My Issue with Penny Arcade: Explained Again

Trigger warning: Discussion of rape culture

I will be the first to admit this. I did not a perfect job with my initial post on Penny Arcade or the resulting conversation. Some because the initial post wasn’t as clear as I’d like. I also wasted far too much energy going down tangents, addressing issues unrelated to the central points. This caused my entire argument to get muddled and made my points hard to understand. This is going to attempt to clarify my view, incorporating what I have learned from talking with critics and supporters alike. In many ways, I think this should have the post I wrote first, but hindsight is 20/20.

Before we start, please understand this post is not about specifics of rape, rape culture, or rape humor. The initial conversation was definitely side-tracked by arguing about rape in our society. This is not to dismiss the topic out of hand, but the goal of this post is instead to focus on the situation more abstractly. This abstraction will allow my points to be see more universally. It will also prevent us getting side-tracked onto other topics.

My issue is with how Penny Arcade has handled this criticism by a segment of its fans and how that shows what they find important. We are focusing on Penny Arcade, and their actions alone. They are responsible for themselves. If you have an axe to grind about someone else, go grind it somewhere else.

Despite the timeline gathering a great deal of the criticism, it can not contain any private communications that happened behind the scenes.  We will never know, short of Penny Arcade posting every message, the full extent of what was said to Mike and Jerry about their actions. It is easy to imagine both well thought, rational answers along with crazy threatening madness. Twitter alone has shown us both ends of the spectrum. But without any evidence, we can only use what is publicly available.

What the public information tells us is this: a portion of the Penny Arcade fan base was hurt by the initial comic. The comic struck a chord when them, in the same way the used game comic did for others, and they made their complaints known to Penny Arcade. The first public criticism came from Milli A, a fan. In the blog post accompanying the second comic, Mike further elaborated that 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.” From the very beginning, this criticism was coming from the fans. It spread further as time passed, but initially it was a fan-driven action. Regardless of whether or not your agree with their complaint is immaterial. The point is that a segment of the Penny Arcade was hurt, and they made that hurt known through emails, blog posts, and Twitter.

Penny Arcade had three choices when dealing with criticism. The first is to ignore it, which I imagine is their default action. As Mike pointed out, they make lots of comics of potentially offensive content. Any comic might offend a different segment of the population. While ignoring a problem does not make it better, it at least does not make it any worse. It also might be masking a lesson learned; it is possible that something that offends will not be used the same way again. Hard to know for certain without evidence though. When someone simply ignores a topic you find important, it is generally reasonable to wait and see. Future events will usually clarify their actual position.

The second is what happened when Penny Arcade offended used game buyers: dialogue. They listened very closely to why people were offended. They took a step back and acknowledged their own privilege from their position. They accepted that people had a different view than them, that the content offended the reader, and that this offense was a real thing. They even gave the offended a voice on their website. This is the best possible result of a criticism. If a creator feels a topic is important, they should acknowledge criticism based on that, giving it the respect one feels it deserves.

The third is the response we got in this case: attack your critics. For some critics, this is a valid response. It is an effective tool against outside forces. Penny Arcade’s treatments toward Jack Thompson are a good example of this tactic. Penny Arcade feels that the video games cause violence is not worthy of serious discussion, so they mock and ridicule their opponent. It also divides the “us” from the “them,” giving a clear target for their loyal fans to latch unto.

The problem is when you use this attack response against your own fans. Suddenly, a group of your own fans have been labeled as outsiders. The initial hurt they felt by the offensive comic is built upon this rejection from a community they thought they were a part of. Even worse a portion of the community that was not offended will go on the offensive, attacking the critics with the vigor of missionaries converting heathens by the sword. Critics naturally defend themselves, and suddenly there is a kind of holy war going on between the loyalist and the disillusioned. Personally, the initial comic did not affect me greatly, but I both understand how it could hurt and acknowledged that it did hurt people.

Battles rage on blogs, on twitter, on forums. It became more than simply a discussion about a comic, but an argument about the importance of the general topic. As this conflict continued, both sides kept close eye on Penny Arcade. How did Mike and Jerry deal with such a situation?

