Alex Lifschitz

I produce video games. I'm on twitter at @alexlifschitz. My opinions are those of Ah-Muzen-Cab, mayan god of bees.

Sep 8

Sorry, Not Sorry: Penny Arcade and the Deeper Roots of Apology

When you issue a public apology, ideally, it’s because you’ve found yourself waist-deep in moral quicksand and wisely decided that stubbornly thrashing about in the name of abstract concepts like machismo - read, the worst reason for doing anything, ever - is less productive than admitting fault. More than that, though, an apology should be intended as a reassurance to others that you’re not going to keep bungling things in the same spectacular fashion. Without that critical element of self-analysis, you’re not apologizing; you’re just groveling for its own sake. You’re not really acknowledging or addressing the causative elements of the situation at hand. And that helps no one.

The uproar over Mike Krahulik’s onstage comments at PAX Prime this week is not unexpected for anyone familiar with Mike’s storied history of controversial outbursts. But as the years have gone by, I’ve learned to appreciate, with a mix of resigned sorrow and consternation, the ballooning delta by which Penny Arcade misses the point in their otherwise whole-hearted apologies. Mike, like most people tempering their personal narratives, believes himself to be a good person. But at the point where uninformed behavior persists in the face of corrective critique and becomes stubborn, offensive naiveté, your best option is to cut ties.

In this sense, one of the best pieces of life advice I ever received was from my high school driving instructor. Of people who aggressively and erratically endanger others on the road, he advised: “Pull back, don’t be stupid with them. Let them have their accident somewhere else.”

I used to be a huge Penny Arcade fan, and always enjoyed Mike’s art and Jerry’s prose. I still do, when I see it. My brother owns all their books, and I proudly wore their apparel in high school (Jesus, it’s been that long?). But at some point - likely Dickwolf Kerfuffle Prime - I began developing the sinking feeling that things would continue trending steadily downhill; each year, injecting another complicating factor into Penny Arcade’s gendered House of Usher. And each year has borne me out, gifting me with a new, massive bone to pick with gamer culture and Penny Arcade in particular about the state of sex and gender discourse in the culture they have in many ways come to represent.

I’m a straight, white, cisgendered male in the Pacific Northwest. I am never the target of discrimination (minus the occasional anti-semitic slur). I do not suffer any social background radiation that pecks and claws at me as I make my way through life and industry. I’d love to have a celebration of an inclusive games community, including sexual assault survivors, trans people, and others. I also value honesty, open-mindedness, self-analysis, and empathy on a fundamental level. For all those reasons, I have not attended PAX since 2011. And after reading Mike’s misguided apology, I do not plan on returning anytime soon.

AUDIENCE ACCOUNTABILITY

The recent incident at PAX continues a years-long slugfest of accusations, potshots, and calls for activism between Penny Arcade’s camp and their critics. Each side has been accused of talking over the other, or identifying token members of the other’s vocal fringe to justify the retaliatory extremity of their own views. Common courtesy is lost in a tangle of arguments over free speech, privilege, and insincerity. For me, though, the biggest, stinkiest issue is this: Is Penny Arcade accountable to game culture? Or do they define game culture by its subservience to it?

The frequent mantra of rape-joke apologists concerns what each side of the incident - audience and performer - is “owed” by the other; such is the case for any modern incident of inflammatory dialogue uttered in the name of entertainment, whether it be over “Blurred Lines” or a rape joke on the E3 stage. We discuss where the edge lies, and the freedoms of both parties. The performer has the right to speak freely, and the audience has the right to pass judgment. That’s freedom of expression in a nutshell, correct?

This foregoes a major conceptual component of “audience,” though: the transaction. In an open forum, there is no guarantee of even-handedness or preferential treatment. PAX is decidedly not that: It’s a paid event that bills itself as inclusive, a place for the whole video game community, which inevitably includes survivors and allies of all sorts. To PAX’s credit, there was no lack of panels and talks this year on gender, race, and sex in games.

But the fact that tickets were sold on this pretense inherently holds Penny Arcade to a standard of inclusion, one that was violated by Mike’s comments and the crowd’s celebratory reaction to them. This was a moral bait-and-switch, convincing people wary of a historically hostile environment to purchase admission on the chance that Penny Arcade had taken prior criticism to heart.

It changed the dynamic of how Penny Arcade perceives their audience; it insists that people who are marginalized are somehow not a part of this game community that Mike prides himself on cultivating and serving. It becomes an extension of the “Fake Geek Girl” issue to those who have been personally affected by sexual violence.

