Gaming Webcomics and the People Who Love Them

The mere mention of video games often evokes images of a solitary white ball bouncing between two vertically moving white paddles, with that distinctive Pong sound. Maybe it evokes images of a large gorilla hurling barrels at unsuspecting Italian men instead. No matter what you think of when you think video games, it is undeniable that games as a whole have affected our culture over the last 20 years. In the late 1970s, games like Pong revolutionized arcades, and in the 1980s, Nintendo revolutionized our living rooms with Super Mario Bros. Our generation grew up with names like Atari, Nintendo and Sega. The culture of video games has boomed in the past 5 years with the recent console wars between Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. With the increase of video game fans came an increase in people writing and drawing about their favorite video hobby: enter Gaming Webcomics, a genre that is not so easily classified. What are Gaming Webcomics, what are they all about, and where are they going?

Gaming webcomics can be defined as any webcomic (or print comic for that matter) that is based either on the hobby of playing video games, or comments on the culture surrounding video games and their players. While there are a couple of contenders out there for the "biggest" gaming comic, the first one most people think of is Penny Arcade. With an estimated fan base of over 150,000 people, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (Tycho and Gabe, respectively) have carved their names into the annals of not only webcomic history, but nerd history as being two of the most well-known gamers around.

Since the first strip was published in 1998, Gabe and Tycho have steadily climbed to the top of the webcomic scene and helped influence gaming as a culture. Sites get "wanged" – choked with too much referral traffic – after being linked from Penny Arcade. Games have Penny Arcade cheat codes ("pnyarcade" in Star Wars Jedi Starfighter for the XBOX gives you everything in the game, you can even play with a cardboard tube in the new Legacy of Kain game, which is a Penny Arcade reference the their character Cardboard Tube Samurai).

Tycho remains ever humble when asked about this influence, stating that "…Legacy of Kain’s ‘Tube Reaver’ mode – was both a huge surprise and a terrific honor, but it’s not terribly common. We think of ourselves as having a parasitic relationship with the gaming industry, we don’t think of ourselves as parallel to it like a media outlet might be. We think of ourselves as extremely fortunate fanboys who, on occasion, produce something of value to our holy pantheon." Penny Arcade has also influenced people’s lives, with their recent Child’s Play toy drive for the Seattle Children’s Hospital, where they succeeded in putting together over $120,000 worth of toys and money.

Next in line popularity-wise would be Scott Kurtz’ PvP (Player versus Player). Kurtz not only commands a large readership online, but now Image Comics prints PvP monthly. In paper form! Real Life by Greg Dean has influenced a specific video game, Final Fantasy XI: Online – Real Life readers clogged the servers in the first couple days after finding out that Greg played. All of these examples show that gaming comics have a much larger readership than your typical every day webcomic, but why? What makes gaming comics so appealing to web surfers? When asked, Tycho from Penny Arcade agreed: "…it makes sense that gamers are going to be online anyhow, and are therefore present in large numbers online."

Gaming webcomics also seem to have an odd demographic: isolated readers who do not read any other genre of webcomics. Readers of Penny Arcade may only read Penny Arcade because it talks about their favorite games, and that reader may not even be familiar with the term "webcomic". A reader of PvP may have picked up the physical comic book at their local comic shop and wanted to check out the online version. It’s almost as if gaming comics are in their own little world, completely oblivious to more classic story-based strips. This is not really a bad thing, but it doesn’t do anything for the current webcomic community. Gaming comics tend to link to other gaming comics, hardly ever introducing readers to new genres. Readers typically aren’t usually interested in stories or comics on the web, just comics that talk about their hobby.

Gaming comics can best be classified into three basic genres: Story-based, Political Commentary, and Sprite. No, not that Sprite. Political Commentary would include comics like Penny Arcade. Penny Arcade has always been the type of comic strip that you can’t read straight through: you have to stop at every strip and read the newspost that goes along with each. Usually the strip for the day is about something in the news regarding gamers, or a new game that just came out. Very rarely does Penny Arcade stray from this formula. Like all artists, however, Tycho and Gabe need to stretch every once in a while and do storylines with continuity. Penny Arcade has received a lot of criticism about this, as readers who stumble upon the site for the first time aren’t really sure how to approach the comic. Some readers go to the website thinking it will be your typical comic strip read left-to-right, and see a disjointed series of inside jokes and lengthy commentaries on seemingly random subjects. Some people have accused Penny Arcade of a severe lack of humor because of this. Political humor tends to be very topical, and a reader needs to take this into account when reading strips like Penny Arcade.

Story-based comics include strips like Real Life, Mac Hall or PvP. Although they involve video games and their culture, they are not restricted to just commenting on them. PvP is about a group of people who work for a gaming magazine, offering many different storyline possibilities. Mac Hall is hardly about gaming anymore, focusing more on the relationships between characters going to college and their everyday lives. Real Life tends to be more focused, centering on one game or concept and running with it for a week or two.

The last type of gaming comic is one of the most conflicted sub-genres of webcomics ever. Sprite comics are comics that are made using "sprites" from video games. That can include characters, backgrounds, text and other elements. Some people hate sprite comics for their apparent lack of originality; creators taking screen shots from video games and putting them into a comic strip isn’t exactly brilliant at first glance. Some sprite comics, such as 8-bit Theatre, have often proved haters wrong by taking characters from a single video game ( Final Fantasy for the NES ) and making them into well-fleshed out characters in consistently funny situations. Other sprite comics are created with 100% original art. Even if a sprite comic isn’t about video games, it is usually considered a gaming comic by default, just for the way it is created and what it references.

