A Retrospective on HBomberguy’s Donkey Kong 64 Stream

Right this moment, I can’t sleep, and I can’t sleep because I just saw a man raise over $330,000 by playing Donkey Kong 64 for over 57 hours. There’s a lot of articles floating about covering the objective history of the stream and taking a cursory glance at the background behind it, but to get to the heart of why this event moved so many people and was such a success story, you have to understand what it represents within online media and the gaming community. This all goes back to a charity called Mermaids which provides support for trans kids, educates about trans issues, and lobbies and campaigns on behalf of trans children. Mermaids was to receive £500,000 from the National Lottery, the UK’s state-backed lottery, but that didn’t go according to plan due to the tantrums of one bitter old man.

Graham Linehan is a writer who worked on various respected UK comedies such as Father Ted and Black Books. He’s also a raging transphobe. All Linehan had to do to be remembered fondly in the history of UK TV was nothing; he stamped his name across the front of various television shows with a huge cultural cachet years ago. But Linehan began running his mouth and became infamous among the progressively conscious for his statements misgendering trans people, comparing those who support them to Nazis, and a lot more absolute nonsense. If you ever wanted proof that compulsive negative interaction with Twitter will send your mind into a Lovecraftian descent, Linehan’s your man. He started out casually forwarding anti-trans rhetoric and months down the line was regularly name searching himself to incoherently bark at people supporting trans individuals because he thinks trans people are fake gay. Go figure.

Linehan would have been consigned to being just another Twitter mentions guy if he hadn’t then logged onto Mumsnet, the web’s refuge for real-life Helen Lovejoys, and encouraged them to contact the National Lottery, telling them to rescind the £500K grant for Mermaids, and it worked. The National Lottery said they’d be placing that donation under review and you could once again count on the UK press to stand by looking bewildered or outraged at trans people for daring to exist. Mermaids was trapped behind a roadblock that could only be destroyed by the most powerful force in the universe: Gaming.

Back in the earlier days of the public internet when vloggers were first climbing out of the primordial soup, everyone was coming from the position of just being some rando. Art or commentary or activist efforts on the internet were typically mind-blowing because we knew that the people making these things were, like us, just someone sitting in a bedroom in front of a PC. Then came the brands. Not just big business trying to eek its way into our feed like so many Steve Buscemi memes, but also self-made internet celebrities who were able to build a personal brand. A lot of YouTube and Instagram sensations are, in the loosest sense, self-made, and some of them are very nice people, but it’s hard to ever see someone with 20 million subscribers or their own line of clothing as the underdog. There’s this weird thing going on at the moment where a lot of people trying to present themselves to you as your best friend online are socially and economically-speaking, in a whole different bracket, and they get by by giving the algorithm what it wants: content made at speed about topics that are popular in the now.

HBomberguy is not an unknown figure on YouTube, but prior to this project he had 330K subscribers, and he was one of the many fascinating creators on YouTube who got by through swimming against the algorithm. He’d spend long periods making thoughtful commentaries on politics and video games, often with an honest, introspective bent, and so, wasn’t an internet celebrity. Following up on a promise from his video on speedrunning (which is very good and you should watch), HBomberguy set out to complete Donkey Kong 64, which he had never beaten before, with 101% completion. The funds raised from that charity drive would go to helping out Mermaids, in no small part to spite Linehan. You have to remember going into this event that HBomberguy wasn’t a name plastered all over YouTube or Twitter; he is a niche content creator who’s been making videos about topics like flat-earthers and the indie game Lisa. He was also asking for money for a cause that’s consistently maligned and dismissed. His, and I think everyone’s expectations, were that he’d make a few thousand dollars, at best. The reality was much different.

As the donations climbed, word of the stream spread, and as word of the stream spread, those donations climbed further. At one point, I saw a disabled trans person join the stream to talk to HBomb and ask the audience for help to fund a wheelchair. In minutes, they had enough to buy two. Over the three days, the stream pulled in some guests that no one could have imagined. Congresswoman Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez, activists Owen Jones, Chelsea Manning, and Paris Lees, composer for DK64 and voice of Donkey Kong Grant Kirkhope, and legendary game directors John Romero and Josh Sawyer. But while I eagerly want to celebrate Harris’s work here, a lot of the writing on the stream only talks about him, and we can’t take an event that was supposed to be about aiding trans people and make it all about a cis man. We already have way too many narratives about white people rising up to save people of colour while those same PoC aren’t given nearly the same agency; we shouldn’t start making stories that only frame trans people as background characters who exist for cis people to rescue.

The bravest contributions to the DK64 stream were from the trans community members courageous enough to show up and talk. I mentioned Manning and Lees, but creators like Nyx Fears, LeftAtLondon, and Riley J. Dennis are just a few who lent their support. Many of Harris’ trans guests told stories of their struggles with dysphoria and related conditions, and described their frequent rejection and mistreatment at the hands of a society that takes the most at-risk individuals and regards them with utter contempt. To be visible and vulnerable on the internet is a dangerous thing, but to do it as a trans person requires an incredible amount of guts. Yes, someone piloting a stream where he raises a skip full of money for charity is a deeply inspiring accomplishment, but we must also take some time to look past that figure and appreciate that in a world where abuse could be lurking around any corner, trans people getting up and going out each day is, in itself, a heroic achievement. We also have to ensure we support trans people outside the context of computerised ape streams; please go check out the #TransCrowdFund tag on Twitter if you have anything more to give. There’s a mountain of work left for cis people to do and we can’t only decide to do that work when it’s entertaining for us.

I see some people on the left right now who are so disillusioned with politics that they can’t conceive of a series of steps we could take to bring about change. They assume that our enemies will always win and I think anyone who believes society needs to be radically more accepting feels the same at some point, but for those who do, look at Graham Linehan and what happened to him. He is one of the most notorious transphobes online, but nothing he could do to damage trans children could outweigh the good that this $330,000 will do for them. At least on this one occasion, the bigot lost and he went down hard. And part of why this project inspired so much hope was that it wasn’t just making some sitcom blowhard red in the face, it was also providing help. I understand the allure of the own, I get excited when bad things happen to horrible people on the internet, but we can’t just live on cathartic takedowns, we also need constructive change. We are desperate for political action that doesn’t make it harder for revolting people to have a carefree day on the internet, we need an approach which allows innocent, oppressed people to feel positive in their lives, and as unattainable as that goal might seem, people just implemented that approach to great effect.

That effect didn’t come about because of the spending of some enormous institution, a major political party, or a ubiquitous e-celeb, it happened because someone in his bedroom who had made some video essays wanted to play a game where a monkey can collect a frankly illegal amount of bananas. It happened because every trans person who said they wouldn’t be terrified into silence stood together in solidarity on that stream. And it happened because a small city’s worth of people donated to a cause that we’re told we’re not meant to give money to. One element of the broadcast that was really astounding (besides the third appearance of Beaver Bother) was just how many of the donations were smaller increments, in the $2–10 range. You hear that cliché on television that all the little amounts add up, but through a live feed of the donations, you can see it happen before your eyes, and really, what you witness is the concept behind grassroots activism. If you feel politically or economically weak, you’re probably right to, but activism is about pooling our power so that together we’re strong, stronger than someone like Linehan, and just sometimes that means we can do things that anyone would have thought were completely outside the realm of possibilities. Thanks for reading.

Moderator of Giant Bomb, writing about all sorts. This is a place for my experiments and side projects.