Get Rekt Skrubz: A Brief Analysis of MLG Videos

This article first appeared in Cherwell on 4 November 2016. This extended version restores some content that was originally cut for space. I’m very proud of this piece, and I hope it can help us internet-dwellers remain watchful in the future, especially given what happened the week after this piece first came out.

“Dear FAZE POTTER, you have been accepted at Hogwarts school of MEMES AND QUICK SCOPING.” Such is the opening of ‘Harry Potter and the Noscoper’s Stone’, a short film which, at time of writing, sits at 3,219,168 views on YouTube. It’s a prime example of the MLG video: a short, humorous montage of clips from a popular film or TV show, overlaid with text, memes, and video game assets. These videos have become very popular in recent years, and there are plenty of laughs to be had, but like everything else, they come with a dark side.

MLG refers to Major League Gaming, a professional e-sports organisation—like FIFA for professional video game players. In the same way sports broadcasters produce edited highlights of matches, MLG produces montages of players’ most impressive gaming moments: impressive kills, deft bits of strategy, that sort of thing. These montages started hitting YouTube in the early-2010s, along with a flood of copycats, usually amateur players crudely editing together their own footage. This was, obviously, a bit of a joke. Imagine if every pub league football player started putting out edited highlights of their own performance. The videos made use of several stock elements, including blaring dubstep, anguished shouting, and references to popular memes. They were loud, obnoxious and totally ridiculous, which gave them a cultural presence in excess of their actual popularity. It was only a matter of time before the meme lords got to work.

The process was gradual, but between 2011 and 2014(ish) MLG videos transitioned into what they are now: montage parodies of popular media, having moved beyond video games and into film and TV more generally. This new breed of video was similar to its forbears in its over-the-top obnoxiousness and frequent references to video game culture, but the presentation was both more ironic and far more information-dense. The modern MLG video is a compressed tissue of quotations, audio and visual, its humour coming not just from references but the speed and inventiveness of those references, not to mention a significant uptick in editing quality. What was once amateur backwash had become slickly-produced gold; the alchemy of the internet works again.

The MLG effect, like most great art, is better seen in motion than dryly described. You only need to see Albus Dumbledore say, “Welcome back to Hogwarts School of Memes, Weed, and Good Banter” once before never looking back. But the structure and style of MLG is not new in itself, having borrowed most of its tricks from the twentieth-century avant-garde tradition. Jarring shifts in pitch and rhythm are a standard trope of experimental music, and the irreverent remixing of disparate texts is basically Postmodernism For Dummies. MLG is western culture doing what it always does, folding the marginal back into the mainstream in a way which strengthens the latter and legitimises the former. And, as ever, the margins bring their revolutionary power along with them.

The power of MLG is that nothing is above reproach. News, movies, politicians—none of them are immune to this remixing spirit, and there’s nothing they can say that can’t be cut off and replaced with a text-to-speech program making references to cannabis. MLG’s power is its constant and relentless humour —nothing it says is taken seriously. And it is precisely this quality which, as well as being powerful, makes MLG profoundly dangerous.

Do a YouTube search for ‘Donald Trump MLG’ and you will get a slew of results, obviously. Trump is the most-memed politician in living memory. But the most popular videos do not, as one might expect, frame Trump as the deluded, incompetent fool he is; rather, they seem to actively root for him. One of the top results shows Donald Trump “reking” journalist Megyn Kelly at the first primary debate, and another simply shows clips of Trump’s speeches and interviews overlaid with images, often of Donald Trump himself. The presentation is joking, but the effect is to hammer home the message more forcefully than a sincere depiction ever could. This is what makes MLG, and memes in general, so dangerous as propaganda tools.

White supremacist memes featuring Trump are ten-a-penny online, and racist, misogynist and Islamophobic rhetoric has seeped into mainstream discourse. Pepe the frog, once a benign comic book character, has been co-opted by the internet’s worst to such an extent that the he was recently declared a hate symbol. It would be ridiculous to say MLG is going the same way – making a good one requires more effort than most of these people are willing to expend – but memes are beginning to have a material impact on politics IRL.

