What happens when your average gamer amasses an audience?
You get somebody like TotalBiscuit.
TotalBiscuit is a YouTube critic that primarily posts first impressions videos under the series title "WTF Is..." His videos are bland populism - they appeal to banality, rather than exhibiting any sense of uniqueness - and he discusses games in the simplest possible terms - difficulty, technical problems, "fun", and so on. This, of course, worked, and he's now one of the more popular game-related YouTubers.
His actions beyond those videos show a different sort of person than the genial, tepid videogame reviewer, though. Whether it's encouraging his audience to harass opponents or saying that death threats aren't credible because the threatened person is still alive, TotalBiscuit has a penchant for being so self-obsessed, so lacking in empathy and compassion, that his foot continually intersects with his mouth.
A Background In Blandness
As with many self-described gamers with a platform to stand on and a megaphone to shout through, TotalBiscuit comes from a background that shields him from hardship.
A former financial advisor and law school graduate, as well as the son of a priest and teacher, TotalBiscuit turned the fine world of posting milquetoast gaming videos when he was laid off from his old job. These videos were "good" enough to get him noticed by another YouTuber - HuskyStarcraft - who invited him to join a budding network of game-related channels now known as Polaris. Here TotalBiscuit's flower began to bud and blossom, and his channel now has some arbitrary number of subscribers that honestly don't matter at all because none of them are of any use to TotalBiscuit except as advertising revenue.
Much like most gamers that come from middle-class backgrounds and never experienced significant economic or social hardship in their lives, TotalBiscuit's culture is that of consumption. Games exist to be metaphorically eaten - destroyed by the act of playing - and that is how he treats both games and gaming culture. It's a fetishitic worship of markets over ideas, products over peoples, so is it any wonder that TotalBiscuit lacks in the sort of basic empathy necessary to not be a self-righteous asshole.
Invisible White Privilege
This sort of behavior is best codified in one of TotalBiscuit's Twitlongers.
In this semi-article, TotalBiscuit talks about his background, racism, classism, and intersectionalism. While he approaches some core truths - that privilege differs from locale to locale, and that there are forces at play besides just racism - he then washes over it with a healthy helping of privilege.
TotalBiscuit came from predominantly white towns, and yet doesn't understand that his skin color in those towns helped to ensure he wouldn't be harassed or spit upon. He conflates class privilege - being richer - with racial privilege - being white - and presumes to say that one of the most endemically racist areas of England isn't actually racist.
It's important to understand in what ways you have a better life and in what ways you have a worse life, and TotalBiscuit manages to completely miss the former. To him, privilege seems like a competition, a way to measure hardship levels instead of discussing ways to improve social systems. Look at how he deflects away from the problems of racism and colonialism in northern England. Look at how he essentially says there's no racism because there are rich Pakistanis and Indians.
That isn't to say that TotalBiscuit is sensitive to class issues, though. He got up in arms about misuse of Patreon, calling it "crowd-funded welfare." Naturally, this was directed at independent artists, writers, and developers; the very people who need arts patronage the most.
This is a telling example of the sort of person TotalBiscuit is. The hardships of others aren't real; unless, of course, they are also the same hardships he has experienced, or they are patently obvious living issues like a lack of clean water. Lack of support groups for trans people, and toxic public discourse involving sensitive social problems? Not an issue!
Please don't call him out on this, because I'm not entirely sure his ego can take the strain.
TotalBiscuit has one of the most fragile egos of anybody working in games today. He takes personal affront to anybody commenting on his behavior, often hurling accusations of "character assassination" and immediately jumping into an argument, fists swinging. He even tried to contact the boss of a game developer in order to demand an apology and that they not speak on the topic again.
Once again, this is another symptom of the sort of background that TotalBiscuit comes from and appeals to. No ego is more fragile than that of a gamer; that is, after all, why self-aggrandizement is such a problem in nerdy communities. Rather than taking a hit on the chin with grace and poise, any criticism or attack is immediately met with an all-hands-on-deck battle royale of fanbase versus ideological opponent.
This is a toxic cultural defect endemic to nerd communities, and by continuing to act like that TotalBiscuit encourages toxic dialogue. Other nerd communities - like sci-fi, fantasy, and comic enthusiasts - have begun to move away from that behavior at the encouragement of prominent figures. It's about time the gaming community did too, and that means calling TotalBiscuit's behavior for what it is: virulently damaging to our community.
Irrelevance and Pseudo-Intellectualism
The most telling aspect of TotalBiscuit, though, is his obsession with relevance and intellectualism.
It's easy to get caught up in the dialogue of "relevance" when you become famous. After all, when your every move is watched and every word pored over, fame starts to become a measure of worth and success; the more "relevant" you are, the greater your value as a person and critic. This is why TotalBiscuit often brings claims of "irrelevance" to his critics; as he has a bigger audience and a louder megaphone, he is "more relevant," despite the speeches he puts on having little to no substance in the long term.