You bought a ticket; Penny Arcade has a bill of sale to fulfill. And when they don’t, you feel misled, cheated, or maybe just once again under the microscope for not letting the boys have their fun.

Trust, of course, is earned slowly and burned quickly.

FREE SPEECH AND THICK SKIN

Get over it.

The tireless refrain of the oppressed white male. If you’ve survived assault or abuse, you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps - those infernal bootstraps, that anyone not inherently benefitted by the nation’s institutional hegemony have been ordered to wrench up time and time again - and learn to live in a free-speech culture. After all, your experiences don’t nullify the rights of others to joke about it, right? Like, it’s tragic, sure, but the world will keep on turning without you. If you can’t handle this inconvenient irruption into your inclusive conference, go elsewhere.

Now, a primer on considerate social citizenship:

You don’t get to tell people how to take your jokes or how to deal with their trauma, because it skews the burden of social responsibility. It’s a double standard because you’re suddenly asking them to cater to your feelings, painting them as aggressors. Communication is an exchange with responsibilities on both sides. So you’re free to say whatever you want, just don’t be surprised if people call you out for being an asshole. The moment the words leave your mouth, they cease to be yours to shape for reception.

The intent behind your words, then, means jack shit if it doesn’t manifest in the statement. If that’s the case, the burden is on you to qualify your statements further. That goes doubly so if it’s over a sensitive subject. It’s the reason that the most thoughtful, socially-aware comedians have the rule of “don’t punch down”; your attempt at comedy doesn’t put you above reproach for being reckless with your aim. That judgment is the audience’s only form of empowerment in the relationship. If you object to it, then, well, it makes it seem as though the only time marginalized individuals shouldn’t pull the bootstraps is when it might work out for them.

Telling someone to just get a thicker skin reeks to high heaven of privilege, but worse than that, it reveals the person saying it for what they are: angry that the people they’re insulting aren’t rolling over and taking it. They paint the victims as “censors” to martyr themselves, instead of realizing that the audience owes them nothing and can, at any point, take their ball and go home because they’re sick of feeling victimized. It’s a convenient bolthole in which to slot enemies who you prefer not exist in more than two dimensions. But these aren’t spinsters with fragile moral centers; they’re people who have to experience casual discrimination every goddamn day.

To tell the offended party that they’re being too sensitive, or to accuse them of culpability in the situation for making their case, is a shitty, insidious way of robbing them of their right to speak out. Demanding that they be docile despite their outrage, lest they be responsible for the other party’s actions in equal measure, is Abuse Of Privilege 101. No, what makes a dissident culpable for a situation is the merits of what they’re saying, and how. Each side is exercising their right to free speech, and now the victimized party is choosing to exercise their right to withhold their patronage and act as opinion leaders in a groundswell of support for people sick of being marginalized. They are not dictating morality; dictating is enforcing an opinion from a position of power. If anything, the only party with the ability to “dictate” anything at PAX is Penny Arcade.

When someone seems “overly sensitive,” especially someone so consistently disenfranchised, ask yourself if they really are. The more likely scenario? You’re probably just not funny.

NON-ENGAGEMENT AND THE SYSTEMIC ISSUES OF INSINCERITY

One of my qualms with Mike’s onstage comments was the perceived non-engagement policy used to justify leaving the Dickwolves merchandise for sale; a convenient moral absolute that can be used to dodge accountability in a sticky situation, for better or for worse. i.e. “We do not negotiate with terrorists.”

On its face, the invocation of this policy was straight-up bullshit: The very act of creating the merchandise was an engagement tactic. No, what Mike tried to disguise as a “non-engagement policy” was just a “non-consideration policy,” to be enacted at whatever point in the dialogue he doesn’t feel like being held accountable.

A coherent policy would have extended as far back as “we shouldnt’ve done anything beyond the first strip,” which is problematic, but at least honest. But then, lo and behold! From Mike’s own mouth:

"So let me start by saying I like the Dickwolves strip. I think it’s a strong comic and I still think the joke is funny. Would we make that strip today? Knowing what we know now and seeing how it hurt people, no. We wouldn’t. But at the time, it seemed pretty benign. With that said I absolutely regret everything we did after that comic. I regret the follow up strip, I regret making the merchandise, I regret pulling the merchandise and I regret being such an asshole on twitter to people who were upset. I don’t think any of those things were good ideas."

