Heroism vs multiplayer game mechanics and Rape as a fantasy trope

[Trigger warning: as you probably realized from the title, this post discusses the (overuse) of rape in fantasy settings]

I’m going to start with saying that I thought the Penny Arcade comic was actually pretty well done. But explaining why it resonated with me takes some work. Thankfully, our excellent commenters have already got the ball rolling:

Kaonashi says,

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.

And that’s where the comic hits me: the rape isn’t supposed to be funny, it’s supposed to be horrible (if perhaps abstracted to ridiculousness) and make you suddenly more aware of how supposedly heroic actions in games sort of fall apart when they run into game mechanics.

ptp says,

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.

If you don’t play massively multiplayer online games, you may never have encountered this problem: in a single player game, you always can try to save all the hostages. But in a massively multiplayer game, you want all players to have a chance at the quest, so you have the hostages reappear (often before the hero has left the area), or you limit it so that each hero can only save 5. That way, there’s always plenty of people crying for help from the next hero. In many cases actually impossible to continue saving people in an area due to the developers’ attempt to balance game mechanics. And frankly, that’s pretty unpleasant. There’s usually no explanation given as to why as a hero you would deem this acceptable. If this were a movie, the hero would be making a hard choice of who to save and there’d be a reason only 2 people could fit on the boat/spaceship/whatever. But in the average MMOG, the entire world continues along as if it’s perfectly normal for you to leave people to unspeakable horrors.

I’ve been squicked out by this on numerous occasions while playing games. The comic doesn’t exactly make me laugh so much as think, but it’s pointing out a real absurdity using some dark and twisted sense of humour and it’s more effective for me due to the contrast of humour and horror here.

But the question remains, “why did it have to be rape?” Surely, there are plenty of other horrible things that could have been happening to these prisoners that would have gotten the point across just as well? And maybe if you tried hard enough, you’d think of something. But we don’t live in a vacuum, and sometimes you have to use the tropes the genre and culture hands you to make your point most effectively.

Carla Schroder says,

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?

Not only do we deal with rape culture in the real world, but also in our fantasy ones. Rape is a disturbingly over-used trope, especially in fantasy, as a placeholder for “something horrible happened.” Even in modern urban fantasy reading I’ve gotten hit with a storyline like, “a prophecy says so-and-so’s son will overthrow the king (or whatever), so everyone in fairyland tries to rape her to be father to that son.” How many heros have back stories where their mom was a raped tavern wench? How many would-be queens are subject to assault? Heroines? The hero’s tragic back story might be that his family was killed in a raid, but in the heroine version there’s a good chance she or maybe her sisters were raped in said raid. Can’t we come up with better reasons for adventuring? Maybe not — virginity is often highly prized in these worlds where sometimes it has magical properties. Can’t we come up with worlds that don’t turn rape into a plot device?

There was one month where I compared notes with my sister, and we realized that every fantasy book we’d read in the past few months had included rape. It’s disturbing, it’s pervasive, and fantasy novels don’t come with trigger warnings.

I imagine there’s a much lengthier discussion to be had about rape as a fantasy trope. But the point I want to make here is that part of what made the comic effective for me was the absurdity and the evocation of that trope in an overdone way really made it resonate as “yeah, this sounds like a quest I might encounter” rather than “that’s horrible; it’d never be written that way.”

And that’s why the comic worked for me. It was effective because it hurt and reflected a reality that I don’t like to see but get shoved in my face regularly as a genre fan and a game player. That doesn’t mean it will work for you, or even that it should. There’s plenty of people for whom this is simply triggering and horrible and cannot be effective because of that, and that needs to be recognized. But a comic that’s horrible for some may still be effective for others. There are often many legitimate feminist readings of a subject, and dark humour and satire are hard to handle because it feels a lot like the same old stuff getting thrown in your faces again.

But I think shielding us from the overuse of rape as “some horrid thing” would only lessen the effectiveness of the comic within the context of the genre and culture. Darker humour sometimes is most effective when it embraces the dark.

45 thoughts on “Heroism vs multiplayer game mechanics and Rape as a fantasy trope

  1. Nat Budin

    Thanks Terri for a post exploring the other side of this issue! Both this post and the previous one on this topic were thought-provoking and interesting reads. I’d love to see more of this kind of thing from geekfeminism.org, particularly on controversial issues.

