What The Hell Are Penny Arcade Talking About?

First of all I would like to explain and excuse my absence for the past few weeks. This has never been the most consistently updated blog but my writing time has been solely dedicated to finishing up the pieces I had the massive pleasure to write for the Swedish gaming site FZ.se. If you feel confident with your Swedish language skills you can read them all here, here and even here. Getting the opportunity to go to London and write these previews is something I am deeply thankful for and I’m glad that the texts seem to have been pretty well-received so far.

But, let us stride onwards to the topic of the day. If you’re reading this I am going to assume you are somehow online, which means that you are also aware of Penny Arcade. PA is by some margin the biggest webcomic in the world and its position is not entirely undeserved, since Gabe and Tycho have managed to produce some quality content during their 14 year long voyage. While I am not a big fan myself, their strips tend to make their way on to forums and blogs within minutes of publication and because the site is such a major factor in the industry it’s hard to neglect their presence and influence.

Despite this incredible stature they have in the industry, I can’t help but wonder if their time as the foremost ambassadors of gaming culture has finally passed? Like I said, personally I haven’t been a fan of the comic for a few years and I have been even less inclined towards Tycho’s often incredibly obtuse yet often substantially poor blog posts but I couldn’t help but find myself transfixed by his latest text.

Now, from what I can gather, this is written in response to the controversy which flared up as a result of this Hitman: Absolution trailer. I honestly can’t tell you with perfect certainty what point he may be trying to present behind his thesaurus-wankery but I think that what his tirade boils down to is that since the trailer isn’t easy to masturbate to it ceases to be sexist.

It’s fight choreography, and it may set an “erotic” stage but it quickly – and I mean quickly – gives way to a gruesome, life or death, septum obliterating struggle that might be hot for somebody but I suspect that’s a very specific demographic.  Only a necrophile could be titillated by something like this; by the end, it literally defies the viewer to maintain an erection.  As spank material, it leaves something to be desired; specifically, spank material.

The trailer shows a number of female assassins dressed in fetish gear, brandishing a ridiculous assortment of weapons being picked off one by one by the game’s protagonist Agent 47. Most of the action is presented in slow-motion, extreme close-up shots so we can really see when 47’s clenched fists punches a woman’s nasal bone right into their brainspace. Tycho defends this imagery by namechecking Grindhouse and Robert Rodriguez and the trailer does certainly have a pulpy vibe to it, but the problem with this analogy and the thing he neglects to mention is that in both the Grindhouse movies, the women were the protagonists.

Those movies had a lot of sexualised violence in them, for sure, but it was the female characters’ revenge on their male assailants that was the primary focus. When Hitman: Absolution sells itself with this imagery it presents no other context for us apart from “here is a bunch of women and Agent 47 (that’s YOU – the one YOU identify with) isn’t afraid to fuck them up beyond belief” and when Tycho takes his “oh, what’s the big deal” stance, I find that rubs against his self-proclaimed role as the guardian of the medium which he has held high ever since Jack Thompson went out of business. The fact that it’s very difficult to get an erection because of it does not negate that it is highly sexualised and highly offensive when the whole film is shot like it’s an advert for Marks & Spencers with vaseline on the lens to get that perfectly lush pornographic bloom. Square Enix may not actually expect most of us to get off on it but they still expect us to get off on it enough to want to play that character killing those women in that way.

Tycho’s shrugging response to what is in essence a major gaming company selling a AAA-title with violence against women reminds me of the huge Dickwolves-controversy which you can read about right here. This is just another incident in a long line of similar ones that betrays a view on women that is both pompously didactic and oddly reactionary. Of course it’s practically impossible for Tycho and Gabe to take the moral high ground when Square Enix and IO Interactive produce this trailer because Penny Arcade did something remarkably similar when they themselves made money out of a rape gag that plenty of people found personally offensive.

Now, I am not saying that I think rape jokes are off the table for all time, because I genuinely believe that there is a time and place for any topic to become funny. However, when you decide to make a cheap joke out of a sensitive taboo topic you have to consider the delivery and the context. I think that when you – two successful men – make a comic where the sole punchline is that rape is funny and and as a result get a torrent of replies – primarily from women – who are personally offended by this, the best way to make amends is probably not to mass-produce a t-shirt based on the joke out of spite. PA defended themselves by saying that because they weren’t actually advocating rape they had done nothing to be angry about, refusing to take any of the arguments against them into consideration or even seriously address them. The joke itself was pointless, offensive and, most importantly, not very funny, but it is the poor response to the controversy that really showed their true colours. Instead of trying to address subjects such as triggers and the misogyny inherent in this kind of humour, they decided to taunt and make fun of them instead. This sort of response has a really pungent stench of victim-blaming all over it, along with their usually privileged von oben snobbery.

And this is what makes me feel that Penny Arcade are no longer a force for good in the gaming community. They are not interested in creating a better dialogue between people in the gaming industry, nor do they want to promote understanding and help pull the blanket of blatant misogyny and chauvinism from the culture they claim to be the moral purveyors of. It doesn’t matter that threats of rape and violence towards women in the community is such a big problem that every single one of  the major online gaming outlets are struggling to deal with it. Square Enix put a finger in the air, decided that this trailer was the thing that appealed the most to their target audience and Penny Arcade thinks that’s perfectly fine because Kim Swift also exists. Wait, what? What the hell do they mean? Are they making the point that since Kim Swift is a woman in the gaming industry we no longer have any reason to complain about the portrayal of women in the gaming industry? That feels almost Santorumesque in its idiocy.

It may well be that I am making an odd connection myself when I equate this latest gaffe to the Dickwolves debacle, but it shows that Penny Arcade’s attitude towards these kind of issues remain unchanged. I don’t believe that this kind of lazy apologist attitude is something we need or should as accept as a community, especially when it concerns the consistently negative portrayal of half of that community’s members. I’m not sure if it’s laziness or lack of understanding but for whatever reason Penny Arcade decided to take the publisher’s side here and chose to not see a problem. By doing so they once again turn their backs on more than half of the community – not for the first time and most likely not for the last. So it is worth to once again ask the question; what the hell are Penny Arcade on about? And why are we still allowing them to sit unopposed on their pedestals?

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