Mighty Life List
Sep 5 2013

PAX Dickwolves Controversy: Nice Guys Finishing Last

This weekend I attended PAX. If you’ve never heard of it, PAX stands for Penny Arcade Expo, a gaming festival for people who like computer, console, and table games.

Afterward, I heard that PAX has had some controversy over the last couple years, much of it stemming from a rape reference made in a comic called Penny Arcade, which is published by PAX organizers. I had an embarrassed flash of, “Did I just go to a thing that doesn’t like ladies? Ah maaaaaan.”

So I researched what happened last night, and this morning WIRED published a piece about the whole deal. Quick synopsis:

THE PAX CONTROVERSY

  • In 2010, PAX organizers Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, published this comic referencing Dickwolves that rape people to sleep:


    The rape reference upset some attendees.

  • Organizers then published a couple of unapologetic and somewhat flippant posts reffing the incident, and this ham-fisted explanation in comic-form, which further offended the offended parties.
  • Later, Krahulik drew the aforementioned Dickwolf onstage at PAX:

  • Organizers made Dickwolves merch for the fans who felt the controversy had been blown out of proportion:


    And subsequently pulled the merch when some attendees, speakers, and companies voiced the collective equivalent of, “Uh. Seriously, guys?”

  • Krahulik tweeted that he’d still be wearing his shirt to PAX.
  • Then at this year’s PAX, Krahulik said onstage, “I think that pulling the Dickwolves merchandise was a mistake.” (2:34:57 in the video)

    Watch live video from PAX East 2012 on TwitchTV
    Huh.

THE CONUNDRUM

The original comic didn’t bother me much personally, because as Rachel Edidin put it in the Wired piece, the joke was more of “an illustration of the screwed-up ethics implied by the quests in videogames like World of Warcraft.” However, I got more incredulous and angry as I read on.

To be fair, I knew nothing else about these guys going in. Further, I don’t know the personalities at the heart of the complaint, which are always a factor. That said, this was not handled well. Krahulik in particular seems to be in a defensive crouch, belaboring a subject that is obviously painful for some of his fans.

I sat down to write this feeling ready to do another round of, “Rape references are creepy. Please stop being so cruddy.” But then I watched the video above, and came away feeling dejected.

PUTTING A FACE TO THE BLAME

The running theme in that onstage interview, which is actually a conversation between friends and business partners, is what it’s like to be a stereotypical nerd rising to success. I encourage you to watch a bit of it. The organizers are vulnerable, with lots of self-effacing humor about insecurity, the desire for physical and emotional intimacy with women, and surprise that life has granted a measure of success, even as the result of hard work.

Krahulik mentions being glad he met his wife when he did, because he fears his subsequent success would have made it difficult to find someone who really understood him and cared for him otherwise. They tease each other about girls, “Do you remember when you had that girlfriend and your first date was, like, writing up a contract for each other?” Holkins mentions that the team’s financial success unsettles him, having come from a poor background, and worries aloud that he doesn’t pull his weight in the business. Krahulik hesitates before telling a story, “Can I please say it?” he asks his wife from stage, then having acquired her assent, proceeds to tell the world’s tamest story about his first visit to a strip club as an adult who doesn’t like to drink.

These aren’t callous guys. They are guys who have been candid about having some psychological problems, and have trouble seeing themselves as role models.

THE CONFERENCE

I’ve attended years of web, tech, and blogger conferences, and know these events often reflect the intentions and personalities of the organizers. Before I knew about the controversy, I thought the feeling at PAX was lovely.

I was preparing to write a post about how I’ve never been around a huge group of people who were more polite and aware of each other. Lots of smiles and small kindnesses, holding doors open for each other, stepping to the side if someone wanted a photo, noticing if someone had dropped something. There was an overwhelming sense of courtesy, cooperation, and goodwill.

But the actions of the PAX team on this point make it more difficult to enjoy the environment they’ve created. Not because of the original comic, but because of their ill-considered behavior in the aftermath. If they’re genuinely nice guys, as they present themselves, why have they been so reactive?

IN THE LOOP

In these situations, we often cast public figures in one-dimensional roles. For many women who hear about this issue around PAX, Krahulik and Holkins will be the rape joke guys. It’s natural that our tendency to label should spark defensiveness on the part of organizers. We are not mean people. We did not set out to wound you, therefore it is unfair to hold us accountable for your wounds. The response isn’t particularly evolved, but it is human.

What’s more, these are men at the center of a world comprised mostly of men. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, or their unwillingness to listen, but I’m hardly surprised. Living in a tech-centric town, I know lots of nice guys who nonetheless seem baffled when you bring up the most rudimentary feminist issues. It can be frustrating.

