I guess I don’t need to elaborate here on how I feel these days about Penny Arcade and their bicoastal, twice-yearly paean to conspicuous consumption, PAX Prime/PAX East. They represent some of the worst of gamer culture, they gleefully profit from misogyny and rape jokes, and their convention (increasingly, it seems) disregards its own “no booth babes” rule, making women feel less welcome and encouraging (presumed male) attendees to see all women, booth babe, cosplayer, developer, PR, or “regular” attendee, as sexualized objects there for men’s pleasure.
It’s distressing, then, but hardly surprising to hear that, at a party thrown by Mojang’s Markus “Notch” Persson, noted fedora enthusiast, indie-game-scene darling, and creator of the wildly successful Minecraft, a female game blogger seeking some relative solitude in a corner was accosted, harassed, and sexually assaulted by a male party-goer. Understandably upset, she fled the party, and when her friends sought out security, they were greeted with shrugs.
Some salient points:
- The party was paid for by Persson himself, not by Mojang. It’s not entirely clear to what extent he organized it, and to what extent the party venue handled those details.
- The party took place during PAX Prime, but was not an official PAX event, nor was it at the PAX venue. However, as it was a party thrown during PAX by a video game celebrity; it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of attendees were PAX-goers.
- A notable exception: some attendees, distinguished (according to Ky, the blogger who was assaulted) by red wristbands, were women hired from a modeling agency.
- Lydia Winters, Minecraft’s “Director of Fun” commented on Ky’s blog post clarifying that Persson, not Mojang, had thrown the party and that the models were hired by “the production company” to “have more girls there to up the girl to guy ratio. It’s a pretty typical club procedure.” (Winters confirmed via twitter that it was in fact her who posted that comment.)
- It’s not clear, then whether hiring the models was in fact Persson’s idea, or whether he knew about/approved it. (One would imagine that, if planning were left to the venue or some other third party, given that Persson was paying, he’d at least have been asked to sign off on the expenses.)
- Persson himself, about three hours ago, tweeted:
RT @notch: Some asshole did something totally unacceptable at my party, and a security guard shrugged it off. Very upset. It's being dug ...—
Corvus Elrod (@CorvusE) September 05, 2012
- In an update at the top of her post, Ky emphasizes that she doesn’t feel PAX or Mojang is responsible in any way for what happened, and that in her view “The ONLY person who should be held accountable for what happened is the asshole himself.” She also states, “Also this post isn’t about nerd or gamer culture or blaming those cultures at all, this could happen in any community, at any party, to anyone.”
There are a few points I want to make about this.
[Author's note: I added a few sentences and split the next paragraph into two, because I wasn't entirely comfortable with its original tone.]
Perhaps predictably, I disagree with Ky that this has nothing to do with PAX or with nerd/gamer culture. She is obviously the final authority on her own experience, and just as obviously the man who attacked her is the only one who bears direct (let alone legal) responsibility for that crime. But from my perspective, one shouldn’t be too quick to discount cultural and environmental factors that make predators feel they’re free to operate in a given situation — and that make bystanders more likely to shrug, to see the warning signs of predatory behavior as “normal”.
It’s certainly true that things like this can and do happen “in any community, at any party, to anyone” — rape culture is endemic, and no subcultural niche is entirely free of it. However, gamer culture — fueled by Nice Guy (often shading into MRA) bitterness over high-school bullying and lack of “success” with girls (an historical injustice elevated to mythic proportions in nerdism) — clings to especially overt misogyny and objectification. One need only look at the vitriolic response to Anita Sarkeesian‘s proposed (now underway) “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” video series, the myriad examples at Fat, Ugly, or Slutty?, or of course the Dickwolves debacle, to see this in action.