    To your point about rape being an unfortunately common theme in fantasy literature as a genre: YES. The reasons you suggest as possible explanations seem plausible to me; I’d add that in some ways it seems an easy shortcut for a writer to take for adding a “dark past” to a character.

    Need a tortured, psychologically complex character? Rape is an all-too-common method, whether it be as a direct victim or (possibly more commonly) a child of a victim. Child-of-victim may actually be more disturbing from a feminist POV, because it allows the author to use rape as a trope without actually addressing the issue head-on, which contributes to the desensitization effect.

    (Minor spoiler alert: Stephen Donaldson’s “Lord Foul’s Bane,” the first book in the Thomas Covenant series, turns this on its head fairly early on in the book, making its anti-hero a perpetrator in order to illustrate to the reader what a hateful person he is. Whether attempt is successful, or instead unintentionally perpetuates rape culture, is potentially debatable.)

  2. Jeff Kaufman

    Thanks for writing this and taking seriously the idea that the strip might have been trying to get us to laugh not at rape victims but at the perverse incentives of game mechanics.

  3. TrinaLina

    Thank you for this post – I was beginning to think my original similar reaction to the comic was an unforgivable anomaly.
    I agree that rape-as-traumatic-backstory is a really overused and disturbing trope in fantasy games and novels. The most recent example of this I’ve encountered was when I was playing Dragon Age: Origins as a human noblewoman – I was actually SURPRISED when her origin didn’t include rape, especially as it seemed to be the status quo for a lot of it.

  4. Katie

    Thanks for the great post, Terri.
    I have a confession: what made me laugh so hard about this comic was in the last panel: “I only needed to save *five* slaves. Alright? Quest complete.” I didn’t even blink at the ‘raped by dickwolves’ line. In fact, it took @pixelsocks pointing it out to me for me to even think about.

    I guess I’m so inured to rape references that what mattered to me was the joke about the absurdity of MMO ‘heroes.’ As an avid WoW player, I’ve done this quest before. The only difference was that the text didn’t say ‘raped by dickwolves.’ But have I left behind slaves that were beaten and dying? Hell yeah.

  5. Eva

    I think part of the problem in books is that rape is applied as “something terrible” only to women and as you said, virginity is being held up as so stupidly important. If you were to categorize the other common “something terrible”s that happen in fantasy, like murder, genocide, and betrayal, I think you’d find a lot of them recur just as often. People aren’t hugely original when it comes to writing plots.

    The problem, at least for me, is how that translates into the arena of table top roleplaying games. I’m quite frankly embarrassed by the fact that there are still table top gamers who don’t understand that you don’t threaten players with in character rape. I’m also kind of appalled by some of the official modules I read that constantly cast women in sexually submissive rolls (exotic dancer, sexy sorceress, handmaiden you walk in on “dallying” with a guard… I mean, really?). We can do better than this when it comes to writing fantasy.

    1. Terri

      You know, when I was writing this I was trying to think of cases [in fantasy novels I’ve read recently] where the rape was against a man, and only one instance came to mind. The man in question? Gay. *sigh*

      And I agree, the translation to table-top can be especially disturbing. I think there probably are authors (and game masters) who genuinely want to work through issues, but there’s a lot for whom rape and rape culture is just flavour text.

      1. Michael Phillips

        Though the character in question is either gay or bi, Sarah Monette’s “Mélusine” had a character who was male and had been systematically abused, including rape. It creates deep scars that he is still struggling with at the end of the book (and I assume throughout the series.)

        1. Terri

          [I was also thinking of Sarah Monette’s Mélusine. The sigh wasn’t because I felt it was poorly handled, but at the fact that the only example I could think of was of a gay man.]

      2. Wiregeek

        If you want to see something that doesn’t quite follow this trope, dig into the Black Jewels books by Anne Bishop. They’re a little bit leather-clad and sweaty for some, but I’ve always found them quite compelling.

      3. Mel

        In Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels (at least the older ones–I stopped reading them a long time ago), it was almost guaranteed that female protags and most queer male characters would be raped or at least threatened with rape. I think some of the queer men in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books were raped or at least systematically sexually harassed, too.