Gaming comics continue to rise in popularity, even as gaming terms such as "l33t" and "wang" become more and more passé. KeenSpace is filled to the brim with gaming comics, and even direct rip-offs of current gaming comics (approximately 76 are listed as "Gaming" not counting the "Sprite" comics). Gaming comics seem to be sticking to their own genre, never straying, and therefore neither helping nor hindering the current webcomic community. Will they continue to exist as separate entities, or will gaming webcomics and traditional webcomics one day be walking off into the sunset holding hands?

A few possible ways might be to have already existing gaming webcomics expand into other genres, away from gaming. On this note Tycho from Penny Arcade says, "Topically, we certainly deal with videogames more than we do any other subject. Calling us a ‘Gaming Comic’ seems fair. We have certainly covered topics as diverse as Duck Cocks or radioactive arachnids, but videogames are our passion, and the work we do more often than not reflects that." Which shows that gaming comics can spread their wings, so to speak. Another way to bring all genres together is to have more collective events, like Comixpedia‘s Fright Night, and invite as many comic artists from each genre as possible. Once we all know each other, then the linking starts to occur. Then, after all of that, we can all get together in one big webcomic group hug.

Aww… hugs.


  1. First of all, I’d like to say that I liked the article, viewing pros and cons of the genre and not simply bashing 1337 spitters, adict gamers, or whatever people tends to call other people that seems to fit the “gamer” concept (I’ve never considered a gamer myself, but has never been too far from the fitting requeriments either).
    Anyway, I see a little problem with the article, and is that it tries to fit webcomics way too different from one another into a single frame. For example, while penny-arcade (almost) always talk about videogames, and news regarding the videogame industry, other comics as Real Life of Mac Hall (as you pointed in the later case), are more oriented toward the interaction of a bunch of friends, where at least some of them happen to be gamers.
    As I see it, they are comics about today’s society, but, in the same way that was recently argued that a bunch of six friends like the ones in “Friends” isn’t plaussible (at least in the USA) without some ethnic differences, a bunch of six college friends isn’t realistic without at least one gamer in it.

    The same thing happens (at least from my point of view or IMHO, if you prefer I-net mumbo-jumbo), with comics like 8-bit theater (that ‘r’ seems to move around the ‘e’ a lot, even in Clevinger’s own stuff), where even if it’s artwork (as well as it’s overall story) it’s based upon a videogame, the strip is not. It instead targets (aside from “one hit wonder” references as the “Quantum leap” one), the basis of fantasy literature, and overall RPG-ing, but mostly targets toward pen-and-paper RPG, personified in the Red Mage, ye olde master of mix-maxing which happens to cover himself in red stat-bouncing clothes.

    My final point is, while there are in fact (way too much) gamer comics, videogames are still a new phenomemon, which is starting to get part of actual society, and therefore is being reflected in different ways in different media, as it integrates toward pop-culture, and such. A few years from now we won’t notice gaming references in college comics, as we don’t note movie references nowadays, in webcomics that are not specifically geared toward the genre, as, for example, “movie comics”, yet another Penny Arcade bastard child, only not a gaming one.


  2. Interesting article, but I'm not exactly sure about the end. I mean, certainly game comics obviously link to other game comics, but you have to expect that. Manga comics like to link to other manga comics, so it o­nly makes sense that games link to their own kind as well. I like the analysis of Penny Arcade as being very strictly tied to games and how it rarely strays from that, but they're really an exception. PVP, Real Life, and Mac Hall all show playing games as an aspect of life but not the main focus. Little Gamers, for example, is more about the kids who sit in front of the games more than the games themselves. The dopey, zany kids lighting themselves o­n fire and slinging the F word are icons many readers can identify with. Maybe you could relate this to the article about college comics – a starting point for people to work from until they find their own voice. I really doubt each of the Keenspace “gaming” comics is going to stay in that genre, if they even stay at all. But, o­n the up side, some gaming strips do occassionally link to other comics if they like a particular storyline. I forget exactly which o­ne, but didn't PA link to Checkerboard Nightmare when he did a parody storyline? Anyway, nice article, and creative way to slip in a Ron Jeremy link.

  3. The article was indeed informative and a rather good analysis of the whole “gaming webcomic” idea. However, I wouldn’t be so quick as to judge gaming webcomic as an isolated genre. There are more than a few exceptions to these gaming webcomics, in style, exposition, tone and flair. Penny Arcade focuses on issues and ideas relevant to the “gamer” culture. PVP, on the other hand, might not even qualify as a gaming webcomic under some standards, since it focuses so singlemindedly on people (and not gamers). Real Life focuses on people as well, but with a different, mostly humor-oriented approach, and gets more heavily involved in gaming culture (which includes more than games). Other webcomics also bend the standards of “gaming webcomic”. Megatokyo, with its countless hordes and hosts of readers, focuses on gamers placed within an continuous, complex, real-life (and not so real-life) storylines. Think of Kid Radd, for example, a story of game sprites amidst a war in cyberspace, a la Tron. Or Adventurers! and RPG World, two non-sprite, drawn webcomics that undeniably focus on RPG’s and gamign humor, but with epic fantasy plots mixed in. Or Chaos Diamonds 3, using the Sonic games characters in their own, non-gaming related stories. (that’s enoguh examples for now). Where does “gaming webcomic” begin and where does it end? Is there a standard to judge by and what is it? Is it even fair to judge gaming webcomics or even the gamer culture by a single, unmoving standard (as Scott Kurtz of PVP seems so willing to do)?

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