Opinion// Gaming and Satire? Not Yet

Posted 11 Sep 2013 13:55 by
Satire is an art. Like all art, it is very difficult to master. Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, the founders and creators of the Penny Arcade (PA) comic strip have set themselves up as satirists on gaming culture. When I say gaming culture, I mean all of its forms. Be it Pokémon to League of Legends, none of it goes unscathed by PA.

One fateful day in August 2010 it was the turn of MMOs to get a scathing rebuke at the hand of these self styled gaming satirists.

Titled ’The Sixth Slave’, it features an adventurer in an MMO walking away from a slave after rescuing 5 of his fellow unfortunates and declaring his quest to be complete. The slave begs to be released as he is raped every night by creatures known as ’Dickwolves’.

The adventurer refuses to help as far as he is concerned the quest is complete and he must return to quest giver to get his experience points and move on. PA was attacking the conceit of MMOs that have quests completed but really don't have any effect on the world they are adventuring in. The slaves will remain and in most cases respawn for the next player to free over and over again.

Some groups took exception to the use of rape as a kind of punch line to the comic strip. They thought it insensitive and belittled the plight of rape victims to the point that it effectively encouraged the act of rape.

PA rebuked this protest by posting a rather defensive and short sighted strip that countered this position in a rather glib manner. Things escalated further to the point where Mike Krahulik commissioned a T-shirt with the word 'Dickwolves' emblazoned across it as a protest against those who he thought did not get the joke of The Sixth Slave.

It was this that he and Jerry Holkins were enraged about and lashed out. So much so that their original grievance became diluted to the point where they were accused of misogyny, insensitivity and incredibly short sightedness. Under this barrage PA eventually relented and pulled the sale of the Dickwolves shirts and the furore died down.

Fast forward three years later and PAX Prime 2013 is drawing to a close. During an interview with Messrs Krahulik and Holkins the subject of 'The Sixth Slave' strip comes up. Mike was asked what his biggest regret was and he said the pulling the sale of the Dickwolves shirts was a mistake and that they should have remained on sale.

The reaction in the crowd watching the interview was supportive, with many yelling that they should be sold again. It was this that started the Dickwolves issue to flare up again, with many declaring that they will be boycotting all future PAX events as attending them would imply their support for PAs apparent attitudes.

Which they perceive to be misogynistic, insensitive and incredibly short sighted. Examples of such articles include those written by Leigh Alexander entitled 'Still never going to PAX’ and this, entitled, “Why I’m Never Going Back to Penny Arcade” Expo by Rachel Edidin on Wired Magazine:

All of this sprang from a piece of satire that used shocking imagery to get its point across. It is this that I believe is the crux of the problem and has had me initially taking the side of PA in that it was satire and as such there are no sacred cows as far as using disturbing references are concerned in order to make a point.

By way of comparison the celebrated 18th century satirist Dr Jonathan Swift wrote an essay titled 'A Modest Proposal’ that suggested that Irish people should eat their children in order to reduce ever increasing population levels. Clearly infanticide and cannibalism are abhorrent and exceptionally rare and repugnant acts, neither of which Dr Swift was endorsing.

He was using impactful imagery to drive his point across as a means to attack those in power. He was horrified by the state of poverty in Ireland and set about using his established platform to improve the conditions many of his fellow countrymen were suffering under. Those familiar with Dr Swift's work quickly recognised this and did not take offence to the essay; whereas those who were not and could not recognise satire, did.

History has a tendency to repeat itself and now the makers of PA have suffered a similar fate. Those that are familiar with their output found 'The Sixth Slave' to be very funny and thought nothing more of it. It was those who were not familiar with PA tone and output and the fact that they are satirists were offended by what they read.

The reaction from the authors was indignant as they regarded their critics as 'idiots' who did not recognise satire. The problem here is the means by which PA reacted to this criticism. They came across as the very monsters they so despised by lashing out at feminists and anti-rape pressure groups for being ignorant idiots who couldn't recognise a piece of satire if it did little jig in front of them while wearing a hat emblazoned with the words 'I AM SATIRE' written on it.

What PA should have done is nothing. Discretion is always, and I mean always the better part of valour. This is especially true in terms of satire as both those that are targeted by it and people who cannot really understand its nuances tend to attack the author of the material. Like all art, satire provokes a response from the audience in some form and for that PA should have taken some solace. What they shouldn't have done is go on the offensive in reaction to that response.

PA are now once again on the defensive and Mike Krahulik has offered an apology (he calls it a ‘clarification’) for the remarks made and expresses regret over all of his actions since the release of 'The Sixth Slave' strip.

