Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Rape Jokes, Webcomics and Wheaton's Law

Warning: Some Explicit Content and "Adult" Language

Penny Arcade is a popular webcomic for gamers, because it relates to gaming issues, its writers are fervid gamers, and an entire gaming convention was forged out of the idea that gamers can come together to form a community dedicated to the proposition that gamers are awesome. The writers, Gabe and Tycho, have become revered as some incarnation of the demi-gods, and their popularity has skyrocketed in the last ten years along with their triumphant inclusion into the Time 100’s list under Artists.

With great power comes great responsibility, however, and Gabe and Tycho don’t seem to understand the influence they have acquired or the role they play in promoting a legitimate gaming community of respect and mutual appreciation of all things gaming.  The latest commotion surrounding Penny Arcade is the clash over a recent webcomic which involves a joke surrounding an unpleasant situation involving prisoner rape. 

Quick Recap (The Comic):
If you haven’t yet heard anything about this, the short story is:  Penny Arcade wrote a comic last Wednesday involving a WoW/MMO joke about collections quests, or quests where you need to perform the same task a given number of times in order to complete the quest.  The task in question in the comic was saving 5 slaves from prison, and when the player character (PC) encounters the 6th slave, the slave begs the PC to save him from rape and torture but because the PC has already met the quest’s quota the PC refuses.

The Response:
Hearing about the comic from secondary sources, I wasn’t entirely surprised that PA would write such a comic and I thought it would be, at best, distasteful and mildly offensive; but I passed it off as being “internet webcomic” material. 

There was a large public response on Twitter and blogs, and I’m sure there was an even greater direct response to Penny Arcade and Gabriel himself.  The blog "shakesville" is probably receiving hundreds of page hits for their critical response to the webcomic.  Guest writer Shaker Milli A composed a great article about the concept of "rape jokes", and Melissa McEwan has a very detailed follow-up.  I recommend reading both of these articles and their "Rape Culture 101" article for more information about rape and to read more about the criticisms and emotions surrounding the comic.

What shocked me—literally shocked me—about this situation was not the comic itself nor the responses of those who were offended, but the subsequent defense of the article: the vitriolic responses to victims, the rejection of the idea that anyone could be offended, the language used to defend the comic and the actual support of the use of the concept of rape as a joke.

The Defense:
The majority those who defend the comic essentially re-state Gabe's brief response in the rage-inducing and ignorantly titled, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger" post.  Gabe says “For the most part I think that people are perfectly happy to laugh at offensive jokes until the joke offends them. Then it’s not funny anymore. There is no way we can know what each and every person who reads the comic has decided to find offensive.”  Gabriel’s Twitter responses included “the idea that our cartoon could cause 'significant trauma' is bat shit fucking insane. I'm done talking about this.”, “I don't feel like we made a mistake.” and “[...] they are not interested in a conversation. They want an apology. That's not something I am interested in.”.

The official Penny Arcade response was to release a second tongue-in-cheek webcomic dictating that they do not advocate rape.  The comic states “It’s possible you read our cartoon, and became a rapist as a direct result.  If you’re raping someone right now, stop. Apologize.  And leave.  Go on and rape no more”.  In short, this is a bullshit response.  I don’t think anyone argued that the original comic was going to cause gamers to go out and start raping people.  I don’t believe the original comic advocated rape, inferred that rape was ok, or even exclaimed that rape wasn’t a horrible thing.

Did they really need to press the issue further by ignoring actual pleas for understanding, calling people “batshit fucking insane” or by shrugging off hurt people by throwing out some sardonic crap as an "official response"? 

Why Gamers Shouldn’t Joke about Rape, and a note about Maturity
The problem is, while the comic--and the resulting response and battle--may not have advocated the act of rape itself, it sure as hell does advocate the use of casual rape jokes and tells the gaming community that making a joke out of rape, using the act of rape as humor, is ok.  They are saying that if you don’t like it, you can get the fuck out.  If you don’t like their jokes, you just don’t *get it*, you don’t have a sense of humor, that it’s your fault for feeling bad.

