Friday, September 6, 2013

PAX being raped to sleep by dickwolves

I remember seeing the "dickwolves" comic however many years ago...

I thought it was pretty frickin funny.  One of those annoying, but occasionally endearing for sheer ludicrousness, breaks in immersion in the game you've been living in for the past 8 hours straight.  It's been done in webcomics about games plenty of times, to emerge from the depths of some new game obsession to the outside world and see the stuff you've been buying laid out in front of you in all its bizarreness.

I remembered the dickwolves comic about as well as I remembered the others posted above; that is to say, I could remember and search for it when thinking about funny comics I've seen about "game logic," but otherwise I forgot about it.  So I was pretty surprised to find in my Facebook feed an article in Wired about how this random comic not only was offensive, but was the starting point for what years later has people taking to their blogs and announcing that the PAX conference that ended last week was their last, and maybe it should be yours too (you know, if you're lucky enough to even GO... and go MULTIPLE times... not that I'm jealous...).

The non-snarky summary: Penny Arcade posted the "dickwolves" comic.  Some bloggers thought it was offensive for trivializing rape.  PA responded to the criticism with another comic.  This got even more people angry, and drew more attention to the argument.  People starting trolling and harrassing each other on Twitter.  Penny Arcade created a dickwolves T-Shirt to sell to fans.  Another PAX approached (this is two years ago, mind you), some people emailed Gabe and Tycho about the shirts and they agreed to not sell them at the convention, and then to stop selling them entirely.  People STILL kept talking about it, baiting and trolling, but the issue mostly died down.  Then at this year's PAX, real-life Gabe answered a question at a panel about something he regretted his business manager did, and he responded he wished he hadn't insisted the dickwolves merchandise had been stopped.  Fans in the audience reacted enthusiastically to the idea of bringing it back, and the issue came right back up again.  Now there are people who not only went to PAX, but volunteered to work it in various ways, that are saying they want to cut ties and encourage others to do so, too.

The snarky summary: Penny Arcade, a webcomic brimming with vulgar humor, makes a comic about game logic in WOW after an update comes out.  They point out the sad humor in leaving a slave captive in a torturous existence because of WOW's infamous numerically-based quest objectives.  But they make a mistake, a mistake they would pay for for years in lose-lose PR situations, bad blood, and flame wars.  This tortured slave was woken up by savage beatings, and who knows what horrors he faced during the day, but he went to sleep being raped.  Raped!!  By dickwolves!!

They set up a hyperbolic situation of misery, and they dared to mention being raped as part of that suite of horrors.  Almost everyone seems to agree that the original comic had nothing to do with trivializing rape, that if anything it used repulsion at the idea to highlight just how bizarre the "heroic" quests of WOW can be.  But that's not important anymore, critics say.  It doesn't matter if the comic trivialized rape or not.  What matters is that some people felt it did, and to do anything other than meekly apologize and accept the criticism was to personally attack rape survivors, to bully victims into submission, and surely any further action beyond the comic itself is evidence that they really do want to trivialize rape.

This is kind of pointless to say several paragraphs in, but I don't really want to talk about the dickwolves comic itself.  I honestly think it is obvious to anyone who has ever played a quest-based RPG that the comic was not about rape at all, that being raped by dickwolves could have been replaced with being forced to eat the bones of their fellow captives for breakfast, or having to give pedicures to the Thousand-Toed Beast of Toejams, and the comic would have been just as funny (excepting that dickwolves is much more Penny Arcade-ish than my pathetic replacements).

From the Wired article:
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.
The article ends with the reason why the author doesn't want to support PAX anymore:
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...
...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.
The way critics of Penny Arcade see it, they made a comic and responses that ended up offending people, people that have been hurt bad in the past (and the people that haven't been hurt, but imagine what it'd be like to be hurt and can feel offended, too).  All these people asked was to please apologize for what you posted and stop posting it.  But Penny Arcade insisted on escalating the situation, which caused even more offense and pain, and their refusal to recognize this and stop is evidence that they want to hurt these people, and so shouldn't be supported anymore.

On the surface, it's not exactly unreasonable to argue that if something is deeply offensive to some people, it's nice to apologize if you did not mean to hurt them and move on.  In fact, the folks at Penny Arcade recognized this themselves: when explaining their decision to not sell the dickwolves shirts at PAX, Gabe explains how some people attending the expo emailed him personally with their concerns about selling the shirts there and how they would feel more comfortable if they weren't sold there, he figured not selling them was an easy solution towards the goal of making PAX as accessible and great as possible for whoever attended.  So if he was willing to compromise on dickwolves merch at PAX, why was he unwilling to just simply apologize for the comic and move on?

I think it's important to see that it's not just an apology that critics of the dickwolves comic were looking for.  If it was, they got a pretty definitive one in PA's response comic, straightforward saying "rape is wrong and of course we think it is, end of story."  But that apology just ticked people off more because it wasn't apologizing for the "right thing."  Yeah yeah, you think rape is wrong, but that's not what our beef was.  It was that you talked about it wrong.  It was that you talked about it at all.  You're just making it worse now because you didn't just let us criticize you in silence.  We say you are trivializing rape, and unless you agree you are trivializing rape and apologize for that, or just shut up, you will be trivializing it even more.

