A little over a decade ago, one of the first gaming-related videos was uploaded to YouTube. It wasn’t a Let’s Play or a reaction video. Rather, it was a nearly 10-minute long takedown of an awful NES game by James Rolfe, AKA the Angry Video Game Nerd. Initially meant to be a joke among friends, the video expanded into a full series that started a cultural phenomenon.
AVGN changed the Internet by portraying a strong character who used anger as a way to highlight retro games that were incredibly disappointing, while at the same time discussing nerd culture in a very accessible, conversational way. This approach has paved the way for popular YouTube personalities such as JonTron, TotalBiscuit, ProJared, and Game Grumps. AVGN basically created the idea of using YouTube as a platform to talk about a particular subject—for better or for worse.
The original ‘Angry Nerd Trilogy’ was a three video project Rolfe made for fun when he first graduated college in 2006. Unintended for further use, the videos were simply profanity-laden monologues describing and critiquing classically terrible Nintendo games. Mike Matei, James’ co-creator since the beginning, says the character was “angry, played Nintendo and was a nerd.”
“James originally intended the first three episodes to be ‘The Angry Nerd Trilogy.’ That was it,” Matei told me via email. “I kept begging [Rolfe] to make more and eventually he caved!”
The Nerd offered something different from established gaming outlets, such as IGN and Gamespot. His videos ostensibly functioned as reviews, but the format was closer to that of a comedy sketch show. They were frenetic and very satirical, with a style of writing that refrained from obscure jokes or references, meaning they could be enjoyed by gamers new and old alike.
Like in his review of the Friday The 13th NES game, where he proclaims “I’d rather eat snot and diarrhea vomited out of a buffalo’s dick,” before Jason Voorhees pops up from behind the couch and grabs him. The two then enter an extended chase while the Nerd reviews the game, ultimately ending with Jason’s head getting blown off. The videos were campy, but their sincerity also made them extremely charming.
“Prior to the Nerd, online there weren’t really other people making creative gaming related videos like that,” Mike stated. “James took it to a higher level. So many people came after, saying that they were inspired by the Nerd character. And now, it’s been so many years, that people who have become popular from being inspired by James have spawned their own fans who have followed in their footsteps.”
It helped that back then, YouTube was so small that getting views was practically inevitable, as YouTube would have to highlight smaller creators on its front page. Viewers tended to stick around as well, not having many other options. Whether it was by making it to YouTube’s front page or getting shared around on message boards, the Nerd’s comical rage against NES games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde found an audience relatively quickly. The appeal was partially due to nostalgia, but it was the personality and casual format that made the biggest impression.
Most videos consist of Rolfe talking over gameplay footage or him just sitting on the couch talking about playing the game. Sometimes, a sudden, seething outburst will occur. Think the opening monologue of a late-night talk show, entirely themed around delivering a particularly harsh review with as many flowery expletives as possible. It may seem simple, but both the rants and the more genuine critique have a rhythm and a distinct style to them. The entire show, right down to the way James carries himself onscreen, is methodical. “I’ve heard time and again things like ‘Oh he just uses the F word a lot and that’s why people like it,’” said Mike. “If that’s all it was, anyone could replicate it and it certainly wouldn’t be popular for over a decade as it has been.”
There is also a charm to the DIY-style production of the Nerd. The videos are all shot in James’ basement, so part of the joke is an inherent satire of the “basement dweller” stereotype. Any and all post-production, such as special effects, are created in-house. It’s crude and not everything works quite the way it should, especially in older videos, but that’s part of the fun.
A lot of work goes into the goofing around featured on AVGN. Making each AVGN video usually takes somewhere between 40-140 hours depending on the episode. A good chunk of that is before a camera is even turned on, just trying to pick out the right game and then writing a script to suit it. “The game choice and the script is probably the hardest part of the entire process,” Mike said. “How it tends to work is that, I do a lot of research on my own finding really bad games. Then once I have physical copies of the games, James and I sit down and play them together. James then decides if he thinks it will work for an episode or not. We put a lot of thought into it.”
While the setup was novel back when the Nerd started, anyone who begins watching now may find the idea of someone talking into a camera with their game collection visible in the background very dated. One of the core components of AVGN’s production—a guy in his room discussing stuff—has become the standard for many nerdy YouTubers. Moreover, the basic joke of AVGN as a suburban white nerd with anger issues has itself gradually become a self-fulfilling satire, with a strain of YouTube channels dedicated to, well, white guys actually getting angry about nerd stuff.