I hear rape jokes all the time in games, at LANs, in IRC and it makes me uncomfortable in a way that I can’t even explain to people (and why would I now, if I’m just going to get laughed at and told that it’s my problem and that I don’t have a sense of humor).  I had been optimistic that these most recent criticisms would finally shed some light on the issues and how uncomfortable it makes some gamers.

However, Gabe and Tycho's response in this situation effectively tells us that if you are sensitive about certain issues, if you have been raped and feel uncomfortable about this kind of talk, if you don’t think something is funny, then maybe the gaming community isn’t the place for you.  Maybe you should GTFO.  They are alienating and undermining the experiences of members of their own community, offending people who attend their own convention and expect a safe environment and the environment of “home”.

The Fine Line Between Joking and Harrassment
Let’s get right down to it: most people acknowledge that the comic was written as a joke; it was written to be humorous, there was no intention to delegitimize rape or victims/survivors of rape.  The fact that people were genuinely offended should at the very least cause everyone to stop and reflect on the situation. 

Sure, we can all take a joke, and of course Mike and Jerry (Gabe and Tycho) have the right to post whatever they want.  But when the joke goes too far and the content reflects real-life situations of extreme emotional and physical pain which have likely been experienced by many of their readers, their response--or anyone's response in this situation, for that matter--shouldn't be so careless and asinine.  Their sarcastic and scathing defense will be what causes them to lose fans and face backlash.  Obviously, we are talking about an internet webcomic here, but if this had been a real organization, or a real workplace, joking about rape would be considered sexual harassment and would result in severe consequences.

But because we are talking about the internet, it’s therefore automatically ok to joke about serious issues, and Gabe has made it clear that he has free reign to write (or illustrate) whatever he wants to without any risk of consequence, and that he does not need to take responsibility for his actions or content, or responses.  Those who wrote letters, who said something on Twitter: these people aren’t members of the Wesboro Baptist Church--they’re not (necessarily) Jack Thompson fans--these are members of our community who feel slighted by people who they thought supported them and were on their side.  These individuals felt legitimately harassed and were brave enough to voice their opinions only to be treated like garbage and mocked by their own friends and community.

Don’t Be a Dick
Everyone touts Wheaton’s Law, “Don’t Be a Dick”, like it was written on a stone tablet and hand-delivered by God.  With the prevalence of this Testament, and the degree to which gamers and PAX attendees will follow this Golden Rule, I am absolutely shocked that the PAX organizers and the PAX community so hastily shit in the face of all the people who want to participate in and be included in a community that welcomes and supports them. 

On Twitter, Rudniculous was one of the more vocal critics.  Rudniculous says “I can't speak for everyone, but I know a few who would appreciate the opportunity to voice their hurt in a space where their concerns won't be dismissed. I think you would gain a lot of respect from those who feel hurt.”  Is that really too much to ask for? How hard is it really to be the bigger person and realize that you may have gone a bit too far and that people are genuinely hurt?  Why does Gabriel need to be such a dick?

It’s time to step up and realize the almighty power and glory of your creation, Penny Arcade.  It's time to understand what your geekly hands have wrought and marvel at the sight, and teach humility before your fervid followers that they may learn though your example the Testament of Wheaton:  Thou Shalt not Be-ith a Dick.


  1. So, Gabe and Tycho need to change their values or guard their speech about what is okay to joke about because of... why exactly? Because they're public figures? Because they're associated with a charity? Because they put on a huge gaming conference every year?

    Penny Arcade has always had a special place in its dark gamer heart for offensive jokes. This isn't the first time they've touched on distasteful topics with their comics and treated the controversy with an irreverent middle finger. This should not surprise anyone.

    If this comic bothers someone to the point at which they think "Hey, I don't think this is funny. I can't support this community, I'm out" and decides not to give PA any more web traffic and doesn't attend PAX again, I have full respect for that. Gamers are a big group and we're not all going to agree on where the line for being distasteful is.

    I don't expect Penny Arcade to change, though. Nor would I want them to.

