Dear Penny Arcade: WTF?

[Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault in games and comedy and sexual slavery]

Wednesday’s Penny Arcade told this joke where a hero insisted on leaving a rape victim in his own personal hell. Why? Because there was no reward! Har har! Ho ho! See what they did there? They made someone continue to suffer because the hero wasn’t going to get paid for it! Cue the Benny Hill music already!

Not. Funny.

When the aims of the games we play award merit for actions such as murdering and raping, etc, it rewards us with positive reinforcement for the concepts of these actions.

When we’re consistantly in environments where the illusion of equating a certain deed with a certain kind of repercussion isn’t challenged, or indeed mocked; things get fuzzy.

When we’re consistantly in environments where doing the right thing such as helping survivors is the butt of a joke; things get scary.

Over a century ago Ivan Pavlov coined, documented and received a Nobel prize for the concept of Classical Conditioning. For those who are unfamiliar with Pavlov’s theory but unable to fully access the previous link (full of flash and javascript), the following exerpt from Wikipedia may be of assistance:

The typical paradigm for classical conditioning involves repeatedly pairing an unconditioned stimulus (which unfailingly evokes a reflexive response) with another previously neutral stimulus (which does not normally evoke the response). Following conditioning, the response occurs both to the unconditioned stimulus and to the other, unrelated stimulus (now referred to as the “conditioned stimulus”). The response to the conditioned stimulus is termed a conditioned response. The classic example is Pavlov and his dogs. Meat powder naturally will make a dog salivate when it is put into a dog’s mouth; salivating is a reflexive response to the meat powder. Meat powder is the unconditioned stimulus (US) and the salivation is the unconditioned response (UR). Then Pavlov rang a bell before presenting the meat powder. The first time Pavlov rang the bell, the neutral stimulus, the dogs did not salivate, but once he put the meat powder in their mouths they began to salivate. After numerous pairings of the bell, and then food the dogs learned that the bell was a signal that the food was about to come and began to salivate just when the bell was rang. Once this occurs the bell becomes the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the salivation to the bell is the conditioned response (CR).

When we play, we are under the spell of this form of associative learning. We press a button and it does stuff! We will either like or not like what it does. If we liked it, we’ll probably do it again. Because it was fun! Or alternatively we’ll not like it and shun it in the future. We get rewarded with praise or something that makes us feel good when we do something we’re supposed to; we’re rewarded with adreneline for solving challenges.

Laughter releases endorphins. When we share in a joke we’re rewarded with endorphins via the laughter mechanism, a concept used in negotiation in many parts of life; from Clown Doctors to get patient cooperation in treatment, mediation to clear tension and marketing departments world over to lower consumer defensiveness.

There doesn’t have to be intent behind this triggering of a reflexive dropping of boundaries. Mere sexist jokes have been documented to “favour the mental mechanisms which urge to violence and battering against women”, in other words, make people more accepting of such behaviour. The release of endorphins gets linked to the sexist ideal, and suddenly it seems a good idea.

I personally resent having someone attempting to trigger the release of endorphins in to my brain while I’m being exposed to the concept of abandoning a victim to continue being raped.

Also, it’s not like it wasn’t already hard enough to get it across to some people that expecting cookies for basic decency is wrong.

It’s ok though, they apologised.

Oh, wait.

[TW reminder] Imaginary person raped imaginarily? By a myth0logical creature?!

Zombie fuck, guys.

34 thoughts on “Dear Penny Arcade: WTF?

  1. Kaonashi

    I don’t understand why this PA strip is so wrong. To me, it’s not funny because the guy gets raped. It’s funny because the action is so obviously wrong in real life, but so absurdly motivated by limited game logic. I didn’t get an endorphin-strengthened appreciation of rape from that strip, quite the opposite.