That is what the guys at Penny Arcade decided to stand up against.  Not the idea that the critics were going to take away their freedom of speech.  They did not agree that they were trivializing rape.  They did not agree with the criticisms leveled against them.  They did not agree with the insinuation that they think rape is fine because some people couldn't understand a joke.  It would have been easiest for them to just leave the comic as it was, just let people say what they would and let it slide with no comment.  Instead they decided to vocally disagree, to voice their argument that just because some people say a joke "perpetuates rape culture" doesn't mean that it does.  It wasn't censorship by the tools of the state that they decided to stand up against, it was the everyday pressure to keep silent through shame, by attacking an author's intentions.  If critics of PA thought that their arguments were untouchable because they chose not to try and enforce the silence they sought with threats of jail and guns, they found that people actually disagreed with the idea self-censorship as a moral imperative as well.

Arguments about the First Amendment are moot in most of these "political correctness" clashes.  That people of very different ideologies can agree that it's not a good idea to silence your opposition by throwing them in cages or shooting them is not exactly remarkable.  This does not mean that any sort of meta-discussion about the nature of social and political debate is resolved as well, though.  So both sides agree not to shoot each other.  Now what?

On one side stands the people that think that making sure no one is kidnapped or shot is not sufficient ground rules for controversial debate.  People can be hurt by more than guns, they say.  They can be hurt by words, they can be hurt by their impression of the world, they can be afraid or threatened by the opinions of others.  Therefore, it is also important to make sure people participating in a debate aren't being hurt in these more subtle ways.  As the author of the Wired article says,
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.
On the other side stand the people that think that while speaking your opinion, your moral imperative stops more-or-less at the "don't actually harm and threaten them" line.  Speak your words and make your arguments as you will.  By all means recognize that rudeness or crassness may not be persuasive, but it's your choice if you are going out there to change minds or just to speak yours.  And the idea of being able to speak your mind without offending someone by somehow predicting and taking responsibility for the reactions of others seems impossible and ridiculous.  This was the flavor of Gabe's first response to the dickwolves critics in his blog:
I just don’t understand that. Did the comics about bestiality, suicide, murder, pedophilia, and torture not bother them? Or how about the fruit fucker? I mean, we have a character who is a literal rapist. What comic strip have they been reading all these years?
For the most part I think that people are perfectly happy to laugh at offensive jokes until the joke offends them. Then it’s not funny anymore. There is no way we can know what each and every person who reads the comic has decided to find offensive.
In the end I just disagree with these people about what’s funny and that’s perfectly okay.
Gabe says it's "perfectly okay," but the problem is that, for people of the former turn of mind, "just disagreeing" however you will is not okay.  He's willing to accept that not everyone agrees with him.  For them the moral discussion of rape goes beyond rape to the very nature of the discussion itself.  Not only do the issues being discussed have a non-neutral moral value, but the way it is discussed can be right and wrong as well.  For all the Wired author's use of the quote "You're not wrong, you're just an asshole," it's apparent she is not criticizing the rudeness of real-life Gabe.  People don't write giant articles about choosing to not go to a great, influential, and fun convention of such magnitude in the industry (and encourage others to choose the same) just because one of the guys that started it rubs them the wrong way.  People don't worry about participating in a charity event because one of the coordinators is a jerk.  And they certainly don't consider participation in the event a danger because "[there is] no longer a clear line between uncomfortable silence and complicity " with the personal jerkish character of the coordinator.

No, people aren't being thrown into a fervor over fear they will be complicit in some ass-like behavior.  They think that the very way Gabe speaks his opinion is wrong, morally wrong, and they don't want to accidentally have some of this wrongness rub off on them.  For them, discussion about social issues is not a debate with logical arguments and open minded consideration of any and all points.  The very discussion itself is a minefield riddled with traps that must be deftly avoided, with procedures that must be followed and a virtuousness all its own.  It's not important that Gabe thinks rape is wrong, it's not important that no one is being threatened by actual dickwolves, it's not important that no encouragement of rape has occurred and no one has actually been hurt.  What's important is that Gabe blundered his way into the discussion like an oaf and refused to follow the rules of PC, or acceptance of feelings without questioning if those feelings are defensible or not.  He was sarcastic with the wrong social group, he was dismissive of those labeled as the dismissed, and he dared to even consider himself, a white heterosexual male, as attacked by the criticism leveled at him such that he felt the need to defend himself.

