Thursday, October 3, 2013

Of Dickwolves and Things

Last night I was reading an opinion article published in Polygon titled Opinion: Outgrowing the Penny Arcade generation by L. Rhodes. The article begins by asking:
". . . When did Penny Arcade go wrong? The answer depends on your choice of time frame. Change the scale, and the nature of the story changes, too. Hone in on the short term, and it's a cautionary tale about homebrew public relations. Zoom out to the 40-year scale, though, and it starts to resemble the story of an entire generation of men.

For many people, the first indication was the infamous "dickwolves" incident. That controversy boiled up in the wake of "The Sixth Slave," a Penny Arcade strip featuring a toss-off character who is nightly "raped imaginarily by a mythological creature whose every limb was an erect phallus," as the comic's lead characters later described it. Several readers, some of them rape victims, objected to the casual use of rape as the set-up for a joke. In response, the site's creators, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, adopted a siege mentality with respect to criticism.

More than the joke itself, it was their resistance that soured some readers. After all, rape wasn't even the punchline. In a follow-up comic, the strip's protagonists, Tycho and Gabe, roundaboutly explained that it was just a sufficiently awful hypothetical, a narrative device for illustrating the moral stakes games often encourage us to selectively engage. The actual punchline was about indifference, and to that end, some other exploitative situation might have served just as well — slavery for example, which, unlike rape, is an abuse you might actually encounter in the MMORPGs satirized by "The Sixth Slave." Rather than reexamine their own impulse to introduce rape into the situation, Holkins and Krahulik have consistently responded as though most critics were accusing them of condoning rape. Having interpreted that as the core of the dispute, it's not terribly surprising that they'd scoff. That dismissiveness may have kept them from really imagining how a hypothetical rape reference might sap all the humor out of a gag when there's a 1 in 6 chance that you've been the victim of an actual rape attempt . . ." (Opinion: Outgrowing the Penny Arcade generation by L. Rhodes).
As is the case with most controversies, the context is the thing that matters in forming a realistic opinion of what is going on. Mr. Rhodes has presented the 'dickwoves' controversy in a bubble focusing on the aspects of the situation that make for a good story, the rape joke. Only the strip isn't a rape joke.

Click to enlarge
As you can see from the actual strip the joke is about the way that players act in Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG). You collect five sheep; you save five villagers from the orcs; you rescue five slaves - and you don't give a flying flip about the rest of them. They could be getting raped to sleep by the dickwolves and you don't fucking care. You've moved on to the next quest. 

Jerry Holkins, Tycho, responded to the initial controversy:
"Reaction to Wednesday’s comic fell, conveniently for my purpose, into two camps: those who found a phrase like “raped by dickwolves” a stunning return to form, and those who felt that we were somehow advocating the actual rape of human beings.  It sounds as though we’ve already satisfied the first camp, but an effort should certainly be made to assuage the latter. . ." (Breaking it Down by Jerry Holkins)
 This comment was the sort of thing that Mr. Rhodes referred to as the dismissive response from the two authors. Well, that statement and the response comic:

Click to enlarge
Both comics are very much in the same vein as the several hundred comics that have come before them. To the point where it makes me wonder if the people who were complaining had read the archive. I was not alone as Mike Krahulik, Gabe, responded as well:
"What surprised me most about some of the reactions to our Dickwolf joke was not that people were offended. But that this was the comic that offended them. In each case the emails I got started with something like “I’ve been a long time fan” or “Been reading the comic for years…” and then they go into how this particular comic really bothered them.

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 . . ." (Tragedy is when I cut my finger by Mike Krahulik).
The controversy got a bit more agitated when the guys as Penny Arcade came out with the Dickwolves shirt. This was seen by many as  a direct stab at those who were hurt by the strip, and I think in this case they were right. In a vacuum dickwolves are hysterical. The term is funny and in the context of the comics it is still funny. BUT when you consider the ancillary stuff (the angry forum posts and the upset e-mails) it becomes more than what it should be.
Things got out of hand as fans of the strip formed groups to harass those they perceived as attacking the strip and its creators. The merchandise was pulled and soon the controversy died down, until this year's PAX:

This exchange opened up the controversy once again and allowed Mr. Rhodes to use the duo as a straw man for his argument that there is a pervasive culture out there that:
". . . You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is all just the recurrence of a stubbornly persistent gender divide — of straight men refusing to meet anyone else halfway because, even two centuries after Mary Wollstonecraft, it is still pretty much a man's man's man's world. Maybe so, but it's still worth thinking about Tychos and Gabes for the way they reflect what's specific to our particular moment. It may be that an inability or unwillingness to see outside of the context of male social prerogatives is a consistent feature of our cultural history, but the version we're most likely to encounter these days was shaped by a generation of men who, like Tycho, Gabe and their creators, were born in the decade or so after 1975.

That was a critical period in the development of the video game industry, of course, but also for nerd culture in general. Mainstream attitudes toward all manner of geeky media were beginning to shift, paving the way for a 21st century in which comic book adaptations dominate the box office while the short lists for literary awards feature novels about the zombie apocalypse. What ties the men born of that era into one big Penny Arcade generation is the desire for a public venue to call their own. To that end, they've staked out some of the venues that mattered to them most as young men: movies, comic books, video games, the internet.

