It Gets Better When We Make It Better

2013 might be the year that Penny Arcade finally shows everyone who and what they are. Their problems, this year, started when one of the founders said something that was insensitive at least and hurtful at most. It began when some people noticed a particular panel in the upcoming Penny Arcade Expo in Australia (PAX-AUS). The panel, entitled “Why So Serious? Has the Industry Forgotten That Games Are Supposed to Be Fun?” had the following as its original description, with the emphasis added and with the Australian English spelling kept:

Why does the games industry garner such scrutiny from outside sources and within? Every point aberration gets called into question, reviewers are constantly criticised and developers and publishers professionally and personally attacked. Any titillation gets called out as sexist or misogynistic and involve any antagonist race other than Anglo-Saxons and you’re a racist.

It’s gone too far and when will it all end? How can we get off the soapbox and work together to bring a new constructive gaming age into fruition?

Many people complained, and the description was changed. Those changes were still not ideal and people had further complaints. Eventually Mike Krahulik aka “Gabe”, one of the two founders of Penny Arcade, took to Twitter to defend himself. A complete rundown of the events can be found on the Border House blog, including screen captures of some particularly transphobic tweets.

To proactively defend against the obvious responses: No, what Gabe said was not the ugliest thing ever. And no, he doesn’t hate all trans people. But what he said was hurtful, and his doubling-down was predictably painful. However, few saw his “but I have a trans friend” defense coming, and that email exchange shows that while he might be trying, Gabe simply doesn’t get it.

There is a difference between one’s sex, the physical characteristics one is born with and physically express over time, and one’s gender, which is a collection of physical and mental and social aspects that combine to express an identity.

There is a difference between “male” and “man” and a similar difference between “female” and “woman.” Clinically speaking, the body parts and the chromosomes are physical realities. For many those realities are nifty, and for some they are irrelevant. And for others, like me, they are challenges to be overcome. My article is more than a discussion about trans issues – this fantastic writeup closely resembles my opinions on the matter.

Two months ago re/Action posted two articles that spoke to what is happening.  Zoya Street’s “Why Invisibility Isn’t A Superpower” is a timeless work, and his description of shifting between genders in gamerspace should be required reading for people in the industry. In addition, Samantha Allen’s “An Open Letter To Games Media” discusses the problem that happens when the wrong people poison the discussion on gaming websites — and how we can change that. Both of those were written and published before Penny Arcade’s latest misstep. Please allow me to broaden this out:

I believe that Penny Arcade poisons the games industry with not just its transphobia, but also with its continued sexism, misogyny, and general disregard for “other.”

This is not a new thing for them. The “Dickwolves” debacle from the summer of 2010 still stands as the undisputed champion of “disregard for other,” where what began with a lack of comedic judgment descended into problem after problem after omg-what-were-you-thinking. This continued forward with their responses on their blog, making it clear that our objections to their content are our problem and not their problem:

“If jokes about violence, rape, aids, pedophilia, bestiality, drugs, cancer, homosexuality, and religion bother you then I recommend reading a different webcomic.” — Mike Krahulik aka “Gabe”, January 2011

For me, it is this prior posting from immediately after the Dickwolves comic was posted that sums up the entire problem nicely.

What surprised me most about some of the reactions to our Dickwolf joke was not that people were offended. But that this was the comic that offended them. In each case the emails I got started with something like “I’ve been a long time fan” or “Been reading the comic for years…” and then they go into how this particular comic really bothered them.

I just don’t understand that. Did the comics about bestiality, suicide, murder, pedophilia, and torture not bother them? Or how about the fruit fucker? I mean, we have a character who is a literal rapist. What comic strip have they been reading all these years?

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.

In the end I just disagree with these people about what’s funny and that’s perfectly okay.

The part that is not “perfectly okay” is that the industry chose to exalt Penny Arcade before that, and continues to celebrate them now. People have chosen to partner with Penny Arcade repeatedly, making things like Child’s Play and PATV and Penny Arcade Report, and taking a relatively small gaming convention like PAX and blowing it up to the size of E3. Thousands of hours, millions of readers, and an untold epic sum of money have been given over to these people — even after they have made it clear exactly who and what they are. Again, just this past weekend at PAX Prime, Krahulik said that he thought that “pulling the Dickwolves merchandise was a mistake.” (See the video here.)

In their own words, Penny Arcade is a place where “comics about bestiality, suicide, murder, pedophilia, and torture” are funny and normal and allowed and to be expected. Why do we, as an industry, continue to support this?

There are many people and companies in the industry who will passively stand by and mind their own business. For every major publisher that exhibits at PAX there are a few who do not, for instance. That attitude does serve well for the moment but it does not serve gaming’s soul at all. Silence is agreement that the status quo is good enough. Clearly, to me, it is not.

Penny Arcade has done some important things for the industry and beyond. Yes, PAX is a big deal and yes, Child’s Play has improved lives. But at what cost? Should doing great things give you the license to do horrible things as well? I’m not advocating for censorship, of course. They have the right to say almost anything they want. But we, as an industry, have the right to not financially enable this continued abuse of our public square.

Is Penny Arcade “too big to fail”? I very sincerely hope not. We can do better, and we should.