Groping and Probing

So a few recent installments of Shamus' new comic, Chainmail Bikini, has created a bit of controversy. The comics in question are actually a series of 3 (the fact that there are 3 is a key part of the controversy, but we'll get to that in a moment). Here they are: The controversy stems from the fact that there is a malicious groping in comic #6. Perhaps due to an ill-advised punchline ("improved stamina"), the discussion turned from one of groping and larping and into one of rape. And we all know how funny discussions of rape can get.

To be honest, I didn't find this particular arc in the comics very funny. However, I didn't find it very offensive either (though I can see why some might think so). Also, while I didn't find it especially funny, I do think it makes an interesting statement about gaming in general.

I don't tend to read web-comics the same way I read blogs. I tend to let several installments build up, and then read them all. So I didn't read this particular story arc until I knew about the controversy, and I must admit to a little bit of observer bias. Knowing there was a controversy colored my reading of the comic, and two things immediately struck me.

First is that while there is an element of one guy antagonizing his buddy, there is also an element of probing. By probing, I'm referring to exploration of the limits of a game and its possibilities. Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good for You has a chapter on Video Games which covers this concept really well, and I recently wrote about it:
Probing is essentially exploration of the game and its possibilities. Much of this is simply the unconscious exploration of the controls and the interface, figuring out how the game works and how you're supposed to interact with it. However, probing also takes the more conscious form of figuring out the limitations of the game. For instance, in a racing game, it's usually interesting to see if you can turn your car around backwards, pick up a lot of speed, then crash head-on into a car going the "correct" way.
Now again, in comic #6, one character is clearly attempting to antagonize his friend for choosing to role play a woman. However, I find it interesting that he chose to do so in such a way that is consistent with his character (who is a Chaotic Neutral barbarian) and followed the rules of the game (rolling die, etc...). According to the notes that accompany this arc, this sort of thing tends to happen when a campaign is not going well. If the players aren't having fun, they're going to make fun, and in if you're in a role playing game, they're going to do so by making their characters do something a little extreme. They don't do this because they are really extreme people, but because they want to see what happens. In short, they want to knock the game off it's boring rails. In this case, one player's character player groped another player's character. And from the aftermath in comics #7 and #8, you can see that things certainly got interesting. However, you also see that there were indeed consequences for the groping (one player physically assaults the other), and the comments that accompany each comic clearly attest that this is, in fact, a bad thing. To me, it's clear that the character in the comic is engaging in probing, but the comic also makes it clear that in a game that is as open-ended as D&D, it's possible to take things so far, which is why you saw a "real-world" reprisal (scare quotes due to the fact that this is a fictional comic, after all).

The second thing that struck me also had to do with the consequences. The situation immediately reminded me of this post from my friend Roy's feminist blog. He found this german poster which has a picture accompanied by this text:
Warning! Women defend themselves! If you leer at, catcall, or touch a woman, take into account that you might be loudly ridiculed, have a glass of beer poured over you, or be slapped in the face. Therefore, we strongly advise you to refrain from such harrassment!
This is exactly what happend in comics #6 - #8. Well, not exactly. The comics actually take the consequences even further, while further abstracting the situation. Let me elaborate. The poster that Roy is pointing to is talking about real life situations. If you grope some woman at a bar, expect to be slapped in the face (or worse). What happened in the comics? An imaginary character who was role playing his own imaginary character groped another imaginary character that was being role played by yet another imaginary character. No one actually exists in this scenario, and yet there are indeed consequences for the groping. In fact, the consequences were the entire point of this character arc. So when I read comics #6-#8, I immediately saw them as a demonstration of Roy's poster. (Ironically, you could even read into this more, saying that the consequences have actually broken free of the imaginary world of Chainmail Bikini and taken root in the real world - in the form of a long comment thread and multiple blog postings like this one).

Now, if one were so inclined, I can see why this arc would be grating. Personally, it doesn't bother me, but I've never been groped (er, against my will) and I can certainly understand how that could be off-putting (I suppose an argument could be made that there are some other gender issues as well). And as an astute commenter at Shamus' site points out, a lot of why this comic doesn't work as humor is due to the structure of the story:
A lot of why this doesn't work well as humour, and why it's ended up annoying people, is to do with the structure of the comic. I think Shamus really struggled with fitting a potentially amusing gag into the three-panel format, and ultimately didn't manage it successfully.