    The joke could easily have been about some other horror befalling the poor slave, but your reasoning could be applied to all varations of the strip, making them all offensive. The same goes for a lot of humor in general. Futurama joked about child labor and environmental destruction a few episodes ago. How funny is that in real life, especially to some kid who was enslaved in a factory that poisoned them with tocix fumes? Taking your idea that we’re conditioned to accept and even enjoy horrors by laughing at them, isn’t this problematic for humor in general? I realize this can easily be turned into a general defense for all kinds of terrible jokes, including sexist ones, but it’s not meant to be that. I just like to hear where you draw the line and how you’d like to see jokes about horrible things work from a feminist perspective.

      1. Kaonashi

        I think I was quite friendly. According to the comments policy it’s OK to ask questions.

        If this has already been discussed, could you please link to something if you don’t have any answers yourself?

  2. ptp

    I think you’ve interpreted this in the exact opposite way it’s intended. This is a parody of the way that MMO questing works because the people still need saving even though you’re only told to save a limited number of them, and with any understanding of the quest dynamic involved I think it’s fairly clear what they’re trying to poke fun at. It’s pointing out the absurdity of the situation, and that’s a legitimate form of satire, and the best criticism I think you can make is that they probably didn’t need to use rape as a means to get the point across, but you’re not really making that criticism, you’re making one that somehow hinges on the presumption that they’re making light of victimhood.

    1. Melissa Post author

      I think you’re interpreting that I didn’t read the news article and think you need to ‘splain to me what they were intending.

      I can read. I know what they were intending.

      I also know that this stuff isn’t irony to abductees, domestic violence and child abuse victims who’ve actually been trapped in a living hell whilst people who could save them didn’t or don’t.

      There’s a whole pile of things going on in this strip. Making us laugh about it is dark humour yes, but in this the case the dark humour being used here being associated with laughter is doing actual demonstrated and documented damage, especially since it echoes an aspect of society, sexual assault, that traditionally gets a shitload of apologia (See the Polanksi fanfare), low conviction rates, or ineffective punishment. That’s what is scary.

      1. Kainenchen

        Um, I have to agree… I think the point here is that it is god awful that the guy is being left here to be a victim. They are pointing out that MMOs really do this to the characters in them. I mean… really. The player doesn’t really have a choice. The victims spawn in, and you help the number you need for the quest, and you go on. They were pointing out something that really is kind of damaging and awful. I work in video games and spent 2 years on an MMO, and I can’t believe I am saying this, but really, the games that sort of blithely set up this sort of situation are the ones who kind of ought to be the target of the ire here. Sure, Penny Arcade’s way of pointing it out was crass, but the best way to deal with horriffic things without forcing them out of one’s mind or cowering in fear is to push it so over the top that one can laugh, imho.

  3. Epimetheus

    I think there’s a problem in that rape-as-a-plot-device that simply serves as a stand in for “really terrible thing” overwhelms sexual-assault-as-it-happens-in-real-life in the public consciousness, and the PA comic is contributing.

    Personally as a child growing up, I never really internalized that rape was a real thing: I mean, there aren’t real coyotes that try to explode road runners with dynamite, so why would I take seriously any other absurd behavior that I see on television?

    I think a lot of other people have the same problem, largely because I keep hearing discussions of sexual assault that revolve around mythological notions of how it transpires.

    I do think it’s unfair to read the PA strip unironically, though.

    1. Dorothea Salo

      Oh poor, poor comic strip. To be read unironically, because there’s no such thing as a context in which rape happens not ironically at all every single damn day.

      Give me a break.

  4. Ptp

    Skud: I’m not really sure what you have a problem with, specifically.

    Epimetheus: I agree; ignoring the irony is missing the point specifically because it distracts from the more relevant issue which is whether or not using rape as a means to get the larger point across is necessary or if it even adds value in the first place.

    Dorothea: I think the point of acknowledging the irony is less about glossing over the reality of rape and more about providing a setting in which players subconsciously act in a way that would seem horribly apathetic in any context other than an MMO. You can’t just act like there’s no context to the comic strip. I mean, you can but it kind of hinders any real analysis or understanding if you do. As I said above, the real question is whether or not rape needs to be used to get the point across. I don’t think it did but I think their choice is at least somewhat defensible in that they didn’t just default to the usual male trope of rape as a crime against women where the narrative focus is on the male reaction. The gender of the victim, the absurd perpetrator, the overall situational irony – I think this is all important to consider. Does it justify anything? Maybe not, but I think it adds a nuance that is lacking when you just dismiss it out of hand like that.

