The Legacy of the Angry Video Game Nerd

This essay was originally printed at ZEAL in 2018.

Allow me, if you will, to take you again to the previous. Way, way back a dozen many years back — before important gaming web-sites designed comedy a key portion of their online video approach, just before most sites even had a online video system. Before PewDiePies and Game Grumps and ProJareds and Dunkeys. In advance of the strategy of YouTube stars. Back in the mid-2000s, items ended up more simple: we experienced a man. A rant. An Indignant Online video Recreation Nerd.

Right now the enjoyment price of anyone struggling with a challenging or aggravating game is nearly taken for granted — it’s an total genre of YouTubers. But the Angry Video Match Nerd, produced and portrayed by James Rolfe, was one particular of the very first. The sequence launched on YouTube in 2006, while Rolfe was privately distributing episodes on VHS tapes among his mates as early as 2004. The early episodes ended up built all around a uncomplicated premise: a guy so upset about decades-previous video games that he filmed his diatribes in hopes of blocking other individuals from taking part in them. Sporting a white collared shirt with a chest pocket stuffed with pens, a pair of glasses and a Rolling Rock beer, the Nerd stubborn his way into early YouTube stardom when his episode on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES video game went viral.

So Poor It is Good

Fittingly, Rolfe came from a film qualifications, a media in which the strategy of the media object “so undesirable it’s good” has a long record. Immediately after all, Thriller Science Theater 3000 premiered again in 1988, and appreciation of the B-movie style goes again even even further. Rolfe’s love of style movie is no solution, and later on episodes of AVGN started to feature the sorts of schlocky consequences and over-the-prime narratives frequent to the sort.

But game titles are not films, and the notion of a recreation that’s so poor it is great doesn’t cleanly translate across mediums. For a person issue, most online games considered “bad” by normal audiences are discouraging experiences marred by bugs, very poor layout, or complex flaws. If a “good game” is outlined by the enjoyable and satisfaction it provides its participant, then a poor match is by definition an unenjoyable experience.

Enter the Indignant Video Activity Nerd: Rolfe merged film and games, the equivalent of handing your close friend a controller and creating them put up with. Suddenly the agonizing factor is out of the equation, and an disagreeable knowledge has been transmuted into a pleasurable a single. Fairly than battle furiously ourselves, we witness Rolfe stumble more than the exact same counterintuitive, unfair, or merely tough online games, all the even though cursing up an over-the-major description of the scatophagic encounters he’d like to indulge in presented the preference.

Masochism and Historical past

There’s a certain kind of pleasure at engage in here: a voyeuristic enjoyment of the performer’s ache. And but Rolfe’s character in no way relents. To begin with, the character was framed as owning a duty to warn the entire world of bad online games — a thing of a ludic sin eater. As time went on, this device took a backseat to a lot more outlandish, psychosexual themes: figures these types of as Bugs Bunny, the Joker, and even ROB the Robot emerge into the Nerd’s fact, inflicting pain and physically restraining him in get to force him to engage in their games. The topic of masochism — at first subtextual — gets foregrounded in these episodes, with photographs of the Nerd in controller wire bondage that includes prominently.

Rolfe’s character is subjected to powerful punishment — not simply psychological, but actual physical as very well. With an improve in creation values in later episodes, elaborate fight scenes turn out to be a lot more and more popular. These scenes leave the Nerd crushed, bloodied, and broken — from time to time even dismembered and killed — literalizing the pain of the activities he puts himself by way of.

But what is this ache, exactly? Is it simply a type of consumerist rage from “bad online games?” Incipient things of this are unquestionably existing in the Nerd’s character, but a additional generous looking through may possibly take into consideration the aim on “classic games” somewhat than presently-marketed titles.

These are online games the viewers — possible close to the very same age as Rolfe — is presumed to have played in their childhood, online games which may possibly even have delighted and entertained a youthful participant who did not know any better. Just before critics, just before the world wide web, prior to an unstoppable deluge of ludic material, we might have skilled genuine enjoyment with video games we would not contact currently. Or, getting ourselves trapped with a subpar video game for a few times or even months, we may well have persuaded ourselves that there was a little something worthy in its broken code.

Still upon returning to these worlds, that spark isn’t there: the magic’s all utilized up. Activities we affiliate with the consolation, simplicity, and warmth of childhood wither underneath the essential eye of adulthood and inevitably are unsuccessful to transportation us back again to that carefree condition. You cannot go dwelling yet again. Our attempts at a return are painfully rebuffed by record. Attempt as he may possibly, the Nerd only simply cannot choose us back to the previous.

And yet we just can’t aid but attempt, more than and above, to recapture our childhoods. We obsess more than classic video games, we clamor for new “retro” titles, we immerse ourselves in media franchises created for children. But it is a losing battle: like Achilles in Zeno’s Paradox, the more difficult we struggle, the more historical past recedes from our grasp.

The Indignant Video Sport Father

Rolfe is, of system, no exception to the unlimited flow of time. Online games he reviewed in the early days of the Nerd are now 30-some thing many years old and probably hold no psychological resonance for quite a few of his viewers. Possibly as a concession to this, newer AVGN episodes have once in a while moved away from games of the 80s and 90s, concentrating on much more latest titles in the poor video game canon, these types of as Major Rigs: Around the Highway Racing, World of the Apes, and Charlie’s Angels. These episodes signify a diversion from the unique premise of the character, which gets to be especially jarring in the two-aspect episode on 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic ’06, as it’s typically recognized, is commonly derided as 1 of — if not the — worst Sonic titles in historical past, and nonetheless viewing Rolfe criticize it as the Nerd is an odd encounter. In in between describing the game’s several technical shortcomings, he balks at the strangeness of Sonic encountering human characters (a idea that’s been close to considering the fact that 1998’s Sonic Journey), questions the requirement of a storyline, and bemoans the inclusion of a huge supporting cast.

