Penny Arcade & Love Lost


Many of you have never heard of Penny Arcade. As far as webcomics go, it was the original success story, the ur-two-guys-on-a-couch video game afición strip-styled deal. The popularity of the comic helped the writer and the artist build a significant business, running gaming conventions, charities, and so on.

They’re still doing their thing, but outside of “gaming” (the bro subculture, not video game playing as a whole field), who has heard of them? They’ve hit the wall.

Two factors limit their success – the existence of gamergate and the “dickwolf” controversy.

Gamergate poisoned all things gamer, actually succeeding at their primary goal. Gamergate’s social terrorism was so vast it gained international media attention and told the world that gaming is an off-limits hostile place, ruled by miscreants that are best left alone. Congrats! You kept out the normies!

I’m not going to explain the dickwolf controversy and subsequent flare-up involving transphobia (because of course it did), even though they’re less well-known than gamergate. Long story short – they aligned themselves culturally with gamergate, with regressive gaming, by having mean-spirited blow-ups at mild criticism.

The dickwolf controversy aligned them with gamergate, no matter what they’ve said on the subject since, and gamergate relegated the culture of gaming to the sewer of human civilization.

I was thinking about that, about love lost. I used to follow the comic for a chuckle and dropped it like a rock back then. How many trans women and progressive-inclined people in general felt they weren’t safe engaging with the comic, with its fans, with the conventions they sponsored? How much love did they lose forever by being reactionary dickwolves?

And here we are – online atheism. The background is different, but the end result is the same. We were founded on islamophobia, so we were rotten at the core. A lot of us may have been socially progressive on a few issues, enough to feel good about ourselves, even then.

But collectively we were reactionary. When an opportunity for a movement-wide misogynist freakout came, it showed that we were stacked to the rafters with villains.

Many of us left the movement and culture altogether, I have no doubt. And of those who remained, the scum outweigh the rest of us by an order of magnitude. Maybe not in actual population (though I bet they do), but certainly in terms of will, of money, of resources, of cultural impact in the form of web presence, on social media and youtube.

Atheism aligned itself with evil and lost love. Where could we be without “elevatorgate”? Without the years of feeding the right wing islamophobia war machine?

It’s gone and it’s never coming back. I had a slow moment and considered opening up Penny Arcade’s website to see if I could have a chuckle. But no, I really profoundly don’t want to. They betrayed the vulnerable people in their audience – a fucking lot of us – and I’m not about forgiveness.

And no one is obligated to forgive us either. Organized atheism is a sewer. We can do things, we can be together, we can fight the good fight as much as possible. But what more could we be right now? How much love was lost?

Feels like all of it.


Comments

  1. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    For what it’s worth, I think the penny arcade guys did eventually back down and apologize regarding the dickwolf fiasco.

  2. silverfeather says

    Gabe apologized for everything they did after the initial comic strip. Which… good, they did some really cruel and ignorant things… but they still either don’t understand the objection to the initial strip, or they understand but dismiss the critics as wrong.
     
    Even now he thinks the original comic is funny, imo both because he’s a guy (the male position in relation to rape culture), and also because he just can’t get past the idea that their intent was benign and so obviously the joke shouldn’t have caused any actual harm. He seems to think that what they should have done was ignore the initial criticism and move on… which, though a common response to pleas to reconsider rape jokes, is not actually helpful.
     
    On a deeply personal note: Fuck those guys. Ymmv.

  3. says

    I’m sure they’re far from the worst couple of yuksters out there, but I did get a wicked chuckle out of the Diesel Sweeties guy calling Krahulik “rush limbaugh with tattoos.”

    This article is less about what can be done to make things right (apologies etc) than to humbly acknowledge some things can *never* be made right. And that affects us too.

  4. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To silverfeather
    That sounds like an accurate summary of their current position and of the common criticism of their current position.

    I think the original comic is very defensible. It’s a joke that concerns rape, but it’s not a joke that minimizes or excuses rape. The comic is the exact opposite – it’s actually an effective attack on rape culture.