      1. Jenni Hill

        *jumps in* That was the vibe I got from the cartoon! I wasn’t that offended myself, taking it as satire, but I can totally see how people would be. What I took away from the oringinal strip was that PA would never have done this with a woman, but with a man they thought it wouldn’t upset people, because ‘male rape is funny.’ Fucksake…

        This may sound like a ‘what about the mens?’ comment – but attitudes which believe that male rape is less serious than when a woman is raped just re-inforce the idea that women are weak victims who need to be protected all the time…

    1. emmajeans

      This is such an important issue, thank you for writing about it, Melissa! Rape as humour is something that I often rant about, and I liked the way you linked the pavlovian response to research into misogynist jokes.

      However, I think I read the comic in a different way.

      Surreal humour is used to make comments in shows like South Park, ‘news’ articles like the Onion, and comics like Penny Arcade. This is the style of this comic, and yes, being offensive is part of it. I think you’re supposed to be offended. That’s how the point is made.

      If you’re not familiar with their style of writing, you could be forgiven for taking things at face value, and believing that the point of the comment is in the words without taking into consideration the social context that is being commented on AND the context of the genre.

      I read this comic as **pointing out** the absurd situation that players were not rewarded for being heroic, that there were potentially horrific consequences for NPCs who weren’t rescued etc., and this strip was essentially giving those imaginary (and usually invisible) NPCs a voice.

      Of course, Restructure! is right, though – satire is open to confirmation bias – maybe I see education and consciousness raising because that’s what I look for!

  5. hn

    Actually the “apology” is /way/ more offensive than the original strip: while I too thought it was a joke about the “hero” who having fulfilled a quota didn’t care anymore, now they joke about rape itself, in a way that makes it sound more like illegally downloading music. Also totally something you shouldn’t do, please stop if it doesn’t cause you any inconvenience.
    Which means that they didn’t understand their own original strip? So probably I’m reading stuff into it they didn’t intend in the first place? They are not really known for their brilliance after all

    1. Melissa Post author

      Yep, their reply is the majority of the WTF.

      I’d say you’re correct in that they still don’t (maybe even refusing to) understand the actual message they’re putting over in the strip, which since Rape culture has us all soaking in it, that this sort of narrative happens without thinking and will continue to happen whilst people don’t call it out.

    2. Addie

      I also had more problems with the apology than with the joke itself (isn’t it funny how it works?). Interestingly, a feminist male friend sincerely thought that they were saying something very bold, especially in the last panel, with their apology. I saw it as far more of a non-apology, but clearly “your mileage may vary” among individuals.

      We ended up having a nice discussion about the cultural narrative about rape and the reality of it, and I think a few commenters have touched on that here – a rape that exactly fits our cultural narrative is pretty rare, so it’s easy to think of it as an absurdist horror that we can convert to black comedy. I think the people who have issues with this understand that most incidents of rape and sexual assault fall outside of the cultural narrative, and that people who have suffered these tragedies are far more involved in our day-to-day lives than we realize. As a result, making absurdist humor as if rape is a horror that we and our peers do not actually deal with in some respect on a daily basis comes off as insensitive and cruel.

      I have a place in my heart for black humor, but this humor assumes rape is a tragedy so distant and so severe that it can be made light of in this way, when really it’s far more pervasive than any of us can realize and it’s far more complicated than the standard narrative implies. It’s really frustrating to see people make non-apologies like “Clearly we think rape is a horrible thing, so don’t do it.” I’ve had friends who could say that in one breath and be rape apologists in the next, because their understanding of the concept is so restricted.

      Humor is a minefield, and as a person with a fondness for black humor I feel especially aware of that. What I try to tell myself when confronted with a joke that someone has deemed inappropriate is this: one less laugh is hardly a sacrifice for treating another individual with compassion and respect. There is enough that is hilarious in this world to allow us to avoid the type of comedy that compels a certain subgroup of individuals to feel like they are “less than”.

