Krahulik and the Dickwolves

Penny Arcade is one of the success stories of the internet; its creators, artist Mike Krahulik and writer Jerry Holkins, have said that their initial business plan of ‘hole up in an apartment and start making comics’ should never have worked, but their gaming-based webcomic quickly gained them a massive fan base who, with the help of current Penny Arcade President Robert Khoo, have made the pair of them rich men at the head of an incredibly successful business. Nowadays, the original comic is just one small part of an internet empire that includes video series’, a separate comic called The Trenches, the gaming charity Child’s Play and perhaps most significantly of all the biggest gaming expo in the world. The Penny Arcade Expo (or PAX) is now spread across three events and two continents  and is looking to expand, and thousands upon thousands attend the three events every year. In many ways, PAX and Penny Arcade speak for much of the gaming community as a whole.

Unfortunately, this fact does come from Penny Arcade being a safe, inoffensive comic; Holkins and Krahulik hold no shame in bad language, think that nothing is beyond mockery and Krahulik in particular will defend his right to publish what he likes to the hilt. As expected, this frequently causes controversy; Penny Arcade have in the past been accused of being corporate shills, of promoting violence in videogames (although on that count they are most certainly not opposed to it) and, following a controversial panel at this year’s PAX Australia and a highly inflammatory Twitter exchange shortly afterwards, of being transphobic*. However, right now the big news concerns something that happened just this weekend at PAX Prime in Seattle, but first we must get a little backstory.

In 2010, Penny Arcade released this comic, whose central joke revolves around having to save NPCs being raped by creatures called ‘dickwolves’. Technically speaking the joke is little more than a dig at the structure of MMORPG quests, but bringing up the subject of rape was hardly going to be ignored and the comic drew some pretty valid criticism (and some more hysterical stuff) that the topic of rape should not be trivialised as it was. This being Penny Arcade, their immediate response was a rather flippant response comic which unwisely chose to still try and make a joke out of an issue that had already shown itself to not appreciate having jokes made out of it, and the criticism only built. Krahulik and Holkins refused to back down, going so far as to release ‘Team Dickwolves’ merchandise in the PA store, but after criticism only got louder and companies started threatening to boycott PAX as a result, they realised things had gone too far, the comics were pulled and Krahulik published an apology (that it took company threats to get the shirts removed is one of the reasons that PA get the ‘corporate shills’ tag from some).

This, on its own, might just have been another episode in Penny Arcade’s history of pissing people off- until, that is, this year’s PAX Prime. At a Penny Arcade Q&A panel, Robert Khoo asked of Krahulik and Holkins what, if anything, they ‘resent’ him for, and Krahulik’s response was that he regretted the partially Khoo-prompted decision to pull the dickwolves merchandise (although, when asked by an audience member to bring it back, he did at least have the sense to say that that would be an awful idea)

Predictably, there has been a huge furore around this, and for some it’s the last straw after the rest of PA’s inflammatory history. Some, including some game developers for whom PAX is a massive marketing opportunity, have said they will boycott PAX, others that they will boycott Penny Arcade and all its related content entirely. Some have gone so far as to say this statement shows that Krahulik is a supporter of or at least an apologist for rapists, and even Krahulik’s well-written and revealing apology has barely abated the shitstorm. It’s not hard to see why. Even Krahulik will admit that the original furore surrounding the ‘dickwolves’ comic was an incident of incredible mismanagement on PA’s part, although it is a crying shame it took until his second apology for him to properly admit this, and even though his bringing up of the incident at PAX wasn’t intended to sound like he was condoning rape the very fact that it was pulled up in such an ill-thought out comment and not immediately retracted and rephrased shows a certain lack of growth in his understanding of the issue and just brought something that should have been dead back to the fore.

Those who know and/or work with Mike Krahulik will say that he is basically a nice guy, and despite the flippancy of his remarks in the whole ‘dickwolves’ fiasco his love of Penny Arcade’s anti-harassment and ‘booth babes’ policies demonstrate that he is not someone who feels women ‘just need to get over it’ or any of the other myriad of excuses made by people who ‘just think it’s banter’. To me, both this incident and the cis/trans incident at PAX Australia are merely evidence that he is nothing more than inexperienced in the fields of sexual and gender, too quick to say what comes into his head without actually thinking over what it’s going to sound like, and too willing to argue and fight when it would be better to back down (although his reaction to this latest scandal does at least show progress in this area). If people are starting to get tired by this then I can understand it, but until I have evidence that Mike Krahulik is genuinely a bad person rather than just somebody who screws up more frequently than he would care to admit, I personally am not going to boycott his stuff- but that’s just my personal view, do as you will.

To me, there is a far, far bigger, but related, issue at work here, and it’s something that is starting to come up a lot in gamer circles. After Krahulik’s ‘I think we shouldn’t have pulled the merchandise’ statement, large swathes of the audience broke out into cheers, and that is not something that can be taken as a misunderstanding. To these people, the pulling of the merchandise represented a concession to the demands of uber-feminists who want nothing more than to wipe out masculinity, and it is the attitudes of these people that are bringing to the fore the issue of misogyny and chauvinism in gaming.