    In many MMOs, the hero character controlled by the player is sent by NPCs on quests to save people, i.e. the rape victims. However, the main motivation for the player is to obtain a reward from the NPC for completing the quest. The rape victims are just convenient backdrop. The totality of the presentation in these games is to minimize the suffering of these people as something that the player can’t be arsed to fix, and the totality of the presentation heavily focuses on the money reward for the player instead.

    The Penny Arcade comic in question is a direct critique of this presentation in video games. The comic’s humor only works by pointing out the contradiction between players playing the hero in the game who wears a mask of wanting to save people, but actually the player, and by extension seeming the hero character of the game, don’t really care about the victims at all, and they’re just in it for the money rewards. This casual use of suffering by NPCs as pretense when it’s all about getting personal rewards and glory is something worthy of critique. The Penny Arcade comic is a direct attack and critique on this sort of rape culture.

    The comic doesn’t make light of rape, and the comic actually forces the issue in the player’s face quite forcefully, to make them think about the lack of moral behavior and values of the heroes of MMOs in these situations. It’s a direct attack on video game makers and on video game players.

    It’s the same sort of video game thing that Anita Sarkissian would also attack and critique, and with good reason.

    In short, I don’t think that all jokes that involve rape minimize rape, and especially in this context, I think that this joke that involves rape is actually an effective attack and critique of rape culture.

    To Great American Satan
    I know I will sound like a right-wing apologist, or a naive fool, but that appears to me to be too quick for the scorched earth option. Of course, if you cannot personally enjoy Penny Arcade again, then that’s totally fine, and I’m not saying that you have to. However, I think on the whole, they are a force for good in the world, including on feminism and trans issues. Did they fuck up royally in the dickwolf thing? Yes. Do I mind if you dislike them stronger forever? Your prerogative. Did they fuck up again later on other issues? Yes, but at least they were much quicker to apologize next time. (In particular, I’m thinking of the comments that they made about the game for teaching women how to masturbate vs men how to masturbate, and the involved trans issues, and how they addressed it very poorly initially.)

    Eh, I just want to push back a little on this notion that we should some sorts of mistakes over someone for the rest of their life. I think that’s sometimes not fair nor just, – and I think it’s often not an effective tactic to reach our shared goals.

    I also want to push back on the notion that the Penny Arcade guys are our enemies. I think that they make mistakes, and they’ve shown that they’re very willing (eventually) to listen to reason, and they’ve been much better about listening on subsequent mistakes. I think it’s a horrible mistake to call one of them “Rush Limbaugh”. Attacking someone willing to listen, and someone who is listening, and someone who does great charitable work and with a platform that they have used in favor of the right side of feminism and trans issues – this isn’t someone that we should be attacking so viciously by comparing them to Rush Limbaugh. IMO.

    Sorry, I’m almost tone trolling at this point. I’ll stop.

    PS: I haven’t even actually read the comic in years.

  5. lanir says

    I think Great American Satan is right, this is a sort of “You can never go home” thing. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle with gamergate or atheism. Too many strong impressions have been made to just sweep it all under the rug and pretend it never happened. It would be wildly inappropriate to suggest the people victimized by these things should forgive and forget or that the rest of us shouldn’t try to learn from these missteps.

    I do think there’s reason to hope things will improve considerably in both of these areas however. And the driving impetus for improvement is the same thing that caused these ugly flare-ups to happen in the first place: We can’t go back to a time when gaming was just uncomplicated fun and atheism had people at the forefront whose views were widely respected. And the scumbags can’t have gaming as their own little boy’s club fiefdom or an atheism that works just like religion to support whatever bullshit message they want to hear. But the only reason anyone outside the group of atheists or gamers even heard of these incidents is because the groups are growing. The exclusionary tactics really can’t win because they’d have to overcome and outpace the reasons for the growth and they never did. The assholes driving people away can’t keep up and the next time they realize it and freak out, we’ll have this all out again. And it’ll repeat until the groups aren’t growing anymore or they give up. The only way the assholes get what they want is by winning hands down every time and I don’t think that’s going to happen.

