Opinion: Outgrowing the Penny Arcade generation

When did Penny Arcade go wrong? The answer depends on your choice of time frame. Change the scale, and the nature of the story changes, too. Hone in on the short term, and it's a cautionary tale about homebrew public relations. Zoom out to the 40-year scale, though, and it starts to resemble the story of an entire generation of men.

For many people, the first indication was the infamous "dickwolves" incident. That controversy boiled up in the wake of "The Sixth Slave," a Penny Arcade strip featuring a toss-off character who is nightly "raped imaginarily by a mythological creature whose every limb was an erect phallus," as the comic's lead characters later described it. Several readers, some of them rape victims, objected to the casual use of rape as the set-up for a joke. In response, the site's creators, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, adopted a siege mentality with respect to criticism.

More than the joke itself, it was their resistance that soured some readers. After all, rape wasn't even the punchline. In a follow-up comic, the strip's protagonists, Tycho and Gabe, roundaboutly explained that it was just a sufficiently awful hypothetical, a narrative device for illustrating the moral stakes games often encourage us to selectively engage. The actual punchline was about indifference, and to that end, some other exploitative situation might have served just as well — slavery for example, which, unlike rape, is an abuse you might actually encounter in the MMORPGs satirized by "The Sixth Slave." Rather than reexamine their own impulse to introduce rape into the situation, Holkins and Krahulik have consistently responded as though most critics were accusing them of condoning rape. Having interpreted that as the core of the dispute, it's not terribly surprising that they'd scoff. That dismissiveness may have kept them from really imagining how a hypothetical rape reference might sap all the humor out of a gag when there's a 1 in 6 chance that you've been the victim of an actual rape attempt.

When did Penny Arcade go wrong?

Penny Arcade has revisited the controversy multiple times over the last three years, with the creators sometimes dredging it back up on their own initiative. Most recently it was Krahulik who broached the topic at PAX Prime, a yearly gaming expo sponsored by Penny Arcade. His online tete-a-tete with transgender gamers back in June had already lost the event the support of at least one developer (The Fullbright Company, of Gone Home fame) and alienated some attendees. Having only just managed to repair some of that damage, reopening the rape issue created a new breaking point for others.

The very fact that the Penny Arcade guys have a venue as expensive and visible as PAX suggests a broader time frame, one measured by the comic's own success. In the beginning, Penny Arcade didn't even have its own site. Over the nearly 15 years since its launch, it has steadily grown into a brand empire, one that encompasses multiple yearly expos, a charity for hospitalized children, an editorial outlet (The PA Report), and some of the most active video game discussion forums on the Web. In addition to the original comic, which is still active, Holkins and Krahulik are continually churning out side projects, including video game tie-in comics, podcasts, videos, PA-branded games, a reality web show, and merchandise by the truckload.

Observed on that scale, whatever personal missteps the comic's creators may make are only the small end of the wedge. After all, two guys (three if you count their site manager, Robert Khoo) refusing to back down from a joke made in poor taste would be strictly small potatoes on its own. The thornier aspect of the comic's development is its relationship to its audience. You don't build a brand that size without some support along the way. Penny Arcade has a posse.

Many of those fans are like-minded enough to back Penny Arcade on the controversial issues. When Holkins and Krahulik fail to produce a persuasive argument in defense of one of their gags, they can always fall back on an appeal to those masses. At times, that support has lapsed into abuse, a turn from which both creators have vocally distanced themselves. Yet they have not shied from using the brand machine as a rallying point for support. That was the practical effect when the site began selling "dickwolves" t-shirts and pennants in late 2010, and it was by publically regretting the decision to pull those items from the Penny Arcade store that Krahulik rekindled the debate at this year's PAX. Some members of the audience applauded in response.

The thornier aspect of the comic's development is its relationship to its audience

That support didn't simply materialize the day the site ran "The Sixth Slave." It is, by and large, the product of a rapport built with readers through blog posts, merchandising strategy, public appearances-the whole inclination of the brand empire they built, really, starting with the content on which the strip was built. The evolution that's discernible in Krahulik's linework and Holkins' command of character when you look at the entire span of the comic was mirrored by the steady growth of an audience defined by their affinity to the work. The creators may not have deliberately chosen their specific audience (very few artists do) but they set the tone for the social space they inhabit.

Still, it's all too easy to get caught up building a case against a particular personage or company when the real culprit is an attitude shared by multitudes, most of whom have so far had the good fortune or sense to avoid outing themselves in public. When a crowd like the one at this year's PAX loudly laments the opportunity to buy t-shirts that, intentionally or not, flaunt a disdain for the offense taken by rape victims, it's fair to suppose that the worst impulses of Penny Arcade's creators reflect an attitude that is, though normally covert, actually quite pervasive. That's just one of the perks of a brand like Penny Arcade.

