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
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.
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.