Trouble at the Arcade

Ideally I’d be writing this after I’d already written a fair few other blogs about how the gaming community treat people and the excuses people make for acting abysmally on the internet, etc. but I guess things are going to happen when they’re going to happen and there’s not much you can do about it. We’ve reached the latest in a series of controversial issues involving Penny Arcade and on a larger scale the gaming and “geek” communities being potentially exclusionary to various different groups of people. Just a heads up, the following post is going to talk about rape, although not with any detail of the act itself. For those who haven’t heard the full story, below is a quick recap, but if you’ve been keeping up with the news feel free to skip over the next couple of paragraphs.

A Little Backstory

This probably wouldn't have been a serious problem if PA hadn't responded so poorly to the initial criticism.

In August 2010 Penny Arcade published a comic strip entitled “The Sixth Slave” in which a fictional RPG NPC begged the main character to help him, complaining that every night he was “Raped to sleep by the dickwolves”. This sparked upset from a number of people and criticisms of Penny Arcade began to spring up over the internet, but they were largely ignored and dismissed by Penny Arcade, mainly by artist Mike Krahulik. The complaints went on to be used as part of a gag in Penny Arcade’s next strip and the company then proceeded to sell a “Team Dickwolves” t-shirt. While some attacked Krahulik and Penny Arcade over this, many people on the other side of the debate attacked those who spoke out against Penny Arcade’s behaviour and applauded PA’s actions.

The t-shirts were eventually pulled from the Penny Arcade store, with Krahulik saying that while he didn’t think peoples’ negative opinions of the t-shirt were justified, that he could see it was upsetting people and he didn’t want that to be an issue at PAX. However, he later went on to draw a “Dickwolf” sketch on stage at the expo and publicly announce at one point that he’d be wearing his “Team Dickwolves” shirt to the convention. At the most recent PAX he voiced that it was a mistake for them to have pulled the shirts from their store, with Penny Arcade manager Robert Khoo agreeing, saying that they were trying to engage people with concerns and that they should no longer do it. After some further outrage over this, Krahulik retracted what he said and issued a lengthy apology. These are the main points of the story, but for a full version of the events with all the relevant links you can go here.

This is unfortunately not the only time Penny Arcade has garnered controversy along these lines, with questionable actions in the past including Krahulik promoting a game about schoolgirls getting “tentacle raped” on the Penny Arcade blog and making repeated transphobic remarks online before snubbing the people who attempted to criticise him for it. Unfortunately, even though Krahulik may have given what seems to be a very honest and heartfelt apology this time around that doesn’t mean that we can just put this whole “Dickwolves” incident to one side and forget about it. For one thing there are many people who were and still are defending Krahulik’s actions, and this definitely isn’t the first time or the last time references to sexual assault will be an issue in the video game space. In recent history Hotline Miami 2 and Tomb Raider have been scrutinised for the ways they’ve touched on it and we’re sadly still living in a time where the term “rape” is casually thrown around for fun on services like Xbox LIVE. I don’t think we just have a situation where people disagree over whether it’s okay to reference rape, but as is often the case with issues of exclusion and offence in the gaming community I think a large number of people aren’t on the same page about what the possible problems are to begin with.

The Damage

I sense a lack of understanding over this issue.

As Krahulik himself and many others have said his strip wasn’t making fun of rape victims, it depicted rape in a negative light, and both his comic and video games trivialise injury, shootings, murder, and similar content, so what’s the big deal here? Comments like these show up every time anyone tries to talk about rape in comedy, and I think they ignore that we aren’t just looking at a pattern of “The worse the thing is, the more the thing offends people”, but that instead people are often hurt more by the things that hit closer to home. In their lifetimes 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be raped, and you can’t begin to say the same thing about people being murdered or shot. So even if you’re not making a joke about rape victims themselves, when you start to talk about rape in a public setting you inevitably end up speaking to many people for whom rape is a very uncomfortable or even traumatic issue. Even for women who have never had to face rape themselves, with it remaining such a common crime many feel vulnerable and threatened by it. To quote game developer Christine Love’s blog on this topic:

“Maybe you can’t really relate to this, because rape is some sort of abstract concept to you, but to me, rape is what I have to worry about every time I walk home on my street late at night; or when I’m at parties with strangers; or if I ever decide to go on a date with a man. It’d be fucking nice if I didn’t have to think about it while I’m doing my job marketing my games at a convention, you know?”

