The Persuasion of Power in Gamer Culture
Trigger Warning: This article contains discussion of rape, sexual assault and abuse.
The Persuasion of Power in Gamer Culture, or how I learned to stop worrying and love dickwolves.
Recently there has been quite an explosion of controversy on the internet around a comic that was published on Penny Arcade. For those who do not know, Penny Arcade is a website which publishes comics covering a wide range of topics in “geek” and “gamer culture”. The comic strip is probably best known for two things, being darkly humorous and spawning a miniature empire around its creators, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. This most recent controversy has spun off from a comic which was published on August 8th, 2010.
This comic presents a fairly common situation for many people who have played a genre of game known as the massively multiplayer online role-playing game. This genre is at its core a shared, persistent environment for the users of the game to play in simultaneously. As such, the games in this genre have conventions of design to maintain their persistence. The comic from Penny Arcade, known as “The Sixth Slave,” lampoons one of these design conventions, quests which require a certain number of an action to be performed for it to be considered “completed.” In the comic, the character representing the player was tasked with freeing five slaves, however, because the game needs to accommodate more than a single player, there are typically more slaves waiting around to be rescued.
The satire of the comic comes from the eponymous “sixth” slave. The one slave the player passes that he doesn’t need to free because the task given does not require it. This is a satire of the convention that the quests boil down to nothing more heroic than a player checking off items on a list. Once the reward for the task of freeing slaves is gone, the player moves. In the comic, one of the slaves left behind implores the player to free them, describing the terrible conditions in which he lives. One of the terrible conditions is being “raped to sleep by the dickwolves” (Penny Arcade, 8/11/10).
The use of the word rape in this context drew the attention of some readers who wrote to Penny Arcade. At issue was that rape was being used as a stand in for “something terrible.” Some people were concerned that this use of the term rape could contribute to a “rape culture” and possibly be a trigger mechanism for people who struggle with the aftermath of being raped themselves (Milli A, 8/10).
Two days after the publishing of the “Sixth Slave” comic, a comic was published entitled “Breaking It Down” which was accompanied by a news post recognizing the reaction from the readers who enjoyed the comic and the readers who were critical of it’s content (Penny Arcade, 8/13/10). This comic was meant as an apology but critics of the comic felt that it misrepresented the primary concern as being that a comic involving rape created actual rapists (McEwan, 8/10). This was not the case, as critics were concerned about the normalization of the term rape and laying fertile ground for a culture with “endemic hostility to the notions of consent, autonomy, and respect of individual boundaries, privacy, and dignity” (McEwan, 2/11). This very culture may have what Holkins referred to in his reaction late in the controversy as being “through-the-looking-glass” (Penny Arcade, Holkins, 2/2/11).
The greater part of this controversy to me, however, was the aftermath of the apology issued by Penny Arcade. In the wake of the news post, several bloggers came out for or against the original comic and much was written about the tone and context of the apology comic (Debacle Timeline, http://debacle.tumblr.com/). Then Penny Arcade released a shirt which bore the profile of a “dickwolf” head in sports jersey style with the words “Penny Arcade Dickwolves” printed on it. The discourse on this topic had already spiraled into a positive feedback loop of hotly worded comments on blogs leading to slanderous and outright obscene language being used against Penny Arcade and their critics alike. Courtney Stanton, who goes by the moniker Kirbybits, had been asked to speak at the Penny Arcade Expo though declined to do so because of the discomfort she anticipated being around male fans wearing a shirt which she felt said “team rapist.” Stanton also identified herself as a survivor of rape (Stanton, 1/24/11). After this the Penny Arcade Dickwolves shirt was removed from the store and Stanton became targeted as the reason for its removal by an extremely vitriolic subset of Penny Arcade fans. One of these fans went so far as to demand proof from Stanton that she was a rape survivor on micro-blogging site Twitter (@hoodedmiracle, Twitter.com). Twitter, by its nature, is un-moderated, and became a swirl of personal attacks and accusation surrounding this controversy. The discussion had become targeted, predatory and abusive.
This may be an example of what Milli A., McEwan and others were concerned about when they brought up the idea of “rape culture.” Through reading about the definitions of this culture on various websites, I came to understand that I already knew much of what was being discussed under a different name, the culture of violence, power and control. Rape and violence may be too polarizing terms and I am not an expert on “rape culture” so I am going to attempt a definition from within my realm of experience, power and control.
What is power and control? Power in this context is seen as the ability to make a change. The change discussed here includes everything from how a person chooses who to associate with, how they spend their time, what they choose for a vocation, to how a person spends their money. Having the ability to affect these changes means you have power over them. Control in this context is using power to influence another person’s ability to make changes. This a mechanism of domestic abuse and may be the underlying mechanism of most deliberate abuse on the internet.
A strong factor in the justification of using power to control another person is a sense of entitlement. Entitlement is the expectation that the things that the person considers “theirs”, and the way those things exist, and how those things change, is their privileged right. This includes the person’s sense of identity, property, social status, and so on. This is not simply the entitlement to have something, but also to have it how the person wants it, when they want it, regardless of circumstances and consequences.
