The success of Penny Arcade happened gently. Over the years, two guys from Seattle went from drawing a funny comic strip about video games on the internet to slowly building a multi-million dollar empire. It now encompasses two colossal video game expos every year, a web TV show, an episodic game, mountains of merchandise and recently, a games journalism branch.
During this rise and rise of Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, they’ve helped bring video games into the spotlight for people who once had no understanding of them beyond the unfortunate ‘Grand Theft Auto Blamed For School Shooting’ style headlines. Through various bold initiatives such as their Child’s Play charity and exposing the hypocrisy of such anti-gaming media personalities like Jack Thompson, the two have now progressed far beyond the hard times when they were bullied at school for being hardcore Dungeons & Dragons fans. Good for them.
During this ascent to fame and fortune however, something happened under the surface. I first noticed it when I read a Wired interview with them in 2007. Krahulik says about being bullied:
“One time in high school, someone broke into my locker and stole my stuff, so I had to wear gym clothes for the rest of the day,” he says, wincing at the memory. “I developed humor as a defense mechanism. Now I drive a fucking Mercedes.”
Okay. Nerds overcoming adversity, that’s great. But I couldn’t help but notice the twinge of anger, still very present in Krahulik’s words. It struck me as a bit of a grudge. A grudge which remained years after they were no longer high school students. In the end, I dismissed it. Who cares, right?
In the years following this interview, their success and eventual influence in the video game industry grew in size. Not only has their fan base increased many times over, but the launch of the Penny Arcade Expo began their increasingly large position of being able to direct how video games are shown to the public. Their Seattle-based convention (and the second Boston-based equivalent) draws thousands of people each year as it is the foremost public video game convention in the world. Which is great since the annual Entertainment Software Association’s larger Los Angeles-based convention, E3, is a little harder for the average person to gain entry to. But PAX, as it is known, now commands demo booths from every top game publisher and developer. Multi-million dollar companies now come to them to show their products to the public. This is such an incredible turnaround of the pair’s influence, the long dead memories of being treated badly in school now seemingly completely reversed.
Late last year, the ‘Ocean Marketing’ fiasco happened. A public relations manager became internet famous for being a complete bastard towards a customer. The customer contacted Penny Arcade and a tragically hilarious saga ensued. The manager involved lost any credibility, his company’s name and reputation were ruined forever and Penny Arcade laughed all the way to the hilarity bank.
The PR manager involved (Paul Christoforo) was and remains a scumbag, that isn’t in question. But in the space of a single post (including his email and phone number), a web comic site destroyed a man’s life. Forever he’ll be known as ‘the Ocean Marketing douche’ and that black mark will follow him until he dies. The company’s name was dragged through the mud and garnered stains that will never wash off. That is power you can’t just buy or gain overnight. Penny Arcade launched an internet lynch mob and revelled in the consequences. The whole situation was ugly and seemed worlds away from a web comic about video games. Again, that feeling of anger was evident. This time it was directed, with a cheeky “I’ll just leave this here” statement when publishing Christoforo’s contact details for their fans to devour like ravenous wolves. It was clear they knew what the were doing and the reality of their influence was obvious for everyone to see. Penny Arcade were not to be trifled with.
In February of this year, Penny Arcade branched out into games journalism with The PA Report, a sub-arm of their comic. Hiring former Ars Technica editor Ben Kuchera to run things as Senior Editor, the mantra planted at the top of the site was this:
“Games Journalism” is broken. Many sites suffer from forced output cycles, “news” about cakes, and playing along with the industry PR machine. We can do better.
Ambitious, to say the least. To go from making jokes about load times to actively claiming the journalism covering their hobby is not good enough takes some passion and long-term vision. The PA Report set out to highlight what it believed to be quality games writing in their ‘The Cut’ section, republishing carefully chosen articles from other websites and writing some of their own previews and interviews.
From the start, there was an inherent risk to the mission statement that they and Kuchera had in mind. Before even publishing a single article, if your aim is say certain parts of your industry isn’t good enough and you’ve started a section of your site to ‘fix it’, then you have to be careful not come across as arrogant.
The PA Report haven’t been careful.
In the months since launch, it is true they have brought to light some truly stellar pieces of games journalism. But on the other hand, it has also become a bastion of snide, holier-than-thou statements in regards to how other games journalists, editors and sites do their jobs. Take Kuchera’s pre-E3 article for example. It was this and the following statement included in the article that made me sit up and take notice:
Let me be clear about something: A trailer is not news. It is a commercial.