A lot of people, including Krahulik, have painted this as a situation where those who objected to PA’s jokes just found them in poor taste or didn’t think they were funny, but this is much more than that. For some, content involving rape, especially when it’s put in a humorous context, is disturbing and at worst has the possibility of triggering flashbacks. That’s why a lot of the discussion over rape comes with those trigger warnings which so many people seem to enjoy making fun of. We have to remember that when Krahulik mocked the people who had a problem with Penny Arcade’s actions and when others attacked them, the targets of these jokes and insults were actual rape survivors, people who felt vulnerable to rape, and those who sympathised with them. If these are the individuals the gaming community think should be ignored, insulted, and ridiculed then something is very wrong here. This hasn’t just been a case of gamers disagreeing with these groups of people, but being actively aggressive towards them, not listening to them, or not acknowledging their harassment by other people in the gaming space.

The Public Space

Penny Arcade seemed unfortunately reluctant to engage the real criticisms.

Part of Krahulik’s response to all this was the fairly standard “If you don’t like it, don’t read it” which doesn’t work as an argument for a number of reasons, but one reason more specific to this case is that even if people weren’t reading the comic, they could still easily encounter the problematic content through his artwork and Penny Arcade’s t-shirts at PAX. Even pulling the t-shirts from the PA store only did so much good as people were already free to wear the shirts that had been distributed up to that point. Whether or not those sensitive to such content view Krahulik’s work, it also potentially contributes to rape culture, an accusation that people seem to be very quick to dismiss regardless of if they actually understand it.

Nobody is saying that people magically turned into rapists because of what Penny Arcade did, nor is it being said that many people don’t often see rape as the awful crime that it is, or that Krahulik actively advocates raping people. These were the arguments that Penny Arcade and many of their supporters depicted, and they are strawmen. What we do have is a consistent problem in society with victim blaming, cases of rape being swept under the rug, ignorance about rape, etc. When Penny Arcade make rape part of their jokes and Krahulik derides everyone who objects, they’re helping trivialise an issue that’s already not being taken seriously enough, and sending the message that it’s okay to brush aside those who feel hurt and threatened by these kinds of actions. As is often the case, the gaming community’s response to this incident is only indicative of a lot of the problems with peoples’ understanding of the issue and their stances on it to begin with. This whole thing is also particularly unsettling due to the community’s continual difficulties with listening to women who feel discriminated against or excluded in general.

Conventional Thinking

PAX is too important to ruin for people.

The kinds of issues we’ve seen in this Penny Arcade debacle shouldn’t be a problem anywhere, but it’s important that PAX specifically not become a place where people are scared to go either because they feel uncomfortable or because they feel they’re supporting a damaging element in the gaming/nerd community. PAX is meant to be about inclusion, it’s meant to be a place where people of all kinds from across the world can come together to enjoy games, comics, films, and more, and share these interests with others. The fact that PAX takes place in a physical space also means that discussions are far less riddled with the insults and general dickishness that is commonplace when we try to share our interests online, and when someone does do something wrong it’s far more easily policed. With their no booth babe policy, meticulous attention to the panels and booths, and other efforts, Penny Arcade have shown that they care about PAX being a safe space for people and that they have the power to make it so. If we’re not to lose a very important part of gaming and geek culture then PAX must continue to be a place where people feel comfortable, and Penny Arcade must ensure make sure they are a company that people feel they can support. As humble as they often are, Krahulik, Holkins, and the people who work alongside them have to face up to the fact that they have a very loud voice and are in a very prominent position, which gives them a huge responsibility to be careful about the ideas the spread.

