The development of YouTube into one of the most varied, flourishing and important spaces for discussion, criticism and community-building around games has been one of the most quietly important changes of the past decade. From humble beginnings, the platform has evolved into an entirely new strand of games media; complementary to (although not always without friction with) existing media outlets, and enabling whole new ways for people to talk about and engage with games.
We're now long past the days of enthusiastic teenagers with low-cost webcams and pirated capture software eagerly narrating the games they were playing; gaming YouTube is now a multi-million dollar industry in its own right, earning handsome incomes for its biggest stars and often involving a significant degree of professional studio equipment, even for videos quite deliberately framed and edited to retain a homespun, close-to-the-audience feel.
"Kjellberg is one of the world's most high-paid and influential children's entertainers, and that is the standard he should be held to"
The importance of gaming YouTube isn't just cultural; it has also become a vital channel for game creators and publishers who have latched on to the remarkable popularity of YouTube channels that have finally given games an audience on the scale publishers used to dream of back in the days of (usually ill-fated) video game-related TV pilots. Some of gaming YouTube's most popular channels can attract millions if not tens of millions of views for popular videos, which means that it's become an enormously important promotional channel for indie, AAA and everything in-between. Many creators and publishers have quite deliberately focused on making their games 'YouTube-friendly', and cultivated relationships with YouTube (and with streamers on platforms like Twitch) that deliberately, if unofficially, allow them to skirt around legal issues over copyright and fair use.
If you've been following the news at all this week, you know where this is going. The biggest and most successful star of gaming YouTube is Felix Kjellberg, known by his nickname "PewDiePie", who has amassed a following of millions - by all accounts mostly children and young teenagers - for his energetic, high-pitched gaming videos. If PewDiePie's appeal has often been baffling to adults, he has at least been a largely inoffensive figure and pretty appropriate for his audience - until recently, when either from sheer idiocy and unprofessionalism, or some misguided effort to come across as more 'edgy' and win a new audience, Kjellberg has managed to precipitate major incidents with the use of racist comments or language in his broadcasts.
An ill-advised stunt involving a sign-board reading "Death to All Jews", followed by a half-hearted apology and a series of jokes about Nazis, led to Disney cutting ties with him and an exodus of major advertisers from gaming YouTube channels; the sector has yet to recover commercially from that, and despite a string of apologies and promises to reform, Kjellberg has continued to either slip up or cynically stoke fires of controversy (depending on your interpretation), culminating in an outburst of the "n-word" on a live stream. It's not his first instance of using the term, but one exacerbated by the fact that he was promising to leave this kind of 'humour' off his channel as recently as last month.
"YouTube is an oddly fragile creature, one whose very existence rests on a number of factors that could change dramatically overnight"
There's not much to be gained by dissecting the incident itself; it merely needs to be noted that regardless of any excuse over the heat of the moment, or the acceptability or otherwise of the term within narrow social groups, the fact is that Kjellberg is not just a young man with a webcam making funny videos; he is one of the world's most high-paid and influential children's entertainers, and that is the standard he should be held to. More importantly, that is the standard he absolutely is held to, by the advertisers and corporations who provide him with his multi-million-dollar annual income; and it's also the standard that other YouTubers, who saw their incomes decline dramatically following his last racism scandal, must hold him to, given the capacity for his actions to impact on their lives and careers.
Here's the thing; for all that it's a cultural phenomenon with an enormous audience, gaming YouTube is an oddly fragile creature, one whose very existence rests on a number of factors that could change dramatically overnight. One of those factors is the willingness of most game companies to tacitly permit YouTubers to violate their copyrights, with creators and publishers turning a blind eye out of consideration of the promotional value of being featured on high-audience channels. A large volume of gaming YouTube content is in the form of "Let's Play" videos or some version of such; this is an interesting and often hugely entertaining sub-genre of gaming media that has become immensely popular, but whose legal status is not so much shaky as simply non-existent.
While many (though not all) copyright jurisdictions provide something similar to the US' Fair Use exemption - which allows portions of copyright works to be used for the purposes of things like parody, commentary or journalistic reportage - Let's Play videos fall distinctly outside the narrow range of these exemptions. Their legality has never been tested in court (nobody on either side really wants to go to the expense and hassle of a test case), but most copyright experts seem to agree that they are in fact unlicensed derivative works - in short, fairly straightforward breaches of copyright law. They exist, then, purely on sufferance; they can be online only as long as creators find them valuable and choose not to pursue their legal rights with regard to them.
