An innovative YouTube critic both advances the videogames conversation and feeds some of its worst tendencies.
Jason Gastrow, known online as Videogamedunkey, is as immature and promising as the medium he critiques. His YouTube videos, which command a following of 3.5 million subscribers, blend crude humor with insightful videogames criticism. He has a Reddit page and a Facebook fan club and is likely the highest paid cultural commentator with connections to Madison—it's not entirely clear that he still lives here, but he gave fans a Madison P.O. box address to contact him as recently as 2016. But most Madisonians have no idea who he is.
From Dunkey's digital position, location matters little. While his occasional nods to Madison are nice—playing Pokemon Go at Hilldale Shopping Center, and dancing on Library Mall—his work is about a global industry. This might be one reason why he receives no attention from Madison's media outlets. He also rarely gives interviews (multiple email requests for an interview for this piece went unanswered), which doesn't help.
Furthermore, Dunkey's humor, while sometimes brilliant, is always crude. He frequently uses racist, sexist and ableist language. In one of his more high-profile and least auspicious moments, Dunkey was banned for hate-speech from the online multiplayer game League Of Legends, one of the games he covered the most extensively. He later defended his abusive language as part of the game, doubling down on a position that's increasingly indefensible. That stance says a lot about where he's coming from, as he stubbornly upholds the patriarchal assumption that it's okay for video games to reinforce white-male-dominated space. Though he doesn't seem to harbor hate for anyone in particular, he's certainly not playing by anyone's, much less Madison's, liberal standards of basic decency when he's calling other players faggots and pussies.
In some sense, though, this really is how people talk on multiplayer games that are massive enough to make players feel anonymous. At best, Dunkey offers us extreme examples of misbehavior to deconstruct. At worst, he is using his influential platform to amplify traumatic aspects of our society, and doing it under the guise of irony doesn't excuse it. This probably increases his appeal to the stereotypical white, male gamer, and of course turns off sensible gamers understandably concerned with political correctness in a medium that's seen as being overrun with bilious ideologies.
Despite his unfortunate tendencies, Dunkey's saving grace is that he makes pretty engaging videos when he manages to steer clear of problematic language. And his crudity is the very thing that puts his critical approach into context.
Dunkey is an example of what gaming journalist Kieron Gillen influentially called the "New games criticism," an approach that draws inspiration from often problematic New Journalists, who at the time differentiated their work by inserting themselves into stories. New games critics therefore critique as players, focusing on experience. Their approach stands in opposition to what Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson, editors of the critical games writing anthology The State Of Play, identified in their intro as the "post-escapism" approach. Post-escapism puts games in a politically progressive "social, political, and cultural context." Dunkey focuses on what the editors call the mere "joy of play," so he can't be a post-escapist. Plus, he generally avoids social commentary and can't be understood as progressive.
But if this is new games criticism, it's of an extreme sort.
To capture the gaming experience, Videogamedunkey's reviews push games to their limits. In his most popular video, he loads the best-selling Dungeons And Dragons-esque sandbox Skyrim with ridiculous player-created modifications that change dragons into Thomas the Tank Engine, a player character into Sonic the Hedgehog, and attack moves into farts. The game crashes into a hilarious mess, as Dunkey pretends to role-play normally amid all the chaos. In this way, Dunkey's playing has its own aesthetic. He documents the irrational limitations of games and exploits them to entertain, communicating their experiential potential. This follows from Dunkey's handling of characters and physics. But the actual humor is then largely constructed in post-production, through clever mash-up editing and commentary. Dunkey's clearly having fun, but this careful regurgitation of his play into seamless bits turns his videos into self-contained entertainments that rise above the legions of video-game YouTubers who present unedited streams with hours of comedic dead-air, who review games too self-seriously or who are only abrasively offensive for the sake of it.
Dunkey's potent mix of irreverent humor and exploration reaches anthropological levels in his Second Life video, which juxtaposes the absurd possibilities the freedom of the game offers (like riding on a giant floating slug that's printed with pot leaves and smoking an equally massive joint) with the utopian rhetoric of the designer, to offensive, hilarious effect.
Dunkey makes serious videos too, speaking to the videogames' potential to define periods of people's lives, to bring joy, challenges, and growth. He has reverently held forth on games like Super Mario 64 and Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time—games widely regarded as artistic masterpieces. He also explores the medium's flaws. His most common targets are flat characters, bad mechanics, and lackluster narrative, which he presents with precision sometimes before games are even released. He is constantly satirizing an industry that prioritizes profit over artistic experiences. He even lost a deal with Microsoft over his honest panning of titles they distributed. Every year Dunkey mocks the increasingly Silicon-Valley-esque hype of industry events like E3, framing disingenuous developers alongside their questionable games, while forecasting what he thinks will succeed. You get a sense that he's personally invested in the overall direction of the videogames industry.
Dunkey's success demonstrates the essential advantage that video reviews have over written reviews in the videogames world. Tom Bissell, in the introduction to his book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, points out the difficulties of critically approaching videogames. "Many games are not re-experieancable… the game [is] structurally obligated to fight me," Bissell writes. That's true unless, like Dunkey, you've hurled yourself against a game's constraints and filmed it. Written reviews make sense for literature and movies, because those are narrative- and character-driven mediums. One thing has to come after another in a certain order. Videogames instead rely on choice and participation. Events need to happen in unpredictable sequences, like the infinite variations possible in a game of Tetris. What a player needs from a review is a trusted critic playing that game, showing how to play the way a book reviewer shows a reader how to interpret a book. Writing leaves out a lot of what video games fundamentally are. There will never be a Roger Ebert of videogame critics (who, tellingly, struggled to comprehend videogames as art) because the medium is too participatory and the written word is too abstract. (Ebert, on his TV show with Gene Siskel, also had the aid of movie clips, but that's still not an analog to a clip of game play.) I'm not saying it can't be done—here's the Guardian's collection of amazing examples—just that writing is comparatively disadvantaged, especially in critical reviewing.
Though Videogamedunkey's unapologetically brash humor is extremely problematic, his videos offer an approach that could move videogame criticism forward. Those following in Gastrow's footsteps would do well to attack with the videogames industry's exclusionary tendencies as savagely as he deconstructs its abundance of fake hype.