Conscious Consumerism & Penny Arcade: Let’s Talk About the Elephant in the Room

In 2012 women were a hot topic in gaming – and not in a good way.  Many women were verbally abused and overall women were told that they didn’t belong in the realm of video games.  Events like the abuse of Anita Sarkeesian, the sexual harassment of Miranda Pakozdi by Aris Bakhtanians during the Street Fighter x Tekken reality show, and Felicia Day being verbally attacked by ex-Destructoid writer Ryan Perez on Twitter are just a few of the events that come to mind.  While many gamers came to the defense of women in gaming there seemed to be an overwhelming number of people that promoted and reinforced the male only perspective on gaming.

These events all raised the question – what does it mean to be a gamer and what types of mindsets are really at the heart of gamer culture?

It’s not just individual gamers though.  Companies are a part of the problem as well.  The hashtag #1reasonwhy demonstrated the sexist mindset that is pervasive in the game developer and publisher industries. Jean-Maxx Morris, one of the creative directors for the video game Remember Me, recounted to Gamasutra earlier this year that it was extremely difficult to find a publisher because the game’s protagonist is female.   Anita Sarkeesian has started releasing her Kickstarted video series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” and it outlines how storylines overwhelmingly reinforce the gender stereotype of women as helpless creatures who often need saving from others and sometimes themselves.  I highly recommend you watch through Part 1 and Part 2 of the first episode.

The industry provides us with some of the best entertainment available, but it has also continued to be detrimental to minorities and women with both groups being underrepresented.

2013 is turning out to be a better year than 2012, but that’s like describing a game as better than the worst game you can remember playing.   While all of these incidents have continued to raise the question of what it means to be a gamer  there is another question that I think goes hand in hand with that question – “who are we as gamers supporting?”  What kind of individual are we highlighting, encouraging, and giving our money to?  And, just as importantly, does our support continue to perpetuate the mindset that has led to unacceptable incidents such as those mentioned above?

As a community, gamers should be extra sensitive to who they are supporting and what companies they are giving money to; gamers need to be conscious consumers.  With sexist mindsets so seemingly pervasive and overwhelming in the gaming community, the projects and companies that gamers support economically can mean the difference between bolstering these mindsets or fighting against them.  If your goal is to aid true progress within the gaming community you should remove your support from games, developers, and gaming commentators (journalists, bloggers, etc.) that you find to be part of the problem.  Examples such as the controversial Dragon’s Crown show us how games continue to perpetuate these mindsets while games such as Gone Home demonstrate how games can work towards inclusivity by using non-alienating/offensive gameplay and art while still being enjoyable.

The last thing I want to do is weave some fairy-tale that this will solve all the problems – because it won’t.  There also need to be voices actively speaking out and telling developers why their game isn’t as popular as it could have been.
As consumers, we also need to be aware that there are many organizations that create massive cognitive dissonance by doing positive work in the gaming sphere while being harmful in other ways.
Things get even more complicated when we consider the residual effect of our support.  Groups and organizations that work together also support each other.  When we support one group we are also giving support to the groups and organizations that they work with.  If an organization owns multiple outlets for media or products (think Wal-Mart owning Sam’s Club) it gets even harder for consumers to track what goals and ideologies their money may be supporting.

It’s a tricky landscape filled with landmines that is often difficult to traverse.  Penny Arcade is the best timely example right now due to the cognitive dissonance they have created, their recent spotlight in the news, and similar incidents in the history of the web comic.

Enter Penny Arcade

Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik (AKA: Gabe) has entered into problematic conversations and has taken problematic stances throughout his Penny Arcade career. He has demonstrated both cognitive dissonance in conscious consumerism and why this conversation needs to happen.  Looking at Penny Arcade’s track record, the three biggest transgressions would (arguably) be the dickwolf debacle, the PAX Panel that had to change its description on PAX’s website to exclude remarks about sexism and misogyny (quoted below), and Mike Krahulik’s transphobic tweets.  (All linked and quoted below)  There’s quite a bit to parse out here, and while I won’t go into massive detail I will include links that do.