Over a very short space of time, sexual harassment and the freedom of sexuality & gender have become major topics of conversation in our society, and we’re just starting to lift the lid on how institutionally chauvinist our society has been for a very long time. Now, that is starting to change, and stuff that once would have been normal but decidedly wrong are starting to be called out (hence the massive increase in sexual assault charges), but like all changes it’s taking place at different rates in different parts of society; what some groups still consider banter, others consider offensive, what some consider flirting, others consider sexual assault, what some consider a joke, others consider inappropriate. Gaming has this problem just like everyone else, but it has been exacerbated by the fact that it has traditionally (or at least stereotypically) been the preserve of the geeky white male, but the gamer bracket is currently expanding from a mere subset of ‘nerds’ to include more and more people, particularly of said white male bracket. This lack of gender diversity makes gaming very male-centric and means female issues don’t really penetrate into the gaming consciousness on a large scale. This has led to a worrying degree of institutionalised chauvinism in some sectors of the gamer community, and the evidence for this is only growing; the countless stories of quite shocking sexual harassment at conventions (including PAX), the abuse many women receive whilst playing online and the whole Anita Sarkeesian debacle from last year are just three that spring to mind.

To me, Mike Krahulik’s more inflammatory comments are a symptom rather than a cause of this or indeed a standalone issue, a side-effect of his being embedded in a world where issues of gender equality and of sexual abuse are often trivialised such that even a man who quite rightly abhors sexual abuse simply does not take the issue quite as seriously as others (particularly women) do and perhaps as seriously as he should. This is not to say that his actions are legitimate or justified, but then again they are far from representative of the worst that this ugly side to the gaming population has to offer. Frankly, hating on him and calling him an awful person are not likely to make a difference; making him and the rest of the gaming world realise that these things simply cannot be mentioned in such a flippant manner, even one not intended to be offensive, is far better achieved by just telling him and others when they have done wrong.

TL;DR, don’t be too much of a dick to Krahulik. When he screws up, just tell him and hope we can move on politely.

*The actual incident concerned was faintly ridiculous; when talking at this panel about a game designed to teach women how to masturbate (which is, although odd, probably a good thing on the whole gender equality front), some comment was directed to Krahulik complaining that he should specify that he was talking about cis-gender rather than trans-gender women. This, on its own, is rather a petty distinction and wouldn’t normally merit any comment, but Krahulik apparently, and not actually that unusually, didn’t know what the whole cis/trans thing was all about and said something to the effect of ‘I thought people with vaginas were women’. This (perhaps predictably) encouraged some aggressive tweets from people apparently in the militant wing of transsexuality directed to Krahulik who, rather unwisely, rose to the bait and began a furious argument with his aggressors.  Some of the comments he made in this exchange gave rise to claims that he was being transphobic, and the furore around this eventually forced him to back down and pay a large donation to charity. At least he knows what transsexuality is now.

Desert Bus

Charity is, as has been well documented, the most competitive industry on the planet. The trouble is that there are many, many things wrong with this world, and lots of people who believe that all should get the same thing- but nearly all of them are going after the same target demographic (the rich middle classes who can afford to give to them), and there are simply so many of them competing for people’s time, energy and, most importantly, financial support that many get drowned under the weight of competition. This has lead to many charity events in recent years attempting to break out from the mainstream collection ideas, focusing on charitable enterprise or other such concepts in order to be different and identifiable. However, when preparing for one such event that is happening in the very near future (hence why I’m publishing this post a day early) I saw an opportunity to combine the topic of charity with blogging and an old favourite fall-back topic, gaming- but to start with, I’m going to talk about magic, so sit in for a story folks.

In 1975 a pair of American magicians delivered a show in Minnesota that would quickly become the first of many. With another co-host, the duo built their reputation with a regular show that lasted until 1981, before moving to New York to start their own off Broadway shows. By 1985 these were garnering them some top reviews, so as the 90s approached they turned their act to Broadway proper. During the 1990s they were appearing regularly on chat shows, doing US national tours and making TV cameos, firmly establishing themselves as possibly the most famous magicians on earth at that time (and possibly the present day too). Their names were (and are) Penn & Teller.

By 1995 their career was reaching a zenith; famous both nationally and around the world, they were the closest the magical world had to global superstars. And with stardom came all the trappings of fame, including incessant requests from various publishers and agents asking to be allowed to use their name to plug something, and presumably in late 1994 one such offer from Absolute Entertainment was accepted; to allow Penn & Teller to be the subject material for a videogame.

