by Rachel Edidin
NOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT
YOU ARE REQUIRED TO READ THE COPYRIGHT NOTICE AT THIS LINK BEFORE YOU READ THE FOLLOWING WORK, THAT IS AVAILABLE SOLELY FOR PRIVATE STUDY, SCHOLARSHIP OR RESEARCH PURSUANT TO 17 U.S.C. SECTION 107 AND 108. IN THE EVENT THAT THE LIBRARY DETERMINES THAT UNLAWFUL COPYING OF THIS WORK HAS OCCURRED, THE LIBRARY HAS THE RIGHT TO BLOCK THE I.P. ADDRESS AT WHICH THE UNLAWFUL COPYING APPEARED TO HAVE OCCURRED. THANK YOU FOR RESPECTING THE RIGHTS OF COPYRIGHT OWNERS.
September 5, 2013
Image: Penny Arcade
I had a really good time at Penny Arcade Expo this year. I met up with friends and colleagues I rarely see in person. I rolled a lot of dice and pushed a lot of buttons, saw some really good live music, and sat through some brilliant panels. I drank too much and slept too little, and in a lot of ways it was all the things I wanted a convention to be.
I also decided, finally and for sure, that I’m not going back to PAX again. Not as an attendee. Not as a professional. Not as press. On Monday, in the last hours of the four-day show, Mike Krahulik, the artist of the webcomic Penny Arcade and co-founder of PAX, decided to dredge up the dickwolves — and something that had been building up for a long time finally snapped.
Here’s some quick context: In 2010, Penny Arcade posted a comic strip that involved a character describing being “raped to sleep by dickwolves.” The rape joke wasn’t the point of the strip — it was an illustration of the screwed-up ethics implied by the quests in videogames like World of Warcraft, where after a player has rescued, say, five hostages or slaves, there’s no real impetus (and sometimes no mechanic) to save any of the others.
[Man] Hero! Please, take me with you! Release me from this hell unending! Every morning, we are roused by savage blows. Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves.
[Wolf] I only needed to save five slaves. Alright? Quest complete.
[Man] But ...
[Wolf] Hey. Pal. Don't make this weird.
© 2010 Mike Krahulik and JErry Holkins, http://www.penny-arcade.com
Whether or not the strip was offensive isn’t really relevant at this point: More than the comic itself, what made the most impact was how Penny Arcade responded to the readers — including rape survivors — who said it upset them. First, they mocked their critics with a series of posts and a flippant non-apology. In a subsequent “make a strip” demonstration at PAX Prime, Krahulik further needled the issue by drawing a dickwolf, and Penny Arcade even monetized the discomfort over the rape joke by making and selling “Team Dickwolves” shirts and pennants.
Mike Krahulik, http://www.penny-arcade.com
Mike Krahulik, one of the founders of Penny Arcade. Photo: Adam Merrifield / Flickr
More people protested, and some companies and speakers began making noise about pulling out of PAX Prime. Finally, the dickwolves merchandise was was removed from the Penny Arcade store. Krahulik made it clear that he objected to the decision to stop selling the merchandise, and would be wearing his dickwolves shirt at PAX to illustrate that point, even though he knew the dickwolves — and the sentiment they expressed — made many potential attendees feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
Eventually, the argument died down to a dull roar. Penny Arcade made it clear that they still disagreed with both the criticism of the initial strip and the subsequent concerns from critics, but pulling the t-shirts and pennants out of the store was a significant gesture, one that — perhaps — signaled a willingness to acknowledge that this was a situation where inclusion mattered more than proving that they had the power to do whatever they wanted.
And then on Monday at PAX, in front of an audience of thousands, Krahulik told business manager Robert Khoo that he regretted pulling the Dickwolves merchandise from the Penny Arcade store — merchandise he had created as a “screw you” to rape survivors who had had the temerity to complain about a comic strip. While the audience burst into applause, Khoo nodded sagely and said that now they knew better; now they would just leave it and not engage.
Let’s be clear: Making the dickwolves t-shirts in the first place was engaging. So was Krahulik’s decision to draw dickwolves at PA’s make-a-strip demo at PAX and then put on a dickwolves t-shirt and wear it to a Penny Arcade event. These were not neutral choices. Nor, at this point, is the decision to attend, exhibit at, or cover PAX. There is no longer a clear line between uncomfortable silence and complicity — and more members of the gaming and comics communities are beginning to speak out.
Sidney-Nebraska@BrendanAdkins: Incredibly disappointed to have volunteered until midnight at #PAX three days running and then hear @cwgabriel still mocking rape survivors. 2 Sep. 2013
Cartoonist Rich Stevens of Diesel Sweeties reached out to WIRED when he heard we planned to report on the PAX incident. “It’s just so disappointing to see people I’ve known since we were all new and broke turn out to be such tone-deaf, old man bullies. He’s Rush Limbaugh with tattoos. I could get over the original comic if they’d just moved on or apologized, but they had to make merchandise out of rape just to poke back at people and then encourage fans to wear it to a convention that supposedly has pro-woman policies,” said Stevens.
