The art of misery: how Ludwig made a career from failing

One man's pain can become a streaming goldmine: a look into streamer Ludwig and an audiences hunger for suffering

Charlie Pugh
24th May 2021
Featured Image: Twitter [@LudwigAhgren]

*Noise warning on links*

Starting 14 March, Ludwig Ahgren streamed an entire month of his life: him in the shower, the gym, video games and the bed in the back of his room. Over the month, viewers spent 1.4 million dollars on his stream. Ludwig’s charisma and carefully crafted content drove viewers to the stream, but what made them spend was Ludwig's suffering; every sub (a £5 payment) extended his stream by a few seconds.  Keeping the man trapped, forced to entertain tens of thousands 24/7 became the one goal of his community, and more than a million different people showed up to watch. He beat the world record with 280,000 subs by the end of the month. Ludwig's model of content shows just how powerful schadenfreude, the enjoyment of another's suffering, can be in the world of streaming.

“I would wake up, go live, and play until I couldn’t play anymore”

Ludwig, discussing Pogostuck

Ludwig's start with schadenfreude-streaming was grinding. In his "hardest game" series, he plays malding games, named for the rage they provoke in those who play them. They all have a simple premise: difficult movement mechanics, a single level without checkpoints and the potential at any point to lose all progress. The completion percentage of Pogostuck, an iconic malding game, is 1.5%, which makes for dozens of hours carefully navigating a level interspersed with bouts of rage. In March 2019, Ludwig averaged 150 viewers. He played Pogostuck for 9 hours straight every day for the next 9 days. It was, at times, agonising, but 75 hours later he completed the game and doubled his average viewer count. This was just a sign of the growth to come.

Not only does Ludwig cause his own suffering, but the community joins in too. Ludwig has engineered and curated a specific set of inside jokes in his community, through community posts, Reddit videos and his general interactions with chat. Ludwig protests at the jokes, shouting at his audience for their unoriginality, but he also prompts them and participates in them, allowing them to survive. The jokes are not complex: "Ludwig doesn't do his taxes", "Ludwig has acne", and most of all, "Ludwig is short". In reality, Ludwig is a rich, attractive, successful streamer. That is where the power lies in this schadenfreude: Ludwig's misery is a fiction.

Ludwig's misery is a fiction

He is the first to laugh at himself or prompt a joke at his expense. Ludwig rages at games, yes, but he chooses to play them again and to make extravagant monetary bets on them. Ludwig chooses to make himself the butt of every joke, because Ludwig is, at heart, an entertainer making a show.

The crowning achievement in Ludwig's fiction of misery is the subathon. Despite the running joke that Ludwig is imprisoned by chat, during the subathon Ludwig was the healthiest he had ever been, working out most days, eating and sleeping well. "It was nice to not have to hit the stop streaming button... I could wake up and immediately get to...what I like doing most with my life," he said.

A 2003 study examined various contributing factors to schadenfreude by using football teams and the world cup. They discovered a set of circumstances that tend to boost schadenfreude.

  • It is directed towards a superior outgroup
  • The outgroup's success is illegitimately achieved
  • Schadenfreude is experienced together as an ingroup
  • The ingroup causes the suffering

The subathon ticks every single one of these boxes, within the framework that Ludwig has made. In reality, Ludwig is rich, attractive and successful, but he jokes that he always scams his way to victory. In chat, viewers are unified by emotes, polls, and copypastas, and he audience is definitely not his friend. Most importantly, by donating, viewers directly cause his "suffering". It is a big joke everyone's in on, but it's a million-dollar joke nonetheless.

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