I don’t think the Penny Arcade team are bad guys. From everything I’ve seen of them they’re good people doing good work across the board, so I find it hard to understand why they, particularly Krahulik, do things like this. These are people who were bullied as kids, so you’d think they would be the last people to grow up to bully adults. For now I think Krahulik has done all he can in issuing his apology, and it was actually quite touching to read. I genuinely believe that he and the company will make an effort not to hurt people in the future, but for some people the damage already been done, and many are worried that this whole snafu has been part of a pattern of hurtful and discriminatory actions by PA that won’t be broken.

What worries me more is that this is just a small part of the much larger problem of the gaming community becoming insular and exclusionary to numerous groups of people, and most don’t seem to have the empathy or rationality of Penny Arcade. There are all sorts of issues tied into this like misconceptions about free speech and discrimination that I didn’t have space for here, but they’re things I believe the gaming community desperately need to tackle, and I’m certain I’ll end up talking about them again. The first time this issue came around I defended Penny Arcade in a way that I shouldn’t have because I was ignorant about the issues, but we should always keep in mind that when minorities in our community tell us they feel unsafe and threatened it shouldn’t be one big race to see who can ignore them, make fun of them, and dismiss everything they’re saying the fastest. Even if we don’t end up agreeing with that they’re saying, we need to listen and we need to empathise because the alternative is us ending up with a community that is freakishly self-centred and where arseholes rule, and unfortunately that’s a lot of what I’ve seen following the “Dickwolves” controversy. Here’s hoping things get better and thanks for reading.

5 Comments Refresh
Edited by mracoon

Great blog, duder. You've basically encapsulated all my thoughts on the situation. The issue was never that rape jokes should never be made, as PA and many of their defenders made it out to be, but it was that you should think about the consequences of your actions. People told Mike that the joke made them feel uncomfortable and his response was ignore their criticisms and create a t-shirt mocking them. That is not the response you would hope or expect from a prominent figure in the video game community who is a role model to many. All I'd say to Mike is have some empathy and listen and learn from what people are telling you. Sure, you're free to say whatever you want but if what you say hurts others and make them feel unsafe then maybe think twice before speaking.

Posted by Mento

This is perhaps why a mediocre webcomic shouldn't get its own convention. I can only imagine the horrors that would emerge from Ctrl-Alt-Del-Con.

But seriously, it's like what Alex was saying just now on the morning show about entertainers like YouTube LPers (or webcomic artists, one assumes) having no real oversight body to keep things on the level and thus there's no valid reason to take them seriously beyond as a source of entertainment. It's fine to be of the mind that an amateur streaming on Twitch or Youtube has as much valid say on games and the industry as a professional videogamesm'n, because this is the sort of industry where insight and good judgement can come from anywhere and, really, those lines have been blurred since the inception of games criticism. However, most if not all of what it means to be a professional is that you're paid to not only abide by all the rules that have been set up to ensure fairness and proper conduct, but must embody same by virtue of having that mantle of "a professional". If you mess up and break that trust, there will be consequences - most likely a plummet in credibility, if not a summary dismissal.

If PA had any kind of responsibility beyond themselves, those caretakers wouldn't let this sort of thing happen. Self-regulation only works if you aren't an idiot, and rape goofs are fine for a dumb comic on the internet about a fruit-fucking robot but less fine for a giant convention that purports to be focused on inclusion and supporting the oppressed little guy.

Posted by bunkerbuster05

I never saw that comic, the one pictured above. "If you're raping someone, stop. Rape no more."

I thought the original comic was funny, but that response is disgusting. I seriously can't believe they thought it was appropriate.

Great blog, man.

Posted by Slag

Nice blog 152.

I'm not sure Mike realizes that he's no longer just a cartoonist. Everything he does reflects on his supposedly all inclusive and welcoming convention.

He's probably at the point where might no longer be able to continue do both without harming one or the other.

Posted by Slag

Nice blog 152.

I'm not sure Mike realizes that he's no longer just a cartoonist. Everything he does reflects on his supposedly all inclusive and welcoming convention.

He's probably at the point where might no longer be able to continue do both without harming one or the other.