Harmful language – A part of the culture

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By now, many will have heard of Felix “Pewdiepie” Kjellberg being given the axe from various sponsors of his, over anti-Semitic “jokes” that have repeatedly appeared on his YouTube channel. Disney removed him from their Maker Network, whilst YouTube cancelled the second season of his upcoming show along with removing him from their Premium “brand safe” advertising program.

The community reaction to the scandal was largely condemning of Pewdiepie and the actions of his (now former) sponsors were met with approval. With the way things have played out, one would assume that all is well and good and we can move on yes? Wrong.

Pewdiepie’s anti-Semitic videos date back as far as August last year. The general reaction to Pewdiepie prior to this scandal highlights a glaring issue in gaming culture – This idea that any harmful words can be excused with “it’s just a joke” or “it’s just trolling”.

Pewdiepie is by no means the only gamer to hide behind this flimsy excuse when making harmful jokes, nor will he be the last until we address a culture that allowed him to thrive in the first place.

Harmful language – A part of the culture

Harmful language is nothing new to gaming. All you need to do is log into any multiplayer game and you’d be hard pressed not to go through a match without its presence. There are innumerable reasons why gaming is a fertile ground for abusive language.

Anonymity – Many people are able to hide behind a username and not their real names. This leads to an environment where people are not truly accountable for what they or do or say and that allows people to be their worst self with little consequence.

Competition – The pressure of climbing the competitive ladder brings out the worst in people. Even top tier players, despite having so much on the line, find themselves on the wrong side of the rules due to lashing out verbally. Toxicity in online games seems to come with the territory.

Toxic masculinity – Due to games largely being a boys’ club, a lot of issues from toxic masculinity have been brought into the culture. The idea of “banter” and “locker room talk” leads to an aggressive environment with little regard for emotion. “Suck it up” is a common response to anyone bringing up the idea that banter isn’t always appreciated or easy for some.

There are a host of other factors that play a part, but I’ve just highlighted three of the major ones. It’s led to a culture that can be horrific for those unused to it or unprepared. Even for veterans in the scene, it can at times be overwhelming.

Rape jokes are still so casually thrown around in gaming, with little consequence unless you’re at a high level. It’s so common that a Starcraft 2 pro player thought it was okay to tweet that he would rape a female opponent in their upcoming match.

Pewdiepie wrote an entire song joking about rape and posted it on his channel. An entire song. Joking. About rape. Despite this, it didn’t stop Disney & YouTube partnering with him in the first place.

A particularly entrenched form of abuse that is prolific in gaming is that of country specific, harmful stereotypes that serve to alienate entire communities. Every game has them. From Peruvians, to Brazilians to the Russians, there are a host of countries that are given an awful image perpetuated by “jokes” on gaming subreddits & videos across YouTube.

What boggles my mind is that these jokes are constantly paraded in gaming communities to the point that no one even bats an eyelid. The jokes have been taken so far now that they are seen as facts. These stereotypes inevitably lead to full-blown racism and then suddenly everyone backtracks a little, but the reality is these stereotypes are racist and completely out of line from the beginning.

Passive aggressive racism is one form of it, but then of course you have to have all out racism as well. When Riot Games brought out Lucian, a black champion, you couldn’t keep up with all the racist jokes being made. Then you have the sort of racism Asian pro players get, across multiple games, whereby people make jokes of their eyes or all looking the same.

A top CSGO streamer read out a donation which mocked an American CSGO player, of Asian descent, about his eyes and everyone in the game, including the streamer, burst out laughing. The clip was posted on Reddit and the jokes continued. There was no widespread condemnation of the joke nor the way the streamer handled it. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg; racism is rife in gaming.

This harmful and abusive culture shows through in the way many communities treat their pro players. eSports fans have intimate access to the elite and it has been something that many have taken for granted. Pro players often contribute to discussions on gaming subreddits. The average player can come across a pro player in pub game and play alongside them. Never mind the accessibility of many pro players via social media.

Despite the benefits of all this, it means pro players are often on the front line of vitriol that comes from gaming communities. Many have spoken up about it and how difficult it can be to endure but nothing has changed. The witch hunts, the piling of players when they don’t perform, it makes for a hugely negative and destructive experience.

As I write this, a scandal has broken in the League of Legends community over accusations that a well-known player is scripting. There has been no proven evidence nor an official statement from Riot and yet the community has been tearing the player apart.

A culture that paved the way for Pewdiepie

A rape song wasn’t cause for concern when it came to Pewdiepie, but anti-Semitic jokes crossed the line. Why is that the case when both are absolutely horrific? Furthermore, a lot of the justification given for why the punishment for Pewdiepie was acceptable was because he was a talentless hack.

Disregarding the fact that that is absolutely not true (53m subs is not an easy feat no matter how you feel about his YouTube persona), why is his talent or lack thereof part of the equation? Does being talented excuse you from being accountable for what you do or say?

The mentality of “it’s just a joke” or that people are simply trolling is harmful and should not be allowed. It perpetuates a cycle of abusive language and jokes. It completely removes the accountability aspect of abusive behaviour and completely misses the issue at hand.

It leads to widespread hypocrisy. The same people that start witch hunts against pro players that are caught being verbally abusive are the same ones verbally abusing players in their own games. Gamers overall rejoiced about Pewdiepie’s demise and yet will support other content creators that have the same issues.

It also sidesteps the whole crux of the issue. The real problem is gaming culture and how abusive language and jokes have been allowed to become the norm. Any attempts to combat it are met with “it’s just a joke” or you are told to “suck it up” etc. Yes, tackling toxicity is a big task and a difficult one but you have to start somewhere.

Pewdiepie may not be a bad person, but he’s a by-product of the culture we all play a part in. Harmful jokes are not funny, they’re destructive. Being a troll isn’t witty or smart, it’s perpetuating a large problem.

Gaming culture has a history of harmful language and it’s about time we did something about it ourselves instead of waiting for a major publication to break another story around hateful content in our scene.

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Glenn Kisela

I've always loved video games as well as writing, so mixing the two together was inevitable. When I'm not doing that, I do photography and design.

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