What developers can learn from PewDiePie

Weekly Recap: YouTube star's explanation for anti-Semitic jokes may be familiar to those who follow the AAA scene

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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Latest comments (16)

Feri Zsolnai Owner /Creative Director, 25/7 Design StudioA year ago
Or maybe we should just all get over that human horror and Hitler and stuff and see the point PewDiePie tried to make. Yes, maybe he failed. Yes, maybe it's tasteless. Maybe the board members of Disney and YouTube, or the writer of the article, for that matter never ever failed in such a way or never told a tasteless joke in their lives. Good for them rolemodels!
But that's just one more good reason not to hype this thing into a sensation and show people how to treat this -- definitely not as a crime against humanity. That Swedish guy is way too well known to be mistaken for a Nazi, and whoever tries to read that into this story does that for tasteless, money-hungry reasons. Grow up, people.
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, GamesbriefA year ago
Because well known people can't be Nazis? Is that your point? If you are famous, you are beyond reproach for your actions or words?
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James Brightman Editor, North America, GamesIndustry.bizA year ago
@Feri Zsolnai: Part of growing up involves this little thing called emotional intelligence and empathy. PewDiePie seems to be lacking there.
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Show all comments (16)
Jonah Falcon Writer A year ago
@Feri Zsolnai: Considering we're not OVER that human horror, no. If white supremacists and neo-Nazis are adopting you and saying that you're coming over to their way of thinking, what does that say?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jonah Falcon on 17th February 2017 6:18pm

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Brendan Sinclair North American Editor, GamesIndustry.bizA year ago
@Feri Zsolnai I've told plenty of tasteless jokes in my life, particularly when I was younger, and some even I was undoubtedly old enough to know better. It wasn't until I stepped back and thought about what those jokes were really saying that I made a decision to avoid them. And as for what prompted me to reconsider things, part of it was hearing people offer grounded reasons for why those jokes aren't always a good thing, or even a harmless one. This editorial was my attempt to provide something like that for others to consider.

Beyond that, there's nothing in there accusing PewDiePie of being a Nazi, or committing a crime against humanity. I see the point he was trying to make and acknowledge it in the article, using his own words, no less. Are you certain it's the article hyping and sensationalizing things here?
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! A year ago
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."

So... picking up a phone or contacting them via smarter means to say there was a problem wasn't a thing he could have done? I guess it's a good thing he didn't have a car with badly manufactured brakes. "Let me drive really close to this crowd just to show how crappy these brakes are!"

Dude should leave the nazi humor to Mel Brooks, who at least has the sense to swing his stick at the right end of an issue and make you laugh no matter where you stand.
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Ruben Monteiro Engineer A year ago
@Greg Wilcox: Agreed, Pewdiepie is in way over his head. This kind of humor can be only pulled off by Monty Python level brilliance.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser A year ago
So to summarize,

What developers can learn from PewDiePie:

A) Don't be an insensitive dick

B) Don't feign innocence while being an insensitive dick

Lessons learned.
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Raf Keustermans CEO, co-founder Plumbee A year ago
I have to say it's really surprising, and disappointing, that we are still having these discussions in our industry in 2017.
At least topics like these are helpful to filter out who never to work with...
I can guarantee that whoever supports these views will never, ever work with me or any company I work with.
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Jordan Lund Columnist A year ago
The best example of being tasteless with a point is Louis CK's "Of course... but maybe..." I encourage Pew Die Pie and all others to go and see how it's done properly.
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@Feri Zsolnai: Making nazis funny characters is a way to help the modern day right-wing rise to power. And continuing what Lowell said: famous people can be nazis, faschist and so on, and use their celebrity status to promote those ideas.
I'm not saying Kjellberg would be one, my guess is that his immature humour and need for new content drove him to misjudgement.
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Boris Piker BO$$ A year ago
PewDiePie must have seen that hitler monty python episode... but didn't realize "political correctness" reared its ugly head in the 21st century.
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, GamesbriefA year ago
@Boris Piker: I think possibly Monty Python did "demolishing institutions or beliefs with outrageous humour" better than almost anyone else in history. That's not about PC. It's about whether you are any good at using humour as an art form.
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Ursula M. Brand Community Forum Manager, EAA year ago
What really bugs me about the whole thing and no-one seems to mention it at all is this: Sure, I get the point he tries to make.

But has anyone ever considered what the annual income of the guys he pays there is? Afaik they are from Sri Lanka. Last per capita income I could find was for 2012: 11,932 SL Rupees a month. That's about 79 US Dollar. And I'm pretty sure that the guys in the video are nowhere near that income.
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Chris Fidalgo Content Designer and Lead QA, The Tap LabA year ago
"Kjellberg repeatedly evoked the horror of the Holocaust, Hitler, and the Nazis in his videos, but with little justification for it beyond shock value."

No, he's sent in multiple videos explaining how people continue to take things out of context. The WSJ did a very poor characterization of WHY he made the videos--some of which were pointed at how loosely we use these terms, like anti-Semitic, to the point where they lose their meaning. The piece is continuing that trend by using the situation to get clicks (I clicked through and logged in--congrats at mischaracterizing someone for profit!).

For this exact video, why is no one criticizing the site for allowing anti-Semitic projects?! This is akin to being mad at the person who finds a security bug and yells, "Arrest him!" The website he critiqued IS the problem, not the guy pointing out the problem.

The fourth estate is imploding in the fervor to gather clicks while they are inevitably losing to the outlet replacing them, Facebook. Don't read this article as a recap, watch the creator's content, watch h3h3's content relating to the incident, and make up your own mind.
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Howard Newmark Managing Director, HPN Associates LtdA year ago
No @Feri Zsolnai, it is not time we 'just all get over that human horror and Hitler and 'stuff' (whatever you so flippantly class as 'stuff'). It is time to forgive, but it is not time to forget. Especially given what is happening right here, right now, following the resurgence of the far right both in the USA and in large swathes of Europe. I'm assuming you have never been subject to a racially motivated attack, or lost any relatives in a pogrom or a concentration camp. These things tend to stick in your mind somewhat, so I congratulate you on your good fortune and ask you to think about other people for a change. And you cannot be too famous to be a Nazi - Adolf Hitler has a large number of entries in Google.
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