stupid the website is and how far you can push it by paying $5." Whether you think it's acceptable to criticize a site for exploiting desperately poor people by using that site to make desperately poor people do indefensible things, there's clearly no need to bring genocide into the bit, especially not genocide against a group of people who have faced that threat before, and especially not in a social climate of rising anti-Semitism.
Kjellberg went out of his way to bring Nazis into his entertainment, time and again. He chose to feature one of the most horrific chapters of human history in something he considered just for fun. But that's not why Disney and YouTube severed ties with him. After all, Indiana Jones did the same thing, and Disney's not about to Song-of-the-South that franchise. PewDiePie's real crime here is that he brought genuine human tragedy into his entertainment without anything to say about it, and without the simple courtesy of unambiguously condemning it for the evil it was.
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