Hey-ho, we have another shitstorm in the gaming press!
This time, it’s PC gaming blog Rock Paper Shotgun (RPS) that has come under fire for their decision this past Thursday to boycott Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). And with good reason: regardless of whether RPS’s boycott is justified – and I think there are good reasons for boycotting PAX – their position has been poorly articulated, poorly defended, and poorly presented. This is an analysis of how a major gaming blog fucked up, big time.
Penny Arcade (PA) has had some mega fuck-ups over the past few years. First, there was the dickwolves controversy a couple of years ago. Then there was illustrator Mike Krahulik’s transphobic remarks on Twitter. And at a PAX Prime panel a few weeks ago, Krahulik reignited the dickwolves controversy by saying that he thought it was a mistake for business manager Robert Khoo to make them pull the dickwolves merchandise. (You can see the video here.)
Before proceeding any further, I want to make a few things clear. Based on these controversies and the utterly reprehensible ways in which Mike Krahulik and writer Jerry Holkins handled the first two, I completely, 100% understand why sexual assault survivors, trans people, and their allies would want to boycott PAX. My issue here is not with the decision to boycott or not to boycott; it’s with how Rock Paper Shotgun conveyed their decision to boycott to their readership. While I ultimately disagree with their decision and think that they could do more to foster inclusiveness in the gaming community by attending and covering the various PAX panels that discuss the issue, I respect their right to boycott. What I don’t respect is their utter failure to properly explain the reasoning for that boycott.
For starters, the boycott was announced not in its own article, but as an “editor’s note” at the top of a piece by Nathan Grayson that interviewed various figures in the gaming industry about why they were boycotting or not boycotting PAX. Here’s the relevant excerpt from that note:
“RPS will no longer be covering PAX events. We believe that the values of the company operating those events conflict with ours, and as such we can no longer endorse their actions by providing coverage of PAX events.”
Editor John Walker attempted to clarify a few things in a comment on that piece:
“Let me clear up people’s confusion.
This is not because of the Dickwolves strip. The punchline was not about rape, and the use of the word “rape” was to emphasise the point of their joke – that our motivations in MMOs are entirely contrary to the stated motivations in the MMOs. Whether they should have used that word remains the debate, but not the motivating factor here. (And let’s be clear – PA are welcome to be as offensive as they wish in their strip. Just as others are welcome to be as offended as they wish in response.)
It is because of an ongoing, long-term, and apparently engrained attitude of intolerance and discrimination from PA. As others have said – it wasn’t the Dickwolves strip, it was their reaction to people’s response to the Dickwolves strip that was problematic. Their ongoing reaction. And indeed so much else.
We absolutely in NO WAY wish to censor Penny Arcade, and more to the point, nor could we. If they wanted to exclusively publish strips about rape and bullying the transgendered, that would be their right. And we, in response, would equally have the right to condemn it.
That is our position. Penny Arcade has the freedom to publish and express whatever views they wish. We have no desire to take away that freedom. We do, however, have our own views that directly contrast with theirs. We believe that Penny Arcade and its creators are doing harm to the gaming community, and RPS wishes not to endorse that which does harm. So, as is our right, we are choosing not to endorse them. As they have the freedom to express their views, we do too. That’s all this is.”
Before even attempting to dissect the content of these statements, I should say one thing: relegating editorial policy to an editor’s note and a comment on a piece is profoundly poor form. It takes attention away from both the piece and the editorial policy, while simultaneously conflating the two. Walker seemed to recognize the problem with those actions and posted somewhat of an apology the following day. Here’s the most relevant excerpt:
“To be clear: We’re not going to go to PAX, because as a bunch of people, we just don’t want to. To us, it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. It’s not “declaring war” or anything else so hyperbolic. It’s not a fight we’re taking to their door. We’re just doing what we think is the right thing, as we usually strive to do. We aren’t going to ignore gaming news that happens to come out of PAX – we’re just not going to be going there for RPS, we’re not going to take part in, be a part of, the event. Declaring our position regarding PAX felt like the thing we should do when publishing that article, but it turns out that wasn’t helpful at all.”
That’s a little bit of a clarification, but it’s also a tad problematic. On Thursday, Walker said that “RPS will no longer be covering PAX events.” In this apology, he’s saying that “We aren’t going to ignore gaming news that happens to come out of PAX.” Isn’t that, in a loose sense of the term, “covering PAX events”? That’s kind of a reversal in policy. It also looks like RPS is trying to take a stand against PAX while not sacrificing the pageviews that come from posting PAX news, which strikes me as a little slimy.
But reversals aside, there are still a lot of reasons that this boycott, however justified it may be, comes across as poorly thought out, and it’s indicative of a complete failure in communication on RPS’s part.
Timing. This boycott was announced a few weeks after PAX, after most of the discussion from the reigniting of the dickwolves controversy had subsided, which made it seem like RPS was reigniting the controversy themselves. Moreover, it happened after Krahulik clarified that he thought pulling the dickwolves merchandise was a mistake because it stirred up the controversy again, not because he wanted to sell rape t-shirts. Finally, in announcing the boycott so soon after PAX, it seemed like RPS got to have their cake and eat it too: they covered PAX, and they then condemned it.