As YouTube grew, so did the Nerd, the channel eventually hitting millions of views. Gradually, though, their hectic schedule began to slip. Months could go by without a new episode. Back in the first few years of YouTube, gaps weren’t a problem, but then other channels started creating videos more quickly based around the same idea of a comedic review thanks to Let’s Players like PewDiePie and Markiplier, personalities who had amassed a huge viewership with daily turnaround on their content and an active presence on social media.
Though AVGN has maintained its audience over the years, the simple truth is that being only character-driven on YouTube has become a thing of the past. Viewers now also put a high value on just chilling with their favorite personality and watching them play a game, which explains why AVGN adopted a more lax format for more recent video series.
This more casual format, outside of their Let’s Plays, also includes some film reviews, as James and Mike are also big movie nerds. Occasionally the two will sit down to discuss a new blockbuster or sequel, such as 2014’s Godzilla or Terminator: Genisys. But tackling more modern nerdy media hasn’t always panned out for AVGN, as evidenced by James’ recent video where he refused to review the new Ghostbusters reboot. In it, he explains that he will absolutely not be seeing the new Ghostbusters, on the grounds that not only does the movie look bad, but that it also comes across as a shameless remake that cashes in on the name value of one of his favorite movies.
The timing of the video placed Rolfe right in the middle of the ongoing and heated discussion on the remake, which has become very divisive among fans. What’s more, the reasoning seemed hypocritical to some, as James had happily reviewed, and sometimes even celebrated, sequels and remakes that nobody asked for. Reviewing stuff many think of as “bad” is also something ingrained into his wider gimmick.
It’s an incident that speaks to the other, more negative side to the Nerd’s influence. Following the Nerd, there is now a sect of voices on YouTube whose platform is entirely based around angrily criticizing what they view as “social justice”-infected media, often decrying when creators try to increase diversity, if not openly standing against critics using a feminist or other political lens. James’ video isn’t as antagonistic as some of the other stuff out there, but the video appeared during a wider conversation surrounding Ghostbusters 3, some of which was definitely steeped in sexism.
James’ video landed him right in the middle of that discussion, despite it not really being about the new cast at all. In the video, he laments how we’ll never get a Ghostbusters 3 with the original cast, which has been oft-rumored for years, pointing out that a new team would be an easier sell if the old team were still involved. He even points out that the film might be better than the trailers and that he’s biased due to his adoration of the 1984 original. This is all something he doubles-down on in a direct follow-up video in which he talks about the history of all the failed attempts to produce a Ghostbusters 3 with the original four:
The timing of the first video, with its very stoic titling - “No Review. I Refuse.” - and what seemed like a lack of awareness of an already volatile wider discussion made it easy for some people to consider it sexist. The video hit at a time when sexist backlash against the new movie’s female cast was building online, and splitting the videos up obfuscated his points, leading some to construe the video as soft-sexism toward the idea that the new Ghostbusters team is all female. With that one vlog, James became aligned with those angry, white nerds whose content he had both influenced and satirized for years.
That side of YouTube isn’t something James and Mike have necessarily shied away from, either. They’ve had the occasional guest who make a point of flipping off “SJWs” who they believe are ruining entertainment and media. The angry white dude stereotype that’s at the center of AVGN is a very tangible, loud corner of YouTube culture, and it’s one they have played into, at least in part. And despite AVGN being its own niche, the negativity surrounding the Ghostbusters video has brought on a new wave of attention for the Nerd, with many not liking what they see. Instead of a fun YouTube show that makes fun of old games, they saw another white nerd getting frustrated about “SJW”-related stuff online.
At the same time, new episodes of the AVGN show itself remain a comfort zone for anyone who wants to just laugh at some poorly made games. The Nerd has become a hub removed from whatever else is going on in gaming media, and for some, that can be refreshing.
12 years after the original fateful trilogy, Mike still has a very particular attachment to the AVGN character. He has always felt responsible for AVGN in the public eye, despite it all being James’ idea originally. “You know, for all the cursing, shouting and lewd humor that goes into AVGN, I find the character to be heroic in his own way. It’s the Nerd vs. all those crappy games,” he said. “It’s like the character is in an endless battle, oftentimes wanting to retire, or at wit’s end pulling his hair out. He can’t stand these abysmal games but keeps going back to delve into more.”
“Because someone has to. It’s his lot in life to not let it slide, how we were ripped off as youngsters. And in that odd way, he’s a hero and a voice of our generation. I love the character deeply. Always have, always will.”
Update 7/8 12:22PM: The section starting at “It’s an incident...” has been edited for clarity.
Anthony McGlynn is a freelance writer and critic. He loves science fiction and actually kind of enjoys the Mako sections in the first Mass Effect. You can tell him he’s wrong on twitter @AntoMcG