PAX encourages and revels in these attitudes — reflecting the views (so far as one can surmise from their actions) of its founders and their core fanbase — but it certainly doesn’t start with PAX, or with Penny Arcade. Society’s misogyny has always been an element of nerd culture, and nerd culture’s tendency to be self-referential, insular, and distrustful of “outsiders”, makes it self-reinforcing. Critics, whether from without or within the subculture, are almost invariably dismissed out-of-hand as “not understanding”, not being “real gamers”. And people growing up in gamer culture — especially young men — have spent a decade, or two, or three, absorbing these attitudes with very little real challenge to them.
So inasmuch as gamer culture is tainted by rape culture, and PAX is one of the purer expressions of contemporary gamer culture, yes, this is about PAX. This is about the kinds of people who felt welcome at PAX, and what they thought they could get away with. It’s about the constant presence of “booth babes” at gaming conventions, and the still abysmal representation of women in mainstream games. It’s about the kind of people who think it’s reasonable to “up the girl to guy ratio” by hiring models to attend a party, because they think their (presumed male, presumed heterosexual) attendees neither possess nor need to be encouraged to develop any social skills, and thus are and will remain repulsive to women not paid to tolerate them. (There are, of course, far too many problems with this to unpack in a single blog post.) And it’s about what all this, taken together, in constant dosage over many years, teaches people who didn’t even notice they were being instructed: women are decorative objects, there for men’s enjoyment; they have no significant interests of their own; they are not skilled; they are not peers; if they are not attractive to men they are failures; they are merely things for men to desire and despise. (If you think I’m overstating, now would be a good time to go look again at those links a couple paragraphs up.)
Now, almost everyone — even in the comments section of her blog post, a rarity here on the interwebs — has reacted to Ky’s story with horror and disgust. But almost everyone (including Ky herself) has directed that horror and disgust solely at the individual assailant. It’s easy in this case, because “grabbing a stranger’s hand and putting it on your penis” is behavior (in point of fact, a crime) even most MRAs will recognize as beyond the pale. Oh, that one guy did something really unacceptable! He’s terrible, nothing more to see here. But given what we know about sexual harassment and assault, it’s highly likely that he harassed more than one person that night, and furthermore that he wasn’t the only one who did. How many of the models paid to be there put up with harassment and perhaps assault? How many women party-goers were harassed by sexist nerds who thought harassing the models was “part of their job” (nope!) and extrapolated from there that it was an acceptable way to behave toward any women at that party (again, nope!)? Rape culture teaches men that they’re entitled to sexual gratification from women, whether visual, verbal, or physical; hiring models to “mingle” with partygoers declares the same thing explicitly.
Ky’s assailant is the only case from that party, that we know of, where someone decided he was entitled not only to sexual gratification but to enforce his claim to that gratification with violence — and make no mistake, all sexual assault is violence — and that makes him a relatively egregious example. But that doesn’t make him an isolated, unconnected, free-floating Bad Person whose worldview, impulses, and actions come from nowhere and cannot be interrogated. His attitudes came from somewhere, and for every person like him who physically sexually assaults someone, there are dozens or hundreds who hold basically the same views, absorbed from basically the same sources, who “only” harass and intimidate and make gamer culture hostile to everyone who isn’t heterosexual, cisgender, white, able-bodied, and male.
Finally, here’s the kicker. If past incidents in gamer culture are any indicator (Dickwolves, Fat Princess, Duke Nukem Forever, Resident Evil 5, the Borderlands 2 “Girlfriend Mode” controversy, and countless others) there will be no lasting consequences. A few more people will be alienated from gamer culture, but the majority of gamers will brush it off, and continue to support the institutions that promote these attitudes. The gaming press — even the smart, progressive gaming press — will write about Penny Arcade and PAX and Gearbox and Mojang to talk about their press releases and upcoming games, and will not mention the kinds of things that happen under their various auspices. No lasting opprobrium will attach to any of their names, and the culture will not change. People, even smart, thoughtful, progressive people who understand rape culture and how it works, and work tirelessly to break down race, gender, and sexuality barriers in gamer culture, will keep attending PAX and buying games produced by developers with toxic, misogynist studio cultures. The overwhelming sense will be that yeah, that stuff was bad, but that’s all in the past. Like the security guard in Ky’s story: “Okay? What do you expect me to do?”