Here's what I mean. Comic 6 Panel 1 has the line "I'm exploring gender roles within the context of a roleplaying environment". The barbarian's player throws these words back in comic 7 panel 2. It's the punchline of a five-panel gag split over two comics. Structurally, this is a mess. It leads to a lame second gag to fill the rest of comic 7, but more importantly it means some sort of not-quite-a-punchline has to be contrived for the end of comic 6. That's where "improved stamina" comes from. Whatever is said in subsequent comics, it is really hard to read comic 6 in isolation without inferring that the barbarian's player intends to have his character vigorously sexually assault the female character. Because this is the last line of the comic, the additional implication is that we are meant to find this funny in itself. No wonder some people got offended.

Now, imagine doing the same thing over a slightly longer single comic of four or five panels. You would cut the "improved stamina" line for a start - it would serve no purpose any more. Instead, the comic ends on "I prefer to think of it as exploring gender roles within the context of a roleplaying environment". The first advantage of this is that it's a lot funnier. The punchline is where it's supposed to be, not buried half-way through the next comic. The second advantage is that the potential for offending readers is greatly reduced. It no longer reads as though we're meant to find rape or sexual assault funny: the humour is in the elf's player having his pretentiousness deflated in a basically harmless, if tasteless, way.
Shamus himself has noted that this explanation is not only accurate, but a good explanation as to why people are offended by what he essentially saw as a harmless joke. This makes sense to me. He wrote a strip that touched on a controversial subject in a humorous way, but then he was forced to cut it up and insert artificial punchlines, one of which implied more than he thought. From his point of view, the comic is basically the same as before, but just split up a little. All the sudden people start talking about rape and unsubscribing to the comic. I can see why he'd be a bit perplexed by even a reasonable objection to the comic.

I've never been a particularly great writer. When I was in high school, I always excelled at math and science, but never did especially well at english or writing. By college, I was much more comfortable with writing, and part of the reason for that was that I realized that writing isn't precise. Language is inherently vague and open to interpretation, and though there are some people who can wield language astoundingly well, most of us will open ourselves up to criticism simply by the act of experessing ourselves. One of my favorite quotes summarizes this well:
"To write or to speak is almost inevitably to lie a little. It is an attempt to clothe an intangible in a tangible form; to compress an immeasurable into a mold. And in the act of compression, how the Truth is mangled and torn!"
- Anne Murrow Lindbergh
Unfortunately, this simple miscommunication seems to have gotten lost in a thread of almost 200 comments. Some people have quit reading the comic altogether because of some perceived malice or ignorance on Shamus' part, others have taken to turning this into a divisive debate about rape. I don't want to start a holy war here, but when it comes to controversial stuff like this, I tend to give the creators the benefit of the doubt.

I think this whole controversy has brought up some interesting ideas, even if most have reduced it to a debate about rape. For instance, probing in games often takes the form of doing something extreme. My seemingly innocuous example above was turning your racecar around and driving the wrong direction to see what happens when you ram into another car. In real life, such an action would be catastrophic and could result in multiple deaths. Now, does doing something like that speak ill of me (the player)? How does wanton vehicular homicide compare to imaginary groping?

In my limited D&D gaming career, I played a Chaotic Evil thief who stole from his own party (i.e. one of my friends). Why did I do that? In real life, I'd never do such a thing. Why would I be interested in doing it in a role playing game? At a later point, I certainly suffered the consequences for my actions, and I think that's the rub. Playing games is all about setting up a paradigm, and sometimes half the fun is attempting to pull it down and find the holes in the paradigm, just to see what happens. I think that's a big part of why open-ended games like Grand Theft Auto are so popular. It's not the act of stealing a car or murdering a stranger that's fun, it's the act of attempting to derail the game. (Again, I touched on this in a post on game manuals.) In a recent discussion on what people like about Role Playing Games (also at Shamus' site), one of the most prominent answers was that good RPGs "...must give the player lots of freedom to make their own choices." One of the things I really hated about God of War (an otherwise awsome game) was that the character I was playing was a real prick. At one point, he goes out of his way to kill an innocent bystander (something about kicking him down into the hydra maybe? I don't remember specifically.) and that really annoyed me. What happened didn't bother me so much as the fact that I didn't have a choice in the matter. I don't really have an answer here, but I like games that give me a lot of freedom, because once I get bored by the forced or scripted aspects of the game, I can probe for weaknesses in the paradigm, and maybe even exploit them.

Update: I just noticed that Roy has tackled this subject on his blog. He seems quite disheartened by Shamus' post, though Roy wrote his post before the comment I quoted above was posted... My perception was that Shamus just couldn't understand why people were objecting... but once someone actually pointed out, in detail, why the humor doesn't work, he seemed to be more understanding (not only of why people were complaining, but of what people were suggesting by their complaints). But that's just me. I don't want to put words in Shamus' mouth, but as I already mentioned, I tend to give creators the benefit of the doubt.