“Why are you going to PAX? Don’t you know what they’ve done?” This is a question I got asked a lot in the weeks and days leading up to PAX, given their history of making Penny Arcade seem like an organization that is anything but against bigotry.
Yes, of course I know about that. That’s why I went to PAX. And the whole weekend I didn’t regret that decision once. I was truly impressed by the con, the people, and the conversations I was able to have (more on all this in a later post) as a result of PAX. It was fantastic. And then Dickwolves: The Sequel aired yesterday and I found myself questioning my place here in Seattle.
This isn’t about “a rape joke” or censorship
As has been discussed ad naseum these past few years, and is ramping up into a fervor yet again, the biggest issue with all of this isn’t the actual “raped to sleep by the dickwolves” joke, but everything that surrounded it. It’s about the defense of that joke, the flippant remarks about the joke, the merchandising of it, and the horrendously uncomfortable, pro-rapey vibe it evoked in a subsection of the gamer community.
Pro-Dickwolves people are arguing that the joke wasn’t bad and that censorship is bad. Pro-Inclusivity people are arguing that the handling of the whole situation was atrocious. That’s not a one-to-one argument, folks, and it’s not going to go anywhere. It’s like one group is arguing that the Millenium Falcon is the fastest ship in the galaxy, while the other group is on the bridge of the USS Enterprise complaining about how the ending of Skyrim was meaningless.
People saying “it was just a joke” or “if you can’t make a joke about one thing then you can’t make a joke about anything” and any other illogical, derailing argument are really just distracting from the crux of what’s happening.
This is about mixed messages and hypocrisy
In a world where aspects of many gamers’ identities aren’t welcome, aren’t represented in games themselves, and are often dismissed, ignored, and/or targeted with hate speech by other members of the gamer community, Penny Arcade has said again and again that they aren’t going to be an organization that sings to that tune. That they are going to make it clear that everyone is welcome. That PAX is for gamers of all identities.
Those are incredibly supportive things for us to hear– they are exceptional. Most huge gaming megacorps have never said such things, or made an effort to create spaces and experiences that are welcoming and safe.
But you can’t say that everyone is welcome, then do or say things that are exclusionary. Many trans* people don’t feel welcome at PAX, and many of the queer/ally people I spoke with this weekend at PAX had to compromise a bit on their ethics to attend. You can’t say that you want everyone to feel safe, then be pro-Dickwolves, which many people equate with pro-rape (or at least pro-rape culture), and expect survivors, allies, and women in general to feel safe.
Actually, I guess you can say and do all those things, because you have. But it sends an incredibly mixed message — a message many of us are trying to decode in comments, blog posts, and discussions online.
You can make all the rape jokes you want, but you have to be prepared to meet criticism from the people who think what you’re doing is a toxic addition to a community that is already ripe with toxicity. You’ve said again and again you don’t want to do that — you don’t want to add to the pile that’s suffocating so many marginalized gamers. You want to be different. You want to be better. You want to be inclusive. But all you’re being is hypocrites.
I’m starting to get into “open letter” territory here, so let’s just do that…
Dear Penny Arcade, you’ve said you want to be better, be better.
Guess what, guys, you got yourselves into this mess. Not by making a rape joke in a comic several years ago. Not by Mike famously putting his foot in his mouth time after time on Twitter. But by telling us that you want to rise above all the bigoted, exclusionary, boys club bullshit that is still so unfortunately the norm in our world.
We don’t get pissed when the Westboro Baptist Church says the horrible garbage they say every day, because (as sad as this sounds) we expect that from them. That’s their role. They’ve placed their flag atop Mount Doom and made it clear what their mission is. And (as much as I hate to say anything affirming about the WBC) they do a great job living out their horrible, sickening mission. Their [horrible] actions follow their [horrible] words.
You said you don’t want to reaffirm the idea that rape is an okay thing, or that it’s societally okay to make fun of or blame rape survivors. So stop doing that. You’ve said that you want PAX to be for everyone, and that you want everyone to feel safe attending and supporting PA. So start doing that.
Not talking about this isn’t going to help anything
After the transphobic comments and the reaction in the community, Mike said he’s going to stop talking about sexuality, gender, or related stuff altogether. Well, sorry, but that’s not going to help anyone who was hurt feel any better about supporting PA. It’s just going to continue to foster the ambiguity of where PA actually stands on all of this stuff, and allow bloggers and commenters to speak on Mike’s behalf. Not helpful.
When Mike said his big regret is pulling the Dickwolves merch, Robert Khoo reiterated a company policy that they think it’s best for them not to talk about any of this stuff:
“Clearly it would have been better to just not say anything, and that’s sort of our policy on all these types of things now, where it’s just better to not engage, and in fact pulling it was a way of engaging.”
When people were understandably upset about this, because Khoo has for a long time been an ally in this, and standing up against the exclusion, Khoo clarified a bit more to Kotaku:
It wasn’t meant to be a comment supporting rape or sexual assault, but rather one about censorship and the shirt-pulling pouring gasoline on a sensitive discussion. I know we did a poor job of elaborating on that on stage, and as the guy moving the discussion along at the Q&A, I’m really sorry for that.
Sorry, guys, but if your policy is to “not engage” then “shirt-pulling” wasn’t the issue of engagement I would be regretting. That’s not where the fire got its gasoline. Making the shirts in the first place was the resounding form of engagement in this sensitive issue. By making the shirts you were not only throwing your hat into the ring and participating in the debate, but you were pretty clearly taking the side of Team Dickwolf, listening to their pleas, and providing them with a uniform to wear (and, perhaps most problematic of all, you were merchandising the rape debate).
If you’re going to regret anything, might I recommend it be that?
Not talking about this is talking about this
By attempting to stay out of these conversations altogether, you’re making a pretty loud statement: you aren’t interested in engaging with the community that is responsible for making you you.
And when you keep sending incredibly mixed messages that leave your community divided, I think it’s your responsibility to not only “engage,” but to do whatever you can to remedy that divide, make your meaning and values incredibly clear, and follow your mouth with your feet.
So perhaps we can suggest a small revision to your policy: “That’s sort of our policy on all these types of things now, where it’s just better to
Talk to us, or tell us to go away
There are so many of us who have been around for a long time, who have affixed ourselves to Penny Arcade because in a world where our passions weren’t always as socially acceptable as they are today, you created a home where we felt comfortable expressing ourselves. And beyond that, again and again you’ve said (in one way or another) that you never want to be the reason someone feels like they are less because of some aspect of their identity.
There is a ton of talk right now (and has been for months, really) of folks bending too far in wondering if PA/PAX is welcoming that they’re finally breaking. But there are a lot of other people who are discussing alternatives, weighing the merits of the good you’ve done against this other stuff, and are unsure of where they stand, exactly.
This is a testament to what you’ve built — the fact that a person can be cut so deep and still find themselves questioning whether the pain is a reasonable enough deterrent. The debate that’s happening, both externally and internally, is a reflection of how mixed a message many of us are receiving.
If you really want PA/PAX to be for everyone, please tell us and show us. Engage. Open up the channels. Allow people into your heads. Make it emphatically clear through action and conversation that there’s no reason any of us should be wondering if it’s still ethical to support Penny Arcade. Or, please — and I mean this — just tell us to go away.
I grew up with Penny Arcade, but it’s days like today that I fear Penny Arcade hasn’t grown up with me.