If Video Games Are Today’s Rock-And-Roll Music, Videogamedunkey Might Be Its Lester Bangs
Rock-and-roll is dead. Video games are the new rock-and-roll: Parents don’t get it. Politicians blame it for things it didn’t do. And kids today want to be famous for playing “Fortnite,” not bass.
I grew up loving and wanting to write about both. In fact, I got into journalism because I wanted to be a critic, writing about rock, or video games, in some cool alt-weekly in either Los Angeles or New York City.
It never happened. Alt-weeklies are all but dead. YouTube channels are the new alt-weekly. And traditional arts critics are a dying breed.
Still, video games have been missing something. Games, unlike films or books or music, give their audience a direct role in changing the contents of a game and ask what the takeaways might be. In college, I started reviewing games in that context. How do I feel when I play a game? More importantly, how do I express this as a critic to readers? Can mere words suffice for something that is more subjective and experiential than anything film can offer?
In 2006, author and culture essayist Chuck Klosterman bemoaned that "there is no Lester Bangs of video games,” referring to the influential rock music critic from the 1970s. Today, I think such a candidate may exist, and he goes by Videogamedunkey on YouTube.
Who? Well, he’s certainly no Kenneth Turan or A.O. Scott. But that’s the point. The vulgar Dunkey is unlike most critics you would find in newspapers or traditional publications, even for gaming. Like Bangs, he is a fan of the medium, and an industry outsider. And there’s a good chance many of Dunkey’s 5.2 million YouTube subscribers wouldn’t know who A.O. Scott is, either.
Dunkey, also known as 28-year-old Jason Gastrow, is one of the most influential critics on the platform, something he’s aware of as he calls out numerous imitators in his video last year, “Dunkey Clones.”
He’s an innovator of a style of YouTube video essay that keys in on the individual experiences that make video games special. Like a painting or a book, video games are an expression of its creators. But words, film and ink are static. What if, Klosterman wondered, the end of “Gone with the Wind” would sometimes be interrupted by a bear attack?
In video games, it literally happens. And the bear might even have a ukulele, as one does in Dunkey’s most popular video, with 18 million views.
In the video, Dunkey almost breaks the now-iconic role-playing game “Skyrim” with player-created modifications. He chokes the sky with dragons that have turned into Thomas the Tank Engine, waging war against a battlefield that includes that bear and hundreds of flying Macho Man Randy Savages. Of course, Dunkey is armed with a lightsaber.
“I thought his stories were just kids tales!” Dunkey exclaims as Thomas the Tank Engine interrupts a medieval beheading.
He narrates this as if he’s in the game, the everyman in a world gone mad. To watch a Dunkey video is to see him push against the limitations of virtual reality. Video games are hard-coded with rules that Dunkey delights in breaking and exploiting. His script removes the narrative and mostly ignores aesthetic criticism as he deconstructs the player experience down to emotion and idiosyncratic storytelling. Out of chaos, Dunkey is organizing experience.
Dunkey doesn’t do sociopolitical deep dives on the game. But he has created what I’d call a starting point, a new and engaging way of talking about a still-young art form.
Let’s be clear. Dunkey is not a streaming or “let’s play” channel, which are dedicated to playing through most of a game, if not its entirety. This is not like watching someone play “Fortnite” for hours. He is a master video editor who re-creates these experiences in postproduction, sprinkled with pop culture jokes. If Lester Bangs created the vernacular of the ’70s, Dunkey is doing the same not with words, but with memes, the ascendant form of modern political expression.
That’s not to say he doesn’t engage in serious topics. Dunkey also shares another key trait of Bangs: He is a fierce consumer advocate, deeply skeptical of corporate marketing machines. As you do with Bangs, you get the sense that Dunkey is personally invested in the success of certain games, certain experiences and certain aspects of the industry he finds woefully wanting.
One of Dunkey’s most controversial videos took aim at games criticism itself. He blasted bad writing; the decentralized confusion in which dozens of opinions could come from one news source about the same game; and the fuzzy ethics of building relationships with the companies you’re meant to cover. But mostly, he bemoans the divide between a critic and their audience.
“It’s important to build an understanding between the critic and the viewer,” Dunkey says, citing examples of other individual YouTube personalities with loyal audiences who have grown to know their preferences.
He has been an Internet video creator since 2003, a fact you would know if you read his 2017 review of the exquisitely animated video game “Cuphead,” in which he injects himself right into the review and spends half of the video talking about his own early attempts at animation.
His 2003 video “Great Yoshi Migration” has no connection to “Cuphead.” But because his story took up half the video, I feel as though I understood him better. I know it’s been a long journey for him as a creator. I know that he might have a greater appreciation for animation, given his own early failures.
That’s not to say that no such writers exist in more traditional outlets. There are many writers pushing the boundaries of the form, such as Tim Rogers of Kotaku, who has been engaging in a gonzo “new journalism” style of writing since the turn of the century.
But with almost 2 billion views for his channel, Dunkey’s stature on the Internet and YouTube is already set in stone, a remarkable feat in an online media playing field that’s redrawn with every line of new code.
Klosterman said there was time to fill the void of becoming gaming’s first significant rock critic. “If nothing else, I’m sure he’ll get rich.”
According to SocialBlade, which analyzes social media metrics, the 28-year-old Videogamedunkey might be making up to $1.7 million a year.