PAX 2014, here I come.

But, wait - ignoring the continued lack of empathy in the first two sentences, the attitude of “sorry it hurt you, but I sure still do think it’s funny” - This is what I was looking for, right? The honesty to their absolute.

When you read the entirety of it, the mindset that enabled this situation in the first place is still blindingly, yet insidiously, present. The subtext is all right there, though you may have trouble spotting it amidst the genuine, though misplaced, apologetic affectations:

“There are people who were offended by or hurt by the joke in the strip and rather than just let it go we decided to make a second strip. That was a mistake and I apologize to this day for that strip. It was a knee jerk reaction and rather than the precision strike back at our detractors that we intended, it was a massive AOE that hurt a lot of innocent people. We should have just stopped right then but we kept going and made the merchandise. Had we left it alone, the ongoing tension about the whole thing might have subsided but Robert made the call to pull the shirts. In hindsight all this did was open the wound back up and bring on a whole new wave of debate. Any action we took at the time just dug us deeper regardless of what it was. What we needed to do was stop. just stop. I apologized for it at the time and I will still apologize for it. Everything we did after that initial comic strip was a mistake and I regret all of it.”

Everything was a mistake? All of it?

Digest that for a little bit. Can you see it?

When Penny Arcade pulled the Dickwolves shirts, no one who had a problem with the shirts complained. Pulling the merch helped, it was the right thing to do, and went a long way towards ceding some ground to common decency. But Mike apparently doesn’t see it like that. To him, pulling Penny Arcade out of the fire supersedes his consideration for the marginalized. He plays the victim card, insisting that everything they were doing would be perceived as a sleight because they’re Penny Arcade, not because what they were doing was intrinsically wrong. He fears a bullshit bogeyman of his own design.

To wit: Mike believes that a world in which he left the merchandise up for sale is one in which Penny Arcade was more accommodating to people than a world in which they took it down. He believes that if he had left the Dickwolves shirt for sale, those fans and attendees who felt hurt and alienated by its continued presence and availability would have just tuckered themselves out eventually. That it was just baseless anger we needed to get out of our systems, like colicky babies on a transcontinental flight. It again casts survivors as the aggressors, the offenders, rather than a group of people with a simple request for consideration that Penny Arcade refused to fulfill, and, in fact, exacerbated. Mike gives the impression here that he sees himself eternally the victim of a moral maelstrom for reasons beyond his comprehension, or willful ignorance. It doesn’t inspire confidence in Penny Arcade’s inclusion measures both past and present. It’s not sincere; he wants it all to just go away. Ironically, so do the survivors.

Why, when the rest of the letter (the parts not directly addressing his comments) seems so heartfelt, is this the approach he takes? He’s not happy that taking the merch down went some ways towards bridging a gap; he’s peeved that it seemingly brought more scrutiny on their mistake (which is not to say that leaving it up would have been worse). That’s his public regret, of all things. Through the rest of the apology, he seems to be empathetic, and yet the focal point of his regret was the continued headache it was giving his organization.

What is it, if he sincerely regrets every chapter of the Dickwolves epic, that made Mike decide to say, on stage, that the part he truly feels off about is the only one in which Penny Arcade made a genuine effort towards reconciliation? Even if I buy that - even if this isn’t post-hoc PR spin (which the apology reeks of) - If Mike could have kept selling his shirt glorifying the act of rape with a team mentality without drawing too much attention to himself, he would’ve. Khoo decided to pull it. It’s directly at odds with his feigned concerns for the comfort of survivors. Again, we are forced to ask: What’s dearer to Mike? His company, his pride, or the “community” he purports to serve?

Pulling the shirts was supposedly an apology. What good, then, is an apology in which you reveal your previous apologies to be a farce? What kind of standard are you setting for your own credibility?

Mike’s mea culpa continues with sincere insincerity. He’s sorry that their response strip hurt people other than the people Penny Arcade intended to hurt; the “precision strike against our detractors” that they intended, as if it was purely an issue of collateral damage. What, then, would have been this surgical strike against people asking them to think twice about rape jokes? Mike’s claim that some people still “want to hate me” perpetuates the misconception that allies and feminists want to be angry at Penny Arcade, and aren’t just asking them to not trivialize the experiences of survivors of sexual assault.