Nimble America is a non-profit organisation whose activities consist of promoting the Donald through ‘meme magic’ and the power of shitposting. Their aim is to flood the discourse with so many images and perceptions of Trump that support becomes a matter of instinct, rather than reason. In the words of Adam Hess, Donald Trump is “proof that if Hitler was alive today he’d be the biggest thing on Twitter.”

I’m not trying to start a moral panic about memes. But we do need to think more critically about what we encounter online, and with an eye towards memes’ material impact. And if we could avoid shady crooks like Nimble America while we’re at it, that would be good too. Above all, we must be vigilant, and conscious that the ends do not always justify the memes.

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Donald Trump: don’t feed the troll of American politics

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 6 October 2015. Donald Trump seemed a lot funnier at the time.

“Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich.”

As the contents of this week’s Comment section should go some way towards proving, the world is rapidly transforming into an episode of Black Mirror. The example under consideration in this article is, of course, Donald Trump, who provides this article’s epigraph, a quote which bears the unusual distinction of being  simultaneously a grotesque and shameless indictment of a crassly materialist capitalist culture and quite possibly the single greatest chat-up line in history. In the three months since the OxStu last hit JCRs, Trump has emerged as the favourite for the Republican nomination, and made a number of horrific comments on his way up, including calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and implying that the female moderator of one GOP debate was on her period when she asked him a few questions he didn’t quite like. All of this, obviously, is stupid and vile, and marks the point where Trump stops being funny. It’s where he goes from being a Disney villain to a Dickens villain- exaggerated and clownish, but decidedly nasty as well as ridiculous.

Now, there are already plenty of articles about the awfulness of Donald Trump. I’m not saying that any of them are wrong, and I admit they present a compelling central image. Donald Trump comes across as the political system’s monstrous id, a walking embodiment of everything wrong with American politics and capitalism in general, sputtering red-facedly through hazy, half-formed policy ideas seemingly made up on the fly in a bid to grab as many scandalous headlines as possible.

The thing is, that image is not entirely accurate. For one thing, it’s not like Trump even has a majority of Republican support; the last poll from NBC and the Wall Street Journal puts Trump as the front-runner with 21%, with Trump’s nearest rival, Ben Carson, just following with 20%. The poll has a 6% margin for error. Trump’s success may make a great image, and certainly plays to British stereotypes of the craziness of American politics, but Trump cannot even win a majority of support within his own party. They are not stupid.

Nor, for that matter, is Trump. I mean, he probably generously over-estimates his own intelligence and business acumen, but he remains extremely savvy in one specific area: self-promotion.

One aspect of Trump’s campaign which is not often commented on is the fact that he pulled this stunt at the last election too. Pretending to run for the 2012 GOP nomination, Trump made a number of public appearances and said a few outrageous things, including the quote at the start of this article. Back then, however, he pulled out at a  much earlier stage than he has done this time. One gets the sense that Trump realised his promotional campaign would require a bigger push this time around, and so has gone on to the later stages of the process, specifically those involving massive exposure on television. The second GOP debate was the most viewed program CNN ever broadcast, pulling a whopping 23 million viewers. It’s doubtful as to whether any advertising campaign could have pulled that many eyeballs, let alone persuaded them to pay attention for nearly three hours. While there is something more than a little perverse in the sight of an incredibly wealthy man co-opting the tools of a system of democracy for his own narcissist ends, I have no doubt that Trump’s continued high-profile posturing will continue having its intended effect; to forcibly insert Trump into the public consciousness. Hence this article. Trump has pulled off a weird apotheosis of politics and showbiz; attaining widespread exposure and success by being a deliberately incoherent and ridiculous candidate.

The Economist was right when it advised Republicans to “listen carefully for Mr Trump, and vote for someone else.” I am confident that they will do exactly that. Trump’s arguments do not stand up to basic scrutiny, and he has yet to even issue definitive policy statements on anything other than tax reform, the second amendment and immigration. He knows he doesn’t need to. And we should all respond to this deliberate non-engagement with non-engagement in kind; Trump has clearly demonstrated that he is not interested in engaging his electorate, so why should his electorate, or indeed anyone else, engage with him? He is the great troll of American politics- the more attention one pays him, the more he, in his own eyes, “wins”.

At the end of the day, Donald Trump is neither a clown nor a supervillain. He lacks the wit to be the former and the charisma to ne the latter. He is not a threat to democracy. He’s just kind of sad.