Just like a case of herpes, the dickwolves are back again.
Penny-Arcade’s Mike Krahulik said something stupid again. And then he’s had to apologize. Frankly, I wish I could believe he was actually sorry.
I’ll be the first to admit: I have mixed feelings about Penny-Arcade. On the one had, they’ve done some amazing things for charity and gaming culture in general. They’ve had no problem in shooting back at various anti-gaming gadflies like Jack Thompson or bringing down suspect gaming marketers like Ocean Marketing
At the same time however: for people who claim to hate bullies with a passion, they sure as hell act like one whenever the mood strikes.
I’ll be honest: I tend to have a negative impression of the webcomic side of Penny-Arcade and not just because they’ve taken a shot or two at me personally.
The only thing worse than Doctor Nerdlove is the comments on Doctor Nerdlove. — TychoBrahe (@TychoBrahe) September 14, 2012
(“♬I bet you think this comic’s about you….♫”)
But it’s the Dickwolves controversy – and the way that Penny-Arcade has handled it… especially Mike’s contributions. And frankly, Penny-Arcade’s antics – especially Mike’s – are emblematic of an ongoing problem in geek and gamer culture.
The Call Of the Dickwolves
For those not familiar with this fiasco – and welcome to the Internet, I think you’ll enjoy it, by the way – in 2010, Penny-Arcade published a comic entitled “The Sixth Slave”, poking fun at the game mechanics in World of Warcraft and other MMOs where you are only supposed to collect six rat asses or rescue six captives or gather two dozen flowers because reasons. In this particular strip, a slave left behind after the player has recruited his quota begged to be taken along; “Every morning, we’re awoken with savage beatings,” he pleads. “Every night, we’re raped to sleep by the dickwolves.”
Many people – including survivors of sexual abuse and rape – found this strip to be offensive beyond PA’s usual “edginess”. Many even found it to be upsetting. Tycho and Gabe posted this in response:
To say that people were pissed off is something of an understatement. While Penny-Arcade is known for being willing to court controversy and poke at its critics, the level of willful antagonizing of the people who expressed grievances with The Sixth Slave and PA’s response seemed to take on a new level.
At the 2010 PAX, Mike – the artist half of Penny-Arcade’s Tycho and Gabriel – drew a dickwolf for the audience, while Jerry Holkins announced that Dickwolves t-shirts were for sale in the PA merch store.
And then the internet exploded.
As questionable as Mike and Jerry’s handling of the whole dickwolves controversy had been, it was the shirts that were the most pointed “go fuck yourself”. There’s really no question that this was a direct shot at their critics, with the added pissing-in-the-wound factor of monetizing the controversy.
Let’s allow that to sink in for a second. They decided that – in the light of the many, many people who were justifiably upset over the controversy – to monetize a rape joke as a way of striking back at their critics.
The dickwolves shirts were pulled from the store a month later after several speakers and gaming companies announced that they would be boycotting PAX East; many of Penny-Arcade’s fans bristled at PA’s apparent backing down in the face of “censorship”; Mike personally encouraged people to wear their shirts. Flash-mobs were planned. It seemed that Dickwolves were going to be defining PAX for quite some time – an awkward position for a convention that positions itself as being as woman and family-friendly as possible.
It certainly didn’t help that Mike kept returning to the topic.
While the whole furor died down – sort of – after PAX East, the controversy flared back up again last Monday during a Q&A session Mike told the audience that he felt that pulling the dickwolves shirts from the online store was a mistake. Robert Khoo, Penny-Arcade’s business manager agreed, saying that yanking the shirts was a form of engaging with their critics when they should have ignored them – as is now company policy.
The Internet, needless to say, was not silent on the matter.
The Apology Cometh
Yesterday (9/5/13) Mike posted a lengthy apology – not just for his comments about the dickwolf shirts but about the entire controversy. It’s a fairly lengthy and eloquent apology, expressing regret about the whole mess… and I really wish I could take it at face value.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I hate it when people let the perfect be the enemy of “the good”, but as I read this, I have a hard time believing that Mike actually gets the problem.
To start with: he begins the apology by defending the comic that started the whole mess in the first place. His regrets, it seems, come from his seeming need to keep poking the Internet bear. Nowhere does he acknowledge the problems with the original strip.
Now, do I think that it’s the most horrible thing ever? Well… not really, no. I think it’s in poor taste. I think parts of it are funny. Poking fun at the inadvertent world that WoW’s mechanics create? Funny. The idea of a wolf made out of dicks? Funny. Rape jokes? Well, that’s going to be a polarizing issue; some people hate them in general, some people believe there are no sacred cows when it comes to comedy. But the problem isn’t that Mike and Jerry made a rape joke: it’s that Mike still doesn’t get why people are upset. This whole thing could’ve been avoided with a simple “OK, I get why you’re upset. I don’t necessarily agree with you, but I apologize if I offended you.”
Instead we get the follow-up strip, which – again – Mike seems to not realize the problem. From his apology:
That was a mistake and I apologize to this day for that strip. It was a knee jerk reaction and rather than the precision strike back at our detractors that we intended, it was a massive AOE that hurt a lot of innocent people.
Emphasis mine. The mistake wasn’t that he made an overly broad attack, it was that he felt the need to “strike back” in the first place.
Here’s the thing about edgy comedy: it’s only edgy when you’re punching outside of your weight-class. When you’re punching down, you’re not being edgy; you’re being a bully. It’s a case of “pick on someone your own size” – and individuals criticizing a rape joke for its insensitivity are no where near their size. Considering that Penny-Arcade is the 2000 lb. gorilla of web comics and gaming culture, there’re damned few people who aren’t smaller than they are.