That seems like a harsh way to close, but I don’t know what else to say. A lot of people have been patient and polite about this for a great many years, and the results have been rather underwhelming. Nerd culture resists change, and perceives efforts to bring change as attacks, no matter how moderate, no matter how careful the phrasing. I think the best hope is to work to make explicit what it is the pillars of the subculture support: to label their behavior indelibly as sexism, and to finally attach some modicum of shame to behaviors that should always have been seen as shameful. Challenge harmful structures, don’t support them. Don’t let praise for misogynist companies and institutions go unquestioned. make all but the most committedly sexist nerds uncomfortable voicing their boy’s-club attitudes, and make it socially unacceptable for the majority to associate with the hardcore misogynists.
[Cross-posted at Shakesville.]
I had really expected that nearly two years ago would be the last time I’d write about Duke Nukem. I’d happily put the character, the franchise, and its gleeful participation in the worst traits of gamer culture, out of my mind. Until Gearbox Software announced they had acquired the rights and that the vapor-for-fourteen-years Duke Nukem Forever would be seeing release after all. So, thanks for that, guys. That’s just swell.
Since that miserable announcement, almost like clockwork, predictably awful globs of congealed misogyny have been flung forth from Gearbox HQ, splattering all over the gaming press. They held a press event at a strip club; they flagrantly violated PAX’s longstanding “no booth babe” policy (a policy which, it seems, contrary to how it was presented, was basically voluntary all along); and most recently they announced that the multiplayer capture-the-flag mode (a de rigueur component, of course, of any multiplayer shooter) would be entitled “Capture the Babe,” and that when a player had “captured the babe,” slinging the presumably-otherwise-passive female character over his shoulder, she would occasionally “freak out,” and need to be slapped (on the ass, Gearbox hastened to clarify, not the face! So that’s OK then) to “calm her down.”
…yeah. The aim of the game mode is to 1) abduct sexually objectified “babes” who have no agency of their own, but 2) who hysterically “freak out” at being bodily lifted up and hauled around, 3) who you then physically abuse to ensure their compliance, and 4) collect them as trophies.
I was going to write at more length about this, but Gunthera1′s excellent post at The Border House pretty much covers it, so I recommend reading her if you need more background or detail.
I’ll add a couple of other notes, however. As a bit of background, Randy Pitchford from Gearbox was on the “Irrational Interviews” podcast produced by Boston-based Bioshock developers Irrational, back in February, and when asked about the challenges of marketing games, he (I’m afraid I’m paraphrasing from memory, but I don’t believe I’m misrepresenting him) explained that seeing marketing materials for a game is like “when you meet a girl (sic), and you decide in 5 seconds ‘would I do her, or not?’” It’s obviously a total shock that a fellow like that might be insensitive to concerns about sexist content in the game he’s making.
And finally, Penny Arcade — having, perhaps, after the Dickwolves debacle, decided to prove everyone wrong who ever praised them for attempting to take a thoughtful approach to game-related controversies — have joined in.* In an echo of their earlier misrepresentation of criticism of the “Sixth Slave” comic, here they misconstrue the DNF criticisms as being solely about the slap rather than about using women as trophies — literally objects — ignoring that at least within the conceptual framework of the game enemy soldiers in the Call of Duty games have agency and contend directly with the player, and slandering hundreds of thousands of soldiers as “murderers” into the bargain.
It seems like for every lovely moment like David Gaider’s eloquent rebuttal to an aggrieved “Straight Male Gamer” there’s still a half-dozen episodes which (to borrow Mr. Walker’s phrase) make my spine hurt. This is why we can’t have nice things, game industry.
Addendum: Denis Farr pointed out to me on Twitter something I’d missed: evidently the game also includes cigarette vending machines labeled “fags”. So, uh, yeah.
