March 11, 2011

Penny Arcade Gets Real

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On August 11 of last year, the web comic Penny Arcade posted a strip called “The Sixth Slave,” which depicts a role-playing game warrior callously refusing the rescue pleas of a pitiful prisoner. In the second panel, the slave details his plight: “Every morning, we are roused by savage blows. Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves.” If, like me, you listened with fascination to each episode of PA’s old podcast Downloadable Content, in which we were treated to the process of two excitable nerds making their living by cracking inappropriate jokes on the internet, you’d know that, though the final panel of every strip contains a punch-line, they normally save their “money line” for the second panel. Just how this came to be their favored format is buried in the details of Mike “Gabe” Krahulik and Jerry “Tycho” Holkins’s thirteen-year-plus creative odyssey, but one imagines the spontaneous invention of two ambitious, capable twentysomethings riding the crest of a technological renaissance, invigorated by the innovation of their adopted medium. The second panel shocker works as a figurative formulaic marker of their role as cultural iconoclasts. If you flip through their archive—aided in its revelatory wealth by the presence of Holkins’s news posts (pre-dating the mainstream weblog culture) alongside almost every comic for the last decade—you watch the ascent of a couple of ‘net-age mavericks enthralled that nobody was telling them what to do.

On August 12, the feminist blog Shakesville ran an essay denouncing the comic’s use of rape as a comedic device. Penny Arcade’s response on the 13th, called “Breaking It Down,” tried to defuse the tension with snark: “We want to state in clear language, without ambiguity or room for interpretation: we hate rapers, and all the rapes they do. Seriously, though. Rapists are really the worst.” In the accompanying post, Mike and Jerry express their incredulity that anyone could take such offense, especially at such unprecedented volume after years of horribly sick content throughout their oeuvre.

The hubbub over “The Sixth Slave” may well have died down quickly had PA simply ignored the initial response, but its profile plainly exploded following this second comic. The subsequent series of combative/defensive reactions is chronicled exhaustively in a Tumblr simply called “Debacle Timeline” launched in early February, the original page citing the “unacceptable” way that actors on both sides of the debate were conducting their arguments as a reason to sift through the debris. (Krahulik tweeted the site, referring to it as “what crazy looks like.”)

Penny Arcade is neither the most popular web comic—Randall Munroe’s xkcd, for instance, gets far more traffic—nor the most acclaimed (that would probably be the infrequently updated Achewood by Chris Onstad), but it’s certainly the most influential. I don’t make that claim arbitrarily; last April, Time included Holkins and Krahulik among the one hundred on their annual list of “the people who most affect our world.” The substance of what makes Penny Arcade so important—how some representative content could have such an impact on the digital media realm where it is broadcasted—is sort of unclear.

Within six years of its inception PA had launched the two other bodies that comprise the platform of their empire apart from the comics-and-merchandise foundation. The Child’s Play charity, begun in 2003 to obtain toys for a local children’s hospital, has since raised some nine million dollars for hospitals worldwide. In 2004 they began a convention, the Penny Arcade Expo, which is now biannual and boasts tens of thousands of attendees. In September 2008, Holkins reflected: “Penny Arcade is an extension of gaming culture as well, certainly, but it’s more idiosyncratic and far less universal. PAX and Child’s Play will outlive it. Substantially.” Calling the strip “less universal” than the convention implies that they’re cut from the same cloth, just on a different scale. Certainly the company couldn’t have gained the traction to live so long and accomplish so much if their initial project hadn’t been so captivating. Time said that the authors “have become the tastemakers… of an industry the size of Hollywood,” but their work is clearly more in line with the hardcore niche than the increasingly vast mainstream audience—the archive shows them as inclined to obsess over some cult role-playing game or other bit of nerd esoterica as to comment on the latest front-page blockbuster. For the sake of a blurb, then, the magazine oversimplified the particular je ne sais quoi of PA’s sum product—the air of confident, privileged indulgence they exude so effortlessly. Watch their pointless, self-congratulatory documentary series, updated every Friday on “PATV,” and try not to be seduced by the modernist utopian charm of their operation.

The disruption of that ideal illusion is part of what makes the “debacle” so striking, and amplifies it. In October, PA made “Dickwolves” t-shirts available in their store, sporting an ironic athletic motif; the vulgarity of the concept is made into a joke by the plainness of its design. This, along with Krahulik’s habitual Twitter provocation (Holkins would refrain from comment until February stoked the ire of the various agitated parties. As detailed on the Tumblr, harsh words and sentiments flew freely. The items were removed from the store in late January. But Krahulik declared that he would be wearing his to the next PAX, and, encouraged, the Twitter account @teamrape announced plans for a “Dickwolves flashmob” at the convention’s opening.

PAX East 2011 begins on Friday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. The keynote speaker is Jane McGonigal, one of those annoyingly sunshiney tech idealists, who has been hyping the progressive power of games everywhere from the TED Talks to The Colbert Report. It’s hard not to suspect their choice of a prominent—and mainstream-intellectual crossover—female figure in the industry as the heralding speaker at their latest geek love-in to be a tacit appeal to the loudest voices in the dissent against their work, the feminist bloggers (many of whom claim to be former fans) who have roundly condemned the PA figureheads for their self-centered and flippant expressions of entitled, decidedly male-centric derision.

Their opponents’ accusations of insensitivity are pronounced in the light of Time’s designation of the Penny Arcade maestros as the “conscience” of the video game world. In the name of populism, and probably in the interest of commercial universality, they’ve shied away from real-world partisanship even as they take sharply defined sides in industry rabbles. (I remember an old Tycho post commenting on the absurdity of the 2000 election, and then assuring that politics would never be brought up on the page again.) The biting parody of the strip made its mark more via gleeful, anti-P.C. amorality than measured critique. It would seem that they’re anything but conscience. The Dickwolves imbroglio has served as a reminder that, especially in the democratic realm of internet media, not even a Geek God is safe from censure. Penny Arcade is still standing, but you can tell they’re shaken. Gamers are never more taken aback than when the battle’s not on a screen. TC mark

Ezra Riemer

Ezra is a student at a small, experimental liberal arts college in New England where is is about to earn his B.A.

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