"Let's Play videos can be online only as long as creators find them valuable and choose not to pursue their legal rights with regard to them"
It's unlikely that Kjellberg's latest outburst will motivate many creators to follow its lead, but Firewatch developer Campo Santo lost its patience with him and filed a DMCA action against his Let's Play videos. Kjellberg removed the videos in question, so there'll be no legal ruling or day in court for the challenge; there's been significant blow-back from fans claiming that Campo Santo was "abusing" the DMCA system, which is not actually the case at all, since the company's claim to own the copyright of a significant volume of material in these videos is unquestionably true. (Notably, some other publishers such as Nintendo also frown on Let's Play videos, and their claims over the revenues from these videos have gone unchallenged, suggesting that most YouTubers are perfectly aware of the fact that such content exists entirely on the sufferance of game creators.)
The danger for other YouTube creators is that Kjellberg, as the poster child for their burgeoning medium, risks upsetting the balance that has allowed them to create and profit from such content. Campo Santo is a small developer, but much larger publishers will also eventually reach a tipping point where the audience of YouTube no longer balances favourably against the brand damage of being associated with entertainers who seemingly can't stop themselves from stumbling from scandal to scandal. At that point, the current understanding that everything is fair game for Let's Play content unless stated otherwise could just as easily turn on its head; publishers would be entirely entitled to push YouTube to automatically flag and remove Let's Play videos of their games - just as they remove other copyrighted content - with the publishers then simply giving a license to create such content to their favoured YouTubers.
"Google's executives will absolutely raze the gaming sector rather than see its antics hammer down advertising revenues across the network"
The medium would be much, much poorer for this; it would lose many of its most interesting voices and much of its innovation and flair. The fact that this would be a sad loss, however, doesn't mean it can't or won't happen; it's entirely legally possible and valid, and enough outrage over a kids' entertainer spouting racist slurs feels like a damned quick way to get there.
The even bigger problem, however, is the other shaky foundation upon which gaming YouTube is founded; namely YouTube itself, and parent company Google. While the rest of the gaming media has a diverse set of owners and operators, YouTubers are all ultimately reliant on a single platform, which serves their content, provides their audience and pays out much of their income.
YouTube has thus far benefited hugely from gaming channels, which are among its most popular content by far, but it has not escaped the notice of the Google executives responsible for the site that gaming also generates more than its fair share of problems. When Kjellberg's previous racist outbursts caused major advertisers to pull out of the platform, it didn't just hurt other gaming YouTubers; it hurt revenues at YouTube and Google. Repeat performances will make the company ask a lot of tough questions about how they should change their approach to gaming channels, and the answers are unlikely to be satisfactory to anyone.
This is what it boils down to; for all that some self-styled 'moderates' are wringing their hands over Kjellberg's right to free speech (though as a Swede living in the UK the First Amendment of the US constitution isn't exactly relevant to him), YouTube is not some kind of ideologically driven attempt to create a radical platform for free speech. It's a business that wants to be one of the world's biggest and most profitable entertainment platforms, and if its biggest kids' entertainment star can't control his behaviour and keep it appropriate for his audience, YouTube will ultimately come around to exactly the same decision-making logic that has seen other kids' TV stars fired and blacklisted for inappropriate behaviour or comments. Kjellberg may already be rich, but there's not a damned thing in the world that guarantees him the right to continue distributing his videos and receiving revenues from YouTube. The company absolutely has the power to pull the plug on his career tomorrow, should they see fit.
Doing so, however, would change the calculus of how YouTube works dramatically, and not just for Kjellberg or his fans. Gaming YouTube as a whole would likely face a major backlash - a drop in advertising revenue, increased scrutiny and tougher restrictions - which might help to weed out some of the bad apples in the bunch (Kjellberg is far from the most extreme gaming YouTuber in terms of racist, misogynistic or homophobic comments; he's just the most successful and famous) but would also restrict the creativity and expression of the field as a whole. YouTube, of course, doesn't want to crack down on a flourishing part of its own ecosystem; but like a gardener who'll pull out a beloved plant before it can spread a disease to the rest of the garden, Google's executives will absolutely take the decision to raze the gaming sector rather than see its antics hammer down advertising revenues across the network.
This is where gaming YouTube stands now; genuinely threatened by the loose lips, or cynical courting of controversy, of its single biggest star. The fightback, in part, is going to have to come from other YouTubers, especially those with big audiences and lots of influence. At the very least, when Google's executives come looking to see what's harming the brand and revenues of one of their biggest platforms, they need to see a gaming community that's actively trying to self-police and improve, not one that's remaining silent or complicit while famous figures smash up everything their scene has achieved in the past years.