All of these aspects of modern Sonic game titles have been criticized by other commentators, but looking at the Nerd zero in on them is distinct — the object of his wrath has shifted from the earlier-beloved childhood activity to a decade-old, commonly-panned Xbox title. When he asks what’s mistaken with the very simple premise of Health care provider Robotnik turning animals into robots, he does so with all the anguished exasperation of a center-aged gentleman complaining about modern audio. No matter if this simply displays the Nerd’s absence of interest in contemporary game titles or is encouraged by Rolfe’s have reticence in this respect, it’s obvious what has transpired: the Angry Movie Sport Nerd has become a father.

AVGN

Nostalgia for Nostalgia

Rolfe himself is married and a father to two small children. And nonetheless his individual daily life hardly ever enters into his work on-line, separating him from the more recent breed of YouTube households and vlogger superstars whose personalized life are their cultural merchandise. He was 1 of the 1st YouTube stars, and in lots of strategies appears to have stuck to his roots. His channel has only not long ago started to just take on the standardized look of modern YouTube, with vibrant title playing cards displaying the Nerd’s anguished deal with following to box artwork of the highlighted recreation somewhat than stills from the videos by themselves.

In the existing media setting The Nerd is a throwback. Rolfe stands alone even when compared to other video games YouTubers in a lot of respects, notably which include his positioning vis-à-vis his fanbase. Lookup “Game Grumps” on Archive of Our Personal and there are more than 3,000 fanworks — lots of of which are sexually express, pairing the personalities with other on the net stars or the reader herself. A research for the Offended Video Game Nerd turns up just 28. Rolfe exists outdoors of the fashionable fandom ecosystem — he’s much more like a to some degree reclusive auteur than a beloved “good boy” of gaming or an item of want.

A dozen a long time out, the Indignant Online video Match Nerd has himself become an item of nostalgia. But if the Nerd tapped into a nostalgia for childhood, then what do we make of nostalgia for him? Maybe a recollection of a time not that extensive back in complete terms, but eons in the past online: before platforms took in excess of, right before Google owned YouTube and absolutely prior to the kinds of associations we now have to social media celebrities.

We’re now inspired to see YouTubers as our good friends, to consider we have a two-way romance to them even as they wield huge sway about their lovers — a dynamic that inevitably creates abuses of electricity. Of class, similar abuses happened in more mature methods of movie star. But in the recent environment, they are hid guiding the smokescreen of media democratization and the illusion of camaraderie with our favorite microcelebrities, all on platforms managed by corporations who can revoke access on a whim. It’s not astonishing that anyone in their 20s or 30s may working experience a form of nostalgia for the freer, much more chaotic web of the mid-2000s on which the Angry Video Game Nerd flourished.

AVGN

Slaying the Dragon

“I’m exploring for my fountain of youth,” Rolfe begins in a 2010 video clip titled “The Dragon in My Goals”, in which he describes his earliest memory — a nightmare of a dragon towering more than him in the middle of a pool. The “fountain” turns out to be rather literal, as the dragon of his desires had a counterpart in actuality: a h2o fixture at a community park he frequented as a boy or girl. Rolfe was haunted by the recurring aspiration of the dragon, but also influenced by the horrible ability of his very own creativity to transmute the pleasurable into the horrific. And so he commenced voraciously consuming films, telling his own tales, producing his very own flicks.

“There’s something sentimental,” he muses on the motor vehicle experience to the outdated playground, “about viewing an aged cartoon or enjoying an previous video match.” He’s just turned 30. He steps out of the car, methods. The digicam pans throughout the playground, the dragon nowhere to be observed. And then, there it is: worn, eye sockets vacant, paint chipping. A form of overwhelmed joy performs across Rolfe’s encounter as he raises his hand to his mouth. He kneels just before the dragon in a reduced-angle shot, surrounded by torn-up concrete. The playground’s currently being renovated, and had he proven up only hours later, this reunion would never have occurred.

“This is just how I don’t forget it as a baby,” he says. He runs a hand above the historic surface area, plucks off a chip of paint, considers the wyrm’s eco-friendly scale in between his fingers. “It’s time to say goodbye to the previous. Time to shift ahead.”

Seven many years afterwards, Rolfe is pushing 40. He appears to be like a minimal fatigued in newer videos, a little haggard, as one particular may well hope of a father of two young young children. He’s been accomplishing this for more than a decade. At the stop of his Sonic ‘06 movie from November 2017, he reflects on all of the hrs thrown into the sport, all of the torture of playing it. He may as very well be reflecting on his complete oeuvre. “And now… it is all over?” he asks, eyeing the video game as sultry songs plays. He nods, a smile enjoying across his encounter.

Fade to black. The audio of a whip cracking. Fade in to Rolfe tied to a slab, a hovering copy of Sonic 06 whipping his chest. “Give it to me!” he cries. He’s faced the soreness, willingly sought it out, embraced it. And possibly that is all we can do.