        Not an “instant character depth” trope I’m fond of, particularly since it only seems to be applied to women and queer men.

    2. Helga

      Oh I am soooo tired of books using rape as an indicator of how bad the world is. Fantasy, Sci-Fi or history books – it doesn’t matter. While men might get into a fight (and lose occasionally), women are routinely overpowered and raped. I cannot recall reading one book in which a man was raped. A lot of times it just feels like sloppy writing, though. Like the author didn’t think, describing just *how bad* the fictional world is, is enough. So s/he just adds a little rape story and voilà. Blergh.

      1. Pierce Nichols

        Mercedes Lackey is a particularly persistent offender in this regard…

      2. Eva

        When you phrase it like that it reminds me of some of the other incredibly stupid things authors do to denote “villain.” Like having them kick puppies (I’ve seen this in two or three tv series) or revealing that they’re also child molesters (at least one LARP characters, which was a WTF moment for everyone there).

        It reads as “I was too lazy to write an actual character, so I slapped something that’s shorthand for ‘evil’ on them.”

      3. Carla Schroder

        Indeed, and how often is the rape of a female character portrayed with so much as a molecule of realism? Like, hmmm, pretty much never. She walks away and doesn’t give it a second thought, but it fuels the hero’s drive to the final mano a mano showdown with the villain. Or it drives a complete and bogus personality change, from good girl to slutty drug addict, or recluse, and other weird in plot-convenient but character-inconsistent ways. Or revenge fantasy where she turns into evilfighting vigilante– dressed, strangely enough, in skin-tight stiletto-heeled male fantasy attire….

        In other words, it’s still all about men. Sighhhhh.

      4. Meg

        Steven Erikson has portrayed both male and female survivors of rape, prostitution and childhood rape with varied and varying reactions and coping mechanisms. He also, of course, has portrayed a great many other terrible things done to the individual characters in his books, so you have to want to read that level of vicious, disturbing, evil world, but he at least has a vaguely plausible rape culture behind these events, and the characters are always characters first, not just a sum of their experiences. The rapists, also more often then not, are made out to be humans of one sort or another, unforgivably abusing their power, but it is never the Way You Know They Are Evil. They may be evil, but it’s for completely different reasons. As far as I remember, he also stays far away from victim blaming, and even calls out some victim-blaming ideas as being unforgivable.

        Or at least, that’s been my reading of his books. They should have the largest trigger warnings you can possibly find all over them (*trigger warning EVERYTHING*), but in that case it feels less self-indulgent, because it is clear that the reader is meant to identify with the victims, and it is part of the power and violence that the character is currently subject to in messed up and unfair societies. I don’t know if any of that makes it okay, but if anything can make it a fair subject I think his work is the best I’ve encountered.

        Compare and contrast with Glen Cook, who writes dark, vicious books where only women get raped, and the one instance I remember deals with it by not talking, running away to go adventuring in a group of all men, and doesn’t really have a personality beyond that.

        1. GeekGirlsRule

          I love Steven Erikson for many reasons, but his ability to write rape victims who get to be people and not pathologies endears him to me greatly.

  6. ptp

    I couldn’t agree more on the rape as fantasy trope issue. There are several books or series of books I won’t read simply because I have no interest in reading novels that can’t tell their story without resorting to rape as some sort of impetus for the hero or cheap play at garnering sympathy for a character from the reader Not only is it cliche and cheap, but a lot of these authors are men and it feels like there’s a growing potential for a sort of larger aggregate issue of impropriety where men are essentially commoditizing rape as entertainment (largely for other men). I’d just really rather not take part in that commercial feedback loop.

  7. Jen

    Well I totally agree with everything Terri said, but I still think she is fundamentally wrong. All her arguments show that the use of rape made the comic effective. If anything other than rape had been used, the comic would have been less than effective. I actually agree with this.

    So you have to balance the pros and cons. Pro: good comic. Con: well…

    A lot of people have been raped. A lot. Like, way more than you think. Do you know any rape survivors? The answer is almost certainly yes, although you may not be aware of it, because rape survivors don’t have the phrase ‘rape survivor’ tattooed across their forehead, and they likely only talk about their rape to their closest friends, because there is a huge stigma associated with it. So if you tell a rape joke to a whole lot of people (say, in an Internet comic that has a wide readership) a rape survivor will probably have to hear it, and for some strange reason they probably won’t find it funny. The may in fact find it intensely distressing (I’m not going to explain post-traumatic stress disorder here, people can Google that if they want to).

