Penny Arcade and the Terrifying Burden of Free Speech

Patrick Stafford looks at the Penny Arcade “Dickwolves” controversy and asks us to consider the responsibility that our freedom of speech entails.

Written by Patrick Stafford / Published on September 4, 2013

When I was 16 years old, I watched Schindler’s List for the first time, and among the horrific, brutal and confronting scenes, one is stuck to my memory more than any other.

Towards the end of the film, after the horrible oppression has taken place, blood has been shed and the war is over, the Jewish people saved by Oscar Schindler have been told they can leave.



The Penny Arcade team is right when they say they can say anything they want. They’re absolutely right. They can. But look at the position of power you are in and just think to yourself…

Why would you want to?


But there is no swelling crescendo of music. There are no smiles and there are no knowing winks at the camera. This liberty, while very real and life-changing, is dampened by something more pressing and ultimately more terrifying – the knowledge that the world is a very different place, and perhaps, you simply don’t fit.

The notion of freedom being more troublesome than captivity is a theme that appears in pop culture time and time and time again. Les Miserables is built on this very theme – Jean Valjean can’t live in a world in which he is “free” and ends up returning to a life of crime almost by necessity within days.

Remember Shawshank Redemption? Brooks took the most drastic step of all, hanging himself rather than living in a world that has simply changed too much for him to survive.

I think of these things because the Penny Arcade controversy this week – if you haven’t caught up, you can do so here – reminds me of something we have simply failed to grasp within our community:

We have more creative freedom than ever – but we have accepted it in lieu of responsibility. We accept the power of our abilities and revel in the unlimited promise of our talents, but when it comes to winding back, we simply think, why? Why should I have to cater to those who want to stop me from saying and doing what I want?

The reason the Penny Arcade controversy rubs us the wrong way isn’t just because the joke itself was awful. It was, and is, and that’s important. But the scarier proposition argued by the PA team is that criticism equals to censorship, and that by saying that something is wrong, that it shouldn’t have been said, we are destroying the ability to say it.

This is wrong.

penny arcade controversy 2I have committed many sins in my life. I committed many yesterday, I will commit them today, and I will continue to transgress until my dying breath passes my lips. It is the burden we carry. Not one is righteous. Not one.

When I was a little older than 16, I did something I never thought I would. There’s no need for details. If you want to ask me about it in a private conversation, I’ll answer. It probably wasn’t even something you’d necessarily think of as that big of a deal. But it was a line I never thought I’d cross.

My immediate reaction was fascinating. I felt nothing. No guilt, no anxiety. Nothing. Breaking a rule I told myself I would never break was as easy as buying a meal or driving a car. Something I do every day. Normal. Mundane.

It took me several years to realise that the burden of living the Gospel is not built on a pillar of guilt. We cannot rely on our conscience to tell us what is right and wrong because our conscience is frail and filled with that deadly curse we call “experience”. How can I rely on myself to tell me what is good or bad, or what is wrong or right, when I even tell a lie before I have my breakfast?

This is when I realised – the Gospel is more terrifying than we can ever know.

The Gospel is terrifying because it gives us freedom.

During his time on Earth, Jesus was concerned with transformation. It’s not enough to just act a certain way, he said, or do things according to a set of rules. Rules are fine and helpful, but they’re not enough. Instead, he taught, the Christian life itself is not built on a series of regulations but on a constant renewal of the heart every day. Every day the sun rises we strive to beat our hearts into submission. The mercy of the Lord is renewed every day, the Bible says. And every day we need it.

Just look at what he tells us to do: It’s not enough to just say adultery is a sin. If you look at a woman lustfully, he says, you’ve committed adultery.

Or look at the woman dragged before him, about to be stoned. “Have any of you not sinned in your lives? Let him be first to throw a stone,” he says.

Look in your heart, he says. What’s in it?

It’s funny to me that churches constantly talk about the aspect of tithing as giving 10% to the Church. But Jesus never used a 10% figure. In fact, it’s never used in the Bible apart from a specific situation for a specific group of people.

Instead, Jesus said, be generous.

And that’s terrifying. Because Jesus doesn’t offer answers for everything. Instead, he says something far more scary:

You figure it out.

It’s terrifying because we want rules, and regulations, and safety. Perhaps the best example is the rich man who approaches Jesus: “I’ve done everything,” he says. “What can I do to have eternal life?”

“You know what to do,” Jesus says. “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Honour your parents.”

“But I’ve done these things,” says the man. “I’ve done them all.”

But knowing his heart, Jesus said something far more probing. “There’s still something you haven’t done. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.”

And the man walked away sad.

We misconstrue this story because we think Jesus is talking about rich people here. But he’s not saying rich people are condemned. What he’s after is the man’s heart. He asked this question because he knew the man’s treasures were earthly, not spiritual.

Jesus hit him where it hurts.

The Penny Arcade team is right when they say they can say anything they want. They’re absolutely right. They can. But look at the position of power you are in and just think to yourself…

Why would you want to?

Spiritual and creative freedom is not just a reward. It’s a daily struggle. We have to be constantly looking within ourselves and thinking, “what am I doing?” Is it right, or just, or merciful or good? Are we being sinful, or full of pride and malice? What are we doing?

What is my heart doing?

When we are in a position of power it becomes all the more important to consider what we do and what we say. We wield such influence it becomes all the more crucial to consider how we act.

Especially when people cheer for us no matter what we do.

So freedom? Yeah, it’s terrifying. It should be terrifying. We should tremble at the consequences of our actions, which should then drive us to submission and a constant yearning for understanding. For Christians, a drive to submit to Christ and a constant desire for obedience should be our want – so that we can be sure we have done all we can.

For everyone else?

It’s simply enough to know freedom carries with it a huge responsibility.

So you figure it out.

About the Author:

Patrick Stafford is the deputy editor of He is also a videogame journalist. That does not mean he gets to play games all day. His work has appeared in various well-respected publications including EDGE, Eurogamer, Hyper, PC PowerPlay, Kotaku, Games.On.Net and Unwinnable.