In the video, the audience cheers when Krahulik expresses regret at having pulled the Dickwolves merchandise. He’s in a feedback loop of people, many of them presumably decent people, who agree that he hasn’t done anything wrong. That must be good to hear, and must make it hard to hear much else.

Update: Gabe Krahulik clarified his on stage statement regarding the Dickwolves merch, apologizing for much of the incident, but asserting that he believes it would have been better had they not taken further action by removing the shirts.

17 Responses to “PAX Dickwolves Controversy: Nice Guys Finishing Last”

  • kathryn Says:

    I appreciate that people who do stupid/bad things are human, but even my four-year-old knows that if he hurts someone by accident, he needs to 1) apologize, 2) make sure they’re ok, and 3) do better next time.

  • ElJay Says:

    Mike made a post last night elaborating on why he thought it was a mistake to pull the merchandise:

    http://www.penny-arcade.com/2013/09/04/some-clarification

    I still don’t agree with him, but I think it helps to see more of his thoughts than the few seconds the panel devoted to it.

    As someone who has been following Penny Arcade for years and has read every strip, these guys are, overwhelmingly, good guys. They’re also socially awkward guys who had no idea what they were getting into with the original joke and reacted very poorly.

    I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of women will only ever know them as the rape joke guys, but I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone who is in that position to look any further. But as a woman who plays video games, PAX is the only convention I would attend. Gaming has a problem with how it treats women right now, and the Penny Arcade guys are on the right side in every other way I’ve seen. I’m willing to chalk this one up to being human, and hope they’ve learned more from it than is readily apparent.

  • alison Says:

    Thanks for posting this. When I saw that you were going to PAX, I’d wondered if you knew about the Dickwolves controversy and how you felt about it.

    As far as I’m concerned, the way they handled it was a thousand times worse than the joke they made in the first place. That they continue to miss the point 3 years later proves that, like you said, they’re highly influenced by the fact that most of their fans think they can do no wrong.

    I’m glad you had a positive experience there; it’s good to know that the atmosphere isn’t entirely unwelcoming. I’ll make sure to say hi to you at XOXO in a few weeks!

  • Bec Says:

    After reading a lot of discussion lately I’ve decided that I don’t want to attend PAX East again (I’ve gone twice with my boyfriend). I enjoyed the times that I went but I just feel like I can’t continue to support a con that is run by folks who can’t bring themselves to just apologize for being hurtful. The original joke didn’t bother me much but it also isn’t a personal thing for me. I can totally understand how survivors could be really affected and I’m so disappointed in the reaction they received.

  • dunsany Says:

    Thank you for writing this. I too was wondering if you were going to cover “the controversy” and I’m glad you did in a thoughtful, informed manner. I’ve been a fan of the Penny Arcade guys from way back and was disappointed (but not surprised) about how they misunderstood this. Note to self as a writer: remember to punch up, not down.

  • jenG Says:

    I followed this a bit when it was happening, and I think The NiceGuy(TM) thing is part of their problem. These guys are not the ones usually called to account for this kind of garbage…and so I think they thought they should get a pass. A la “We’re your allies, so it should be okay, right? Like when women call each other bitches when they won’t let men do it?” And I think a lot of women were extra hurt simply because they had previously felt welcome and safe in that environment…which has not historically been easy for women gamers.

    So…nope. Still wrong. Still operating in a giant vat of privilege they might be more willing to examine if it weren’t for all the success they’ve enjoyed. Still unwilling to recognize that impact > intent, always. That they seem to be capable of doing so much better just makes it worse when they don’t.

  • Kristin Says:

    I’ve been going to PAX since 2006. A few commenters already hit the nail on the head – As a female gamer, I felt welcomed and safe at PAX compared to other cons… I met other women who played video games. We are a small but growing demographic, with the latest generation coming onto the economic playing field never knowing that being a female gamer is an oddity. In a few generations, I’d like to think that women and men will be equally interested in mashing buttons and moving pixels around.

    But I remember being a female gamer in the 80s and 90s. I remember being the ONE woman in a 39-man raiding group to Molten Core when world of warcraft was new. I was often treated like a dim-witted child, despite never wiping a raid and ranking top DPS. I had to endure an endless barrage of tasteless rape jokes in guild chat, and private tells where other guildies would ask me such things as, “What is your cup size? How much do you weigh? Do you have a MySpace? Can you post a picture on the forums?”

    And yes, I got rape threats in private chat from guildies. Screenshots were given to the guild leader, the offending party moved, but I was shamed and seen as a “drama queen” for reporting it.