A lack of context. RPS failed to articulate exactly what it was that PA did that was so objectionable. Neither the editor’s note nor the follow-up apology provide any sort of explanation. You have to go to Walker’s comment to get a specific mention of PA’s wrongs, and it isn’t even all that specific: “it was their reaction to people’s response to the Dickwolves strip that was problematic. Their ongoing reaction. And indeed so much else.” If it was the dickwolves reaction that was driving the boycott, then why not boycott when this controversy was actually raging, two years ago? And if “indeed so much else” was driving the boycott, then it’s incumbent upon RPS to specify what constitutes “so much else.” One might suggest that confused readers could just use Google to clear things up, but Google isn’t helpful if you don’t know what the hell to Google for. Without explaining exactly what PA’s transgressions were, RPS became the focus of the story, which Walker acknowledged in his apology. But he doesn’t seem to grasp exactly why RPS became the focus.
“Values.” In the editor’s note, RPS provides this explanation for why they’re boycotting PAX: “We believe that the values of the company operating those events conflict with ours, and as such we can no longer endorse their actions by providing coverage of PAX events.” That sounds good if you don’t really think about it, but after a few seconds of reflection, one might wonder, “What are RPS’s values? What does RPS think PA’s values are?” Well, I’m glad you asked, because I don’t have a freakin’ clue. A look at RPS’s “About Us” page reveals nothing. Walker’s comment – and again, this is in a comment, not a piece of its own – provides a bit of an explanation for what he thinks PA’s values are: “an ongoing, long-term, and apparently engrained attitude of intolerance and discrimination.” Those are pretty serious accusations. If RPS doesn’t provide any proof for them, then why should I believe them?
A failure to acknowledge apologies. Krahulik apologized for his insensitive comments about transgendered people, and he also apologized for bringing up the dickwolves controversy at PAX. I can understand not accepting these apologies or thinking that they’re not enough, but Walker didn’t even acknowledge that they happened. Grayson, in his piece, described them as “half-hearted ‘apologies,'” without explaining why he characterized them as such. I’d like to know exactly what about donating $20 000 to The Trevor Project or apologizing for the entire dickwolves controversy (not just the comments at PAX) is “half-hearted.” The pattern here is that Krahulik made stupid, hurtful comments, apologized for them, and then attempted to educate himself. At best, it looks like RPS is punishing PA for ignorance, not malice. At worst, it looks like RPS is bashing a potential LGBT ally.
Confusion about the requirements for a boycott. Since PA’s apologies haven’t even been acknowledged, it’s unclear what PA would have to do to have the boycott lifted, or if the boycott is permanent and non-negotiable. It’s also unclear why PAX is being boycotted, but other, less inclusive conventions are not. E3, for example, is a shithole of sexism, sexual harassment, and rape culture. Heck, Microsoft even had a rape joke in their presser, for which they later apologized. (This raises the question of why Microsoft’s apology is acceptable, but not PA’s, but I think PA’s transgressions were far more severe.) E3 shamelessly features show models colloquially referred to as “booth babes,” whereas PAX bans them. It’s unclear to me why E3’s values are aligned with those of RPS, but those espoused by PA and PAX are not.
A failure to disentangle Penny Arcade from PAX. While PAX is organized by the folks at PA, it isn’t a celebration of Holkins, Krahulik, or their comic strip; it’s a celebration of video and tabletop gaming. To wit, PAX isn’t about Penny Arcade. (Speaking for myself, I knew about PAX long before I knew that PA organized it.) So while Holkins and Krahulik’s values might be abhorrent (and I don’t think they are), it’s not clear to me why one would conclude that those values are embodied in the spirit of PAX. RPS needed to explain exactly why the Penny Arcade brand is so integral to PAX and what it stands for, but they absolutely failed to do so.
Not reaching out. RPS made no attempt to reach out to Penny Arcade for comment. (Or if they did, they didn’t say so.) Not giving PA a chance to have their say is exceptionally poor form for a media outlet, which brings me to…
Media outlets, developers, and fans. RPS is not a developer, nor is it a fan. It’s a media outlet. A boycott by a fan or developer is a very different beast from a boycott by a media outlet. Simply put, fans aren’t there to inform people, and while developers are there to inform people about their products, a boycott by one of them only hurts his or her bottom line. By contrast, when a media outlet boycotts an event, it’s also giving up the chance to inform people about that event. Regardless of its supposedly harmful values – or perhaps because of its supposedly harmful values – PAX is worth informing people about. RPS has said that they’re still going to cover news that comes out of PAX. However, the panels that address the very causes they champion aren’t likely to be livestreamed, so they’ll be covering the same press releases as other media outlets, but they won’t be able to draw attention to the happenings at PAX that align with their values. RPS failed to make a case for why taking a moral stand against PA’s supposed values is more important than campaigning in support of their own.
And that’s really the crux of the issue: RPS isn’t behaving like the media outlet that it’s supposed to be. Like it or not, they’re part of the gaming press, and their actions are subject to scrutiny. Like I said, I respect their decision to boycott PAX, and I think there are good reasons for doing so. But a confusing, context-free explanation for a boycott is not good enough. If RPS wants to be taken seriously at all, they have to stand firm, and they have to clearly articulate what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Otherwise, this boycott is just a fart in the wind: it kind of stinks, and it doesn’t really affect anybody.