  6. silverfeather says

    EnlightenmentLiberal

    I don’t have it in me to relitigate the feminist arguments against rape jokes here today, but suffice to say I completely disagree with your perception that the original comic was an effective attack against rape culture.
     
    The meta of the joke was actually poking fun at flawed quest design in MMOs (flawed quest design that is brought about by the compromises the developer makes while trying to make every player the center of the story in an open, multiplayer world) and the way it can break logic… and in this case, break the idea that you are a hero. This is actually a common observation among those of us that play this genre. Rescue 5 captives and stop when there are clearly more, put out 5 fires and watch them spring back to life for the next player as your quest completes, collect 5 wolf ears – but only every 4th wolf has any ears to take… “must be a whole lotta earless wolves running around this forest”.
     
    The slave in the comic pleads with the “hero”: “Every morning, we are roused by savage blows. Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves.” This line is played for laughs. The wording is meant to be graphic and funny, to make the subsequent disinterested refusal of the “hero” more entertaining.
     
    So, a rape victim is pleading for help, they are refused without a thought, and the situation is played for laughs to make a broader point about a topic that has nothing to do with rape whatsoever (i.e. flawed quest design). That isn’t an attack on rape culture, that is rape culture at work.
     
    Was it maybe not that bad, in the larger scheme of things? Should we let it go? I don’t know… what level of gutpunch to rape victims is acceptable so that we can get a good chuckle? I personally would rather live in a world where instead of asking traumatized people to “toughen up”, we ask content creators to be more sensitive. Hence the original conversation many of us wanted to have that has never really been addressed by Penny Arcade, who’s handling instead made the situation exponentially worse and effectively shifted attention from the original point to the shitshow they created.
     
    Great American Satan
    I agree that some things can never be made right, in the sense that they cannot be undone. But in both gaming culture and the organized Atheist movement things could be made better – at the bare minimum otherwise decent people could choose to learn from their mistakes and try not to repeat them. The crux of the issue to me is that so few of them seem willing to examine the actual mistake that they made in the first place, what with having their egos and their sense of being good people all wrapped up in it.
     
    This denial ensures that they will continue to make the same mistakes into the foreseeable future, causing more harm and perpetuating the cycle.

  7. silverfeather says

    I feel like I need to add to that final thought as well: Of course we (atheists, gamers) have no right to expect or demand that anyone hurt by the callous bs of the majority our members should forgive, forget, or come back to us. Some people are gone. They left for good reason and they are gone for good. We do need to own that and wish them well.
     
    I argue that atheists and gamers as a group can and should try to change for the better because some of us are just looking for actual recognition of our issues and good faith effort by (atheists, gamers) to stop being hurtful. We don’t need perfection, this isn’t purity politics – but we recognize that nothing can change without understanding of the underlying issue and desire to do better. Some of us are still here, and some will come back if the balance in the group can be shifted toward inclusion.

  8. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Trying to keep it short.

    and the situation is played for laughs to make a broader point about a topic that has nothing to do with rape whatsoever (i.e. flawed quest design).

    I simply don’t understand what you could possibly mean when you say that the “flawed quest design” has nothing to do with the minimization of suffering of victims in video game quests.

    What is the flaw in the quest design? I can only think of this: Real video games focus the player’s attention on self-serving rewards (i.e. money) with very little attention to the actual minimization of the suffering of the victims, sometimes literal rape victims. This is not a good moral lesson. The game is not celebrating ending suffering, and instead the game is celebrating the self-serving interest of getting paid.

    Worse, the quest is not about ending the problem such as destroying the slavery ring entirely, but instead the quest is carefully crafted to allow the rescue of an arbitrary number of victims without ending the system of victimization, e.g. while leaving the slavery gang intact, which is usually presented in an unbelievable fashion, because the player-character is usually powerful enough that ending the slavery gang is well within their power, but the player-character, and by extension the player, don’t seem to care.