    And as to the idea that it’s good to address dark and disturbing subjects such as rape: sure, I agree. But to say that the Penny Arcade strip did this even remotely: no. It really didn’t. No one who was a rape survivor, or knew anyone who was, could think that this strip came anywhere close to addressing the reality of rape in any way. The authors obviously had no experience of real-life rape, and the only thing they addressed was how much fun it can be to make fun of a horrific experience which you yourself have never had to live through.

    So, yeah, great comic. But in the cost-benefit analysis… well, I personally won’t be reading Penny Arcade again.

    1. Terri

      I’m not going to try to defend this, because constantly triggering people is indefensible. As I said, I realize this is not going to work for many people, period, and no amount of talking is going to change that.

      Penny Arcade really does try to make it clear that they’re willing to shock. I think you’re absolutely right not to read Penny Arcade in the future, and that you should recommend to others that they avoid it if it will make them uncomfortable. The folks at PA are also the first to admit that their brand of humour isn’t appropriate for all.

      The problem with dark humour is that it relies on using really horrible things to get the point across: here we’ve got slavery, incarceration, and random violence as well as the beastial rape. But despite that, there are reasons that this can be an effective comic, and since Melissa had already covered the triggering issues, I thought it worth covering how dark humour actually can send some interesting messages in part because it is horrible. Laughter is one way to deal with horror, and sometimes it’s a very effective one.

      I think that such humour still has a place as long as you recognize that that place is “away from those who cannot laugh” (and by that I don’t mean that people are humourless, but rather those who are traumatized to the point where this is not a useful release valve.)

      1. Awesome Robot

        I recently encountered a similar thing making a joke about someone being set on fire to someone I did not know had actually witnessed a suicide-by-fire.

        I also assume jokes about bear maulings aren’t funny to people who have had loved-ones killed by bears. (of course, that’s less than one person a year, not on the same scale as rape, but probably no less significant to the victims)

        My point is that “dark” humor is always going to offend someone, and you can’t always predict what will be offensive to who, but you can’t really blame them for not finding it funny.

        But that doesn’t mean that it’s objectively “not funny” either. It also certainly doesn’t mean it’s ruining society by desensitising people to terrible things. Especially when the point of the joke is how quest designers aren’t letting game characters really be heroic if they can’t choose to try to save people from the one of the most horrible things the authors could think of.

        1. Mary

          Well, part of the “rape culture” line of objection to rape jokes is that rape survivors are likely to have their experience trivialised, justified, and joked about even when people know: as if you’d known about the suicide-by-fire in advance and made the joke anyway because the witness was just “so sensitive about the whole thing” and “needed to lighten up” and “learn that being constantly angry isn’t a good way to be” and “wasn’t that years/months/days ago already?” etc. And had good cause to expect most listeners to be basically behind you.

          (This is tacked on and I suspect insensitive, but I do know that rape survivors aren’t the only people who have this experience of having other people dictate how upset they are “allowed” to be about trauma and how funny they “should” find it. But this expectation of sexual assault survivors is pervasive and part of what’s called rape culture.)

          but you can’t really blame them for not finding it funny.

          This doesn’t go far enough to me. I apologise (genuinely) for focusing on a single line of your comment like this because likely your comment isn’t an example of this behaviour and it’s just a choice of words I wouldn’t have made myself. However, I find this kind of thing quite common in the case of hurtful jokes, as an alternative to an apology. “Oh, I understand and acknowledge and don’t really blame you for not finding that funny” and then expect that status quo has immediately been restored and that the person has no reason to think badly of your or your joke for longer than a second. It was just a failure of funny and it was supposed to be dark.

          People who “hold grudges” (that is, are upset by dark humour, no matter how personally triggering) for more than one turn of conversation really have nowhere to turn in these situations, often. While I like dark humour, once this has happened I consider the feelings of the person a lot more important than the continued existence of dark humour, but it’s not uncommon to find a general expectation that immediately after being badly hurt you’re required to give a convincing demonstration of having a sense of humour.