      1. Melissa Post author

        This a thousand times over.

        The people whose comments I have not approved but who claimed they are victim-sympathetic while defending the notion that rape was ok because it added ‘absurdity’ need to read what you’ve written here.

        Thank you.

        1. Addie

          Thanks! I went on a Fugitivus binge about a month ago, so I have been spending a lot of my time lately thinking critically about my sense of humor (which is admittedly dark).

          The Fugitivus post on why rape jokes aren’t OK: http://www.fugitivus.net/2009/06/24/a-woman-walks-into-a-rape-uh-bar/

          I’ve been a lot more hyper-aware of rape jokes as a result, and have been trying to make sense of why I find them funny, when I do, and if that response is appropriate or a sign of my privilege. I think many of us are conditioned to find rape jokes funny because we’re products of a rape culture; but we do have it within ourselves to check that conditioning and hopefully start changing the culture from within.

      2. Kaonashi

        This helped me to understand this a bit better, I think. Thanks. Maybe my mistake was that I felt the absurdity of the joke created the distance you’re writing about, not the assumption of the writers or the readers that rape itself is a distant tragedy. You know, kind of how the Penny Arcade fruit fucker is very absurd in its humor, but still there’s a rape joke somwhere in there?

        Many gamers use a language that dilutes the meaning of rape. I can see how that helps to distance them from the reality of rape enough to not see other sides of this problem.

  6. Ptp

    Unfortunately the iPhone interface to the comments is unthreaded so I cant tell who is talking to me and who isn’t unless they explicitly say so. With that said..

    Dorothea: if you’re talking to me then no and I have no idea why you would think that based only response to you so I’m guessing that was directed at someone else. If you are, then when I get home later I will see if I can formulate a more specific response. Sorry for the confusion either way.

    Melissa: I’m pretty sure what I said was that the aggregate context of the character and his situation was probably meant to lend a sense of absurdity by using so many non-standard or absurd elements in the story. This lends some nuance to their choice because if they were just being brutish and hackneyed about it they wouldnt’ve deliberately used something so “silly” (or rather I think their intent was to be silly – obviously the effect was not, and by no means am I arguing with anyone who feels that way).

    As far as how a victim of sexual assault might read this, I don’t disagree with you, and that’s why I said I thought using rape here was gratuitous. If rape and sexual assault weren’t such a complexly loaded topic, and if America at large possessed a more healthy and vigilant attitude towards rape and rape victimhood, maybe it could be used for the effect they wanted (or maybe not, honestly – it’s really hard to imagine a world where this is even remotely the case), but that’s not the case, and as I’ve said in their defense elsewhere, context matters.

    I’m not trolling here, and I get the sense that people think I am. I feel like I’ve been clear (or at least explicit) from the start that I think the comic deserves criticism, I just disagree with the nature of the criticism, and somewhat with the severity. That’s not concern trolling, in my mind, and I would ask that you be careful about not strawmanning me with things like suggesting that I’m saying it’s “okay” because the victim was a man.

    1. Mary

      ptp, Dorothea wasn’t replying to you.

      While I can imagine it’s annoying to be reading comments that require threading to be understood properly, and not to be able to see the threading (and perhaps this interface issue should be discussed with us on the open thread, assuming it’s our stylesheets or similar that are the problem), it’s a recipe for flameriffic disaster to post something that boils down to “I can’t tell who was arguing with me, so I’m going to assume that everyone was until proven otherwise.”

      1. ptp

        I don’t think that’s a very fair characterization of my post at all, but I agree with your point, which is why I tried to keep my responses when I wasn’t sure very minimal and to-the-point. Under no circumstances would I ever feel appropriate calling someone here stupid or flaming them, so I wanted to make that clear in case I was under scrutiny. I’m a guest here, and I’m fairly new, so it was important to me to make sure I was on the right foot, that’s all.