To that end, Penny Arcade’s unspoken position is presented this way: While they may acquiesce to your protests, and they want you to feel safe, they don’t understand why you’re so hurt and alienated by them. They aren’t sorry for being offensive, because they can’t process why you’re offended; just that you are. Penny Arcade sees your perceived fragility as something at odds with their freedom to have their conference, their way. They’d still sell the shirts if the fandom outweighed the negative attention. The problem doesn’t lie with them; they’re just responding to our strange demands about not creating an oppressive environment.

Even the apology’s closing sentences, which I truly believe were written in good heart and good faith, about PAX making him better, puts the burden on the marginalized attendees to bootstrap the conference to something acceptable. It’s Mike’s name up there on the organizer’s list. He’s the gatekeeper. The only way we can effect change is by doing what we are now: Being vocal. So why the historic resistance to criticism? Why the years of lashing out, the perception that people will “just hate him?”

Mike, we aren’t looking for reasons to keep being angry with you. It’s just that you keep supplying reasons in an almost comically-predictable cadence. Mike, if you’re truly sorry - if you want to get down to the root of the debate - don’t tell us that you regret causing hurt; tell us why you think what you said and did could hurt people. Not what everyone else thinks; you, Mike. You need to explain that the “detractors” aren’t pests you’re trying to swat away. To inspire confidence in your critics, you need to come to personal conclusion in line with your publically-expressed sentiments. Give us a reason why these things won’t happen again, other than your concern for the Penny Arcade brand, so we know, with full confidence, why we won’t get another eye-rolling gaffe next year. Or next month. We want to know that the comfort of survivors at PAX doesn’t hinge on our continual role as watchdogs.

Stop making this our responsibility. Make a change for your sake, not ours.

LEADERS, COMMUNITIES, AND THE BURDEN OF RESPONSIBILITY

But, more than anything, we need to recognize the most chilling problem from the incident: It was the cheers. The audience, Penny Arcade’s passionate adherents, cheering the fact that Mike still believed selling the shirts that mock rape victims was preferential to pulling them. These were people who weren’t reading his mind about any larger schema of perceived regrets. These were members of the team-rape culture they helped to foster. Those cheers immediately destroyed any notion of that hostility being just one man’s opinion, or indeed, that said opinion doesn’t tangibly manifest itself in the fandom. A few of my friends who are survivors, and went to PAX for some of the appealing reasons I listed above, now refuse to attend because they feel unsafe mingling with people who would openly cheer for reinforcing their trauma.

That’s the killing stroke. The loss of progress, the lasting embarrassment that this is the community we have to work with- the one that we’ve earned, apparently, or at least the one borne to us by complacency.

Mike says he doesn’t want to be a role model, but someone who doesn’t want to be an example to others doesn’t start a convention, or a charity, headlined by a brand he is synonymous with. He chose this life, and the responsibilities that go with it; you can’t just shed that position at will, or when it’s most convenient. He’s a thought leader, and now, we know the community are his thought followers. Role models are chosen by their flock. His position as an authority figure in the game industry is cemented; his denial of this is both dishonest to himself and insulting to those genuinely empowered by his other, more charitable efforts, such as Child’s Play.

This, of course, is an issue larger than just one man can own; This is a problem endemic in our industry as a whole, be it in the form of threatening Xbox Live chatter or a cheering room full of Dickwolf apologists. But we all have a role to play, and Mike’s sphere of influence extends to these people in particular. For better or worse, he has sway with them, and has a choice in the manner with which he wields it.

When Phil Fish publicly quit the game industry, I mourned the loss of his creativity. However, while he’s a brilliant designer, his exit said much more about his understandable inability, as a content creator, to act as the unbiased public opinion filter for his company. It’s why we have PR and community managers: To act as shields to both the creative, and the audience. The same goes for Mike. Penny Arcade is his baby. If he chooses to be as present in discourse as Robert Khoo and Ben Kuchera, then he’s shouldered a deeper responsibility to understand his audience.

Outright identifying as “a dick” or getting angry with a critic does not unshackle Mike from the personal responsibility of tempering his outbursts, like some discoursal equivalent of the Stand Your Ground law. He doesn’t get to be a dick anymore if Penny Arcade want to be perceived as a positive industry force. His thumb-fingered morality has become the trough feed of tens of thousands of up-and comers in the game industry. And as long as he spews it, he will have high-minded, conscience-stricken people to be his personal pains-in-the-ass until he gives things a second thought.

