Last year, political controversy erupted from an unlikely source: chicken sandwiches. You could spin any number of health scandals from the fast food industry’s dependence on factory farming, but a poultry-specific mad cow scare isn’t what made Chick-Fil-A a news item. When news of the company’s contributions to anti-gay groups went public, supporters of social justice rightfully took to the streets to boycott a corporation that aimed to deny civil rights to all but “traditional” married couples.
This revelation caused an outbreak of cognitive dissonance for otherwise well-meaning people who, quite literally, wanted to have their chicken and eat it too. In response to some of his friends who held this mindset, socially conscious comedian Paul F. Tompkins performed a fantastic and funny monologue on the issue that he’s graciously allowed to remain on YouTube. Though a quote will do this bit no justice, here is Tompkins’ punchline, as it were: “No one is asking you to investigate Coca-Cola, or AT&T, or anything. No one’s asking you to carry a sign in front of Chick-Fil-A. They’re just saying, ‘Now that you know this shit, don’t eat that fucking sandwich anymore!’”
The world of video games felt a mere ripple of this controversy when Doug TenNapel, an animator and cartoonist famous for creating the Earthworm Jim games in the 1990s, recently launched a campaign on the Kickstarter crowdfunding site. TenNapel is asking fans to fund Armikrog, a spiritual sequel to his brilliant and whimsical 1996 point-and-click adventure, The Neverhood. Though TenNapel makes a living as an artist, he’s known by many for his inflammatory public statements concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues.
In 2011, GayGamer wrote about TenNapel’s views as seen in the comments section of his webcomic, Ratfist, where he compared gay marriage to “taking a dump” in the wrong bathroom. TenNapel only grew more repellent in the comments section of GayGamer’s own report. But you don’t have to dig so deep to discover TenNapel’s beliefs: His Twitter account makes them clear, with frequent drum-beating for causes that would feel right at home on any ultra right-wing talk-radio program.
Here’s the thing: I want Doug TenNapel to be able to voice his beliefs publicly, even if they conflict with my own. But the idea of donating to a person who views a significant chunk of the population as subhuman? That makes me take pause.
If this controversy sounds somewhat familiar, the game industry went through a similar debacle in 2009, when Chair Entertainment’s Shadow Complex based its story on a ham-fisted political novel by Orson Scott Card, a notorious anti-gay advocate. Though the game contained no notable anti-gay themes, some players disagreed with the prospect of supporting Card in any way, which caused some perfectly reasonable adults to act, well, unreasonably.
Writer Peter David, who penned Shadow Complex’s script, seemed to ignore the historical importance of boycotts with his statement to Kotaku on the matter: “If anyone wants to boycott the game and thus damage me or Chair while doing nothing to change Orson’s opinions, that’s naturally their right. Or they can display the sort of tolerance for someone who is different from them that they feel is lacking in Orson and thus prove they’re better. Your choice.”
Demonizing those who hold anti-gay views isn’t hard, especially when their statements are ugly and stomach-churning. I don’t view TenNapel as a cackling villain; if anything, he’s a talented guy who got exposed to some particularly toxic ideas that stuck in his brain. My interactions with him on Twitter bear this out; after tweeting a few times about TenNapel’s history of anti-LGBT statements, I unexpectedly found him tweeting back in response. But the surrealism of having him reach out to me soon faded when he exposed the base and boring philosophy behind his troubling beliefs: He feels that criticism of his comments equates to censorship, that the freedoms of others encroach upon his own, and that we’re enveloped in a culture war in which both Christianity and heterosexuality are under attack. Aaron Sorkin couldn’t have dreamed up a more obvious neo-conservative stereotype.
Because the idea of a Neverhood sequel is a genuinely exciting prospect, otherwise rational people may find ways to justify their wants while keeping their consciences quiet. No, supporting Armikrog won’t actively stop gay marriages in progress, but it is giving TenNapel a pass on the severity of his statements. If you want to go all “Butterfly Effect,” then sure, it’s possible that the success of Armikrog could lead to TenNapel donating to anti-LGBT causes (not with Kickstarter funds, mind you), which could in turn affect public policy, and so on. But I’m most concerned with feeling terrible about giving money to a hateful person, just for the sake of playing a video game—and I don’t think it’s especially heroic to deny your own pleasure for the sake of doing the right thing. If anything, it should be expected of us.
As Tompkins detailed in his monologue, the intersection between ethics and capitalism is often littered with bloody pile-ups. We work for corporations that use their profits to affect our lives negatively, buy products from these same corporations without question, and live first-world lives in which nearly every object we encounter is the product of misery. But the fact that we’ve entered into this contract doesn’t mean we should ignore our responsibility to make things less miserable. And, as Tompkins also noted, this isn’t a matter of politics, it’s a matter of social justice. You history buffs might recall that the idea of arbitrarily treating certain groups as less than human has been a prickly pear for our species since, oh, forever.
From just a quick sampling of his art, it’s easy to see that Doug TenNapel is capable of great things. That makes it all the more tragic that he views compassion and empathy as threats to his world view. If any good can be spun from this, it’s that fans have yet another opportunity to “vote with their wallets,” as they are wont to do. But this time, they’re voting for a cause that’s more important than the latest anti-consumer efforts of the games industry. Again, you should be free to pay for, play, and enjoy Armikrog in the comfort of your home, surrounded by family, loved ones, and supportive pets. Regardless, my refrain will be the same: Now that you know, don’t eat that fucking sandwich anymore!