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.