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  3. I'll read this whole thing later but how about we throw some links in here to what you're talking about?

  4. I propose an amendment to Wheaton's Law, to be known as The Rufus Rider. So amended, it reads "Don't be a dick; be excellent to each other." Closes that "I'm not being a dick, you're just being overly sensitive" loophole. Which any reasonable person would recognize as being a dick anyway.

  5. @Lindsey there are links to everything, they are just hard to see. I'll change the color so they're more obvious.

    Honestly, I think what was more offensive was their response rather than the joke itself. I didn't find the joke offensive, but I thought their response was pretty unnecessary. They gotta expect to be attacked occasionally for their brand of humor. I find it kind of odd they're so ill prepared for the situation.

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  7. Is anyone truly ready to respond to anything like this? They have done some pretty offensive things over the years and we laughed then.

    How is this "rape joke" different from "Fruit Fucker rape jokes?" Because he only rapes fruit? The concept is still the same, he rapes and it's played for laughs.

    How are they suppose to respond when the community that has been supporting their ongoing rape joke of Fruit Fucker (t-shirts, posters, etc.) and suddenly they called to the floor over a non-Fruit Fucker rape joke. They can make rape jokes, but only if involves raping fruit?

    There is a saying the covers this, "You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time." No matter what the Penny Arcade guys say or do at this point they will be targets.

    Not saying what they did is right or wrong. I am saying there is long history of non-politically correct humor from them, and just now people are getting sensitive?

  8. @eye-shuh Thanks, I didn't see any of them before. I'm still missing the one that links to the comic in question though.

    Okay, as far as the comments are going so far, I think the poster touched on it, albeit briefly- what if you had been raped? That joke isn't funny then. Somebody shouldn't have to say, "hey, I've been raped, cut it out" every time a rape joke is made. It also leads to something bigger which is, gamers are guys, guys don't get raped, so rape jokes are cool among the guys. Well guys do get raped. They're way less likely to talk about it. Make that times a million when people tell them to shut up and why can't they take a joke?

    Anyways, I'm not even saying I agree with the poster. I make terribly off color jokes all the time that probably really hurt and offend some people. I don't have a bajillion people listening to me though, so I honestly can't say what's 'right' and 'wrong' in this situation.

  9. Okay, now I see where it's linked but it's still the same as all the other words. I think I need to quit using Chrome.

  10. @Lord Moon I guess my point was more that this can't be the first time they've ever been attacked for their humor. Is this really the only time in all the 11 or so years Penny Arcade has been around that anyone has been offended and started a ruckus? I find that kind of hard to believe. it worse now that it's easier to start internet riots via social networking? I didn't think of that. Maybe they really haven't had to deal with this kind of backlash before.

  11. @Lindsey ...ok that's weird. I'm using Chrome and I can see it's a lighter purple. I left the "read link" color as dark purple, so maybe that's why it looks like it's still blending for you?

  12. @eye-shuh it's probably a cache thing at this point? Maybe?

    Also, that's a good point about the social media thing. I mean, for all we know people are offended by a little robot that fucks fruit. But how many people would go on the penny arcade forums, which are obviously full of people who love the comic to say, hey, this isn't funny..?

  13. @Lord Moon Vydeo: Not only has "Fruit Fucker" been generally accepted as hilarious, other taboo subjects have been made into comics without major incident: incest, bestiality, and all sorts of extreme violence. I have to echo the official sentiment - what comic has everyone been reading all these years?

  14. I have a confession to make.

    I am a rape victim.

    And I think dickwolf rape is hilarious.

    that's right, I laughed my ass off at that comic. But then, I like offensive humour. I even joke about rape myself. It's how I deal with life. I don't expect others to feel the same, but that's just me.

    Now, if I were G&T, and a vocal portion of my readers suddenly jumped up my ass for making an offensive joke, I'd also be sorely tempted to make a snark response back. Penny Arcade has always been offensive and pulled no punches (especially against babies[though the baby was kind of a dick]). It's part of what I love about the comic.