*For those who may not want to click through, the comic shows Tycho, in an exaggerated “moral scold” posture, wagging his finger at Gabe and declaiming, “Did you know there’s a mode in Duke Nukem where you slap a woman’s bottom?” In the second panel, Gabe, looking bored, responds, “Did you know there’s a mode in Call of Duty where you murder, like, a million people?” as Tycho appears taken aback. In the third panel, Gabe continues, “It’s called Call of Duty.”
Honest question for you: how come you’re bothered by the Penny Arcade stuff but the Redneck Tree never bothered you?
And that’s a fair question. I was going to respond in a series of twits, but 140-character bursts become unwieldy when you need more than a couple of them, so instead I’m writing this post. I don’t want to make Randy wait too long for me to answer him, though, so this is basically going to be a listing of the things I was going to say over Twitter, rather than a more carefully structured post.
First, the Redneck Tree was years ago (almost 9 years, now that I look it up), and my views have changed since then (I like to think they’re better now).
Second, I actually was somewhat uncomfortable with it — just not enough to say anything at the time. If it were a new SP strip, I most likely would speak up. I haven’t gone back to bring it up both because I hadn’t really thought about it in a while, and because I didn’t think it’d be productive to.
Third, Randy’s not running a convention attended by tens of thousands of people, let alone threatening to blacklist critics from that convention.
Fourth, the original Dickwolves strip is less an issue than their response, which was to lie about the criticisms, attack the critics, double down on the problematic content, and insist that they shouldn’t be held responsible for things they did and said. Randy didn’t do any of that (though I don’t recall any criticism of the Redneck Tree anyway — there may well have been some, but I don’t think I saw it).
Fifth, Randy’s never positioned himself as representative of a whole subculture; Gabe likes to act as though no “real” gamers or PA fans have a problem with what they did — see Kirby Bits’s post, where she discusses his use of “some people” vs. “you” — when the fact is that the criticisms are coming mainly from longtime PA readers. The PA response has essentially been to assert the prerogative to define who is and who isn’t a “real gamer” according to whether a person doesn’t or does, respectively, have a problem with the Dickwolves strip and their subsequent actions. That is, effectively, they assert the prerogative to define gamer culture as a subset of rape culture. As a gamer who opposes rape culture, that makes me really angry.
Finally, as I said, Randy’s my friend. I don’t want to have a fight with him, or seem like I’m attacking him, so although there are a lot of things to criticize about the Redneck Tree stuff, if I were going to present that criticism I’d want to be fairly careful how I went about it. I’ll admit, I don’t really care very much whether things I say regarding the Dickwolves mess hurt Mike or Jerry’s feelings, so long as I’m confident I’m not saying things that aren’t true.
So that’s my response, and I apologize, Randy, for the delay in posting it.
Again, probably reading Kirby Bits’s post is the best place to start; I only have my own commentary to add on a couple of points.
One is that Krahulik has been out front, and taking most of the heat, on this issue. That’s probably by design; he’s always seemed more comfortable with confrontation than Holkins. And it’s left room for people (including me — I have certainly always preferred to think that he was in general a more thoughtful an empathetic person than Krahulik) to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions about where he stands on the issue. I think at this point, though, Krahulik’s behavior has become hostile enough toward rape survivors that Holkins’s apparent neutrality begins to look like tacit approval, or at best cowardice. Jerry, if you happen to read this, this isn’t actually a complicated question. You can just speak up. Are you for, or against, mocking the suffering of rape survivors? Having a voice other than Mike’s speaking for Penny Arcade, at this point, would probably be a good idea.
The other point, which Kirby Bits doesn’t directly address, is the dig in this section:
I’ve gotten a couple messages from people saying they are “conflicted” about coming to PAX. My response to them is: don’t come. Just don’t do it. In fact give me your name and I’ll refund your money if you already bought a ticket. I’ll even put you on a list so that if, in a moment of weakness you try to by a ticket we can cancel the order. (emphasis added)
Sure enough, Krahulik threatened to blacklist anyone so upset or angered by his mockery of rape survivors that they weren’t sure they’d feel comfortable attending PAX.