To a Tycho or a Gabe, part of what makes those venues specifically theirs is the freedom to deal flippantly and without apology with troubles that most of them will never have to face directly. They need not bat an eye at a casual reference to rape, in no small part because rape victims are about nine times less likely to be men than women. They could probably manage the empathetic leap needed in order to see outside their own context, but to do so would compromise their claim on the venue . . ." (Opinion: Outgrowing the Penny Arcade generation by L. Rhodes).
I find this argument incredibly unsatisfying as it creates a narrative of these two men who have worked very hard to become successful in a field that is mind-numbingly difficult to succeed in as having some master plan where they have intentionally set their sights on four topics and we, like the sheep we clearly are, have bleetingly chased after them. That sort of falsehood would never have succeeded in a world where all there actions are up for constant assessment. 

These are not bad people we're dealing with in Mike and Jerry. These men have become successful by creating an environment where we, their audience, are welcomed with open arms. Now they'll say shit that will piss you off from time to time (just like everyone you've ever met will do the same), but once they realize they've hurt you they appologize:
"There have been a lot of assumptions about what I meant or thought at the panel last Monday. I wanted to clear that up, so get ready, let’s talk about Dickwolves.

Robert had the idea to host a panel at PAX this year that would be him interviewing Jerry and me. The thinking was that there’s stuff only he can ask us because only he knows about it, or if anyone else asked us we would tell them to fuck off. He got us to talk pretty openly about some very private stuff, from our finances and how we spend our money to our wives and details about the times we’ve been approached to sell Penny Arcade. It was a super intense interview but the one question that is getting the most attention is when Robert asked us to name a time when we thought he made a mistake.

That’s a hard question because honestly Robert makes very few mistakes. Although if he asked me that same question today I’d probably say “the time you asked us to be brutally honest in front of three thousand people.” So I had to think really hard about it and the only time I could remember really thinking he made a mistake was when he told us we had to pull the Dickwolves merch. I didn’t really get a chance to elaborate on why that was though, and unfortunately by not doing so it created a bit of a firestorm on the Internet.

So let me start by saying I like the Dickwolves strip. I think it’s a strong comic and I still think the joke is funny. Would we make that strip today? Knowing what we know now and seeing how it hurt people, no. We wouldn’t. But at the time, it seemed pretty benign. With that said I absolutely regret everything we did after that comic. I regret the follow up strip, I regret making the merchandise, I regret pulling the merchandise and I regret being such an asshole on twitter to people who were upset. I don’t think any of those things were good ideas. If we had just stopped with the strip and moved on, the Dickwolf never would have become what it is today. Which is a joke at the expense of rape victims or a symbol of the dismissal of people who have suffered a sexual assault. the comic itself obviously points out the absurd morality of the average MMO where you are actually forced to help some people and ignore others in the same situation. Oddly enough, the first comic by itself is exactly the opposite of what this whole thing has turned into.

There are people who were offended by or hurt by the joke in the strip and rather than just let it go we decided to make a second strip. That was a mistake and I apologize to this day for that strip. It was a knee jerk reaction and rather than the precision strike back at our detractors that we intended, it was a massive AOE that hurt a lot of innocent people. We should have just stopped right then but we kept going and made the merchandise. Had we left it alone, the ongoing tension about the whole thing might have subsided but Robert made the call to pull the shirts. In hindsight all this did was open the wound back up and bring on a whole new wave of debate. Any action we took at the time just dug us deeper regardless of what it was. What we needed to do was stop. just stop. I apologized for it at the time and I will still apologize for it. Everything we did after that initial comic strip was a mistake and I regret all of it.

If you saw the panel you know that someone in the audience shouted out and asked us to bring the merchandise back. Both Robert and I immediately said no way. We have worked very hard to make PAX a safe place. We have an incredible anti-harassment policy, a “booth babe” policy that you will not find anywhere else in the industry,and panels that cover all the social issues facing gaming today in a meaningful way. That’s the heart of PAX and that will never change.

I certainly can’t blame the people who still want to hate me. In that same panel with Robert he asked us how we feel about being role models. We don’t aspire to be role models, just normal people, but we try to do what’s best with the platform we have. I can’t promise I won’t piss you off again at some point. In fact I suggested to Robert a header at the top of the page saying “it has be x days since our last fuck up” but he shot me down. What I can promise is that we will continue to be honest with you. There’s no bullshit, no PR, this is just Jerry and I and we’re doing the best we can. Hopefully we will keep getting better . . ." (Some Clarification by Mike Krahulik).
I hope that they will as I've enjoyed them for years. Mr. Rhodes, however, is not so kind:
". . . Likewise, Krahulik followed his recent PAX comment with a post extending his regrets to nearly everything the duo had done in the wake of "The Sixth Slave." That might have carried more weight if he had thought to mention those things onstage, rather than singling out the one decision — stopping the sale of "dickwolves" shirts — that actually went some way toward repairing the damage. Still, it shows, at least, that an internal conflict is brewing.

He's discovering what the rest of us have known for some time now, that their protagonists and occasional mouthpieces don't play well with others. The attitudes they exemplify don't really square with the goal of creating a more inclusive community of gamers. Having spent 15 years fashioning them into symbols for a generation of insular men, he and Holkins may ultimately have to decide which matters more, their commitment to an open PAX, or their attachment to Tycho and Gabe . . ." (Opinion: Outgrowing the Penny Arcade generation by L. Rhodes).
It's in those last few paragraphs that the narrative Mr. Rhodes has been crafting throughout his opinion article that he goes completely off the rails. In his mind Mr. Krahulik was forced into making his apology and this controversy has created a rift within the Penny Arcade ranks. The problem is there is nothing in his links or in the words of Mike and Jerry that supports that supposition. 

And that last paragraph can fuck right off.

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