Privilege based on the sex of the individual is also a strong contributed to power and control. Privilege is an assumption about the “proper” behavior and conduct toward the privileged person. This establishes a differential of power, that the privileged individual is empowered beyond those people who are beneath them. Male privilege, for example, has been used to justify expecting obsequiousness from women. This is also the privilege that asks for behaviors to be excused based solely on the fact that the offender was male, in other words, “boys will be boys.” Take, for instance, hazing. Those who are already members of the organization feel privileged to abuse those who wish to enter the organization.
The mechanisms by which power and control can be expressed over the internet are limited; beyond denial of service and other criminal attacks they tend to be constrained to rhetoric. The rhetorical process of power and control falls under objectification and minimization. Objectification is using language to turn the other person into an object, a thing that is not human. This is achieved through name calling and dismissive brush-offs on the internet. Consider what it means to call someone an “idiot” or “stupid.” The purpose of this is to turn that person into an object whose ideas have no merit because they are “stupid.”
Objectification is also achieved by labeling people and sorting them into categories. This is the mechanism which creates a situation of “us vs. them” when speaking about “some people” or of a “minority.” The assumption in this type of language is that the people in the other group are inherently different and cannot or should not be identified with based on those differences. This is how stereotyping works. An image is created through a cultural narrative about some “other” group and becomes the means by which treatment of that group is justified.
Minimizing is claiming that effects of a behavior were as severe as claimed by outside observers or the victim. Minimization assumes control over the experience of the other person. What happened wasn’t “that bad” or “only” had some minor effect. This is the mechanism of dismissing the aggrieved, offended person. This is also the effect of telling someone to “get over” their hurt.
There is, however, a special kind of power and control which seems to factors most strongly in the concept of “rape culture,” sexualized violence. This isn’t just sexual violence; this is the use of sexual terms and acts to describe violence. This is also coupled with the infiltration of violent and sexualized terms into language to describe things which are not inherently violent or sexual. Women and men are both subject to sexually derogatory terms. Women are called “sluts” and “whores” to imply a lack of inherent value or worthiness. Men are called “pussies” or “wusses” to imply that they are weak and powerless. When playing a game online, it is not uncommon for a player to claim that they “fucked up” another player through extreme prowess. It is also not uncommon for the victory cry of “rape” to be shouted when an opposing team is thoroughly and utterly defeated. The interesting thing here, is that in the “Sixth Slave” comic, rape was a stand in for a “horrible situation” while in these two examples the sexual act is a stand in for something expected as a normal course of the game, an accomplishment.
Rape is a crime which is unrivalled in vileness. Rape has implications beyond the act itself. Rape is not just done to a person’s body. Rape affects the person’s identity and changes their view of other people. When rape is used as a weapon of war, it is employed to dehumanize and demoralize an enemy. It is an attack on the purity and sanctity of their families and cultural lineage. It is meant to say to a people that they have so little control that they cannot protect their women from violation or control their cultural destiny. Rape goes far beyond the mechanical act.
For rape to be a crime there needs to be a lack of consent. Murder is objective. When a person is murdered, there is a body which is actual, physical evidence of the crime. Rape is subjective. Sure, the act of rape can often leave physical evidence, but not always. In these cases, without other witnesses, it becomes a “he-said-she-said” situation. Consent is personal, it’s a thought that a person has and cannot be expressed except through language. Can consent be implied? How far can implied consent carry the initiation of sexual behaviors? There are assumptions about the sexual availability of a person based on their language, dress, or places they choose to go. Why have these been used, with success, as defenses in court against charges of rape? Removal of consent is easy, right? A person can just say “no,” right? Is consent assumed until the person says “no” then? This is why rape is different. Rape is more defined by the social mechanisms of consent.
What are the effects of rape? Other than the consequences of the mechanical act there is the potential for deep emotional and behavioral changes. These changes could manifest as an anxiety disorder known as post traumatic stress disorder. This disorder, while much more widely understood today, is still subject to misunderstanding and misrepresentation in our culture. This is perhaps why, in a blog post, Krahulik put a “trigger warning” in apparent mockery of the language used by survivor support and blogging sites to denote content which could be potentially triggering (Krahulik, Penny Arcade, 10/6/10). Until looking further into this topic, I hadn’t really understood what a trigger warning was. I knew what triggers were and how difficult they can be to avoid, but I did not understand that it was fairly common on site which have established themselves as safe places for discussion of rape and other sensitive topics to put an explicit warning at the top of an article. Krahulik seemed to be co-opting the language used by these discussion websites to warn against “attempts to coerce laughter.” This is the very type of minimization and ridicule that increases feelings of alienation in people who experience triggers. Before this research, I would not have understood that content warnings on television shows might not just be for parents.