They dealt with it by pouring gasoline onto the fire. They made an inflammatory t-shirt which, intentional or not, turned the entire conflict up to eleven. Rather than attempt to bring peace or closure, it gave both sides tools to fight with. The disillusioned had further evidence that Penny Arcade didn’t care about their concerns. The loyalists got a uniform, a mascot to rally around. This also lead more to choose a side. The fire of division spread out to other parts of the Penny Arcade ecosystem, included the beloved PAX.

Speakers pulling out of panels and fans canceling plans to attend appeared to make an impact. Once the fire threatened PAX, suddenly Mike and Jerry were concerned. In many ways, I think PAX is more important than the webcomic itself to them. So they acted: the t-shirt was taken down from the store.

To the disillusioned, it was peace. Finally their concerns were heard; their hurt was acknowledged. Despite six months of being attacked, PAX would be a place for all, loyalist and disillusioned alike. The long crisis looked to finally be over. Personally, I thought this post was the turning point, where Penny Arcade took rape culture based criticism seriously.

The peace lasted less than a day. It was broken in a surprising quick fashion if you were following Mike through Twitter. I don’t have exact time stamps, but his tweet about removing the shirts from the store was immediately followed by his tweet that he’d be wearing his shirt to PAX, and by proxy encouraging others to wear theirs. The situation hadn’t actually gotten better. It simply added another pour of gasoline, giving loyalist a rallying cry around the removal, while disillusioned were once again left feeling as outsiders since the concern was not sincere.

Please note, that it is perfectly acceptable for Penny Arcade to do everything they have done. It is within their right to create whatever content they want. They can make their fan base as large or as small as they desire. They can listen to criticism or they can ignore it. They can decide this kind of criticism is important, this kind of criticism is not. All this is their right. By their actions, Penny Arcade has made it clear that any concern, hurt, or criticism related to rape culture is not important to them. Each creator has to decide their own position.

As I have stated, I believe criticism related to rape culture is important and should inspire dialogue. It should not be ignored or mocked. Agree or not with someone’s specific argument concerning rape culture, I feel it is a topic worthy of attention. Penny Arcade has shown that they do not care, nor do they care for those who do think its important. They have even presented evidence that they may not even believe in rape culture. As such, I do not want to support the or that line of thinking, with my acceptance, viewership or money.

Every issue is like this.  Every fan has to decide what topics are worth exercising the right to complain and what is worth leaving over. You do not have to agree with me. But you should self examine your own beliefs, and decide what topics are valuable to you, what things you will stand-up for.

This is the lesson I want you to learn. Sometimes having standards means giving up things you love for the greater good. You have to decide what you will stand for and take action on those beliefs when the situation demands. I imagine that few people will have their mind changed by this post or the one before it. But this will hopefully make you think about what you support. That’s all I can really ask of you.

-That is all.

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3 thoughts on “My Issue with Penny Arcade: Explained Again

  1. Andy says:

    OK, I can’t really argue with this one. One of the reasons I’m most upset by this whole thing is BECAUSE of the fallout for PAX and Child’s Play.

    Mike fucked up by saying too much, and then both Mike and Jerry fucked up by saying too little.

    Whatever Mike’s intent, it should have been clear to him that the silence surrounding the trigger joke and t-shirt obscured any intent, and left interpretation open to the very worst.

    On the other hand, I read the comic because it’s funny and makes me think. I read the news to get tips on good books (The Name of the Wind) etc. I go to PAX because I love to game. In other words, I want Mike and Jerry to do what they do best, and I’m not going to stop enjoying all of that because they happen to have fucked up once when they should have been leaders.

    Hell, the fact that they put PAX together, put together Child’s Play, told millions of gamers that it was OK to get help for anxiety and depression, weight gain and loss is still a damn impressive record.

    Writing off Mike and Jerry for this is like writing off Ghandi because he had naked young women sleep in his bed. Or Tiger Woods:

    http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2010/2/26/

  2. Nicholas Lester Bell says:

    I am glad I was able to finally made this clear enough so others can understand. I definitely don’t need you to agree. Understanding and thinking rational helps the dialogue.

    Your comment about PAX and Child’s Play is important. I wrote a post a few weeks ago about giving up watching sports, and similar comments were made about the value of sports, all the good that is done with the power and privilege professional athletes have. Penny Arcade is the same way – they do a lot of good as well. Each person has to decide if that good overcomes the bad.

    I will not judge for supporting them as long as you actually thought about it, which you obviously have. As I said, that’s all I want.

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