        Anyway, this is all a lot of words about a small topic, but just to be clear, in the future I’ll avoid getting involved in threads I won’t be able to keep up with if I can. I know I’m probably not technically obligated to do this (anymore than anyone else is), but I feel passionately about being able to discuss this stuff with a group of educated and intelligent people, and so I want to avoid giving the wrong impression and getting myself in someone’s doghouse unnecessarily.

  7. Jeff Kaufman


    When the aims of the games we play award merit for actions such as murdering and raping, etc, it rewards us with positive reinforcement for the concepts of these actions.

    When we’re consistantly in environments where the illusion of equating a certain deed with a certain kind of repercussion isn’t challenged, or indeed mocked; things get fuzzy.

    When we’re consistantly in environments where doing the right thing such as helping survivors is the butt of a joke; things get scary.

    I understood this to be the message of the original cartoon, that they were criticizing game developers for rewarding people for acting bizarrely unethically.

    1. Melissa Post author

      PA are the ones who tried to make us laugh about leaving the victim. Not the games. The third line of your quote is the key one.

      Unless of course you’re aware of a large number of this style of game that ask the players to laugh at the victim’s predicament (which I’m pretty sure you’re not, since they don’t).

      1. ptp

        This whole thing just feels like a really blunt indictment of satire, and if that’s the case then I think you need to say so explicitly. If we agree that the intent here was to satirize this game mechanic, then the endorphin release is not associated with some sort of affirmation of rape, it’s associated with criticizing game companies for subtly encouraging players to exhibit callous, apathetic, and sociopathic behavior. In this case, the awfulness of rape is assumed, because it is through that awfulness that the satire actually achieves any meaning at all. If he had said something about being beaten, would you still have taken offense? If there weren’t some horrible fate awaiting the guy, the comic wouldn’t have made any sense, so there had to be something. And if that means that the comic had no place then I think you’re back to what I said above about satire. So either I’m missing something, or you need to clarify where we’re going with all of this.

        1. ptp

          If he had said something about being beaten, would you still have taken offense?

          To clarify, I’m not asking this as some sort of gotcha or contradiction, but because if you feel that beatings would’ve been a fair vehicle to use for satire then I think we’ve gotten to the root of the problem – which is that they didn’t have to use rape (and in fact doing so added nothing but cost much) to get this point across, not that there is some danger of associating laughter with a (context-heavy) reference to immoral behavior in the way they did.

  8. Carla Schroder

    Guess I’m part of the minority here, because I think the PA strip makes it point brilliantly. It mocks this absurd morality of games, homophobia, demonstrates that rape culture is deeply ingrained and the root of many evils, and they do it in three panels. Aren’t dickwolves the absolutely perfect symbols of much of the BS we struggle with everyday? Isn’t the “hero” a perfect representation of the narcissism, lack of empathy, and apathy we beat our heads against?

    There is so much going on here. You’re the author of the comic– how do you decide who your victim should be? Woman as beating victim– nah, big deal, that’s everyday stuff. Woman as sexual assault victim– ditto. Man as beating victim– nope that doesn’t work, because men can take it, every man is a Rambo. So what does that leave? Man victim suffering at the hands of male rapists. That’s as unambiguously awful as it can get, because thanks to the sickeningly twisted machismo and homophobia that infest our fab modern culture, there is no way that can ever be interpreted as romance, and the victim suffers the worst of all possible fates– he becomes a girl. You’ll never see one man melting into the arms of another, protesting “no no no!” until he succumbs, blissfully. Only women mean yes when they say no. Only women are legitimate targets of male abuse. Only women are expected to fall in love with their tormenters.

    All in three panels.

    Or I’m over-analyzing, but then I’m in good company :)

  9. Sheelzebub

    This whole thing kills me. Dear Penny Arcade whiners–FFS–not everyone is going to like what you write or think your jokes are funny. Get over it.

    Part of freedom of expression is people who don’t like what you say responding to it. TOTES UNFAIR, I KNOW.

    1. ptp

      But isn’t it also part of freedom of expression that people will then tell you when they think your criticism is misguided or unfounded? This is a really circular line of thinking. Nobody’s trying to legally silence anyone so I’m not sure where you’re going with it.

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