It began with a comic strip, and has evolved into a blog, a journal, a video channel, a charity, and a convention. It’s Penny Arcade, today on Web Crush Wednesday!
Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik started the Penny Arcade comic on the now defunct loonygames.com before starting their own site. Holkins and Krahulik are now members of a small group of comic authors and illustrators to be able to make a living from their webcomics. They typically post a new strip three times a week, accompanied by blog posts often elaborating on the comic’s subject matter.
Having debuted in 1998 and since grown to over three and a half million readers, the Penny Arcade webcomic has few peers in terms of longevity and popularity. It follows the exploits of the often ridiculous Gabe and reasonable Tycho. Always with the flavor of the gaming world, Penny Arcade’s humor and setting ranges from ridiculously abstract to observational commentary. While at times the comics deal with rather esoteric subjects, the day’s blog posting often explains the topic in a concise, straightforward fashion. Furthermore, even when the subject is esoteric the humor is often universal. Penny Arcade’s comedic skill and diversity has given it massive exposure, to the point now that even many of those without even a casual interest in gaming have probably been forwarded a comic or two.
With such great success over such a relatively long period of time there have been, of course, a few controversies here and there. One such controversy began on August 11, 2010, with a comic making a joke involving rape. As someone uncomfortably close with this subject, the comic does make me feel uneasy. However, this particular comic might be the only concrete example of a rape joke where I actually side with the authors. In fact, I actually laughed despite my firmest attempts to let the hate flow through me. Forgetting the dark and absurdist nature of the joke, two schools of comedy for which I admittedly have a weakness, they are indeed making a statement about something. That statement may not be about rape, but it involves our ability to empathize and sympathize in such situations. Particularly in MMO’s (Massively Multiplayer Online [Games]), quests often involve a noble purpose: feed the hungry, employ the poor, cure the sick, slay the beast, free the enslaved, liberate the raped, et cetera. The problem is that in an MMO, there must always be victims to be saved by the next player. So, after you free a prisoner, kill the warlord, or end an epidemic, within minutes of your victory the environment returns to the victimized state so that the next hero can save the day. The problem is that after saving any day you haven’t really saved anything since it goes back to the way it was. This makes the player feel less concerned about the bigger problem and care only about doing his small part. It breeds that feeling because it’s the only feeling it validates. At times it is worse than that, giving the player a quota of people to save, rewarding you after freeing perhaps seven of the countless enslaved. So the player learns to feel nothing for the hundreds left un-freed – they are someone else’s problem. And that kind of thinking is dangerous. It turns the needy into a problem; they are a liability taken on to leverage yourself to greater goals, namely experience, gold, and equipment. It turns the seven you save into dehumanized credit. Somehow, by making me laugh, I feel as though humanity and relatability has been brought back into the equation. I reflect on all of those left-behind, pixelated polygons and sprites differently after viewing the comic. So, for lampooning this phenomenon with the situation in the strip, a situation which unfortunately is only isolated from the reality of acceptability in games only by the name “dickwolves,” I side with the authors.
Penny Arcade, largely thanks to its business manager Robert Khoo, has come a long way from just the webcomic and blog it began as. The PA Report is a journalistic source for all things video games, featuring not only authored editorials but links to quality articles on other sites.
PA TV is the Penny Arcade video channel, currently featuring ten shows, my favorite being Extra Credits. Extra Credits is a very skillfully executed critique and reflection on the state of games and its culture, both present and future. The highly capable team is composed of three industry professionals: chiefly written by the incredibly qualified James Portnow, narrated by the colorful Daniel Floyd, and illustrated by the fast and talented Allison Theus. It is clear that the three of them work very well together, and I have yet to come across an episode which was in any way a miss. Do yourself a favor and check them out. It’s both educational and entertaining.
The Penny Arcade forum is itself pretty impressive. It is relatively friendly, considering how bad many forums are on the net, and a strong sense of community bound by a common interest permeates throughout. This community has come together to do some pretty interesting things in multiplayer gaming, not the least of which was their community mined and built underwater recreation of Bioshock’s Rapture in Minecraft.
Child’s Play is the charity started by Holkins and Krahulik. What it does is send toys and games to children’s hospitals throughout the world. They have shamelessly used the Penny Arcade brand to promote it, and rightfully so. My first exposure to it was as the charitable option on the Humble Indie Bundle. To date they have raised over twelve-million dollars for their cause. I think it’s a great charity, but then its pretty easy for me to imagine a child stuck in a hospital bed, confused and scared, lucky to find any joy or entertainment during their stay. I once spent a long and lonely week in the nearest children’s hospital as an ill child. The Nintendo 64 I was able to play was so important to me, and it led to some very positive memories of what should have been a wholly terrifying and traumatizing experience. Those children’s hospitals which are so far connected with the charity each have their own Amazon wish list for you to donate directly to them, or you can make monetary donations on the Child’s Play website.
PAX, or the Penny Arcade Expo, is a full-fledged video game convention. It is particularly wonderful and dear to the gaming community because E3, the industry’s premier convention, is open to industry professionals and journalists exclusively. So, PAX is perhaps the best way to come together as a community, meet professionals, see the new and the exciting, and play games.
The comics, writing, web series, community, charity, and convention all have a special place in my heart both as a gamer and a human being. Altogether, Penny Arcade is an abundant well of entertainment and passion whose waters I am thrilled to have wash over me.