Then we get to another area where Mike seems to be missing the point:
We should have just stopped right then but we kept going and made the merchandise. Had we left it alone, the ongoing tension about the whole thing might have subsided but Robert made the call to pull the shirts. In hindsight all this did was open the wound back up and bring on a whole new wave of debate.
Um… no. Pulling the shirts – which, again, was Penny-Arcade monetizing an insult to rape survivors – didn’t “reopen” the wound, it was the right thing to do. When you’re pissing off a lot of people and alienating your fans and you want the problem to go away, making money off the very thing that’s pissing them off is the exact opposite of what you want to do.
Yanking the shirts wasn’t “engaging” the critics; they’d engaged the critics from the very beginning. That unfortunate “AOE attack” that “missed it’s target?” That’s the literal definition of engaging the critics.
It’s hard to tell if he’s being disingenuous or if he legitimately doesn’t realize the difference between “engaging” and “doing the right thing”.
Portrait of an Internet Bully
Part of the reason why I have a hard time taking this apology seriously is because it’s part of an ongoing pattern with Krahulik: say something insensitive or outright insulting, double down when called on it, lash out at the critics, pull back with a “sorry not sorry” apology. He’s mocked assault victims and trans people online, apologized…and then engaged in the exact same behavior all over again.
Occasionally, he’ll explain that he’s a hothead who was bullied as a kid and now he’s fighting against censorship and internet bullies.
Except… who, exactly, is bullying Krahulik? Who’s in a position to censor him? He’s a literal millionaire with financial and social resources that the rest of us can only dream of. Nobody’s preventing him from printing dickwolf shirts. Nobody’s abridging his right to act like a complete dick. Unless I’ve missed some act of Congress, there’s no law against bad taste.
Nobody who’s criticized Mike wields the power and influence that he does. He’s the biggest swinging dick(wolf) in the room. Slapping back at individuals who question him or criticize him is like swatting flies with a Buick. For somebody who hates being bullied, he certainly seems to have no problem being a bully himself.
Mike, it seems, is not able to separate criticism of his art from personal attacks. And his response, when told that the whole controversy is making people uncomfortable and contradicting PAX’s inclusive philosophy, is to double down on it and encourage others to join him in making those people uncomfortable
Moreover, he seems to be completely unaware of the power that he wields. Consider that the Penny-Arcade audience runs to the literal millions and that their fans will follow Mike and Jerry’s lead when it comes to these issues.
And to be sure: where Penny-Arcade goes, so go their fans. People who objected to the controversy – especially women who wrote about it – were deluged with angry comments from thousands of Penny-Arcade fans, including repeated rape and death threats.
Courtney Stanton – a rape survivor – has written repeatedly about just why the dickwolves controversy was offensive and potentially triggering for abuse survivors. In response, she was targeted by fans, including ones determined to “prove she was lying” about her rape.
Elizabeth Sampat also criticized Penny-Arcade‘s history of shitty behavior, only to receive thousands of rape threats directed not only at her but her kids.
They’re not the only ones. Many critics who wrote about the original strip and its follow-ups received similar threats and harassment from Penny-Arcade fans.
To be fair: Mike and Jerry didn’t decide to unleash the flying monkeys; they didn’t point to their critics and yell “Sic ‘em!”
But – to mix in a different geek reference – with great power comes great responsibility… and it’s hard to find people with more power than Mike and Jerry. They literally set the tone for the way their fans are likely to see things and the fans respond accordingly. It’s amusing to see it when the target is someone who “deserves” it – Jack Thompson comes to mind – but it’s absolutely terrifying when they turn on people in the name of – in the words of Twitter user @TeamRape1 – “showing those that want to crush free speech”.
Dickwolves and Privilege
The whole controversy about the Dickwolves is reflective of the issues that gaming culture – and geek culture as a whole – continues to face. Women are taking part in geek culture, from comics to science fiction to gaming, in greater numbers than ever before… and all too often, they’re being told over and over again that they’re not welcome there.
Women consistently have to justify their “nerd cred”, are told over and over again that they’re not good enough to be part of the club (or else are there under false pretenses), are harassed over and over again, and then have their very legitimate concerns minimized. They’re told repeatedly to not make waves, to sit down and shut up, to ignore the over-sexualized representation of women, to endure the harassment and not to try to change anything.
PAX is supposed to be the antithesis of all of this. It’s supposed to be the all-inclusive, family friendly alternative to the shitty side of gamer culture. Its stellar anti-harassment policy and attention to diversity in its panels and guests speaks highly to its goals…
… but it’s hard to keep those goals in mind when one half of the public face of PAX is mocking trigger warnings and rape victims and his followers are threatening to murder his critics.
And so here we are again. He’s shot his mouth off and now he’s apologizing. Again. I wish I could believe that Mike’s apology is sincere instead of an attempt at managing a public-relations fiasco that’s been dogging the Penny-Arcade brand for years now.
Maybe Mike means it this time. I honestly hope he does.
But – as many have pointed out when he was insulting trans people – an apology is just a start. It’s not enough to say you’re sorry, especially if you just turn right around and do it all over again.
If Mike wants to prove he’s actually changed this time, that he cares about how his words and actions taint PAX, then we’re going to need to see consistent and sustained change.
Not just another blog-post.
- Fucking seriously? [↩]