Despite this many commentators are standing their ground and refusing to attend PAX or have anything to do with PA. They regard the creators of the strip as abhorrent individuals who have little empathy for their fellow human beings and as such should be chastised. All of this because PA reacted poorly to people who didn't recognise a piece of satire.

Many would argue that it was poorly constructed and clumsy satire, and that is a valid position to have. But to vilify the authors and accuse them of supporting the horrific imagery they described in the script is a stretch too far.

PA have protested against those who do not understand satire, not those who are against rape. It is this that has been lost the continued arguments for and against PA and while I support them on the original point of The Sixth Slave strip I do not, under any circumstances, endorse their actions following its publication and neither does PA.

Least of all the creation of the Dickwolves shirts as that was insensitive and needlessly combative. I'm happy to say I'm not the only one who has this view as MC Frontalot expressed similar opinions on the matter.

In light of all of this I say PA have made some serious mistakes in how they have reacted to this whole debacle. I sincerely hope they learn from this and their critics provide them space in order for them to do so.

The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and does not reflect those of SPOnG.com except when it does.

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doodlebop 11 Sep 2013 16:42
I think there is a flaw in your argument here. You say those who are offended are unable to recognize satire, and you back it up with the example of "A Modest Proposal". I do not, however, believe these cases to be equivalent. I do not believe the offended people are unable to recognize satire, and I don't believe this makes them idiots (as you try to claim). The reason for this is twofold:

First, satire is attempting to change a big problem by referencing smaller, ridiculous, extreme cases to call attention to the bigger problem. Your implication here is people do not get satire because they do not recognize the problem. The problem is that MMOs let quests end with the 5th saved slave and nothing in the world changes. Fine. However, the dynamic for the Sixth Slave is different. This is because in the Sixth Slave, the ridiculous and extreme case used to call attention to this big problem was in fact another big problem itself, and not ridiculous at all. Those who do not "get the satire" simply have judged rape as a bigger problem than MMO questlines. That is a valid viewpoint, since the World Health Organization itself says that rape and sexual assault are a global epidemic.

The problem with the example of "A Modest Proposal" is that it is much better satire than the Sixth Slave. It uses a ridiculous and extreme example (cannibalism) to point out the overall problems of the Irish. In your own words, cannibalism is "exceptionally rare". Rape and sexual assault are not. 1 in 3 women in the world and 1 in 6 men will be sexually assaulted or raped in their lifetimes, many more than once. So those who choose to recognize the bigger problem as rape immediately get angry by the joke, because when you flip the roles of the two problems in satire you just end up with an insult. I don't think those who see rape as a bigger problem are idiots. Rape -is- a big problem. They're just refusing to laugh. What they are offended at, however, is that rape is used as a gimmick condition for this poor slave at all.

In case there is any doubt, dickwolves were imagined solely as creatures that rape. They do nothing else. As creatures, they represent rape. This is important to realize because this is why people are really angry, and where we get to the second point:

When you use a widespread and emotionally charged problem as the "ridiculous aspect" of the satire, you are downplaying the actual widespread and emotionally charged problem itself in favor of the big problem you are trying to address (here the MMO questlines). This means that the satire of Sixth Slave is hinged on the idea that rape is a ridiculous and (once again in your own words) "extremely rare" experience which would make the MMO questlines obvious as a problem. It doesn't. So the satire does not work. Ergo: bad satire.

PA's response. I agree with you here, they should not have made a response as they did. They have made it much worse. By releasing dickwolf t-shirts, they are effectively creating shirts that support icons that represent rape. So people who wear these shirts therefore are actually supporting rape. That's the idea of these sorts of shirts. Pulling them, therefore, was actually a smart move, since their existence was an insult to victims and survivors of people who have experienced rape and sexual assault. The shirts do not represent the satire, because the satire has nothing to do with the rape or the dickwolves, but instead the Sixth Slave left behind by questlines. Where it good satire, this would be obvious, but since it is not, the whole thing gets muddled, and the joke falls flat. The conditions in which he was left behind are what are being celebrated and supported here, the right of people to like rape. And that is why people are offended and angry. No one should stand up and claim to support rape.

PA's recent move to say that pulling the shirts was wrong sounds just like this, which is why I agree with you regarding their response. They need to stop reacting to everything, since they're making it worse. The real issue is not that people don't get the satire. It's that this is beyond satire, because the Sixth Slave was poorly done satire. It ignored the rules of satire, and that is where the confusion lies. There were two big problems all along. Those who chose to ignore the rape problem and focus on the MMO questline problem are, according to you, getting PA's satire. Fine. But those who decided rape was a bigger deal than MMO questlines are rightly offended. And that does not make them idiots. To suggest so is to suggest that those who are against rape in general are idiots. Since I do not believe that is you, I wanted to point this line of thinking out. The real conflict is that there are people in the world who actually think that we should care about rape and about sexual assault more than we should care about MMO questlines, and that there are also people in the world who just want to care about their MMOs and who have not directly been affected by rape. That is why it is not funny. These are just two different types of people. Neither is wrong. And neither is an idiot.