    The joke and comic don’t make sense on any other reading. Again, it makes no sense to say that the “flawed quest design” discussion “has nothing to do with rape whatsoever”. The player-character in the comic is dismissing the 6th slave out-of-hand, but the comic is not. The comic is all about attacking the player-character precisely because the player-character dismiss the concerns of the 6th slave. By extension, the comic is also attacking the game design. The comic is satire.

    I’m ok if you want to attack the comic as insensitive. It totally is.

    I’m ok if you want to attack the comic for being too subtle of satire for some people to pick up on. That might be true, just like it was (maybe?) true of the Dave Chappelle Show. Maybe the comic’s satire was too subtle for many of the audience to pick up on, and therefore unfortunately the comic and the author’s are an overall force for bad in the culture, just like the Chappelle Show was (maybe?) also a net negative to the cultural discussion because the audience was not sufficiently good at picking up on the obvious satire.

    It seems to me that you want to forbid the use of satire when it comes to rape, and also, it seems to me that you are saying that every possible rape satire will contribute to rape culture. I think that satire can be a powerful persuasive force in the world, a powerful tool in our toolbox. I’m not ready to agree with your seeming position.

  9. wontbehere4long says

    I happily could not care less about Penny Arcade because A) they’re on the “Sonic the Hedgehog need to die” bandwagon, and B) they’re the exact same whiny entitled gamers as anybody else.

    People like Sonic Team need to take a stand and tell the gaming “community” that they are killing the industry. They need to quit being slaves to their fandom and just do whatever they feel like. For too long, for decades as a matter of fact, they have been made to feel like failures, and as long people chant that out loud then that is all they are going to get. These guys are responsible for the “Sanic” meme being featured in Sonic Forces.

    Yeah, for me it’s kinda personal.

  10. silverfeather says

    To EnlightenmentLiberal

    What is the flaw in the quest design?

    I did try to address this above, but I was also trying to keep it short. The flaw in the quest design the comic is poking at is relatively unique to the MMO experience, and is well known and often mocked among MMO players. To put it succinctly, it is the inability of the player to have any lasting effect on the game world, while simultaneously being scripted as the great hero of said world.
     
    To go more in depth, here is an example:
    In a single player fantasy game you are the hero of the story. You come to a town that is on fire, and frantic residents beg you to help them put the fires out. You do so, and once you have completed that task the town is fire free, you receive thanks from the grateful populace, and you go on to the next heroic deed in the storyline.

    In an MMO fantasy game you are the hero of the story. You come to a town that is on fire, and frantic residents beg you to help them put the fires out. You do so, and once you have completed the task you notice that all the fires have reset and the town is still ablaze. Nonetheless, you receive thanks from the grateful populace, and you are expected to go on to the next heroic deed while the town eternally burns behind you.
     
    You may, as a player, attempt to put the new fires out now that you have completed your quest and one of two equally ridiculous things will happen: Either you will be unable to interact with them at all, or you will put them out only to see them flare to life again a few seconds later. Forever. You are meant to accept that you succeeded, ignore your eyes, and move on.
     
    This is the extreme suspension of disbelief, the breaking of logic, that has traditionally been expected by MMO developers, and you understand why it is right? It’s because they need those fires to be there for the next player, and the next player, and the next, so the idea that you are a hero who’s actions can make a difference might be scripted into the dialog, but it is belied by your complete inability to alter the world your avatar inhabits.
     
     
    This situation leads to some dark (sometimes bitter) humor as you play through certain questlines:
     
    “Wow” you say as you walk away from the still blazing town in defeat, “worst bucket brigade in history! Who knew those were filled with gasoline instead of water?”
     
    “Sorry guy!” You say as you try and fail to interact with the generic slave you just freed a minute ago who has now respawned in his shackles in the same location as before, “Apparently I can’t help you now that I’ve reached my quota of 5! Better luck with the next hero!”
     