        2. Awesome Robot

          Fair enough about that line not going far enough. Not only should I not expect rape victims to not find rape funny, but I should also expect them to be offended and hurt, and I should consider that before I make a joke that mentions rape.

          (Penny Arcade did NOT make a “rape-joke” in that comic, and I expect their dismissal of the criticism is because they’re frustrated that people think they did)

          But I genuinely disagree with the sentiment that dark humor loses its right to exist in the face of the feelings of victims. Personal feelings are not justification for wholesale censorship. (Though certainly they are a good incentive for situational self-censorship) It’s the same reasoning that outlaws blasphemy because some concepts are so sacred you cannot mock or criticize them.

        3. Jayn

          I think in the end it just comes down to an issue of tact. I like dark humour myself (with the exceptions of child abuse and extreme sexism), but if someone says ‘that bothers me’, the appropriate response is to apologise and then avoid those jokes in the future around that person.

          We all have different lines, so yeah, dark humour is going to offend someone. But if you know the line is there, don’t cross it.

    2. GeekGirlsRule

      As a survivor of rape, I get really tired of everyone assuming I’m an eggshell fragile creature who will shatter into a million shards if someone so much as mentions the word rape in front of me.

      In fact, I laughed like a loon at that comic. Not all survivors will. That’s ok.

      Get upset it if offends you, ok? But do not presume to speak for survivors. Thanks.

  8. Meg

    That’s how I read it too… until I read the comic the next day. They appear to have just been casting around for “what would be the worst thing that we could have happen… oh, how about over-the-top fantasy rape!?!” It came to mind because it is so prevalent and overdone, but they weren’t critiquing that part. They were using rape in hyperbolic service to their broader point (the illogic of MMO quests).

    Which, to be fair, is better than most rape references in gaming. You’ve left out the most common one, which is when imaginary violence, win or loss, is described by players as sexualized violence, as rape. It is part and parcel of the particular hyper-masculinity, hyper-violent and power-struggle-based identity of “gamer”.

    I don’t think the authors ever imagined that any of their readers would identify with the slave-character here instead of the hero-character, but some did. The correct response is something like, “We used rape in this instance to comment on the horrendous morality implicitly supported by MMO quest design, and that was a privileged, insensitive decision. Rape is a terrible act of violence that is a part of too many people’s lives. When we joke about it, we intend to make that clear, and here we failed. I apologize for that failure.”

    Instead they said, “lol, feminists. Why are you reading our comic?”

    I think the comic you and I read is important, funny and valid; I just don’t think it was the one Penny Arcade set out to write.

    1. Awesome Robot

      I disagree with this interpretation of the follow up. It was insensitive, but what it said was:

      “We were accused of making a joke promoting rape, but we didn’t make a joke promoting rape. We hate rape, but we’re not going to apologize for a joke we didn’t make.”

      It most certainly didn’t say “lol feminists, why can’t they learn h0w funny rape is?”

      I think there could be a constructive dialogue to come out of this regarding “triggers”, a term I hadn’t heard until today, but can totally understand. But you don’t get that kind of constructive dialogue by accusing an artist of saying something they weren’t saying. That puts them in a position of defending a straw-man, which tends to make people dismissive or defensive.

      Again, not saying no one has the right to be offended by the comics.

      1. Eva

        There are a lot of ways that an author can respond to criticism. When someone accuses them of something that they think is a misrepresentation that doesn’t mean they only have two alternatives: defending a position they didn’t take or telling the complainer that they have no valid points whatsoever. The author can actually write a response that describes what you were trying to do while still remaining respectful of the concerns and trying to be understanding of the fact that they did cause pain to others. It’s not really a good idea to tell people “it’s not a big deal” (ex. we didn’t cause people to commit rape by writing this comic) or “look at all this other stuff you didn’t complain about” (ex. the fruit fucker etc.). It won’t change their minds it just makes it look like the author is trivializing the concerns.

        I think people have a right to say what they want to say, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s right for them to say just anything. I also have a right to protest.

        1. ptp

          You do have the right to protest, but put yourself in their shoes. If you said something that you had intended as a somewhat high-minded jab at the mechanics of MMO gaming, and numerous (dozens? hundreds? more?) people responded to you by saying that what you were doing was trivializing rape, how would you react? You weren’t trivializing rape, and had no intention of doing so, but you’re being accused of it. Also, you write for a comic, and your tendency is towards humor. Can you really be surprised at the “apology” comic?

