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.
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 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.