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Slaves in a Cave, or How I See It

I’ve been an on-and-off-again contributor to the Penny Arcade forums for many years now. I wanted to lead with this, as their Help/Advice forum is really top notch. I also wanted to, off the bat before anything else, highlight a wonderfully positive experience of my own with the comic duo’s work.

Another publication I try to follow is the Boston Phoenix, and I finally got a chance this morning to breeze through this week’s issue. I was hit with interest by a story on Penny Arcade by Maddy Myers. Except, it wasn’t anything like I was expecting.

Back this past August there was some controversy surrounding a strip which made a reference to rape. And then there was further controversy when Penny Arcade released a second strip which, essentially, was a non-apology apology. I’ll let the strips speak for themselves:

Now, the reason I bring this up is because the article in the Phoenix misses the mark. Almost completely. The basic premise of the complaint was that

A minority of these readers sent e-mails to Krahulik and Holkins, saying as much. Among them was a person using the handle Shaker Milli A., who posted at Shakesville, a feminist blog. She called out Penny Arcade for joking about rape without providing a warning to rape survivors who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder — and who might not necessarily feel like seeing a rape joke mixed in with their usual dose of video-game satire.

Who can argue with that? Except that the conclusions drawn were rather strange to me, as someone who is at least competently versed in critical theory:

The best I can do is to hold them at arm’s length, like an ex-boyfriend that all my friends still hang out with. It would be easy for Krahulik and Holkins to say that I could just stop reading Penny Arcade any time I like. But every gaming blog I read — hell, every video game I play — is influenced in part by these two guys and what they write on their Web site that 3.5 million people visit per day. Over the past decade, Holkins and Krahulik have defined gaming culture, and that includes gaming culture’s irreverence, its dark humor, its immaturity, its unwillingness to say it’s sorry.

Now, how do we even get there? It just doesn’t make sense, to me.

Now we can get onto the “why”. The original comic wasn’t a “rape joke”, and to call it such is a disservice to any self-respecting work that any of us could do to actually, productively work against sexual assault of any kind. In fact, if you actually read the comic, it’s reference to rape is supporting fact that both 1) takes itself seriously as a horrible and terrible thing, and 2) that it is a direct antecedent to negative, terrible conditions. I suspect that much of the issue, here, is in individual’s privileging the concept of “rape” to such a state that the mere appearance insists on drawing all focal points to it as opposed to any sort of context.

In fact, I found (and still find) the strip to be funny.

The missing piece, here, appears to be a misunderstanding of language and power, specifically where those two meet in discourses on sexuality and repression. Foucault has taught us that, in short, it is the repression of sexuality (or any other discourse) which marginalizes and demonizes individuals. That, in fact, not talking about sex is as much of a power of control as directing the discussion. Sex became dirty and sinful. We didn’t speak about it and we were uneducated as a result, this then feeds into the fact that sex is dirty and sinful. By limiting the discourse we create a feedback loop which reinforces the power of sexuality to control and divide.

I think that, in many ways, Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon peeked most deeply into this much closer to the incident:

The joke of the comic was that the moral universes painted in video games are often horrific in a way that contrasts with the light-hearted nature of gaming.  That strikes me as a perfectly appropriate thing to make fun of, tame even.

The comic resonated for me, as an on-and-off World of Warcraft player since nearly the beginning, because the exact same sort of thought has gone through my head while playing the game. “I need to save three dwarves from the evil necromancer” or “kill ten of the marauding bandits who are threatening our settlement”. This is almost always followed by the question, “but what about the other six dwarves, can’t I save them too?” and “Aren’t those other twenty bandits going to keep giving your village trouble?” In effect, I was always a little weirded out that I could never actually fix a problem. If I’m playing Oblivion and I wipe out the bad, evil spirits in some long-forgotten tomb, they stay gone. I could massacre every bad guy on Azeroth and they’d all be back within twenty minutes.

Wait a second. I’m no expert, but that really sounds like an apt metaphor for rape, doesn’t?

No matter what you do, you can’t undo assault. No matter what, no matter your ability to recover, you’ll always carry it with you. There will always be a cave of slaves and there will always be those courageous individuals in our lives who relieve some of our suffering. They just can’t make it all go away.

Now, I just took you all for a ride. I’m sorry. The point of the previous interpretation is twofold: first, that individuals are going to see what they want to see; second, that the very idea of “authorial intent” is kinda bogus. As a poet, I spent many years honing an experiment to unravel my own intent. My stated goal was for each person around the workshop table to walk away with their own, working interpretation. It was, honestly, pretty effective.

The second strip, “Breaking it Down” is more troubling and I’m not going to go too far in apologizing. I’ll just say that snark is not the best forum for talking about rape.



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