Over the last week, millions of people have spent more cumulative hours than humanity can perhaps afford to waste staring at an image of a room full of 8-bit crap while some numbers go up. The game – if that’s the right word for it – is PewDiePie’s Tuber Simulator, its server-crashing popularity has planted it firmly at the top of the mobile charts, and the numbers only get more terrifying the more you think about them.
For the uninitiated, PewDiePie is the alias of Felix Kjellberg, YouTube’s most popular and most Scandinavian personality. Over the last six years, his relentless mix of cheerful swearing, questionable jokes and undying enthusiasm for gaming have netted his videos 13 billion views – almost two for every person alive today – and over 48 million subscribers, who he refers to as his “Bro Army.” To put that in context, if all of his subscribers decided to get together and form a country, it would be the 29th largest nation on earth, a place where young people would be free to video themselves giggling at rude words while they slowly starved to death. They could call it Bromania.
Despite its title, PewDiePie’s Tuber Simulator‘s mix of old-school stylisation and fame-generating screen tapping has more in common with Kim Kardashian: Hollywood than Game Dev Story. The game never involves you doing anything as tediously literal as actually making a video that someone might watch; instead, the road to success means clicking on boxes with titles like “Twerking in Public,” “Bleep Blorp the Musical” or “PokéGamer Sees Outside for First Time” and then waiting while something you’d never watch in real life slowly makes the number of views you’re supposed to be generating go up.
Loaded with views, you spend them furnishing the barren room you start in with a vast array of brightly colored meaninglessness. Stuff like posters for bands that don’t exist, soft, turquoise plushies that you can’t touch or unusable sporting goods. The more stuff you get, the faster your numbers go up, leveling you up in a way that somehow never changes while always adding more zeroes on the end. But then, the only things that matter in a world ruled by numbers are visibility and possessions – things you can pretend to video yourself counting in order to point to the number of imaginary people who watched you doing it.
I wasn’t sure if I was playing a game or being integrated into a human milking machine
And whenever tapping on boxes in order to make some numbers go up gets a bit dull, luckily this is a game that, just like real life, is overflowing with ads. Would you like your numbers to go up slightly faster? No problem, just watch an ad. Do you want the charmless landfill you bought to turn up slightly quicker, the better to fill up your digital cell – sorry, room? Watch an ad. Fancy an extra quest that’ll reward you for having made your numbers go up by giving you more numbers? Watch an ad and that’s what you’ll get. Oh, and look: punctuating your endless stuff and the numbers that tell you how countably popular you’ve become are “Sponsor Eagles” flying overhead with gift-wrapped boxes. Quick – tap them for a gift from your advertisers. And if you want the contents of that box to triple when they’re added to your numbers, all you need to do is – you guessed it – watch another ad.
It’s at about this time that two thoughts occurred to me. First, that I wasn’t sure if I was playing a game or being integrated into a human milking machine that’d been built to extract someone else’s money from my fingers every time I touched the screen. And second, maybe this wasn’t so much a simulation of how one man who said “bro” too much became a global brand as much as it might be a never-ending cry for help.
The more I looked at my character’s pixelated, rictus grin beaming out across my stiflingly cluttered room, the more I wondered what was really going on here. I never move. I never leave. I never even get up. In fact, I never do anything other than select fictional videos to make in order to get more fictional things to surround myself with so that I can get more fictional viewers. If I filmed myself living this weird, suspended, motionless, solitary life, it would possibly be the worst video ever featured on YouTube.
But after the millionth time I glazed over while someone tried to sell me Clash of Mobile Modern War Towers 3 (or something), I suddenly realized I’d missed the point of the entire thing. Here I was, playing a game where my only aim was to turn views into money to get stuff. And who made it? Someone whose entire life is now spent turning views into money to get stuff. Never mind the staggeringly meta cynicism on display: has gaming ever delivered something so damningly precise?