Pewdiepie is a household name. Maybe not to you—or to anyone over the age of twenty-five—but the nearest kid will likely know exactly who and what you’re talking about. The numbers don’t lie: between his thirty-eight million YouTube subscribers and his nine billion total views, Pewdiepie may be one of the biggest celebrities in the world.
Given his demographic and his artistic medium of choice, you might be forgiven for the ignorance. Pewdiepie (real name Felix Kjellberg) is a YouTube personality and vlogger who’s made his fortune by lampooning video games as he plays them—think Mystery Science Theater 3000 but with games. It’s a form of entertainment that he both helped to pioneer and has long since championed.
The YouTuber is not without his detractors, however. For millennials, the “let’s play” format is standard and well-established—they watch YouTube channels in the same way that people might watch television or listen to the radio. But older individuals often have trouble understanding the appeal of watching someone play a game that they could be playing themselves. The entire concept was satirized in a recent South Park episode that actually featured Pewdiepie as himself. The star has never had an issue with making a mockery of his own profession.
But it’s hard not to see the appeal—especially for younger people—of a Pewdiepie video. Like other personality-driven shows, the success depends less on the format and more on the person behind it. Kjellberg’s comedy is mainly slapstick and physical; the games elicit from him a slew of Jim Carrey-esque facial contortions, full-body reactions, and comically exaggerated voices. Entire websites are replete with characters from the Pewdiepie universe—usually inanimate objects that he finds in-game and then endows with personality and backstory. In an act of perfect masochism, Kjellberg, who has an almost visceral phobia of anything horror-related, started his career playing some of the scariest games ever made. The result is a glorious backlog of YouTube videos where you can find our host screaming hysterically, physically falling out of his chair, and visibly weeping. That his reactions are entirely genuine is what puts him above his competitors.
Few would dispute that Pewdiepie is the reigning King of YouTube. He has, by a wide margin, the most subscribed to channel in the world, and in 2014, his channel became the most viewed channel of all-time. On July 3, a report came out that detailed his 2014 earnings—a cool seven million dollars. The report quickly went viral, much to the chagrin of the star, who notoriously dislikes discussing his finances.
Kjellberg—like many of his Swedish countryfolk—is an atheist and has openly declared as much to his fans. In a video posted on June 27, 2014, he stated: “I’m an agnostic atheist. It basically means that I don’t believe in a god, but I can’t disprove one either.” It’s a significant statement considering his potential influence—born in Sweden, dating an Italian (also a famous YouTube personality), and living in London, Pewdiepie controls a massive international fan base that hangs on his every word.
But if humanism means “being good without God,” then Kjellberg fits that bill as well. To date, he’s raised and donated over one million dollars to charity. In 2014, the celebrity launched an Indiegogo campaign that raised over $630,000 for Save the Children—in his fourth campaign for them. Until that time, he worked with Charity: Water, an organization dedicated to bringing clean water to third-world countries, pledging to donate one dollar for every 500 views the campaign video received. With the help of his fans, he raised $446,462. He also donated personally to the World Wildlife Foundation and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
In between the zany, profanity-laced, self-aware commentaries that constitute the bulk of his video output, one often finds Pewdiepie espousing humanistic sentiments about tolerance, self-acceptance, and perseverance. In one video, he tells his young audience that being gay is “something that no one should be insecure about. It’s not a big deal!” He goes on to conclude: “You should like yourself. I didn’t always like myself. Accept you for who you are—being different is not a bad thing. It’s a great thing. And I think you’re great.” The comment section there is filled with struggling young teens who are both emboldened by and thankful for the message.
Kjellberg understands that his young, impressionable audience both idolizes and is influenced by him. Where others might exploit that kind of blind adoration, he seeks only to inspire and to comfort. In his nonbelief and generosity, and with millions of preteen and teenage fans, Pewdiepie may be able to do much in severing the perceived link between religion and morality in the minds of the next generation.