Things of Latvia: Norbis

Norbis is a young man. He is very popular. Why? He plays video games and says hello.

Norbis has a YouTube channel that broadcasts live for several hours each day. The studio is his bedroom and the occasional guests are his friends, some of whom appear in person but more often they participate as disembodied voices floating in from some other bedroom via the internet.

The nominal content of Norbis' channel is him playing video games, chiefly Player Unknown's Battle Grounds (PUBG), in which 100 people parachute onto an island and proceed to murder each other with advanced weaponry until only one remains. Thus the picture consists of the in-game footage, with a webcam image in the bottom left corner of the screen showing Norbis' head and torso as he plays the game.

Yet the game footage is actually the least interesting aspect of Norbis' channel. As a window on the sociological interaction of young Latvians it is fascinating.

On the surface of it, the whole thing is completely amateur. But when you consider Norbis is host, producer, director and above all, star, it becomes quite impressive. He provides hours of free footage to his fans. Sometimes he patches in to another channel or does a live interview. Sometimes he dresses up in wacky costumes he has clearly found by raiding his sister's wardrobe. Sometimes he eats a bowl of cornflakes while playing. He has a remarkable ability to talk and play at the same time, interacting with his followers who post messages via a chat window.

"Ciao Norbis!"

"Uh... hello Liene."

"Great channel Norbis."

"Thanks Martin. How're you doing?"

It's all very polite. These people clearly know each other and speak in a respectful and gentle way that is very Latvian and entirely in contrast with the blood-spattered mayhem in which they are participating.

"Norbis there is a guy behind that rock!"

"Really? Are you sure?"

At this point, having been distracted slightly from his game-playing, Norbis will suddenly explode into something like this:

"Chuvak! Blaviens! Watdafack? Skrien! Aaah! Blin!"

His random mixture of Latvian, Russian and English has a curious poetry to it and reads like an excerpt from A Clockwork Orange.

As Norbis' bloodied corpse is looted by his assassin, the condolences pour in via the chat window.

"Bad luck Norbis."

"At least you made the top 50."

"Hehe I told you he was behind the rock."

As regards the gameplaying itself, this is as far away as you can imagine from the phenomenon of South Korean superstar games players doing their stuff to audiences of millions for big money.

The brutal truth is that Norbis is quite bad at playing PUBG. He has two main strategies: one is to cower in a dark corner, musing in an existential manner on the possibilities of venturing outside until most other players have slaughtered each other; the other is to jump in a jeep and drive at breakneck speed from place to place dodging bullets and occasionally hitting trees.

Sometimes he will team up with another player drawn from his legion of fans, and they will bumble around the island like a heavily-armed Laurel and Hardy with nothing so certain as their imminent demises.

Neither strategy is notably successful, yet he sticks with it and compared to the super-slick strategy and military tactics of rival channels such as Aculite, Norbis' harem-scarem headless chicken approach creates a huge sense of Hitchcockian suspense as he is hunted down by vastly superior unseen forces like Cary Grant in North by Northwest.

To some, Norbis' bedroom epics might be sad. They'd likely bemoan the fact that he spends so long online in his bedroom. But they are probably the same people who boast proudly of Latvia's fast internet speed, and Norbis' channel is an indirect consequence of this fact.

Personally, I think there is something almost old-fashioned and rather charming about the whole thing, irrespective of the outbursts of bad language and a pattern of play and death that is repetitive. There is a do-it-yourself punk ethic. You don't like it? Don't watch. You like it? Donate a few euros -- and they do donate, their contributions popping up in day-glo windows on screen and eliciting Norbis' sincere thanks.

To the names appearing in the chat box from computers right across Latvia, Norbis is a friend, an entertainer, someone who does not ignore them or mock them or push them around when they get home from school or college or work. Even in the middle of a game, when he is running away from a far better player and shotgun shells are bouncing off the frying pan armor dangling over his backside he will find time to acknowledge their existence and welcome them to his world. Until...

"Chuvak! Oh my God! Neeee! Bla! Kapec? FAK!"

"Never mind Norbis, try again."

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