I like the idea of gaming or anime or science fiction conventions. Meeting people who share my interests, shaking the hands of epic cosplayers, and generally having a good time talking about geeky things seems pretty straightforward. At the same time, it’s been made known to me that conventions aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, primarily because people are people, which is to say some people are idiots.
Today’s Devil’s Advocate is about a gaming convention known as the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX), one of the men behind it, and the petulant child of PAX and that man: a subset of geek culture that think it’s okay to be a jerk to other people.
Editor's Note: This article deals with mature subject matter and contains some harsh language.
A Penny Arcade Situationer
For those who don’t know about Penny Arcade, it’s a long-running webcomic made by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik that is firmly entrenched in geek culture. The business made out of Penny Arcade is now a business force to be reckoned with, with a charity and two expos — PAX and PAX Prime — under its belt.
The controversy that colors today’s Devil’s Advocate stems from a 2010 PAX comic. The comic strip itself was fairly standard, discussing an existing MMORPG trope about how even epic quests do not task you with saving everyone, but rather, only a small group of people from a horde of needy victims.
The problem with the comic: the people that needed to be saved were “raped to sleep by the dickwolves” every night. For rape survivors, this is a bit insensitive and kind of trigger-inducing. Unfortunately, the reaction of Penny Arcade’s creators to the valid criticism of their comic was basically draw the issue out in a series of posts and to issue a non-apology. Worse still, there was an attempt to monetize this dickishness by selling “Team Dickwolves” wearable merchandise.
Backlash towards the the Penny Arcade creators’ reaction to the criticism came in the form of threats by panel speakers and companies to basically not show up at the event. Eventually, the Dickwolves merchandise was taken off circulation, and would have generally signaled the end of things… were it not for a recent occurrence.
Criticism, The Mistake, and Distinctions
I’ll point you to a Twitch stream of a panel at PAX Prime. At around this point of the video, Krahulik decided to go and use the “honesty time” of their discussion to say that he thought pulling the Dickwolves merchandise was a mistake. This was met with applause from members of the crowd.
At this point, I’m going to move away from explaining the story, because enough of the story has been said at this point. Wired even has an excellent piece discussing this very same issue, and was, in part, the inspiration for this discussion today. Kotaku also discusses the occurrence in some detail.
I just want to make a quick distinction now between the content of the Dickwolves comic versus the response of Penny Arcade’s creators to criticism. At this point in time, the content of the Dickwolves comic isn’t the issue any more. Rather, it is the response of the Penny Arcade team to criticism to the Dickwolves comic (and the resurgence of the discussion due to the recent “honesty time”) that is making waves.
I generally am biased towards inclusivity in geek culture. Sexual harassment and general dickishness in the real world does not sit well with me, and the dredging up of the comic during that panel brought many to think of the comic, the valid criticism, and the reaction the creators had that hurt the feelings of many people, sensitive folks like myself and rape survivors alike.
In a recent post on the Penny Arcade website, further clarifications were made. Mike Krahulik (writing as @cwgabriel) said that, knowing what he does now in today’s social climate, Penny Arcade would not make that sort of strip today. He also went on to say the following:
With that said I absolutely regret everything we did after that comic. I regret the follow up strip, I regret making the merchandise, I regret pulling the merchandise and I regret being such an asshole on twitter to people who were upset. I don’t think any of those things were good ideas. If we had just stopped with the strip and moved on, the Dickwolf never would have become what it is today. Which is a joke at the expense of rape victims or a symbol of the dismissal of people who have suffered a sexual assault.
The Child Lives On
While I accept the apology as being genuine, I do feel that Krahulik must accept that Penny Arcade’s previous actions have sired something that it has no direct control over anymore, and that is a geek subculture that is okay with dickishness of this sort. As was evidenced by the applause following his statement at PAX Prime, the subculture does exist.
If PAX is to truly be what he calls a “safe place,” then the Penny Arcade staff must strive to be better than it is now. Despite wanting to be “normal guys,” Holkins and Krahulik are now also public figures, and they must understand that their words, actions, and inaction has an impact on the geek community at large.
To that end, I suggest that games convention organizers and potential panelists take a cue from the science fiction and fantasy literature community by being more open in saying that behavior that makes others uncomfortable (such as harassment of any sort or bigotry)should not be tolerated at the convention space.
For instance, Jim C. Hines made a post a few months back explaining how to best report harassment at conventions. John Scalzi also went on record by saying that he would not attend conventions or events without a clear-cut, enforced anti-harassment policy. This call to action was echoed by over 700 other authors and potential panelists, putting some financial pressure on companies and convention organizers to respond affirmatively towards inclusivity by negating bad behavior.
I don’t discount the good that Penny Arcade has done. With its charity work and conventions, it has also fostered an image of the gamer as part of a conscientious community. That said, I feel that a proactive approach to respecting the rights of others at conventions by informing people of their rights at conventions, promoting good behavior, and enforcing rules against inappropriate behavior would create a better outcome for the geek community, gamers, cosplayers, sci-fi fans and fantasy buffs all included.
Victor Barreiro Jr. / Victor Barreiro Jr. maintains The Devil’s Advocate and ArcheAge columns for MMORPG.com. He also writes for news website Rappler as a technology reporter. You can find more of his writings on Games and Geekery and on Twitter at @vbarreirojr.
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