          There’s a big unspoken problem that comes up when one person is responding to dozens or more people at the same time. Not everyone had the exact same criticism, but are the PA writers supposed to issue a response to each and every person? Maybe they sent personal responses to the people they felt had a legitimate claim to being offended, and intended the comic as a response to everyone else. If you didn’t send in a complaint (I didn’t) then you and I would have no way of knowing if that’s the approach they took. Maybe they really WERE being outright flippant. We don’t really know. We’re attributing motives and intent that may not actually be there (and this happens a lot so it’s good to be wary of it).

        2. Eva

          (This is in reply to your “put yourself in their shoes comment”, as it won’t let me reply that deep.)

          I’ve had arguments where people told me I was being racist or sexist or otherwise extremely insensitive. Unless I want a flaming shitstorm, I have to take a step above the anger I feel from that criticism and defend myself without trivializing their feelings.

          I’ve never run a website that had millions of viewers. Honestly, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for them in relation to the magnitude of the response. They also have a massively popular webcomic that pays their salaries. I would assume dealing with their public is a required job skill.

      2. ptp

        I’m just all over the “Me Too” train today but I agree with your take on the apology. It appears to be a response to criticisms like Melissa’s yesterday that are trying to make the comic about trivializing or desensitizing rape, rather than what the authors intended it to be about. Of course, when I talked about the strip’s intent to Melissa, she disagreed with my take on things, so there’s clearly still a few things that need to be hashed out.

        On another note, I think this has brought at least one thing to light, for me. Most people simply don’t know about or understand triggers. I didn’t really fully understand the idea behind them, myself, until I found myself looking it up a few days ago. They’re logical, and sensible, and entirely understandable, but people simply aren’t aware that this kind of thing happens.

        1. GeekGirlsRule

          There was this incredible blogger called The Apostate, who has since locked down her blog after death threats, and she responded to one of many posts about triggers at Shakesville, and I really less than three the Apostate’s response.

          You can’t protect everyone from every trigger.

          One of my triggers is face occluding masks, does this mean no one in my neighborhood should wear a mask on Halloween? One of the Apostate’s triggers was blue ceilings because of where her trauma had taken place.

          Potentially everything is triggering, no matter how harmless or banal. And while I understand and laud Shakesville’s attempts to create a “safe place” I think they are more than a little unrealistic, and get out of hand with the bandwagoning and galahading. As I said in a reply earlier, I’m more than a little sick of people deciding for me, as a rape survivor, what I need to be shielded from.

        2. Melissa

          Oh for crying out loud. It’s about misrepresenting rape in a manner that trivialises it. Your ‘splaining about whether or not this is true is not welcome.

          Rape was misrepresented in the comic. And we were supposed to laugh at that misrepresentation. Letting that slide is how we become endeared to the wrong ideas about horrific things like rape and suddenly nobody believes that the nice person they know could be that dungeon keeper.

    2. Kaonashi

      Disregarding the absurd extreme it was taken to for a while, if they really thought “what’s the worst thing that can happen to this character?”, is “rape” really such a bad answer?

    3. Terri

      There is a legitimate question there, though: if you can be triggered, if you don’t enjoy dark/shock humour, why would you be reading their comic? If you don’t read it, why would anyone send you a link to it? It’s one thing to get blindsided by a casual reference to your trigger in a place that’s otherwise pretty friendly, but it’s another to choose to read a well-known comic which occasionally prides itself on being maximally offensive.

      Or perhaps look at a similar issue in another light: why do people come to feminist spaces like geek feminism and complain that we spend too much time talking about women and issues? (seriously, we get these, although we delete most of them.) Or constantly ask why we aren’t considering how these issues affect men?

      I don’t really know the answer, but I think it’s a legitimate question. Frankly, there’s a tendency in feminist spaces to assume that those who disagree that much with our core blog/forum identity are merely trolls; I’m actually impressed in that context that the PA folk haven’t outright dismissed all of their negative feedback that way too. (That doesn’t mean I’m impressed with their apology, but that’s a longer story of why I don’t think humourous apologies are very effective.) Perhaps even if we hate the apology we still have something to learn from this?