Guess I’m not so conflicted anymore. It’s a shame — as I mentioned in my last post, I really enjoyed going to PAX East last year, and I think that the work Child’s Play does is really valuable. But even if I’d still have a good time — which I very well might — if I went to PAX East this year, PAX attendance numbers (among many other factors, obviously) affect Penny Arcade’s clout in the video game industry. So my having fun would go hand in hand with helping to boost Krahulik and Holkins’s profile, driving more advertising dollars to their site, and increasing their legitimacy as representatives of video game culture. I’m not willing to contribute to Penny Arcade’s push to define gamer culture as hostile to everyone but heterosexual, white, cisgendered men. So whether or not Mike has actually put my name on the auto-cancel list at Penny Arcade Expo HQ, I won’t be going to PAX this year.
Child’s Play is a somewhat trickier issue. I worry that on the one hand, if people stop giving to Child’s Play over its association with Penny Arcade, Krahulik and Holkins will yell “look, they’ve got a vendetta against us and they don’t care if they hurt sick kids!”; but that on the other hand, if people don’t stop giving to Child’s Play over this, they’ll point to those numbers as evidence that they’re Good People, and so all the mean things those Nasty Internet Feminists said about them must be false. I think that I’ll continue to give to Child’s Play, myself, because ultimately it’s only an aggregator — the gifts are still picked from wish lists put up by the hospitals, and still go directly to the hospitals. And because even if Gabe and Tycho don’t, people like this woman deserve to be honored.
A lot has been written, and I expect a lot more will be written, about Resident Evil 5. IGN published a column insisting that it’s not really racist; Eurogamer wrote that of course it’s racist and gamers and the gaming press need to confront it if we want to have any credibility for our claims that games deserve to be taken seriously as an artistic medium.
Penny Arcade addresses the issue today. As often happens, the comic went up before the news post, and I was very concerned, without the context provided by the latter, that the former was an attempt to, like IGN, deride the criticisms of the game’s imagery. I’m very glad to see, in reading the post, that that isn’t the direction Tycho was going. I could have hoped he’d spend more time seriously engaging the racism and what’s wrong with it, but since I was concerned that he’d join much of the gaming press in simply insisting it was no big deal, I’m happy he is in fact taking it seriously. He links to an interview at MTV’s Multiplayer blog with N’Gai Croal, who writes for Newsweek, which I think is worth your time to read. And I think Tycho’s closing paragraph does a good job articulating the change of perspective I hope the discussion of this game provokes in at least some young gamers:
It’s sort of like those Magic Eye pictures. You can’t see it, you can’t see it, and then bam. All you can see is the genocide.
One final note (as it were) that particularly pleased me about the news post: be sure to mouse over the small, italicized epigraph at the bottom of Tycho’s post.
I thought I was going to have more to say about RE5, when I started writing this post: I didn’t mean it to just be about Penny Arcade’s response. But, it turns out, I find the whole situation — both the fact1 of the game’s racism and the impassioned defense of the game being mounted from many corners of the gaming world: a defense which, given the aforementioned fact, genuinely cannot be perceived as anything but pro-racist — tiring and depressing. RE5 is unabashedly, violently racist, and uncritically, unironically2 portrays the wholesale slaughter of black Africans by a white American as heroic. How there can be any debate over whether it’s a “good game” or whether it’s “worth playing” in the face of that, let alone any debate over whether that’s an accurate characterization, is beyond me.
1 Yes, fact. There really is no room for interpretation here.
2 No, “but, see, it’s ironic!” wouldn’t be any kind of defense; I’m not advocating hipster racism. I just want to highlight the apparent complete lack of awareness on the part of the developers that anyone might find blatantly racist, pro-genocide imagery offensive.