    This is the meta joke being made in the comic, familiar to any MMO addict. It isn’t a larger point about an emphasis on greed, or how games minimize victims’ suffering. It is a riff on how MMO devs expect their players to swallow ridiculous scenarios in the service of trying to balance an open game world for hundreds of thousands of players to enjoy – while insisting that each and every one of those players is the “hero” of the story. It is a riff on how the quest design unintentionally turns heroes into monsters when players pay attention to what they see and not what they are told. It is flawed quest design.
     

    Worse, the quest is not about ending the problem such as destroying the slavery ring entirely, but instead the quest is carefully crafted to allow the rescue of an arbitrary number of victims without ending the system of victimization…

    Actually, as I tried to explain above, oftentimes (especially in the early years) the dialog of the NPCs and the quest text does tell you you’ve defeated the slavery ring and ended all the suffering – yet you can go back to the quest area and see the captives respawned in their cages, waiting for the next player to come through. The player is expected to accept that the slavery ring is broken because they are told it is broken, while ignoring what they see.
     
    (On a brief side note, developers have since come up with some very elegant solutions to this problem, and newer or more polished MMOs don’t suffer so much from it anymore.)
     
     
    I have a few questions for you now.
    Firstly, you may not be aware of the complete prevalence in the gaming community of casual rape jokes or the frequent use of the word rape to denote being defeated, but if you live in America (I’ve been assuming) surely you have heard many rape jokes in which the victim is meant to be mocked (such as prison rape jokes). How can you read the carefully crafted line: “Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves” and tell me that Penny Arcade was taking rape seriously? How do you not see that this line is meant to elicit snorts and giggles?
     
    Secondly, why do you suppose Penny Arcade introduced rape into the comic at all? Especially when you consider that World of Warcraft (on which I believe the comic is based) doesn’t actually have any rape in it.
     
    Thirdly, when you say:

    It seems to me that you want to forbid the use of satire when it comes to rape

    What do you mean by “forbid”? If I could have my way, what would my forbidding the satirization of rape look like, do you think?

  11. Allison says

    And here we are – online atheism. …. We were founded on islamophobia, so we were rotten at the core.

    I may have missed that, but then I’m not sure when “online atheism” begin in your view.

    My own experience with online atheism was with Pandagon, back when it was its own blog. And I noticed that a big part of atheism for many of the posters was that it provided ready-made groups that they could freely express contempt for. (That seems to be Richard Dawkins’ motivation, or at least a large part of it.)

    The advantage of expressing contempt for muslims or anyone who looks muslim is that hatred for muslims and Islam is socially acceptable here in Western society. FWIW, I think that Ophelia Benson fell into that camp. At one time, “look at muslims being evil again” posts were a pretty regular feature on her blog.

    So my (perhaps uneducated) impression was that it was the “I am a superior being because I’m an atheist, and people who aren’t are deserving of contempt” attitude that was the rotten core, not specifically islamophobia.

    IMHO, the problem with banding together over what you don’t believe is that it doesn’t address what you do believe. So, for example, non-theistic humanists are expected to make common cause with Nazis, because they both don’t believe in god, right?

  12. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Firstly, you may not be aware of the complete prevalence in the gaming community of casual rape jokes or the frequent use of the word rape to denote being defeated,

    Oh, I’m very aware. I try to avoid doing such things myself, and I will poo-poo my acqaintences in situations where I think I can be productive.

    but if you live in America (I’ve been assuming) surely you have heard many rape jokes in which the victim is meant to be mocked (such as prison rape jokes).

    Yep.

    How can you read the carefully crafted line: “Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves” and tell me that Penny Arcade was taking rape seriously? How do you not see that this line is meant to elicit snorts and giggles?

    You do have a point. I don’t think it’s clear-cut, but you do have a point. Suppose I should apologize. I’m still not ready to say that you’re completely right, but you do have a strong point.