There was the dickwolf incident that started back in 2010 centered on a rape joke in one Penny Arcade’s comics.  The incident escalated quickly, and when Krahulik was asked how it felt to support rape-culture Krahulik answered that it, “felt pretty good.”  (There’s a great timeline of events here. For the specific quote scroll to January 31, 2011) While dickwolf debates have lulled into a sort of dull buzz, a new problem popped up for Krahulik and Penny Arcade – a panel approved for PAX Australia 2013 whose description read:

“Why does the game 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 age into fruition?”

 Border House Blog (where I first read of the panel) puts it far better than I can:

“The idea that games as a medium are exempt from criticism because they’re ‘supposed to be fun’ is ridiculous and immature.  This is complete and utter display of privilege and total dismissal of the concerns by women and people of color is awful, but then conflating ‘a new constructive age’ with a time where we disregard the concerns of marginalized gamers is flat out embarrassing.”

While attempting to defend the panel and people’s right to free speech at PAX, the conversation took a turn when Krahulik made several tweets (@cwgabriel) that were transphobic and extremely hurtful to an already marginalized part of our population.  You can check out the tweets and some great analysis from the Border House Blog post linked above and from Rachel Edidin’s article “Why Penny Arcade’s Foot-in-Mouth Problem is Bigger than Penny Arcade” over at Wired.  You can also view the tweets made by Krahulik here.

Since then Krahulik has offered numerous apologies via Twitter as well as the blog connected to Penny Arcade’s main site.  The first of his apologies was a post of a conversation between him and his friend Sophie who is trans.  You can read that here (third post down).  His second apology was posted on June 21st, just a day after his first apology and the third apology the day after that.  Both of them can be read here.

In his third apology, Krahulik announced that he would be donating $20,000 to The Trevor Project.  The Trevor Project is an amazing program that works with youth and offers crisis counseling for LGBTQ youth who are considering suicide. They provide life-saving and life affirming resources to youth who are bullied because of their sexuality and may be considering taking their own life because of it.

Some say that the $20,000 donation to the Trevor Project is an acceptable form of apology while others argue that it’s not. With Penny Arcade’s track record it is very likely that there will be another issue in the near future.  On top of it all, in all of Krahulik’s apologies he never makes mention of trying to correct his behavior.  He doesn’t say that he will attempt to correct his actions in the future and, in fact, says that: “I hate lots of people it’s true.  But I’ve never hated anyone for their sexual orientation or their gender situation.  I don’t hate people for superficial shit like that.  I hate people for the way they act and I intend to keep doing that.”  His attempt at apology falls into the realm of the questionable for many.

In light of it all, Penny Arcade has done a lot of good for their communities and has, somewhat ironically, helped improve the situation and view of gamers within overall society.  Supporters can point to the great work they’ve done promoting Indie Games (the Indie Megabooth at PAX), the work they’ve done with Child’s Play Charity, and the work they’ve done supporting other artists with projects like PATV.  It creates such dissonance when, as Wired’s Rachel Edidin put it, “PAX is the largest end-user gaming show in the world… a show that’s built a reputation as unusually progressive, focusing programming on marginalized communities in gaming culture, banning booth babes, and taking a hard-line stance on direct harassment,”  while also having a community that support’s Krahulik and his offensive mentalities (as shown by the dickwolf debacle, the number of people supporting his transphobic perspective on twitter, and the fact that the PAX panel got approved in the first place).

So where does that leave us as consumers?

We have to make a decision about whether continued support of an organization falls in line with our perspective of the world, and if continued support of organizations does more harm than good.  It’s important to note that this is subjective.  What is acceptable for one person is unacceptable to another.  Whether the harm is outweighed by the good can also be very subjective, as many times it comes down to intuition and gut.  There are no hard numbers or statistics that can be put side by side.

Things get tricky in this head space and it’s easy to problematize organizations and companies in this way.  Steam is a great, cloud based way to get games cheaply, but they also support DRM which can be harmful to consumers.  Kickstarter is an amazing way to fund projects and enable products that might never have been possible otherwise, but with projects such as the “Above the Game” project that served as a how-to guide on assaulting women (under the guise of a “seduction guide”) they hover over dangerous grounds (note: Kickstarter quickly apologized and changed their guidelines for submissions to exclude any seduction guide as well as donated 25,000 to RAIN).