    Men gamers, in general, HAVE A LONG WAY TO GO. There are more women who play MMOs now… but I’ll never forget enduring two years of harassment just because I wanted to go kill some giant dragon and needed 39 other people to get there. I moved servers, I told folks my headset was broken. I just didn’t want to deal with it. It’s even worse if you play XBOX and first person shooters. There are plenty of stories of women being sent dick pics.

    Gaming culture as a whole is evolving. I really, truly want to believe that PAX could be at the forefront of some new self awareness and allowing the gaming culture to evolve to be more welcoming to women. It’s not the Dickwolves tho – its a predominately male demographic that doesn’t know how to share video games with women. PAX needs to seize on this evolution and gently steer it in a direction that is not only healthy for gamers of all backgrounds, but encourages us to be better people.

    I havent hung up my pax badge forever yet. I feel like PAX is the best chance we have at tackling these gamer issues. If anything, the whole Dickwolves controversy has galvanized me and my friends to bring something better to the table. How? I don’t know, but I know I’m not giving up just yet.

  • Beth Says:

    People were really offended by that original comic? To me, the comic is so Not a Big Deal – at worst, it’s dumb and unfunny. The real controversy is in the creators’ response, their refusal to do the usual contrite apology thing that offended consumers have come to expect. I can kind of see why the creators didn’t want to give in and went sarcastic instead, and artists have some obligations to not apologize for their work, but they’re also just fueling the fire with an inappropriate and aggressive response. Ultimately, this gets a big fat “who cares?” from me. Real problems, anyone?

  • Colette Says:

    I appreciate that these guys themselves meant no harm and have/had insecurities, perhaps especially around romantic relationships with women, for most of their lives.

    HOWEVER, these are adult men. These are adult men who are very successful in their business which yes, has a lot of men who feel the same way as they do/did about feeling like a nerd and worrying about the social stigmas that come with that. But these are adult men who know that they are organizing huge conferences, who know that what they draw/write/create will be seen by thousands, and who know that there are (probably more than they think) women who consume their media and attend their events. It shouldn’t even be a question of having to consider the audience (i.e. including women) as I don’t think a rape joke is ever particularly funny, but I’ll admit that I know more women than men who would be offended by this controversy.

    They offered no apology and essentially escalated the problem by creating more things that side-stepped any meaningful discussion or apology and basically rolled their eyes at people who were offended. As professional men responsible for such large events, I think that’s pathetic. It’s one thing to have some anxiety about yourself and the culture you immerse yourself in, but there’s no excuse for careless rape jokes. I live in Seattle and haven’t ever attended PAX, but I definitely never will. Privileged white men refusing to recognize their error and ignorance is not something I support.

  • Kimberly Says:

    Firstly, I didn’t think you were a gamer, Maggie!

    I’ve been reading PA for over 10 years now. I’m a supporter of Child’s Play, which has done fantastic things. But I never went to PAX (too far, even the east coast version.) As a World of Warcraft player the comic was funny because the punchline was not about rape (stay with me stay with me) but it was about the craziness of quests where you only have to be heroic for a set amount of time. If you played WoW through WoTLK (like 10 million people did), you did that very quest featured in the comic. That Mike and Jerry (who writes the comics, but seems to skate away clean from this because he keeps quiet) used rape as the tossaway subjoke in panel two was very bad judgment. It was their behavior in the aftermath (especially Mike’s) that was their undoing. But they pulled the merch and it died down. That Mike brought it back up at PAX proves that not all artists should be mouthpieces, especially when their products become conglomerates.

    Then again, men and women still laud Roman Polanksi and his films. Men and women still adore Woody Allen and his films. Men and women still think Alec Baldwin is the bee’s knees. The webcomic guy in Seattle is neither the beginning nor the end of rape culture and anti-LGBTQ slurs.

  • Rachel Says:

    PAX is the only convention that as a woman I feel comfortable and proud continuing to go to. Mike knows he messed up in the handling of the situation but I honestly don’t think that anything he can say can make this better. If he doesn’t say something, he gets reamed, if he says something, he gets reamed. I was there during the Khoo and A and I think the guy in the audience was only able to say that because of anonymity. This is not what gamers or the majority of PA fans think.

    Who among us hasn’t made a tasteless joke among friends, made a mistake or said something we regretted? The only difference here is they do it publicly. And these guys aren’t celebrities with PR people. They are nerds thrust into fame who are doing these comics for thousands of their friends.

    I have been a victim of sexual assault as has my husband. The comic however wasn’t about that. It was about something we both love and have experienced: stupid video game quests.