I mean that quite seriously, by the way. Penny Arcade's tendency to attract controversy may cause the site's creators no end of trouble, but for those who take umbrage at their gaffes, there are certain benefits to having that sort of lightning rod around. If nothing else, it lets you put a face or two to the problem.

If those faces happen to belong to cartoon characters, so much the better, since that lets us concentrate on the attitude rather than on scapegoating one or two particularly visible offenders. Whatever differences may distinguish them from the caricatures they created, the rift that occasionally divides the Penny Arcade guys from their readers opens up because Holkins is sometimes a Tycho and Krahulik is sometimes a Gabe. But, then, so are legions of other guys, some of whom don't even read Penny Arcade.

Penny Arcade's creators reflect an attitude that is, though normally covert, actually quite pervasive

You can bet, for example, that there was a Tycho or a Gabe behind Deep Silver's decision earlier this year to release a hand-painted, bikini-clad statuette of a woman's severed torso to promote Dead Island: Riptide. Probably a Gabe conceived that Hitman: Absolution teaser in which the title character kills a bevy of sexy nuns. It was almost certainly a Tycho who casually referred to the scaling difficulty in Borderlands 2 as "girlfriend mode."

You could enumerate examples all day, really, but even more telling than the faux pas is the bewilderment that characterizes their apologies. They know from the outcry that people are offended, but it's often clear that they don't quite understand why. Holkins, in his capacity as a Tycho, listened well enough to recognize that his critics were neither "evil" nor "mendacious," but ultimately declared the "dickwolves" dispute beyond resolution. The other perspective being too far removed from his own, the response he finally settled on was silence, a position he's since maintained with greater consistency than his partner.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is all just the recurrence of a stubbornly persistent gender divide — of straight men refusing to meet anyone else halfway because, even two centuries after Mary Wollstonecraft, it is still pretty much a man's man's man's world. Maybe so, but it's still worth thinking about Tychos and Gabes for the way they reflect what's specific to our particular moment. It may be that an inability or unwillingness to see outside of the context of male social prerogatives is a consistent feature of our cultural history, but the version we're most likely to encounter these days was shaped by a generation of men who, like Tycho, Gabe and their creators, were born in the decade or so after 1975.

That was a critical period in the development of the video game industry, of course, but also for nerd culture in general. Mainstream attitudes toward all manner of geeky media were beginning to shift, paving the way for a 21st century in which comic book adaptations dominate the box office while the short lists for literary awards feature novels about the zombie apocalypse. What ties the men born of that era into one big Penny Arcade generation is the desire for a public venue to call their own. To that end, they've staked out some of the venues that mattered to them most as young men: movies, comic books, video games, the internet.

To a Tycho or a Gabe, part of what makes those venues specifically theirs is the freedom to deal flippantly and without apology with troubles that most of them will never have to face directly. They need not bat an eye at a casual reference to rape, in no small part because rape victims are about nine times less likely to be men than women. They could probably manage the empathetic leap needed in order to see outside their own context, but to do so would compromise their claim on the venue.

Even more telling than the faux pas is the bewilderment that characterizes their apologies

Which is not to say that they're incapable of change. Despite their missteps, Holkins and Krahulik have been increasingly guided by the aim of making PAX welcoming to a diversity of gamers. They've demonstrated their seriousness toward that end by eschewing the usual expo practice of enticing hormonal males with scantily clad booth babes.

Likewise, Krahulik followed his recent PAX comment with a post extending his regrets to nearly everything the duo had done in the wake of "The Sixth Slave." That might have carried more weight if he had thought to mention those things onstage, rather than singling out the one decision — stopping the sale of "dickwolves" shirts — that actually went some way toward repairing the damage. Still, it shows, at least, that an internal conflict is brewing.

He's discovering what the rest of us have known for some time now, that their protagonists and occasional mouthpieces don't play well with others. The attitudes they exemplify don't really square with the goal of creating a more inclusive community of gamers. Having spent 15 years fashioning them into symbols for a generation of insular men, he and Holkins may ultimately have to decide which matters more, their commitment to an open PAX, or their attachment to Tycho and Gabe.

L. Rhodes is an Atlanta-based writer, squandering a perfectly good philosophy degree by writing about video games. He occasionally writes about digital culture at Upstreamist.net and can be followed on Twitter @Upstreamism.

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