  13. says

    Working backwards,

    enlightenment @13 – Given where your last comment ended, might be a good time for you to duck out. I don’t think anything productive can come of continuing to argue here from that point of view regarding rape jokes, just bad blood all around, and that’ll work against you specifically because I agree with silver on it. I’m calling that subject done. See you on another comment thread, right? But if you still wanna talk about some MMO-related business, that might be fine.

    allison @11 – Yeah, which came first, the ableism or the islamophobia? The ableism, you’re right on that front. But the islamophobia is what helped atheism expand post 9-11, and that’s when I came in and what I was personally most guilty of. I like that Deep Rifts 2.0 exposed our lack of common cause, because I hate that I used to be OK rubbing elbows with those cats.

    silver @10 – The only MMO I occasionally play is Secret World Legends, which has the exact prob you mentioned with freeing slaves. Coincidence?

    wont @9 – Sometimes I’m not clear on what you’re talking about, but I can tell you have strong feelings about Sonic the Hedgehog, and am willing to avoid mocking that franchise around here.

    silver @7 – Well said.

    silver @6 – I came up with something clever to say regarding this comment, but it’s kinda philosophy bro-ish, and I deleted it. Your point of view is reasonable.

    lanir @5 – Thanks for your support. The extent that you disagree with me seems to be the extent to which your read of the situation is more optimistic, so I hope you’re right.

    enlightenment @4 – Forgiveness is a sticky wicket for sure. We’d all like it for ourselves, but looking at my own conduct in the past, I surely don’t expect it. In a way I don’t want it, because being in a permanent sin bin with the people I’ve wronged may help keep me honest.

  14. silverfeather says

    To EnlightenmentLiberal

    I try to avoid doing such things myself, and I will poo-poo my acqaintences in situations where I think I can be productive.

    I am glad to hear it, and I also try to make that sort of thing uncomfortable for the person doing it when I can. Out of respect for Satan (did not know I would be typing that today, lol) let’s end here on a note we can agree on. 🙂
     
    To Great American Satan
    I played the original Secret World for a while! Very interesting game. 😀

  15. wontbehere4long says

    I don’t even know what on God’s green Earth I’m saying anymore, Satan. You read my harangue little tirade in your article about that tweet from that one guy about how I feel about the world. I’m sorry if I accidentally posted it thrice, by the way, something was wrong. My point is that you can’t do ANYTHING without someone calling you an “autistic, cancerous, AIDS riddled SJW” You can’t enjoy what you want to enjoy and you can’t advocate for yourself yourself. Frankly, I feel it’s gotten to the point where all these storms, 90 degree heat, and the volcano eruption in Hawaii are a sign that the Earth wants us purged.

    What I was trying to say is that Penny Arcade are just as much whiny entitled gamers as the next guy.

  16. says

    EL @16 – Muchas gracias.

    lanir @15 – I came in on original secret world right as it was functionally ending, as it was converting to SWL. I liked it better in a lot of ways, but you go where the people are, so I migrated with the herd. I didn’t play MMOs before, but I was hanging out around guys that did back in the Ultima Online / Everquest days. Things have improved a lot since then, so I was pleasantly surprised by Secret World. But it’s still far from my favorite type of play.

    wont @17 – You remind me of a nice young person I met in the comments on a now defunct blog somewhere else. Your heart seems like it’s in the right place but your energy is way out of control, like, it makes a person worry you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else. I know the world is on fire, but you have to figure out how to face that well. Also sorry you’re living in the south in this weather, that’s horrible in itself.

  17. wontbehere4long says

    I’m sorry, Satan, but you’ll have to forgive me if I feel that I have every right to be out of control. When the country doesn’t want be dead as a neurodivergent sexual nonconformist, it wants me to be as restricted as possible.

    I don’t know what to do with my future. I’ve done nothing so far except attempted to reach out to completely random people to vent out to. I wanted to talk about the Palestinian genocide with a middle eastern woman, and she ended with calling me a stalker. I’m very positive that said nothing sexually charged.

    While on the subject of video games, failure is seen as the most unpardonable sin. I want to write comics and animate cartoons, but more and more that ideal future is looking dimmer and dimmer for me.

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