Also in the Wired article, a quote from Emma Story, who used to work 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.
To PA's critics, the very idea that "victims and advocates" could bully a white male does not fit in their definition of power and privilege.  To them, victims and their advocates are the weak, and white males are the strong, apparently is such a real way as to find it as inconceivable that they could have any sort of effect on Penny Arcade as a gnat could to a brick wall.  So what that they are calling the heads of Penny Arcade rape apologists, so what that they are arguing that they now share responsibility for any rapes in this "rape culture," so what that they are taking to their own considerable spheres of social influence and calling PAX an unsafe, female-hating environment and seeking to sabotage support for it?  Sure, this would be considered action which the folks at Penny Arcade might feel the need to argue and defend themselves against, would be something that they felt compelled to deal with... if it was coming from a more privileged group, of course.  But the people doing this insist they have no power, insist that their accusations and arguments are just the poor quiet moans of the oppressed, and insist that Penny Arcade's attempts to confront and refute them amount to a wrestler putting a toddler into a headlock.  After all, they aren't even calling for the government to shut PA up, so no freedom of speech arguments please, so no one is forcing you to shut up so what's the big deal with just shutting up? (Nevermind that bullies do not use the government to get people to do what they want either... Gabe just can't possibly feel he's being bullied as a man of privilege).

This whole situation is so out of control, it boggles my mind.  I have friends on Facebook who live in Seattle and go to or work PAX every year vowing to never set foot in there again.  There are indie developers crying oppression for being "forced" to attend PAX to promote their games in a hostile moral environment created by Gabe, rather than recognizing just how amazing it is that there even IS such a giant convention for indie games to be showcased as an alternative to E3, and recognizing just how important PAX has been to the entire movement, and recognizing it as the valuable opportunity it is.  PAX is a celebration of gaming, a meeting of creative minds, a giant interface between the gaming community, charity, and the industry.  And not just the state of discussion of sexual assault, but the state of the state of the discussion, is so hypersensitive and poisonous that people would be willing to bring down something as valuable as PAX just to prove that they are better at playing the discussion game.

People defending Penny Arcade are perfectly willing to hear the complaints and arguments about dickwolves and threatening T-shirts and rape culture.  But they are going to speak their minds about why they think the complaints and arguments are wrong or straight-up ridiculous.  No amount of actual discussion can take place as long as the critics view the very act of counterargument as morally indefensible because of the class or gender of the defenders, or the language used.  Only one side is accusing the other of being scum, only one side is insisting that the other side should just shut up and stop speaking their mind.  And it's not Team Dickwolves.


  1. Very well written. Thank you for providing a calm, thoughtful counterpoint to the Wired opinion piece.

  2. Ugh, this is such a well written essay that it hurts. I've tried convincing friends and peers why the whole Dickwolves thing is overblown, with varying degrees of success, but this articulates the situation perfectly. There may have been missteps during the whole thing on PA and Krahulik's side but none of it has been actively hateful or discriminatory. People are a little too eager to see these guys fall and it is absolutely shameful.

  3. This is quite well-worded. I even found myself giggling at some points, especially at "Team Dickwolves" (Which I'd probably buy stickers of, even if not a T-shirt). I especially like that bit about bullying. It pointed out something that I hate the most, the Oppression Olympics. Which is basically "I'm in a larger number of marginalized groups than you, that makes me more right than you!". Once it starts, any chance of productive discussion or even changing the subject grinds to a halt or simply disappears without a trace.

  4. the guys at PA didn't allow themselves to be bullied by a bunch of PC thugs and i admire them for that. they could have handled it more delicately, but when you're being openly attacked and equated with rapists because of a 3 panel joke-a-day throw-away comic strip perhaps subtlety was abolished when the harpies at SV initially threw down. you don't have to apologize when you didn't do anything WRONG to begin with, and it's spurious to do so because once the party that's firmly painted themselves as the victims will never forgive you no matter what you say anyway. i think it's equally sad how we're now being faced with all of the women gamers now having to go "well, i guess i have to hate PA/PAX now because all the feminist sites are really giving me no choice." as well. i'm a molestation/rape victim myself, but i'll take the humor. i could use a laugh instead of so many sites attempting to turn me into a humorless, faceless, voiceless drone of their victim culture where they FEEL they speak for everyone, and their opinions are the only ones that count. no thank-you.

    1. Thankyou for your comments.

      I know someone who self-identifies as a rape survivor -- a conclusion she came to after having consensual sex and then regretting it 2 weeks later.

      I also know someone who vindictively accused someone of rape because he didn't return her interests (before this blows up; it's beyond question that that is what happened).

      I also know a third someone who I've literally stepped in and protected from the possibility of being cornered by a drunk man she had spent 6 hours leading on.

      In my own perception, the only thing I, as a cis white guy, can do to prevent rape, is to actively violate a woman's agency in order to prevent it happening. Thus I'm part of the problem.

      I have been exposed to the eruptions that I need trigger tags around the word, and that *I*, not feminists and those first two "someones" am eroding the definition of the word by using it to mean complete one sided domination in a videogame. I've even had a feminist tell me that by avoiding women and consuming porn, I'm oppressing women.

      And I have to watch it encroach on films, politics, comics and now even videogame reviews.

      Thankyou for confirming that perhaps it's just the feminist rhetoric I hate, and not women altogether. The rhetoric is just as eager to silence your voice as it is to silence mine, it would appear.

  5. Do you know the difference between rape and rape culture?

    Rape culture is not funny.