Kuchera’s not wrong. But he’s also not something else: A soothsayer. Any games journalist in existence realises this to be the case and knows for a fact that the entirety of E3 is just one big commercial. This is not news. It’s as if Kuchera acts like games writers were all blind and the PA Report has suddenly allowed them to see. If a trailer isn’t news and shouldn’t be posted on games sites, then why is anyone covering E3 at all? Why don’t we all just pack up, go home and wait to see what shows up on the shelves of games stores on launch day? I get where he’s coming from but any valid message he has at heart is lost when he talks like other people in the games media are misguided children and not as learned as he is. I respected Kuchera’s work at his former site, Ars Technica, so I was surprised this at this kind of condescension. Since then, I have seen Kuchera grown inwards, joining his employers in their bitterness. More and more, he seems to spend a lot of his spare time criticising how other writers should write about games, even when they pour their heart and souls into every word.
Following E3, quite a number of issues regarding sexism and violence in gaming reared their heads. From controversial trailers and questionable game design motives, it seemed 2012 was becoming the final straw for many people. No longer were we satisfied to sit by and see another glut of big boobs and big guns define our beloved industry. One of the hot topics were ‘booth babes’, models employed to seductively attract male gamers to demo stations by way of not wearing many clothes. A lot of people were tired of this age-old practice and felt it was time to retire them and allow video games to grow up a little. The PA Report was among them. Kuchera published an article calling for the ban of booth babes at E3.
After reading it, my first thought was “I agree”.
My second thought was “Give me a break”.
Personally, this was the last straw for me. Since 2007, Penny Arcade has run a competition called ‘Dickerdoodles’. Their readers are asked to design cakes, make them and then send in the best pictures. Penny Arcade then chooses a winner. Here’s 2011′s winner (NSFW). As you can see, ‘Dickerdoodles’ are cakes in the shapes of erections. Some ejaculating, some dressed in clothes.
This coupled with the ‘Dickwolves‘ saga and the funding and support of hentai card games made me stop and think. You’re going to tell me to be outraged at how women are being exploited at a games convention (that isn’t yours) but on the other hand you run an annual competition that perpetuates the stereotype of fourteen-year-old males who thinks dick jokes and porn desserts are hilarious?
Penny Arcade as a brand has grown to monstrous levels and their fan base have displayed such blind devotion to the pair that the video games industry, including game companies and journalists, have become fearful of crossing them. In the past, they have proved their power of crippling people and companies with a mere mention of their disapproval. If a game is featured (for good or bad) in their comic strip, this has more effect on sales than any number of reviews. When their long-standing anger comes bubbling up to the surface, it is a powerful weapon. A weapon that is starting to damage parts of this industry.
We have come a long way since the days of computer clubs and the Atari 2600. Video games are accepted in society now. Almost everyone we know plays them, whether it is on PC, consoles or mobile devices. Penny Arcade however, still seem to live in a time when the whispered approval of a role-playing game could get you beaten up in the school yard. They’re still pissed off and ready to lash out at anyone who disagrees with what they say or how they go about their business. And The PA Report appears to be a new version of an old grudge.
The video games industry can hold its head high in 2012. Sure, it still has many problems but we’ve reached the point where we can say to almost anybody that writing about, developing or publishing video games is a career choice and not be ashamed of it. It took a long time for this to happen and the future of this industry is a long road of endless possibilities. But one obstacle we need to get past is Penny Arcade’s frightening influence. They have their place, but nobody should stop to think twice before calling them out on their bullshit for fear of retaliation. If this industry remains shackled by such silly and wasteful fears, then we may as well return to a time when Dungeons and Dragons were three dirty words. I sure as hell don’t want to go back.
In that same Wired interview I mentioned before, I couldn’t help but notice the writer’s description of the pair. At the time, it rang true.
One of Penny Arcade‘s biggest attractions is that it dares to be dismissive. Most of the enthusiast press is loath to offend the publishers who provide advertising and access to their content. But if Holkins and Krahulik think the lightcycle mode in Tron 2.0 is shit, they say so, and they use the word shit. (They also stress that they don’t mean it’s “the shit.”) Teen fans love the strip for serving up such flame-war ammo.
What a difference a few years makes.