    On a completely different note, I’m sad I didn’t see you at PAX, Maggie! I didn’t know you were going to be there until I was home already.

  • norm Says:

    I am very much in sync with you on this. I was particularly disturbed because my oldest kid was working at PAX this year! If you tried the Oculus Rift you might have met my kid (super cute, lotsa tattoos) :D Anyway, the Krahulik problem is severe. I don’t know what to do because it’s so baffling.

  • Fawn Says:

    I was just coming back to your site tonight to post a link to the Wired story after seeing that you had been at PAX. I have only followed this controversy tangentially, so I won’t add anything directly about what happened. But I do want to thank you for your post. You put yourself at risk of attack just by addressing it honestly, but it is powerful to keep speaking the truth.

  • Jessica Says:

    I’m sorry, but this is still unacceptable no matter what huge “nerds” these men may be. In fact, it almost makes it more annoying; if you yourself had self-esteem issues stemming from years of people saying upsetting things to you or undervaluing you in society how can you have so little compassion when you’ve been told you’ve done so yourself.

    These are adult men who run a successful business, no matter their nerdiness or psychological issues they are accountable and obviously not daft. We are not referring to a simple incident; this has been three years running now, and it’s continually prodded at by these guys. We hold women in society to such a high standard, especially in regards to rape culture and if they were asking for it, if they were the perfect victim who’s never done anything wrong if they want a conviction. The very least we can hold men to is that they listen and apologize when they make a mistake instead of carrying on this way, no matter how lovely their conference was to you.

  • Dan Says:

    I’m astonished at the level of sexism displayed by feminists getting angry about the comic. Their assertion is that rape jokes are never ok because rape jokes are inherently anti-woman. At some point these people got the idea that only women can be raped. In the comic it’s not a woman, it’s a man. A woman shouldn’t feel threatened by that. Further the whole point of the comic is that games have screwed up moral systems, it doesn’t promote rape.

    It’s also clear from your post that you have little to no idea of what Penny Arcade is. Referring to Mike and Jerry as “organizers” is a crazy understatement. Mike and Jerry published the most popular webcomic for a decade and had so many fans that they decide to start PAX. PAX is the outgrowth of their comic, not the other way around.

    What will happen when you actually go and read their comics? Will you be more shocked by the fruit fucker? An ongoing joke about a juicing machine that basically rapes fruit in order to make juice? If you don’t like Penny Arcade that’s fine but don’t act like they broke some social contract with you, you obviously had no idea what you were attending.

  • Kate Says:

    It wasn’t the bad rape joke, which, as you say can have an ambiguous read. And besides. Rape jokes. They are everywhere. Which is crummy. But they are.

    It wasn’t even so much the initial response, which could have put an end to all of it, even if the end had brought about by silence.

    It’s the way they handled the aftermath that sank this particular institution for me. The PAX cons are supposed to be places where people are nice and where people are safe.

    And the defensiveness of the reaction and the failure to point out to the fans who escalated and escalated and escalated to produce some of the worst/classic examples of harassment of women online… no.

    If you feel you can address a criticism of your comic by writing another comic, surely you can post on Twitter emphatically and frequently that rape and death threats towards critics are not ever okay. They aren’t jokes, they’re not an ambiguous read. They have no place in the conversation.

    I stopped following before any such response happened, if it happened, and long after it could do any real repairing work. So I don’t know where things are now.

    But really guys? REALLY? You can’t call a safe space safe if it means “safe for everyone, as long as you get to define what safety is.” That’s male privilege, and you’re profiting directly from it.

    I am glad people open doors. But I don’t want to see how people (not all, but it doesn’t take many) react if something they don’t like happens. Which is when the small kindnesses and cooperation are most important.

    In my less lovely moods, I want to tell them to cry me a river with their sensitive seeking of intimacy and vulnerability. When they’ve dealt with the kind of violent online abuse the women who supported the original criticism have, they can come talk to me about vulnerable.

    I feel badly for the Penny Arcade Guys because I think they could have done so well with this, and I doubt they will ever recover fully.

  • Kate Says:

    Although… in one of my favorite Fresh Interviews ever, the late, lamented MCA of the Beastie Boys shows the PA guys how this is done, if they care to take the lesson.

    Terry Gross asks him what kinds of lyrics they will change up or improvise in live performances. His response “well, mostly some of the sexist stuff.” He went on to observe that basically, they needed to grow up and cut that s*it out.

    Protip, Penny Arcade: I knew when I was in 7th grade going to mixers and listening to License to Ill. This is… sexist. So 25 years later to hear that… it gave me hope, and it meant a lot. Especially since I mostly love the Beastie Boys.