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1. Musings 45: Penny Arcade and The Gripping Hand
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Musings #45 Penny Arcade and the Gripping Hand
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date:September 6th, 2013

[Fair warning to anyone reading this; I'm linking to a lot of things related to the controversy. I can't guarantee that the content there won't be changed by people later, or altered/updated, or for that matter that images that have problems for people won't exist. I really, personally, wish Mike Krahulik would get a clue but the broader implications of all of it still exist.]

Over a long weekend, when a lot of people were at PAX, many more were at Dragon*Con, and on a monday when most of the country was barbecuing with family... Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade did something incredibly stupid at PAX. This was probably just the time to shut his mouth, but he doesn't do "when you're in a hole stop digging" all that well.

Since then the controversy's gone back and forth and mostly forth. Wired's got coverage; The Daily Dot has their own take; and they're not just losing friends, the friends are choosing to make it known in a public way.

On the other side, Krahulik is an artist. As in, he draws stuff for a living. Backlash against artists is sort of a cultural thing. Making art means taking risks. The number of stand-up comedians who've fallen due to making one ill-timed or ill-received joke, like Gilbert Gottfried, is a number too high for me to bother counting. Stand-up comedy, like most forms of art, is about throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. There's a lot of chaff, a lot of leftovers, a lot of botched attempts in the process of creating art. Even art that is not-so-subtly designed to offend, such as this or this or basically anything Howard Stern has ever done.The idea of "crossing the line" in the art world isn't something well defined. It's more like artists, stand-up comedians, cartoonists, and others are engaged in an elaborate game of "who can run out the deepest into the leftover world war 2 landmine field and manage to get back without stepping on one." The minefield is society and it's usually pretty hard to tell with foresight whether a joke is going to explode, implode, fall flat, or turn into a group-consciousness viral sensation.

Likewise, some artists manage to handle and thrive on controversy. Certainly, Trey Parker and Matt Stone do so and looking at their body of work, the same principle applies. Some episodes of South Park are horribly bad, some are entertaining, and some of the horribly bad ones and the incredibly classic, entertaining, thought-provoking ones manage to stand on the same spot in terms of being relatively inoffensive or downright slaps in the face to groups of people who may-or-may-not deserve it.

The video game world, as a whole, has its art controversies. Anyone who thinks otherwise need only look at the Roger Ebert controversy, and the legion of discussions of whether video games themselves are an art form.
Art, in our society, is one of those "in need of protection" things. Artists are often attacked for their art, unless it's innocuous. The more thought-provoking art is, the more likely someone's going to protest it, and the Heckler's Veto is an instinctive-reaction part of society that needs to be guarded against.

And when Krahulik says he is against "bullying", well, Penny Arcade have run up against bullies before. In 2003, parodying American McGee's Alice, they got slapped for producing their vision of something else McGee might choose to reimagine. In 2003, they were actually pointing out that McGee has/had this tendency to take young, female characters and put them in pretty disturbing situations. Absent any of the other comments made since, the comic in question has a similar message, which is a point about how MMORPG quests will take questgivers who ask you to "rescue" people from horrible situations while usually not giving you the option to do more than rescue a handful, presumably leaving the rest behind to suffer.

So, to sum up the one hand, I can see where Krahulik, insulated amongst his friends and fans, could get the idea that he is an artist who is protecting his work and who is a champion of free speech even if that claim might if only be justified with the same logic by which Larry Flynt claimed to be a champion of free speech. And the logic's reasonably sound, inasmuch as Flynt won his court case at the Supreme Court level.

But on the other hand, rape jokes are something that society is moving away from considering funny. In fact, there are a lot of people trying to get rape jokes generally withheld because they hit a raw nerve for a lot of people, and justifiably so. Some people advocate it through art; some just kind of write angry letters to people like Krahulik. The idea of rape is not something to take lightly, not something that should be taken lightly, and when Krahulik says he "regrets" pulling the t-shirt instead of saying he "regrets" ever making the shirt in the first place, it's kind of the point where one of his friends ought to be taking him aside, giving him some reading material, and saying "ok, you didn't know where the line was before, but you crossed it and you stepped on a landmine, so learn from it."

It also stands to be said: the rape joke in the strip is a throwaway. The strip would stand on its own entirely without the jokes. Replace "raped to sleep by dickwolves" with "flayed to sleep by flaybeasts" or "lulled to sleep by the shrieks of shriekbeasts" or whatever other MMO-trope reference you might want to throw in, and the rest of the strip stands just as it was. The rape joke in the strip doesn't matter to the strip, which is something relevant to consider in context.

The fans of Krahulik who take it a step further - like the ones who set up the "teamrape" twitter account - are another story. They're pushing hard "backlashing" against people who, to anyone thinking clearly, are at a minimum understandably upset. Rather than understanding why the other side is upset and finding middle ground, they're doubling down and have gone to some pretty nasty extremes. They are deliberately trying to provoke the other side, deliberately fanning the flames, deliberately trying to "win" a game in which the only solution is to shut up and not play. They are creating the situation where some people on the other side responded similarly in order to try to claim some form of moral high ground and nobody, except them, is stupid enough to fall for it.

  • But, on the gripping hand...

Wherever things go from here, I'm really saddened. I dislike censorship. Censorship, to me, is something that makes society poorer. It makes people afraid to speak. It makes people afraid to have ideas. It makes people afraid to try to be funny for fear that the joke will misfire. Allowing censorship to exist, itself, creates the sort of environment where people feel they need to "fight censorship" rather than simply and sincerely apologize when they make a joke that turns out to not be funny or to trigger bad memories from the past. Krahulik should have made a much more sincere apology early on. If he had, if he had written an apology betinning wirh the words "With that said I absolutely regret everything we did after that comic" within a week of the original comic, we wouldn't even be talking about this stuff right now.

But instead, we're talking about how one of the biggest gamer charities - a charity built to show the world that gamers are more than the jerks that actual jerks like Jack Thompson claimed - is connected to Mike Krahulik. We're talking about how PAX, the convention that started the idea that a convention could exist and have vendors actually have to show their product rather than objectify "booth babes", is connected to Mike Krahulik. And at this point he needs to start apologizing, in word and deed, and making good on it because he's been insincere and thrown tantrums so many times previously.

I hope he's learned his lesson, or learns it soon. But I'm not holding my breath.

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Musings 45: Penny Arcade and The Gripping Hand

Added:  Friday, September 06, 2013
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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