The great benefit of electronic media is that there are so many different news organizations and media sites available that, unlike physical products, there are many viable options which we can replace whatever we give up.  For example, if you stop reading The Penny Arcade Report, you can research and find another news source which provides similar coverage but without the Penny Arcade ties.

In the end, we have to figure out what our principles are and stick to them.  Organizations that meet the expectations set by our principles should be supported and organizations that don’t should be left to wither. Making those decisions won’t be easy, although having set principles to guide our purchases and media consumption make it easier.

I want to end this article with a press release from The Fullbright Company.  They were offered a space at PAX in the Indie Megabooth.  They turned it down for numerous reasons.  It’s a great demonstration of being a conscious consumer (companies consume as well) and The Fullbright Company leading by example in this area.

“We made a difficult decision today.

Earlier this month, Gone Home was accepted into the Indie Megabooth [] at the PAX Prime expo.  The Meagbooth is awesome – a huge area of the showfloor dedicated entirely to indie games.  We’ve attended a number of times as fans, and the energy there is inspiring.  It’s wonderful that via the Megabooth, indie games can be such a destination at such a huge event.  We were very excited when Gone Home was accepted by the organizers.

But in the back of our minds all along, we’ve been bothered by the public stances that Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the founders of PAX’s parent organization Penny Arcade, have taken on a number of issues.

First there was the entire “Dickwolves” debacle, during which Mike said that if “felt pretty good” to “support rape culture.”

Then there were the Penny Arcade Kickstarters, one of which offered to let backers pay them $7,500 [] to work as a Penny Arcade intern for a day.

When critics recently raised objections about the over-the-top depiction of female characters in Dragon’s Crown, Jerry referred to the opinions that differed from his own as “censorship.” []

And then yesterday a panel was announced for PAX Australia entitled “Why So Serios?” Its description initially included the lines:

Any titillation gets called out as sexist or misogynistic, and involve any antagonist race aside from Anglo-Saxon and you’re called a racist.  It’s gone too far and when will it end?

 Soon after, it was changed to a less inflammatory description [], but the fact that the original panel was okayed by Penny Arcade still stands.

Which finally led to Mike tweeting ignorant dismissals of transgender people, then posting an email chain [] that, as part of a self-serving quasi-apology, includes him attempting to defend his position by saying

I hate the idea that because I think boys and girls have different parts I am “transphobic” that pisses me off it makes me angry and so I lash out.”

So here’s where the difficult decision comes in.

This morning we stopping pushing those long-held reservations about Jerry and Mike into the back of our minds.  We talked to each other and did a simple show of hands- do any of us feel comfortable presenting Gone Home at PAX?

No hands went up.

We believe that people’s opinions and actions on social issues and business ethics are important.  We believe that agreeing to pay the organizers of PAX over $1,000 for both space, and to present our game on their showfloor for four days, provides explicit support for and tacit approval of their publicly demonstrated positions on these subjects.  And we have finally come to the conclusion that we cannot support Jerry, Mike, and their organization by participating in this event.

We know that this will do them no harm; that’s not the point.  Another developer will take our slot at the Megabooth; they won’t lose any ticket sales; we won’t hurt their feelings.  If anything we’re hurting ourselves- our ability to reach new fans who might not have heard of Gone Home, to connect with players, sell stuff, met with press and video crews, and so on.  But this is not something that we’re doing for practical reasons.

We are a four-person team.  Two of us are women and one of us is gay.  Gone Home deals in part with LGBT issues.  This stuff is important to us, on a lot of different levels.  And Penny Arcade is not an entity that we feel welcomed by or comfortable operating alongside.

We wish all the best to the organizers and the participants in the Indie Megabooth, as we really do believe that it is an incredibly positive force for indie games and video games in general.

We just wish it weren’t at PAX.


The Fullbright Company

Steve, Karla, Johnnemann and Kate


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