In case you haven't heard, Penny Arcade is currently embroiled in something of a controversy. While it isn't the first time this has happened, it's never been nearly so out of control, and it never so deserved as it is now.
There's an excellent timeline of events found here, but here's how it started. Last August Penny Arcade posted a comic about, in writer Jerry Holkins' own words: "how empty, amoral, and borderline vile(emphasis his) electronic heroism actually is." It's a worthwhile thing to deconstruct and make light of, but what's not worthwhile is to include an account of a man being raped by "dickwolves" as part of the joke. It wasn't even the punchline, it was simply the most vile thing Holkins and fellow artist Mike Krahulik could think of letting their imaginary hero ignore.
If you read the timeline, you'll see things go downhill in a hurry, but it basically reads as a narrative about how Krahulik and some of his more unsavory followers harass and mock the comic's critics, many of them rape survivors. For years I had labored under the belief that Penny Arcade and its community represented this mythical "good" subset of gamers. Amazing projects like Child's Play made me turn a blind eye towards the fact that there are many criticisms lobbied at gamers in general that have kernels of truth to them.
For his own part Jerry Holkins, after months of silence (and failure to rein in his partner's antics or see the error of selling the "Penny Arcade Dickwolves" t-shirt in the first place) weighed in with his own intelligently written albeit wrong-headed stance on the matter, which made it seem like he actually went out of his way to try to learn something about the subject. Clearly not enough, as he states as the very basis of his self-defense: "The only people who are pro-rape are rapists," but it seemed like there was at least some intent on his part to understand where the criticism was coming from, and that's a start. It's certainly much more than most people called out in the manner they were would do. I think I can begrudgingly respect that, but it's still far from enough to excuse his prior actions.
There's a fundamental problem with the way both Krahulik and Holkins perceived the issue that explains why they didn't learn anything from the debacle (or didn't learn enough, in any case.) They saw the issue with the comic as two-fold, but both reasons were absolutely wrong.
- The biggest thing both author and artist seemed to take issue with was the idea that their comic supported rape culture, which is true, it does. So does about 80% of the advertising industry. That's not an excuse, but it's clear Krahulik and Holkins overreacted to that assessment of their work. What they assumed that meant was that anyone who read that comic would magically turn from a non-rapist into a rapist. That's not the case, and I highly doubt anybody would have said as much to them.
- The whole argument quickly devolved into a conversation about censorship, and this is what I suspect made Mike Krahulik turn from a generally rational and compassionate individual into a complete asshole. After all, Krahulik is an artist, and not just any artist, but an artist with a fondness for dick jokes. On top of that, he's a gamer. If there's one thing that artists and gamers are most sensitive about, as generalized groups, more than anything else, it's censorship. And I believe that Krahulik did more to further the cause against video game censorship with creating and organizing the Child's Play charity (thus dispelling the national media's narrative about how video games erode people's senses of morality) than he did with any of his asinine shenanigans or his childishly defensive non-apologies. Censorship (or political correctness, or however you want to define it) has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH THESE KINDS OF CONVERSATIONS. It's not about what you can and cannot say or do. It's not even about what you should or should not say or do. It's about giving more thought to the consequences of your words and actions (words are actions, but that's a can of worms for a later date). Krahulik and Holkins didn't and still apparently don't. That's regrettable.
The real problem with the comic in question is how society in general and gamer culture in specific has an idea of what rape is and how rape plays into their vocabulary and their humor. It's no secret that the term "rape" is a commonly used gaming term for a "decisive victory", and the term has devolved into such unglamorous terms as players "facefucking" and "teabagging" one another. It's disgusting, for one thing, and for another thing it very clearly and definitively ties male sexual prowess to power and dominance over another person, and that does have an impact on who does and does not rape. It's the very definition of rape. That was the conversation that should have happened, in an ideal world. I once believed the creative minds behind Penny Arcade were capable of honestly and rationally addressing this issue with its fans in a way that would have hopefully opened a few eyes, the way they addressed the blatant racism in Resident Evil 5. It turns out I was wrong.
So what could have been a teachable moment for literally millions of gamers instead became an abject lesson that there are still plenty of things that the gaming community as a whole still aren't ready to move past. Will I stop reading Penny Arcade? I don't know. I don't think I will. Before this whole debacle I always sort of felt that anyone who used the term "Gamer" as their primary identity should look Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik as the kinds of people to aspire to be more like. Child's Play is still an incredible organization and it would be a tragedy if that charity lost any kind of support over this debacle. If Mike Krahulik does actually show up to PAX East wearing the Dickwolves shirt I may again reconsider my stance on the comic. I haven't stopped reading it yet and I must admit I found today's comic about Dead Space 2 to be pretty funny and spot-on of my understanding of the game, though note the terminology of "fuckfest."
I suppose it is difficult, if not impossible, to be critical of something without first consuming it. Being more critical of Penny Arcade and the messages found within, both intentional or otherwise, seems more sensible at this point than an out-and-out boycott of people I once considered to be heroes, but we'll see.