Gaming With the Wrong Controller


The “Dickwolves Debacle” as its being known on the interwebs is certainly that, a debacle. More colorful language might be used to describe it, but we’ll try to keep the language civil, at least for the moment. For those who aren’t in the know, a good, pretty neutral breakdown can be found here. As both a feminist and a PA fan, it’s gonna be hard for me to stay neutral while I talk about it. However, I feel it is something the Feministing community should be made aware of.

The difficulty I think in understanding this whole debacle is coming from the incongruity for whatever reason between feminists and gamers. As if the two were somehow separate groups with no overlap. Anyway, this false dichotomy is making it hard for the two sides of the issue to understand each other.

On the one hand, one has to understand the history of video games, Penny Arcade, and censorship. Censorship is a big issue in video games. Like, huge. Probably the main issue that every gamer agrees on, as in, games are art, and should be protected as such, i.e. freedom of speech. So when objections or flack gets thrown at the ‘gamer community’, whether it be Kotaku, Penny Arcade, or Zero Punctuation, it goes almost instantly into ‘defense mode.’ Censorship, of any kind, is the enemy. And, whatever one’s stance on video games, violence, and the propagation of violence, one has to understand that the ‘gamer community’ will, by and large, defend itself from any perceived censorship viciously because of this troubled past.

How does this affect the debacle? Well, to some gamers, the argument of propagating rape culture sounds suspiciously close to the argument used to censor violent video games. The logic is something like this, because violent video games mimic violence, they dull the cultural perception of violence, making it more acceptable and contributing to cultural violence. Gamers, of course, call this out as bullshit. There’s a big distinction between fantasy and reality, and Gamers, myself included, insist that the line is well-policed. The workings of a gun are about as far removed as possible from the workings of a game controller.

So, when feminists (myself included) say that making a shirt or a comic about rape contributes to rape culture, it sounds a lot like the above argument. What the other side doesn’t understand, however, is that there is a critical difference between the argument of feminists and the argument of anti-violence video game censors. For the most part, our argument is not that a rape joke is going to make someone go out and rape. Our argument, instead, is that rape jokes, and allowing people to indentify themselves with a shirt promoting a fictional rapist character, contributes to a culture where rape is accepted, tolerated, and the impact of it diminished. Throughout the response period, Penny Arcade’s creators have demonstrated ignorance of this differentiation, as demonstrated by their ‘response comic.’

Now, in addition to understanding videogames and censorship, it’s important to understand Penny Arcade’s personal relationship with censorship. Way back in the day, Penny Arcade put up a comic lampooning a line of, ironically enough, sexist and demeaning toys depicting Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz bound by Munchkins. Setting aside the feminist bondage issue for a moment (though I will say that I am pro-feminist-bdsm, despite the problematic portrayals that PA was itself mocking), we have to take a look at the response to this comic. American Greetings, the copy-write owner of Strawberry Shortcake, wanted the comic pulled.

And Penny Arcade did it. No questions asked. The comic came down, and up went the e-mail address of the lawyer who asked them to take it down. A sort of snarky revenge, to say the least, but end of story? Penny Arcade caved. A corporation wagged its finger and PA submitted to their censorship. You can argue all you like about legal issues and how PA has grown since then, but it doesn’t change the fact that that comic disappeared, and then never went back up.

So what’s the take away? Penny Arcade will cave to corporate pressure. But when fans, their fans, en-masse, object to a comic with very problematic themes? They laugh it off. Which to me, is not okay. And until either the Strawberry Shortcake goes up and/or the dickwolves come down, it won’t be okay.

As an aside, I should say that I’d rather see Strawberry Shortcake up there with Dickwolves then both of them down. Penny Arcade has a long history of controversial jokes ranging from bestiality to, in essence, rape. What exactly makes a Dick Wolf worse than a Fruit Fucker? I have no idea. And, as Tycho pointed out in his most recent news post, the comic itself in question vilifies rape. Rape is not shown as acceptable. It is maligned as the absolute nadir of human interaction, which it is. Trigger warnings, while maybe appropriate in this case, may as well be appropriate for any comic on Penny Arcade. Maybe, some day Penny Arcade will make more of an effort not to censor themselves, but to at least warn people before they venture into some troubling themes. Still, I want to make the point that if Mike and Jerry think they are some bastion against censorship, they have only to look in to their own past to see the truth.

Which brings us to the shirt, and the victory. The shirt, as well as the pennant, are untenable. They are, in many ways, a very clear (and reactionary) demonstration of rape culture. The idea that a person can buy a shirt, put it on, and support, supposedly, a team of rapist wolves is dark, dark stuff. There is no way that seeing someone wearing that shirt, whether at PAX or out on the street, wouldn’t make me uncomfortable. In others, it might promote a more visceral reaction. Whatever the intended joke it sends, it’s the kind of shirt a misogynist wears. And that is enough of a problem. To their credit, Mike and Jerry, in a sort of larval way, recognized this. And took the shirts down. Can we ask for more? Perhaps not. PA is not in the habit of taking blame. Jerry’s last post admits a disbelief in Rape Culture. He might as well disbelieve the air he breathes or the ground his feet touch. He is a father, though. And somehow, I think, someday he will learn how truly vile and hurtful the world can be towards women, though for all the world I would see that day never come, and have his daughter live in a world free from persecution.

These are not barbarians or lumbering frat boys at Penny Arcade, diametrically opposed to our aims. They may be misguided and ignorant, sort of ‘closet feminists,’ men who would agree whole-heartedly with us if only we could understand each other. Jerry has said he wants to learn, and has, in some ways, taken steps to open his eyes. Not only that, but he has chastised the misogynists in his fan’s ranks, disowning the so-called “Males Rights” movement.

Jerry and Mike are two guys who live in Seattle, publish a funny comic, and run a charity for sick children. They aren’t monsters. And I am ashamed of any feminist or ally that calls for harm to them or their families. That is another level of deep-seated sickness that cannot be justified. We can engage with gamers. It’s been done. The Venn Diagram between “feminist” and “gamer” is closing every day. Mistakes are the only way we learn. They can learn. So can we.

All we have to do is listen.

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