Let's be honest, questlines suck, but joking about rape is not funny. Rape and bad questlines are nothing to laugh about. It isn't about not getting satire. It's that the satire was badly done, and it makes light of rape. And that, hopefully we can agree, is something that we should not do.

valdamor 12 Sep 2013 06:41
I get satire. And thank you for assuming that anyone who dislikes how PA has handled this issue simply does not understand fairly basic concepts in lit.

Here's the thing. Freedom of speech and humor are not a magic get out of jail free card. While someone has the right to say something, it is perfectly valid for people to chastise a person for what they say and do. That is the public exercising it's free speech.

I get what they were trying to do, but ... they were out of their league. Sensitive issues are always difficult to use in comedy. I have seen some comedians tackle the concept of rape well, such as Wanda sykes. The PA guys did not use it well. In fact, they could have made the exact same type of joke with ticklebunnies, fartsquirrels, or man-eating cows. They could have driven home the point that being imprisoned was torture with any number of imaginary animals committing any number of horrific acts. But, in their infinite wisdom they chose rape ... which is pretty much guaranteed to not go over well in many circles. And while I am in the rape can be used by an extremely talented person within the right context for social satire and commentary camp, I do understand why people do not feel that way. It is a legitimate point that can be argued.

the mistake that PA made is that they dismissed the people who took offense to it, much as you are. They mocked those who disagreed. Their fans were allowed to harass people without being asked to back down right away. That was three years ago and they have not gotten much better. Really, this is all self inflicted on their part.

It's a shame, but I really don't have any respect left for them. Whatever good they meant to do, is pretty much attached to an inability to deal with sexism in their fanbase (those people cheering when he said he wished he hadn't gotten rid of the shirts and who asked for them back). They have had three years to learn from their mistakes. That is more than most people get. It's time to start finding someone else to follow, unless they can actually turn it around.
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Misinterpreted and Willfully Ignored 12 Sep 2013 07:03
The people reacting to the Dickwolves strip completely understood that it was satire. The very first objection on Shakesville explicitly spelled out the joke, just as you did here. They got it. It's not relevant to their objection.

People defending Penny Arcade just. do. not. get. it. They think they do. "[Critics of the comic] thought it insensitive and belittled the plight of rape victims to the point that it effectively encouraged the act of rape." There is so much more to it.

The people who objected to the "Dickwolves" strip would not have objected to a joke about murder, or eating Irish babies for that matter. In the context of a society where there are so many myths about what rape is and how it happens, a society that blames victims and exonerates rapists, jokes about rape are unique. They confirm myths that enable sexual assault, confirm survivors' self-hate and guilt, and trigger survivors' PTSD.

Please look up "rape culture" and read more about it. It's amazing how apologists for PA have gotten all of this backwards, projecting PA's ignorance and bullying onto its critics. The stakes are actually pretty serious: Krahulik's actions have contributed to rape culture, the exclusion of women from gaming culture, and serious mental harm for survivors.
OppressionOlympics 12 Sep 2013 08:57
There plight was choosing a crime that has been gendered. Violence, torture murder? Thats fine. Rape is seen as a crime against women and as such unacceptable. Had they chosen torture we would not be here. Its odd that rape and rape culture has become so gendered to mean women as victims as default, considering the first usage of rape culture reference male rape in prisons, a form of rape excluded from most statistics (along with disregarding forced to penetrate as rape) which continues to skew statistics into "othering" or otherwise making male victims invisible to this day.
valdamor 12 Sep 2013 10:03

