Just because a YouTube channel is "about video games" doesn't mean everything will stay that simple.
Image courtesy of JonTron
As Monday was winding down, I came across a Gizmodo article that highlighted some incendiary, explicitly white nationalist immigration commentary made by Jon "JonTron" Jafari, a popular YouTube creator known for playing games. (He also co-founded, and later left, Game Grumps.) I tweeted this out of sheer anxiety: "It scares the shit out of me that my kid might end up watching hours of someone like this, who 'just plays games,' and I'd miss all this."
For most of my life, I've been able to answer questions about my future children in hypothetical terms. "What order will they watch the Star Wars movies?" "Will you let them play violent video games?" With the birth of my daughter last August, though, the terms are much starker; pretty soon, these questions will need to be answered—and it's got me nervous.
In the weeks after Donald Trump became President, a lot of folks, myself included, have become more politically active, and there's nothing inherently wrong with Jafari joining the fray. You can write, talk, and stream about games while engaging in politics. But the freedom to share an idea doesn't mean people have to like or respect what you have to say, and it can be hard to separate personas. My own writing is deeply imbued with my progressive politics, and if that bothers people, I never blame them for looking elsewhere. I wear my politics on my sleeve, but I'm a well-read 32-year-old purposely seeking out political discussion. I'm not a kid.
(If you find the time, listen to the whole interview. The excerpts aren't enough.)
Jafari, a half Iranian and half Hungarian YouTube creator whose success is built on Google, a website founded by immigrants, isn't sharing your everyday disagreements on immigration reform. He's sharing rhetoric that, until recently, was relegated to the fringes of alt-right debates, arguing "we don't need immigrants from incompatible places" and that "if it weren't for the founding stock of the country I wouldn't be able to have these opportunities."
He's even defending Republican congressional representative Steve King, who recently argued "we can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies," has embraced birther conspiracies about former President Obama, and said racial profiling looters in Ferguson was okay because they "all appear to be of a single origin, I should say, a continental origin."
That's not mainstream, a minor difference in opinion. It's something very different.
Everything got exponentially worse when I scrolled to the bottom of that same story, and saw this comment about someone who recently chatted with their young cousins:
"I recently visited my girlfriend's aunt, uncle and her nephews - the kids are the only ones who play video games in their whole family so I have a pretty good rapport with them. We're sitting there chatting about stupid little kid stuff (they're 9 and 11) and they start talking about bashing Jews and laughing about Hitler. I tell them no that's obviously not something to joke about and do they know who Hitler was, and who did you hear this from, yadda yadda.
They've learned all this stupidity from these dumb fucking youtube minecraft streamers and repeat it mindlessly. They (edit: meaning the kids) obviously have no idea how offensive they were being. We talked about it and I think (hope?) they have a better idea, but think about how many children are out here learning all this horrible shit like it's normal."
I'm under no illusions that I can (or even should) monitor every piece of media my daughter finds. That seems like a recipe for disaster on everyone. My parents learned to trust my judgment—within reason—and it worked. Sometimes, kids will see things they don't understand, and when that happens, having an open dialogue will be key—even if that means discussing why the video game man is defending the racist Steve King. But even as I intend to be an active, involved parent, YouTube and Twitch have scary implications.
Though I have no idea if my daughter will end up interested in video games, for the purposes of this story, let's stay in that realm. Suppose I was unfamiliar with him, and my daughter came and asked permission to start watching Jafari's YouTube channel. I might watch a few videos, figure that's a big enough sample size to make some judgements about the channel as a whole, and move on. "She just wants to watch a dude scream loudly and crack jokes at the video games she likes," I might muse. It's not for me, but there's going to be a lot of things my daughter's into that aren't for me.
The most charitable way of characterizing the response I've received since tweeting are people suggesting an open-minded parent should encourage their child to hear alternative viewpoints. There's nothing wrong with that, in theory, nor would I discourage my child from wanting to have a spirited conversation about something she was interested in, immigration or otherwise. (It's hard for me to imagine this at the moment, given she's just crawling, but let's use our imagination.) But at a certain age, we expect our kids to be taught universal values— the value of friendship, how to count, an appreciation of art. Knowing that's what she's being exposed to, I can take a deep breath and collect myself for a moment. Even in a politically-charged climate, we generally agree on all of those things. (Generally, anyway.)
It's also been suggested that anxiety over alt-right rhetoric by YouTube creators is similar to the way folks once got themselves unnecessarily worked up over Dungeon & Dragons, comics, and rap music. But one of those things is not like the other; in those cases, people didn't understand what the media in question was actually trying to say. I'm all too aware of what's happening here.
The ease at which you can create content on places like YouTube means the sheer amount of content is impossible to fully parse. In the past, if you placed your kid in front of the TV, it's possible they might flip to something that's not age appropriate, but you could be confident, at least, Sesame Street isn't going to suddenly spread alt-right rhetoric alongside the letter D.
I can't have the same confidence with someone like Jafari, and simply taking away their mobile device, when (for better or worse) it's an increasing part of our social fabric, isn't a real option. The solution, it seems, is to make sure you're increasingly vigilant about these Internet personalities, and talk with your kids about what they're seeing and how they're processing it.
As events like this underscore, you can't trust a YouTube channel about games is merely a YouTube channel about games. In the personality-based Internet, politics can be fair game.
A few people told me that Jafari largely keeps his political opinions outside of his gaming videos, but recently, we saw how this can all go off the rails. Whatever you think about the situation between The Wall Street Journal and PewDiePie from a few weeks back, there's no disputing he leveraged a channel that originally hooked people into watching him play games to trot out some amateur hour comedy that referenced Nazi imagery and deployed jokes about killing jews. Even if you think those jokes are funny, it's easy to see why they're wholly inappropriate for a segment of his audience (many of whom are young kids), as any irony sailed over them.
There are no easy answers. If anything, they're going to get more complicated. If Jafari's racist comments happen on Twitter, does that mean my daughter shouldn't watch his YouTube videos? Can I be fully confident he's not slipping that rhetoric, however subtle, in there? My gut tells me it'd be time to move on—or, at least, to pay closer attention and engage with her about what's being said. Check his Twitter, read up on interviews he's giving—in this case, Breitbart, a huge red flag—and generally do the homework, instead of assuming. Telling my daughter why she can't watch her favorite person on the Internet, though, might be more complicated.