      1. Betsy

        I’m beginning to think that many recent brouhahas of this nature are about two intertwined things at their core: the extent to which it is appropriate and necessary to worry about other people’s potential triggers* in a public space,* and the extent to which any given spot on the internet and/or piece of art can or should be considered public space.

        *as opposed to other people’s known triggers; and knowing the specific triggers of others grows easier as a space becomes less public and the number of strangers goes down. I don’t want to appear to be making an argument that validates stepping on a specific person’s known triggers!

      2. Chastity

        I don’t read Penny Arcade, but from my basic understanding it’s *mostly* a webcomic that does jokes about video games.

        So you might read it because you like:

        Jokes about D&D Edition wars: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2010/8/23/

        Jokes about RTSes: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2010/8/4/

        Or Worgen: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2010/7/19/

        Heck even the strip *in question* was basically about MMO questlines, and would have been a perfectly sensible, perfectly innofensive “MMOs are stupid” joke if they hadn’t included the “raped by dickwolves” line.

        1. Terri

          I think that maybe you’ve highlighted the problem: if you’re not very familiar with the comic, it gets summed up as a comic about games and stuff. Seems innocuous. But if you’ve got more than passing familiarity with it, it gets summed up as rude, no holds barred look at games and geek culture with a lot of personal commentary and rants attached. Lots of violence, violation, and general unpleasantness that’ll leave you going “eww. why would they draw or describe that?”

          I could find just as many examples of “offensive things you could find in Penny Arcade” as “gaming things you can find in Penny Arcade” but I don’t think anyone wants those links.

  9. Jess

    I’m pretty sure that ‘raped by dickwolves’–even just references to that concept–is way beyond the T for Teen (and equivalent) rating that most MMO publishers crave. So, yes, while they were using it to highlight the ridiculousness of MMO questing, they were (as Meg points out) using rape as shorthand for Mustache-Twirling Evil, without any regard to whether it’s OK to trigger chunks of their audience just for the sake of making a point. Which, really, makes them part of rape culture.

    If they really just wanted to point out bad game mechanics, they could have had the hero leave the slave to be beaten and worked to death–something I’ve had to do in many MMOs in the past.

    Also, am I the only one who gets a slight taste of “HAHAHA OMG DUDE BEING RAPED LOLZORS” from the strip?

    1. Jess

      To reply to myself, while my comment is still in moderation…

      “Also, am I the only one who gets a slight taste of “HAHAHA OMG DUDE BEING RAPED LOLZORS” from the strip?”

      And now that I’ve read some of the more recent comments on the original post, I see that I am not.

  10. Kaonashi

    This post, the previous one and the discussion around the subject have been very educational. I think I’ve learned something new and I will never look at fictional rape the same way again.

  11. Addie

    Terri, thanks for this post – coupled with Melissa’s, this is exactly why I have come to love Geek Feminism so much. I think it’s really important that we can show as a community that we understand that these issues are tricky; that we can simultaneously appreciate a joke while also wishing that the joke didn’t use rape in any way; that we can recognize that holding two somewhat contradictory stances is unpleasant, but absolutely realistic.

    You explained why the joke worked for you without betraying your feminism or your compassion, and did so in a way that didn’t invalidate the perspectives of those who disagree.

    It’s so exciting to see this as a space where we can work through these difficult issues in the form of a real intellectual discussion, instead of the typical internet shouting match. I feel very blessed to have this forum available whenever the inevitable geek-related controversy arises – both the posts and the commenters help me clarify my thoughts every time, which makes it so much easier to express myself when discussing these topics offline.

  12. Amanda

    To talk about something apart from either side in the debate:

    I could understand why Gabe was confused at the amount of people starting off e-mails with, “I’ve been reading the comic for a long time…” when the comic has contained just as bad, if not worse, content. The Fruit F*cker is a long-running character that has gigantic, flashing neon allusions to rape. There’s been frequent mentions of paedophilia, suicide, violent murder, etc.

    One of the things that really stung me was the amount of people saying rape was worse than any of these things. As a survivor of childhood sexual assault, I really don’t want to play Oppression Olympics and I kind of hate people who try to.

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