    Some have told me that they no longer even really read the comic anymore or will no longer continue to read it, and that is your prerogative. However, the last few days of discourse on this has made me feel like I should be ashamed for laughing at this, and by that virtue, ashamed of what happened to me when I was 13 years old and had no fault in.

    I am stronger person because of the trails of my past. And I refuse to be ashamed in that.

    Take people for who they are, offensive jokes and all, and appreciate them for what is good and great about them. By looking for every little wrong in somebody and crying out "don't be a dick", who's the bigger dick?

    *note, this doesn't mean I don't thin Nomad makes some excellent points as well. I just really needed to say my piece.

  15. I'm going to agree that with the explosion of social in recent years has magnified many things. It gives a voice to the voiceless or those that feel they are voiceless. At the same time it gives a voice to assholes too.

    The PA guys have probably had backlash before, but it was probably limited to emails. Now you they have Twitter and Facebook hitting them too.

    Not to mention they are nerds. Like us they are humans with weird social skills/problems. It's well known Mike has a huge phobia of being in public, Jerry has something similar, and both take medication for it. And being human means you can't be on your best behavior all the time. I know I've made a complete ass of myself on occasion.

  16. I have to say I agree with Nomad on this one. I know the original comic wasn't meant to offend, and like Miss Z said, as a victim myself, I even laughed at it.

    However it DID upset some people. The rest of the comics aside, this one hit home with a lot of people and hurt them. It wasn't on purpose, and I fully understand that. And I agree he has a right to joke about anything he wants.

    But rather than taking all those hurt people into consideration and saying "I'm sorry if that comic hurt anyone, that really wasn't the intent." they came back with a subtle but very clear "Fuck you. You are all whiny bitches". THAT is what made me lose respect for G&T, not the original comic. I still plan on going to PAX, because to me, PAX is about my friends and gaming, not about 2 guys that write a comic. But I can easily see why people would boycott the entire thing, and don't find it at all surprising.

  17. To be perfectly honest (and to clarify), my entire intent with this post was and is to get this conversation out there, into a space where we have the opportunity to talk about it with more than 120 characters.

    I am THRILLED about the response to this, both positive and negative, because it means people have to consciously think about this issue, and if they wanted to, engage in dialogue about it (to whatever end). I am so happy about that, so thank you all for commenting, and thanks for calling me a "sensitive bitch" or judging me, because that's exactly what I was looking for. Maybe it was some kind of social-psychological experiment, in a way....

    That being said, I'd like to apologize to Logan Marlowe and others who assume I'm going to be judging them for using distasteful jokes. I'd like to point out that, as I said (did you read the whole article? I know it was long. I even cut it in half from what I had originally), this isn't about (bad) jokes, it's about telling people to fuck off when they speak their mind and how that should be considered "not a good thing".

    I'm surprised at how divisive this issue is, and maybe I'm also (too optimistically) expecting some good to come of this in the form of critical thinking... maybe I should be sticking to reviews and travel tips? Seriously, though! I've already had some intense discussion about this, and I've learned a LOT.

    I also want to point out and emphasize a question that was brought up by many of you, which is: why rape? Why now? How is this suddenly now over the line? Why isn't slavery, murder, fruit fucker, violence, etc. the thing that spurred this discussion? I think that's a great point! For me, it's because this is an issue right now, and guess what just launched?! A new blog I'm writing in! Next time something controversial comes up, let's talk about it! (short answer. long answer forthcoming.) What the hell is wrong with a little intelligent conversation about contemporary topics using contemporary social media (as eye-shuh and Lord Moon point out)? Should this kind of talk be relegated to scholars and people outside the community? I say everyone is welcome to their opinion and you're welcome to share it!

    (Also, apologies for the links. I expected them to stand out more. I even thought of adding them all as references at the bottom, maybe I'll do that next time but we'll get the text color sorted out in the meantime! <3 eye-shuh!)

  18. When G&T are put on the spot they make a joke of it? Who saw that coming!?

    They show apprehension at their fame and have never exploited their popularity. To demand anything but honesty from them is unfair.