The game in question was to be called Penn & Teller’s Smoke And Mirrors; the console, the Sega-CD (an add-on for the Sega Mega Drive that was at the time fighting a furious console war with Nintendo’s Super NES). The game itself consisted of a series of mini-games, in a similar way to how a magic show is comprised of individual tricks- or at least, that was the idea. Each game was a trick you had to master, a little bit of slight-of-hand/controller that you had to learn before inviting your friends over and thrashing them since you knew how the trick worked, as a form of payback against those friends “who come over to your house, eat your food, drink your soda, play your games and always beat you” (Penn’s words, not mine). Many have since voiced the opinion that videogaming was a rather odd choice of platform for this idea, but whether this would have impacted sales was never discovered, as Absolute Entertainment went bust after (conveniently) they had completed the game’s development, but before they got a chance to ship it and pay Penn & Teller back the licensing money they were owed. Under the terms of the contract, this rendered all deals regarding use of Penn & Teller’s likenesses and intellectual property null and void, meaning Absolute Entertainment’s owners (Skyworks Interactive Inc.) couldn’t sell the game, and all the copies they produced presumably sat in a corner gathering dust somewhere. However, before the studio went under another player entered our story, by the name of Janet Reno.

At the time, Janet Reno was Attorney General of the United States under Bill Clinton’s leadership, and at the time in question she chose a particularly opportune moment to join the chorus of voices against the violence in videogames. Reno’s argument partially centred on the idea that these games were unrealistic, and should try to depict life as it really was rather than clouding the mind’s of the nation’s children (or something), so as a rather sly joke Penn & Teller slipped one more minigame in, the only one that wasn’t a magic trick. A little minigame going by the name of Desert Bus.

Desert Bus was described as being designed to be an example of ‘stupefyingly realistic gameplay’, and in it you played as a bus driver. Your job was to drive between two US cities, Tucson, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, at no more than 45 miles per hour (presumably the bus was electronically limited), in real-time, right across the Great American desert. The scenery was fairly unchanging (the odd tree or bus stop goes by), there is no traffic coming the other way, the graphics are about as good as could be expected from that generation console, there are no people to pick up, and the journey takes 8 hours to complete in each direction. After 5 hours, a bug hits the windscreen. This is considered a highlight.

However, there were three things that turned this from a rather interesting statement by the game developers to a simultaneously evil and absolutely hilarious game, depending on whether you were playing or just hearing about it. Firstly, there is no ability to pause; pressing the pause button merely activates the horn, so you’re in for the long haul. Secondly, the bus lists to the right, meaning one cannot simply tape down the accelerator and leave it for eight hours- it requires one’s constant attention (and repeated turning left) to avoid crashing. If you do crash, and stay still for 15 seconds, a tow truck comes to take you back to Tucson- again, in real time, and at 45 miles an hour. Thirdly, if you reach Vegas, you get one point- and 15 seconds to decide if you want to try for another one by heading back to Tucson. The game has a limit of 99 points, never achieved without the use of an emulator. This is the world’s greatest endurance test- Penn & Teller even had plans, had the game been released, to set up a competition for who could get the most points, the prize being a luxury trip in ‘the real Desert Bus’, a few nights in a luxury Vegas hotel and tickets to their show, but of course the game never exactly received widespread coverage.

That is, however, not until 2007, when two more players enter our story- Penny Arcade and LoadingReadyRun. Penny Arcade is probably the most famous webcomic in the world, written by a couple of games nerds for games nerds (I should probably say at this point that I’ve never actually read it, but ho hum), and very much acting as a voice for the gaming community. It’s founders, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, have become successful enough to start their own gaming convention (PAX), and in 2003 they embarked on another project- Child’s Play. Designed with the view in mind of a gaming charity, a chance for gaming culture to give something back to society and to improve its negative image as being violent and uncouth, it aims to deliver toys and videogames to sick children in hospitals worldwide, in order to make their lives a little more bearable. Some have said that it’s message is perhaps not as righteous as that of, say, Oxfam, but these people are kind of missing the point of charity and it is nonetheless charmingly sweet in concept. Penny Arcade’s prominence among the gaming community is such that many key industry figures have got behind it and the charity has so far raised over $12 million, nearly one million of which has come thanks to the work of a group of Canadians behind an 8-year old internet sketch comedy series called LoadingReadyRun.

You see, in 2007 the guys behind LoadingReadyRun decided that they would try to use their small but devoted hardcore fan base to raise some cash for such a good cause, and so decided to organise a charity gaming marathon in aid of Child’s Play. Casting around for a suitable game to play, they decided that ‘the most boring game in the world’ would form a good backdrop whilst they danced, pissed around and generally humiliated themselves on camera to get donations, and so they plumped for Desert Bus. As they slotted a copy of the game (don’t ask me where they got it from) into a borrowed Sega CD, they hoped to try and raise $5,000 dollars, the plan being that their strategy of ‘the more we get the longer we play’ would last them about a weekend. They made four times their target, and the following year did the same thing again and hit $70,000, forcing them to play for nearly 4 days. By the next year their comedy had reached a wider audience after being picked up and hosted by The Escapist online ‘magazine’, and they broke $100,000 for the first time; last year they made $383,125.10, and hope to bring their sum total to over a million this year. Desert Bus For Hope 6 starts tomorrow, at 5am GMT (or 9pm PST), it’s for a great cause, and it should be entertaining to watch the kind of challenges they get up to- they are professional sketch comedians after all. The website’s here, and the list of people ringing in is here (spoiler- the list includes Notch), and a far more entertaining history of the game is here. If you’ve got the time free, give them a watch. It’s for the children.