As for intellectualism, TotalBiscuit fancies himself an intelligent human being - IQ of 155! - so anybody who disagrees with him or looks beyond his bland criticisms to dig deeper is a pseudo-intellectual. This is the same sort of anti-intellectual behavior the game community is notorious for - look at the comments on any piece discussing sexism or cultural values on a major gaming site if you need proof - and by giving it a platform to reach a wide audience TotalBiscuit continues to keep gaming criticism mired in the swamp of uncritical fluff pieces.
These twin issues are projection, the outcry of a man whose ego is too brittle to stand up to the slightest impact or scrutiny. He is obsessed with relevance and intellectualism because he wants to be relevant and smart.
It's clear that TotalBiscuit has a bone to pick with traditional (read: print) gaming media.
This isn't an accident, and it's certainly not because of consumer-driven ideology. The majority of large game-related publications are still very consumer-oriented, even as they expand their coverage to promote more cultural and artistic ideals. TotalBiscuit is the YouTube version of a generic game magazine. So why does he hate them so much?
For the same reason he hates other YouTube critics: competition.
Traditional media is TotalBiscuit's enemy. The sort of people who work in print media are his enemy. The sort of people who both work in print media and call TotalBiscuit out on his gross behavior - like Leigh Alexander, who TotalBiscuit called an alcoholic - are the worst sort of enemy. These enemies all deserve to be destroyed - at least in TotalBiscuit's eyes - and the best way to do so is to leverage a cult of personality.
Compare and Contrast
All of this is magnified when you compare how Jim Sterling, another prominent British critic, has matured over the years, while TotalBiscuit remains exactly the same.
Jim Sterling was notorious a few years ago for being gross as hell. His articles and comments were dismissive of minority viewpoints and generally rude to those asking for better representation. He was culturally disconnected, more interested in consumer arguments than historical or cultural discussions. Calling the old Jim Sterling a sexist scumbag would not be untoward.
This is not the Jim Sterling we know now. Jim Sterling of today is a genuinely amazing human being, a compassionate and empathic person who affords others the benefit of the doubt and talks about games in ways beyond the stereotypical norm. He's matured quite a lot, thanks to both those who were willing to call him out and his own drive to grow. If you aren't paying attention to his work, you should be.
This comparison is stark, because it shows how somebody can mature when challenged and when they don't allow their ego to rule their life. TotalBiscuit has no interest in becoming a better person; his interest is in making money and playing a lot of videogames, not becoming more educated or compassionate.
TotalBiscuit is living the gamer's dream. He's famous, rich, and has a burgeoning cult of personality. It doesn't matter that he's uninspired; he made it, and can now throw his metaphorical weight around like the bully he always wanted to be.
We deserve better than TotalBiscuit. We deserve better than a privileged, self-obsessed professional shouter who cares not one whit for the betterment of our community. In that spirit, I present to you a list of alternative video personalities to watch.
- Jim Sterling: Mentioned earlier, but it should be repeated. Watch Jimquisition, it's excellent stuff.
- Matt Lees: A popular YouTuber already, Matt Lees offers excellent commentary on both indie games and gaming culture.
- StreamFriends: A channel collecting the streams and LPs of several excellent game critics. Roster includes Austin Walker, Janine Hawkins, and John Carson, and more, as well as guest stars.
- Chigbarg: An excellent satirist and generally all-around funny person, although not an LPer or critic like other people on this list. Lynch Mob Kawaii (TW: Racism) is particularly funny satire.
- Feminist Cabal: A Twitch channel run by Patricia Hernandez (Kotaku) and Danielle Reindeau (Polygon). Often has guests. Very excellent commentary and an inclusive chat.
In additions to these video personalities, here's a few excellent games people on Twitter:
- Leigh Alexander: Mentioned before, but worth mentioning again. The Editor-in-Chief of Boing Boing's new sub-site Offworld, which aims to give marginalized people a greater voice in games writing.
- Zolani Stewart: One half of the crew behind Arcade Review, a game criticism publication with some truly incredible writing.
- Liz Ryerson: An independent developer and lover of old and weird games. Wrote quite possibly the standard for detailed game criticism through her deconstructions of Wolfenstein 3D.
- A Man In Black: A cultural critic focusing on toxic elements of gaming and chan culture. Writes under a pseudonym to protect his identity from the mob.
- Lana Polansky: A critic focusing on emotional resonance, methods of play, and the inherent comedy of games.
- TJ Thomas: An independent developer and frequent critic of racism and classism in games. One of the biggest forces behind the #altgames movement.
Go forth and support people besides TotalBiscuit. Go forth and support a better community.
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