he Penny Arcade “dickwolves” controversy is, for all intents and purposes, over and done with. For those unfamiliar, Penny Arcade made a comic involving rape, some took offense, and Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins chose to handle the issue in a fashion that can at best be called indelicate. At Penny Arcade‘s worst, Mike Krahulik directly and inexcusably mocked the use of “trigger warnings,” which are warnings provided to caution traumatized individuals that the following material could trigger traumatic emotions or memories. A few days ago, after months of angry blog posts, flame wars, and (yes) death threats, the members of Penny Arcade asked to put the controversy to rest once and for all.
“A few days” is an eternity in this context. This issue is, essentially, a controversy surrounding a webcomic, and has an appropriately short shelf life when the Internet is no longer fixated on it. Many writers and opiners have said their peace and most are ready to move on, if only from the fatigue of so much Internet drama. For my own part, I have not closely followed this controversy, and have drawn my conclusions based mostly on what Jerry and Mike have said on their website. You might wonder (rightfully so) why I am offering an opinion after most have put this issue to rest. You might wonder (rightfully so) what the opinions of two webcomic artists about an issue unrelated to video games have to do with video games at all. When I look at this controversy in retrospect, when I think about what we might have learned, I believe the so-called “dickwolves” controversy represents a greater challenge to gaming culture, and to gamers.
Instead of personally blabbering on, I want to give credit where credit is due and quote a friend of mine, Bob Coleman, who has offered some of the most cogent comments I’ve heard on this controversy.
I feel like I have known Gabe and Tycho for a long time, though obviously I haven’t. I’ve met them once or twice at cons, spoken briefly, but that’s about it. But they’ve been essentially pouring out their views without a filter for a long time now. It’s essentially a difference in views. I think Mike, and several others no doubt, probably view this as tightassed humorless PC-obsessed whiners who are looking to complain because they briefly used the word rape in a comic that wasn’t even really about rape. And like in the past, they used their pulpit to mock, belittle, and antagonize. It’s been effective in the past, and certainly something that’s been lauded by many people in the industry, and probably by a lot of people who agree with them today. It also provides some explanation as to why his original argument was “we’ve joked about terrible, offensive, horrible things in the past, and you’re calling us to task on dickwolves?” That in itself, is a somewhat justifiable point. I refuse to believe that Mike is cruel enough to do this fully understanding the hurt and discomfort he’s causing real people. Maybe that’s becoming more clear by the day, it’s hard to say.
If it had stopped there, I think I would be okay with it. Conflicted a bit, but at least able to defend the strips with a somewhat clear conscience in the name of incredibly offensive humor.
But the trigger warnings joke was, at best, a middle finger to everyone who thought the dickwolves strip and the second strip were bothersome. When you combine it with the knowledge that they same day they announced the dickwolves t-shirt merch, and they’ve crossed the line where I’m not willing to defend their actions. I think the disconnect is that with this, they’re not going after a soulless corporation, or a holier-than-thou lawyer, or a smarmy morning zoo-crew radio jockey. They went after people who were genuinely hurt, and who had been fans of their comic. That’s significant. It’s also worth noting that Penny Arcade has changed significantly over past years. Penny Arcade has become a respectable voice, and an organizing force in the gaming industry. People view their product, and the services they provide as being reliable, worthwhile, accountable, important, and for better or for worse, a voice for things that are good in the gaming industry. When they do something like this, it betrays that trust. It unravels knots tightened over time. It reflects badly on what they do, the people they associate with, and the causes they support. There’s more on the line now than five years ago.
I’m not going to stop reading Penny Arcade, because I think they still represent an overall positive in my life, despite my serious distaste towards this whole issue. I would like to give them time (yes, more time) to see how this snowballs further, and how they deal with the aftershocks something like this can cause. And deep down, I secretly hope that they can see the bigger picture in how this affects the overall community, and the negative consequences that have resulted from what I believe to be poor, shortsighted, cruel decisions on their behalf.
I too will afford Penny Arcade a great deal of leeway as comedians, and as much as I know them based on their public personas, I believe they are considerate people who have done a great deal of good for the gaming community and on behalf of the gaming community. When Mike and Jerry express regret that this entire controversy has generated as much anger as it has, I have no reason to doubt their sincerity.
Ultimately, though, this isn’t about Penny Arcade, and this isn’t about censorship, and this isn’t about being right or wrong or winning an argument. When we talk about dickwolves, we’re not talking about a single off-color joke: we’re talking about prominent spokespeople of gaming culture making their fans feel threatened and alienated. In five years when few people remember the dickwolves comic, gamers will still use bigoted slurs on Xbox Live. The blog Fat, Ugly or Slutty may no longer be around, but women will still be attacked and demeaned. I fully believe that Penny Arcade will be more sensitive to all of their fans in the future, but these problems will still exist outside of Penny Arcade.
The reality is that we can create the kind of culture we want … We can be consumers, or we can be curators.
Jerry Holkins said that three years ago, in another context, but it holds true today. Nobody is proud of the anger and aggression we’ve seen so much of lately, but it is somewhat besides the point. Penny Arcade did not invent rape jokes, and their comments, as offensive as they might be, are far from the worst examples. This anger did not spontaneously manifest, nor will it magically evaporate. This anger has found, in the culture of gaming, places to hide, as well as thrive. We can either support it – actively or passively – or we can drive it out. We are all curators of our culture, and that is a responsibility we should embrace as gamers and as decent human beings.