First, the word is "their." Second, rape is gendered because the way power is distributed in society is gendered. Women did not co-opt the subject of rape, rape (and sexualized violence in general) happens to women more often. Yes, I am aware that that the legal definition of rape is flawed and is often based on "penetration." This has the consequence of removing male victims from statistics in those jurisdictions. However, and I think this bears stressing, the people who wrote those laws were largely men. There was no feminist plot to deny male rape victims. While the problem should be addressed, the existence of male rape does not make female rape any less horrific. And vice versa. Sadly, given that your name is "oppressionolympics" I suspect that you are more interested in trying to derail the issue than have a serious discussion. I think all rape victims (female and male) have the right to be respected. If that means using things like trigger warnings, that seems reasonable. If that means understanding that joking about, around, and with the topic of rape can be traumatizing that seems fair. I have read blog posts from women rape survivors who support joking about rape, because for them it is part of the healing process. I respect that. However, other people find it traumatizing and disrespectful. I personally, would use the rule that I would never use rape as a means to humor unless the context of relationship warranted it as a valid topic. Meaning, unless I know the people I am with have a dark humor approach to healing I wouldn't even consider it. Really, I'd probably only do it if they felt like me avoiding the topic was disrespectful to that individual.
OppressionOlympics 12 Sep 2013 15:52
First, the word is "their."
Quite possibly, I never did receive a fantastic education, being mostly self taught outside of optional education later in life. Such things are for those privileged to middle class and above. I shall try to remember in future.

"Women did not co-opt the subject of rape"
No, but i suggest the co-opt'd the term rape culture. Maybe thats unfair, they most certainly suffer from rape culture and the idea certainly applies and everyone should use it. I would argue that the appropriation of the term by several groups has had the side effect of marginalizing those who came up with it. This is unfortunate.

"Yes, I am aware that that the legal definition of rape is flawed"
And yet you continue to use those statistics to justify this line in your comment " rape (and sexualized violence in general) happens to women more often". Quite frankly we cannot be certain and it feels like being erased everytime I see this sort of argument. More importantly nobody wins here (oppression olympics in a nut shell, that apparently "derailing" term you do not like), but it would be nice to be reconised as a group(s) in anything other than a footnote.

"the people who wrote those laws were largely men"
I won't deny this. But this does not make it a none issue or unimportant, which is all too often what this line of reasoning is used to try and justify (or implies, even if not the intent (its not magical)).

"There was no feminist plot to deny male rape victims. "
I agree. But those feminist voices have also influenced laws in the last few years that have done leaps and bounds to help women, not at the expense of men, but seldom to there assistence either. I also understand that it is inappropriate to expect women and feminists to focus (any) attention for men, as many would argue that is not there purpose. But it frustrating to attempt change for men by men when those who make the most noise (99.9% of Mra's) are those who (in my opinion) should be least heard, effectlively poisoning the well.

"Sadly, given that your name is "oppressionolympics" I suspect that you are more interested in trying to derail the issue than have a serious discussion. "
Hardly, I like the term. I hate the term. Its used to reconise that suffering is suffering, and you don't often win from proving your suffering is greater. I like the term. Its often used to silence groups, a way of acknowledging them, but also of sidelining them. This is heavily tied up with intersectionality, I would be lying to admit a full understanding of this, so I accept I may be using it incorrectly. But this is why I also hate the term.

valdamor 12 Sep 2013 20:01

Okay, I will try to get back to this in more detail in he next day or so. I am working on an assignment that I really need to focus on. So please accept that this is a flawed and incomplete response.

Partially why I use the statistics, to some degree, is that there really are not better ones out there. I have not seen a peer reviewed academic journal of repute really address this issue. So, in fairness I can't say with certainty any particular pattern happens because there is a dearth of studies done that really seek to try to explore the issue.

But more to the point, how about I admit that instead of saying "women are more often raped by men" what I am really trying to say is that "women often interact with rape more often and in more ways then men do." On a daily basis, men don't often have to worry about the possibility that they may be raped. Or, at the very least society does not teach men to be afraid, while it does encourage women to be vigilant. This has gone on for a long time, because society is gendered and has been that way for ages. There are complex historical factors tat I don't have time to get into at the moment, but I will look it up and point you the right direction to a source if you are interested. The power dynamics of how men and women interact with rape are different, and I am not likely the best person to try to explain it. I can try to find something that does it well.

I think I get what you are saying about the phrase opressionolympics. I read it as someone who was trying to come into a conversation and derail it by changing the topic slightly. Honestly, go to just about any thread where rape is discussed, and almost always there is someone who comes in and grinds it to a halt with "Men are raped too. You must focus on this now!!!" If feminists seems defensive on the subject, this is why.

What you are saying is that when you have had conversations in the past the phrase was used in a way that you felt silenced you. Okay, I can understand that. The problem with terms and phrases is that it becomes very easy to deploy them. Without knowing the exact conversations where this came up I can't make too many calls, but I suspect that this is at least your issue with the phrase.

honestly, you got the basics of intersectionality. Each different privilege interacts with each other. Each different oppression interacts as well. While it may be tempting to say one person is more oppressed than another because the process of trying to do so is flawed. It's best to simply try to be respectful and accept that each person have a unique perspective.

I can explain more later, but I do understand the frustration you feel.

I will be back in a day or so
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