We asked for it, then recoiled at getting our wish.

05Sep13

The more I hear about Penny Arcade’s shenanigans, the more I wonder if I should keep reading the comic.

Right now, I do still read it. I’ve been reading it for more than a decade, and I can still remember when the audience was small enough that when I sent Tycho an email asking if he could start archiving the text posts so we could go back and read them, I got a personal response of “Good idea! We’ll start doing that now.” Of course, that particular email exchange is gone from my records, so I have no proof I was actually responsible. The real point is that he could respond, rather than having to employ the most powerful email filters known to man on even his private email address, whatever that may be.

But the humor isn’t as funny to me now, and I’m not sure why. Are the bad things they’ve done outside of the comic weighing on me enough to make it hard to laugh? Maybe I’ve just changed perspective, and video game humor needs to have a different approach to reach me. I know I don’t play as many as I used to for lack of time (and having a relationship), and in some ways I’m still trying to parse that out.

What sticks out to me, though, are the articles where people discuss what they’ve done and express shock about it. “How could these two not see this would offend people? They’re not just two guys, they run a business! You can’t do that anymore!” And I want to grab those people and say no, you don’t get it. They are two guys with opinions. That is their business model.

The main appeal to Penny Arcade, beyond so many other video game based webcomics that often aped or coincidentally shared the basic set up of two guys on a couch, was the palpable sense that the avatars were flawed. Not in some clearly defined, character consistent way-they were just joke avatars. But their reactions would be shown as obvious overreactions, often used to undermine themselves as part of the joke, to establish the idea that whether or not you agreed with the point of a given comic, they were just two guys with opinions. No need to take them as some kind of video game gospel.

We laughed at them “taking down” companies like Activision or EA because they were the little guys, even as they got bigger and bigger. Their fans never tried to call them to account on their treatment, because what would we complain about? Were we seriously going to take the side of some faceless corporation over two guys speaking “truth to power” (a horribly misused phrase both here and far too often in general) about the hobby they loved? We supported them ripping everyone, left and right!

And then someone called them on, and they responded badly.

For the record, I liked the comic that set off the controversy. I liked the joke about how many MMOs task you with relieving misery, but slam a door shut on how much you can relieve. I thought the point of the rape reference was to emphasize just how truly horrible things got for the NPCs you didn’t care for, even if it ended up being insensitive to those who have experienced actual sexual assault

I didn’t like the response. The doubling, then tripling down on the premise. I wanted to come up with a defense for their actions in my own mind, but nothing satisfied me. What was the point of it? Sure, people got mad about something and maybe it was an overreaction, but getting mad back didn’t prove that PA was right.

The real problem, of course, is that we wanted them to be assholes. We wanted them to be assholes all over video games, to be the more literate and informed versions of the people who post about their favorite consoles and games while taking down anything outside of the party line. They were the instigators who supposedly had the goods, who really knew how things worked and would blow it up for us, because they built a platform and a voice about it. We laughed, we ate it up, and asked for more. Then they unwittingly stepped into something more real and raw than they had planned, when their audience was too big to avoid striking that nerve with someone who would speak up, and they got mad. They were the little guys all this time, even as they became big, and no one was going to tell them what they could and could not do! But of course, they weren’t the little guys anymore. They aren’t now, and they’re only trying to get bigger.

I was one of those that helped them get bigger, and I’m still a part of that crowd. But I’m wavering. I know I haven’t bought anything from them for a while, and at this point I couldn’t in good conscience anyway. Even if it was “safe” merchandise that wasn’t tainted by specific actions, I don’t want to fund their business when I’m not sure I want to read the free product at all.

The question, then, is what it would take for me to stay beyond willful ignorance, a sadly realistic option for most people (and I have to include myself there, in all fairness). The main thing would be…well, time without any more assholish behavior outside of the big targets who can take it. Proof that they can target it, rather than just exercising clout for the sake of it when they get challenged. But I don’t know if they can manage that. It’s two guys with opinions, after all. That’s the whole foundation for their brand. And they’ve still got a huge number of people who laugh and ask for more.

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