“It’s like he never got the point of growing up having been bullied as a kid. You’re supposed to get older and not repeat it … I wish more people in our field would be open about this, but I think there is a lot of social and economic pressure not to be… I really want to let them know that not everyone in webcomics is scared to stand up to them.”
But rejecting Penny Arcade can be difficult, given the industry force it has become — in webcomics, in gaming, and in geek culture as a whole. In an open letter to Penny Arcade co-creator Jerry Holkins about the recent incident, game designer Christine Love wrote that, despite not feeling safe or comfortable at PAX, she was afraid to pull out of the show because it was a rare opportunity to showcase her independent work.
“I don’t feel comfortable attending PAX,” Love wrote. “If I felt like I had a choice in the matter, if I could reach the awesome people I did while I was there without supporting the other figurehead behind the show, I would absolutely not be there. But I don’t. You’ve made it so in order to make a decent living for myself in videogames, I’m obligated to show up. That’s why I was there. It wasn’t because I felt comfortable, nor was it because I felt okay supporting your organization.”
Game designer Elizabeth Sampat told WIRED that for indie developers who haven’t hit the mainstream, “PAX can be one of the only ways to really get your game in front of a broader audience — a friend told me some retailers will order less copies of your game if you don’t show it at least one PAX.”
Sampat also has firsthand experience with the dangers of criticizing Penny Arcade. This week, she posted an impassioned condemnation of Penny Arcade and PAX, outlining the company’s history of inappropriate public comments and behavior, as well as its failure to address the harassment and alleged assault of a volunteer by another volunteer at PAX East. Since then, she has received thousands of angry comments, including rape threats and death threats directed not only at her but at her children. (In 2010 and 2011, critics who wrote about the original dickwolves incidents were similarly flooded with harassment and rape threats.)
Still, Sampat told WIRED, “A lot of positive stuff” has come out of her post: colleagues expressing solidarity, assault survivors thanking her for speaking up. For some readers, her post was a wake-up call, a series of incidents easy to ignore on their own thrown into sudden and stark context; for others, it launched an extended conversation about how to make PAX less critical to the success of independent games.
For Emma Story, a Penny Arcade fan who also designed and maintained the comic’s website from 2000 to 2004, this incident also proved to be the final straw. Story remained friends with Krahulik and Holkins after she stopped working for them, but this week, she publicly cut ties with Penny Arcade.
“Mike’s reaction when he’s criticized for this kind of behavior is always to comment on how he hates bullying, and how he sees himself as fighting back against a bunch of internet bullies,” Story told WIRED. For her, the primary conflict is about Penny Arcade’s continual abuse of power. “The unexamined privilege in [Mike’s] viewpoint is sort of breathtaking — the fact that a straight white male, a celebrity with countless followers who will agree with anything he says, doesn’t see that he is in a position of power over other significantly marginalized groups is almost beyond believing. What he is doing is bullying, no question, and it’s not excused by the fact that kids were mean to him when he was in school.”
In Krahulik’s mind, he’s still the underdog rebelling against an unfair world bent on keeping him down. Despite decades of success and influence, he’s never learned to distinguish between criticism and censorship or understood the relationship between power and personal responsibility. He’s an angry teenager with the clout of an industry baron, and he’s cultivated a horde of followers who respond to criticism with death and rape threats. This are the sorts of people Penny Arcade courts when it digs in its heels and goes to the mat in defense of its right to punch down.
In the midst of the 2011 dickwolves controversy, a vocal Penny Arcade fan who went by the Twitter handle @Teamrape wrote, “And remember, since @cwgabriel [Krahulik] will wear his dickwolves shirt, it’s okay to wear yours. We will show those that want to crush free speech.”
Mike Krahulik is not a brave upstart defending freedom of speech, even if that’s a defense Penny Arcade has hidden behind time and again. Freedom of speech is not and never has been in danger here: Krahulik has every legal right to be shitty to rape survivors and trans*people and react like a child told he can no longer break the other kids’ toys. There is no law preventing him from flaunting the fact that he has a lot more financial and social power than the people criticizing him for abusing it; nor is anyone arguing that there ought to be.
To paraphrase the immortal words of the Dude: Krahulik isn’t wrong. He’s just an asshole.
Unfortunately, he’s also half of the face of the world’s largest end-user gaming expo. And that’s why I’m not going back to PAX. This year, I could justify a lingering thread of optimism: Maybe it’s changing. Maybe this time, something got through. Krahulik’s comments on Monday cut that off cold.
Being an adult is about recognizing that the right to say something doesn’t make it okay to say. It’s about recognizing that you are not the only person with feelings and opinions. It’s about understanding power differentials and the difference between criticism and bullying, and learning to examine and be accountable for your own actions and their consequences. It’s about caring more about not harming other people than about whether their subsequent upset inconveniences you. It’s about being decent as well as being right.
This year, I was willing to believe that maybe, just maybe, the Penny Arcade axiom that PAX is for everyone meant more to them than getting the last word in. I was wrong. Penny Arcade isn’t going to grow up. If that wasn’t obvious a week ago, it certainly is now.
And that means that if the gaming community’s going to keep moving forward, the time has come to leave PAX behind.