  19. As I was reading this post, I was getting ready to fire off some sort of rebuttal basically stating that everyone should relax. It's Penny Arcade, right? It's just Mike and Jerry being a couple of guys. But as I kept reading, I realized something:

    Wait. I'm a guy too. And that's kind of a big fucking deal when you're talking about rape, even with the intention of making a joke.

    Generally speaking, (and this is a very broad, imprecise statement,) men simply don't grow up with the same associations with the concept of rape as women do. Of course, if you're a decent human being, regardless of gender, you see rape as a horrendous act that should never, ever be committed. But there's one key difference: In the vast majority of cases, women are the victims of rape, and the crime is usually perpetrated by men. As a result, men generally are a lot less fearful of being the victim of rape, whereas I would imagine many women likely grow up at least somewhat unsettled by the fear of it.

    So as a man, I glossed over the word "rape" in that strip and instead laughed at the word "dickwolves." I didn't think much of it.

    Rape isn't a word I use in conversation unless I'm talking about the actual act of rape. I don't use the word when I mean that I totally destroyed the other side in Team Fortress 2. Then again, I'm not the sort of person who calls people "faggot" or "nigger" when they score a cheap kill on me on Xbox Live. People who talk like that are, by definition, bigoted assholes, and that sort of thing is totally unacceptable in a public forum. (And yeah, I'd consider an online game to be a relatively public setting.)

    But that's what led me to post this reply. Despite my efforts to be conscientious of the language I'm using and the things I'm reading, I glossed right over this one and dismissed it as just another baseless backlash from the fanbase. But I was wrong, and I think the PA guys ought to have responded in a more considerate way.

    Mike and Jerry are some pretty smart guys; I think most of us would agree on that. They've taken something and turned it into an influential and, by and large, very positive force in the world. Without them, Child's Play wouldn't bring in millions of dollars for children's hospitals, aspiring game makers wouldn't earn scholarships, and we gamers wouldn't have a public event in the US where we could congregate once (or twice, if you're that motivated) per year to have a grand old time. But in spite of their massive success and broad influence, I think they totally misunderstood their audience. I don't think they stopped to consider the broad spectrum of readers that they have, and those readers' different life experiences and values.

    I firmly believe that anything in the world can be joked about in the right context and with the right audience. But in this case, I think they chose the wrong context and they presented it to the wrong audience.

    I think Gabe and Tycho were maybe inadvertently dicks in writing and publishing that joke, but they were absolute, grade-A dicks with their responses to their readers. I hope they understand that this wouldn't have been nearly as colossal of an issue if they'd recognized the hubris in ignoring or dismissing people's complaints. Joking about a fruit-fucking robot is hilarious; writing an achievement into their game for examining rhinoceros testicles, like, fifteen times is brilliant. But rape is an intensely personal issue for a lot of people, and it cheapens their work when they treat it like any other thing they like to joke about.

    Thanks for writing the article. It gave me a chance to reexamine the situation and reevaluate my perception about this kind of thing.

  20. First off: Great article Nomad, this is exactly the sort of reading that's valuable..something that's relevant and thought-provoking.

    Personally on the issue of the comic itself, (and I understand that's like less than half of the source of umbrage here) I don't see anything wrong with it in the slightest. The purpose of the comic is clearly not to make light of rape..they needed a device to illustrate how a MMO "hero" would ignore the worst possible thing happening right under their noses if there wasn't a little quest flag above its head. Rape was apparently the worst thing they could think of. It could have been the hero's own mother being strung up on a rack, whatever. If anything it reinforces the idea that rape is horrible, if one really thinks about the message in the comic.

    To the response, Gabe and Tycho have always been straight up with their thoughts, getting upset about them speaking their minds now seems...odd. Assholish or no. They've been exactly that to those who speak before they think all along. (Jack Thompson would be an excellent example of this, though certainly not the only one.) In any case, bottom line is, I think G&T have been raised up way too high in people's minds, and if this situation brings them back down a few pegs toward normal-people level in people's heads, so much to the better at the end of the day. Normal people status is where Jerry and Mike shine.