Do I think Mike cares about the comfort of people at his conference? Yeah, I do. But apparently, his desire for everyone at PAX to feel safe does not outpace his lack of understanding regarding why anyone would feel unsafe in the first place, nor his improvised intertwining and decoupling of his identity with his station in game culture to more effectively skirt the accusation du jour. His personal sense of culpability is still shrouded in a persecution complex that nullifies its legitimacy, and his twisted brand of realpolitik and historical trend of resurrecting expiated controversies does nothing to make survivors or trans individuals think he really cares. With that kind of track record, how can you blame them for feeling the way they do?

SPEAKING UP, WALKING OUT

I believe that principles are things you still hold when doing so is neither fun nor convenient. Otherwise, they’re not principles; they’re transient mental accommodations to give yourself the empty sensation of moral weight. Mike has his principles, and I have mine; and mine implore me to stay away from PAX, no matter how fun the conference may seem. Certain developers, such as The Fullbright Company (creators of Gone Home), decided not to display their game at PAX this year for precisely such reasons. Some industry members, such as game journalist Leigh Alexander, refused participation as well; others, such as game journalist Jim Sterling, have opted to follow suit after this year’s events.

By refusing attendance, are we denying our presence to otherwise good people who are using the event as a platform? Yes. But people need to learn that their choice in who they associate with reflects on them, sometimes poorly. You can patronize showcase developers elsewhere, but to echo Elizabeth Sampat’s article on the matter, by doing so at PAX, you directly lend legitimacy to their brand.

My boycott is, admittedly, more absolutist than most approaches, and certainly not the only upright path to change. But I want to challenge you to think about your own reasons for going to PAX and supporting Penny Arcade. Typically, I’ve heard one of the following sentiments:

"We need to attend to offer a different view."

"I’m being pressured to attend because of professional reasons."

"I want to support the community, not the figureheads."

“We have a responsibility to save this conference and the good it represents.”

All valid points, to varying degrees.

But if you decide to keep attending, for whatever reason - because you love the sense of community and want to fix PAX so that feeling is extended to those who feel unsafe, because you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater - all I’m asking is that you keep one thing in mind: Your ability to feel safe at PAX is a privilege not afforded to the people Penny Arcade have made to feel endangered at their conference, and you cannot tell those people to swallow their trauma and keep attending in ever-dwindling hopes that Mike will change.

If you call on attendees to fix it from the inside, you need to be explicit about this. This is not a conscription. If you feel safe to go, and these issues do rankle you, then you have a responsibility to do what you can for the sake of those who feel pressured into silence. Not everyone feels that something about PAX is inherently sacred and needs more bodies thrown at it to reform it. There are other conferences, ones where people are not openly cheering the lampooning of the mentality of rape survivors, so anyone who has been made to feel unwelcome gets to decide for themselves if there’s something worth preserving. The strength of your conviction that there is something worth saving at PAX should be greater impetus to do something other than just attending. Speak out however you can, not just when the opportunity presents itself.

Professional or personal attendance does not have to validate the conduct of Penny Arcade’s leadership or community. However, if you hold reservations about these issues but choose to quietly participate, please recognize that validation is the default state of your contribution to the discussion, even if that was not your intent. The leadership can’t read your mind. Unless, of course, you actively make your feelings known - this is the call to action. Mike is not a monster, and from my vicarious observations, Jerry Holkins, Robert Khoo, and Ben Kuchera are good, considerate people. I do not believe that they see PAX as just a shrine to Penny Arcade. And if you make it known that you’re working or attending PAX in spite of Mike’s behavior - if that’s all you can do - they are likely to listen. They are not beyond reach.

I’ve not attended a PAX since I became aware of these issues, even though it takes place just a few blocks from my apartment. Each year, I do relish the prospect of seeing friends, discussing industry, and seeing the community thrive in good conscience. But each year, those in charge, whose opinions are directly adopted by a not-insignificant number of attendees, betray any burgeoning sentiment of stability I have about their integrity. Another blunder, another half-assed apology; Sunrise, sunset.

The day Penny Arcade decides that the margins of their attendees need to feel welcomed, rather than grudgingly catered to;

That the audience’s safety, emotional/physical well-being, recognition for their experiences, and self-respect are more important than just their attendance;

That there is an accountability to their culture to encourage true inclusivity if they choose to deem themselves as reflective of those values;

On that day, I’ll be at PAX. For now, there are other game conventions on the block.

—————-

Further reading:




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