What is a trigger and what is the result of being “triggered?” First, let’s briefly look at the neuroscience behind fear and trauma. I am by no means an expert, so this is going to be a concise summary. When a human, or other mammal, is presented with a situation which is threatening, a survival mechanism is activated known as the “fight or flight” response. This response prepares the body for strenuous physical activity: releasing adrenalin, increasing heart rate, shunting blood flow to the muscles, dilating the pupils to allow more light into the eye, and speeding up the processing and sensory cortexes in the brain. All of this culminates in a mental state which is focused, reacts faster to threats and provides the bodily conditions to endure physical strain. When these conditions are experienced outside of the presence of an actual threat, but instead to a perceived or unreasonable threat, it is called anxiety. When the fight or flight response kicks in so powerfully and acutely as to render a person incapable of functioning, that is a panic attack.
Trauma will induce a fight or flight response. Repeated trauma has the effect of changing the brain structurally to lower the threshold at which the fight or flight response is achieved. This response is reflexive and involuntary. This leads to subtle behavior changes such as avoidance and hypervigilence (a constant feeling of being on edge and looking for danger). This can also lead to more obvious behaviors such as irritability, indecisiveness, and hopelessness due to feeling chronically stressed and under threat.
Things that evoke anxiety and panic are typically threatening, or perceived as threatening. The perception of what is threatening is an interesting mechanism. Conditioned stimuli tend to become generalized beyond the situations which caused them. A situation which is threatening, and which occurs repeatedly, can become threatening not only in whole, but in a collection of parts. An abused child might grow into an adult who feels anxious around other adults who are arguing, being loud or are just angry. A soldier might experience anxiety or panic while driving in urban environments where there are a lot of other cars and people because of situations experienced in theater. Behavioral adaptation to these stimuli tends to involve strategies of avoidance. Panic while driving? Don’t drive. Can’t stand to be around other people’s anger? Avoid social relationships or be overly apologetic and submissive to “prevent” anger. These behaviors, while effective at reducing the symptoms of anxiety, are generally not adaptive within our society.
This is only one of the ways in which a trauma survivor may be affected. The hallmark symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder are the re-experiencing of trauma, depersonalization and derealization. Re-experiencing trauma is perhaps the most famous symptom, being what is commonly referred to as “flashbacks.” In these flashbacks, the person not only experiences the same emotions but often also the same physical experience of the recalled situation. The soldier does not just feel the same as they did in theater, but suddenly perceive the situation as the same and react to it accordingly. The survivor of rape may no longer be in the presence of a demanding boss but instead perceives that they are in the presence of their rapist. Being triggered into a flashback can evoke rage, panic and feelings of extreme helplessness.
Depersonalization and derealization are both cognitive conditions which represent different forms of detachment. These are the mechanisms by which a person “checks out” of reality. Events are no longer happening to the person, they are happening to someone else in that person’s body. This is depersonalization. Derealization is the classic “this is not happening” response, except hardly as rational. The world becomes perceived as bland, emotionless and separated from the individual as if surrounded by some sort of barrier. This is not just a feeling of being numb, but an alienation from everything and everyone that surrounds that person.
Treatment of the fall out from past trauma is time consuming and challenging. As Holkins rightly put it, there is no “’true’ way of dealing with tragedy” and there is certainly no one true path of healing for people who have suffered trauma (Penny Arcade, 2/2/11). Unfortunately, seeking treatment is often times difficult due to the perception by survivor that they will be labeled as weak, pathetic or some how “broken.” There may also be fear of facing and experiencing the very symptoms that the person experiences on a daily basis.
Overall, the discourse of the “dickwolf debacle” has varied from civil to well beyond uncivil. The discussion has ranged across topics and I don’t think that there has been any real conclusion yet. This is a good thing, to me. I actually love that this situation has happened, I really do. The bubble of “isolation” that many bloggers and commenter spoke of with regards to “gamer culture” may have burst. “Gamer culture” is not monolithic, unique or separate from the culture in which it has been born. The roots have been exposed and many of us may not like what we see or why it was seen. Krahulik’s comments and apparent double speak regarding the issue is perhaps a great example of the responsibility of language when one is in a position of power or authority. This is not to say that Krahulik and Holkins are entirely bad in any respect. They have founded the Child’s Play charity to supply hospitals with video games for sick children and established the Penny Arcade Expo as a celebration of gaming and “gamer culture.” They are human beings, fallible and often insecure. In the case of the “dickwolves debacle,” they may have been a little too sarcastic and defensive for some people. Unfortunately it was the defensiveness and sarcasm that was seized upon by the more rabid fans of Penny Arcade to fuel their rampage of harassment and cruelty. If there is one thing which could come out of this whole affair, it would be for every gamer who has delved into this debacle to come away with a greater respect for the culture they came from and how they treat fellow gamers. Or better yet, for gamers to at least consider the humanity of their opponent, however briefly before making derogatory and abusive statements.
That’s it, I’ve said my piece. If you were quoted in this article and feel I represented you unfairly, please let me know.
The Debacle Timeline can be found here,
Milli A.’s article can be found here,
McEwan’s article’s are,
Penny Arcade can be found here,
Courtney Stanton’s article can be read here,