  21. I agree with what Beau said. I think a number of people have completely overreacted simply because the word "rape" appeared in a comic. Rather than thinking out, they just assume that, since its a comic, they are making light of of a serious issue. What would have more appropriate? Murder? Is that truly more acceptable? The comic was pretty spot on for most RPGs. It has nothing to do with the ability to "take a joke" rather it has everything to do with the ability to comprehend what they are reading, in its full context, and to look beyond a single word. In this case a lot of people failed to accomplish this.

  22. I would just like to point something out...

    "I had sex with your mom last night" does not in fact imply that the 'dis-er' had sexual intercourse with the 'dis-ee's' mother the previous night. It is merely a statement made to show disrespect from one to another (whether in friendly camaraderie or in disdain).

    So when discussing that "oh my god that guy raped me so hard when we were in that pvp situation", I don't think the implication is that the guy literally forced himself sexually on the person speaking.

    Words have a way of changing their meaning through usage. (ie mouse does not refer to fuzzy rodent anymore) And to take the literal meaning of the word instead of the context is something I don't completely understand. So saying that any rape jokes "are tasteless or offensive" confuses me - especially when talking about gamer speak.

    In this case, the comic was in fact referring to an imaginary person being imaginarily held captive while an imaginary overlord imaginarily forces himself sexually on him.

    I am confused as to how this joke could possibly be offensive to anyone, anywhere -- male or female. As the entire point of the joke is that as gamers we don't go around freeing entire races of enslaved creatures during our gaming experience. We do exactly what we need to finish the quest and go turn it in.

    I would think that if you are offended by the snarky response (which was as eloquently worded and one of the most entertaining responses to nonsensical offended masses I've ever read) then perhaps you should consider yourself and evaluate why you are so easily offended. Or perhaps read this:

    or maybe spend more time gaming. :)

  23. "I would think that if you are offended by the snarky response (which was as eloquently worded and one of the most entertaining responses to nonsensical offended masses I've ever read) then perhaps you should consider yourself and evaluate why you are so easily offended." - Idge

    Umm... maybe they WERE FUCKING RAPED/MOLESTED and don't think it's funny for people to post some snarky response like "If you're raping someone right now, stop. Apologize. And leave."

    I agree that the source comic wasn't anything to get worked up over, but people who have had such a mind altering and soul scarring incident occur can get a little leeway from me. But that's me, I suppose. Maybe I just think differently than the rest of the shit-talking, asshole gamer community. I think kindness and community are more important than perpetuating a culture of insults and degradation that people associate with gamers these days.

  24. I think the best course of action for someone raping someone else is for them to stop, apologize, and leave. (Who wouldn't?) It's an honest statement. The satire I think was in anyone thinking people might go out and rape because of the original comic. Or perhaps in that people were offended at all to the point where they felt it necessary to respond.

    People tend to get wrapped up in victim mentality. I was once a victim of a crime, but that does not define every course of action I take today. I don't believe that bringing up that topic means that I have to relive those memories. If that's where that individual is during their healing process, then by all means be angry and feel those feelings. But censuring/censoring other people because the individual is having a hard time with something is ridiculous. That PA even felt they needed to come up with a response at all shows that we as a community tend to bend over backwards for the need of the one rather than the many.

    Americans specifically tend to gather their rights about them like it's the flag and should you say something otherwise you are un-American, or an antipatriot. Let me be specific when I say that you have every right to be offended. I am merely stating that your offense confuses me.

    And perhaps becoming offended by something so petty as a comic strip online might preclude you to do some serious soul searching because there are other things that might need your time and energy to be offended about -- perhaps that rape is still happening at all might be a better use of your offended energies. Once rape stops, then the jokes about it will likely stop. Communities joke as a way to cope with things that the masses find unacceptable - but that is a whole other argument.

    In this instance, my entire point is that offense over this particular topic confuses me. Especially in a community that is constantly being told that what we do is going to cause all of us to become murdering idiots who will take oozies and handguns to our schools/work places and shoot all of the people we don't like.