Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Penny Arcade is Still Mostly A Force For Good

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: it’s pretty much criminally stupid to put out a t-shirt of what effectively has become the spirit animal of the worst mouthbreathing misogynistic trolls on the Internet, and then act surprised when it becomes a thing.  That’s not nearly as stupid as publically saying you regret taking it down.  So there’s that, and I won’t defend it.

That being said, I love PAX.  It is currently the best game show available, largely because it was organized by gamers, for gamers, and the event therefore feels like a real and genuine love affair with gaming, completely unlike the publisher-driven plastic-coated circle-jerk that is E3. The gaming is great, the independent games portion is a feast for people like me, and the convention has a hundred little subcommunities that are all welcoming and affirm your love for gaming.  I will continue to love PAX.  Despite the fact that it no longer is cool to do so.

My Facebook feed is currently full of outrage towards the Return of the Dickwolf (General summary here).  In a recent Q&A at PAX, Mike of Penny Arcade said that he felt that removing the Dickwolves shirt they briefly sold was a mistake – to generally horrifying applause from the audience.  To Mike, who is first and foremost a humorist, the Dickwolf shirt is a statement about free speech.  Comedians of all stripes tend to be among the most vocal defenders of free speech you’ll find in the world, because it’s almost impossible to do anything other than the Family Circus unless you’re willing to offend someone.  But in this case, the point was lost on Mike – the Dickwolf shirt was and is a bad idea because it effectively says to some in the audience (particularly women) ‘I’m on Team Rapist’.

Which is not cool.

Despite Mike’s statement, Dickwolf shirts have not made a reappearance on the Penny Arcade store.  (Surprisingly, you can’t even get one on eBay).  Which means that Mike is effectively being pilloried for having an opinion regarding comedy and political correctness.

Which is also not cool.

One of the things that is infuriating about reading about any Penny Arcade debacle (and yes, it’s not good that that’s a plural) is how quickly it escalates to stupid – on both sides.  People who criticized PA were receiving death threats.  But so was PA.  PA was absolutely unwilling to admit they were wrong.  So were their critics.  Their critics tend to be women, and are very invested in the cause of reducing the amount of douchebaggery that women face in games.  Cartoonists are very invested in the cause of protecting their freedom of speech.

For (mostly) better and (somewhat) for worse, Mike and Jerry are now an important, major voice of gamers in the industry.  I suspect that Mike and Gabe wake up in the morning and wonder how the hell they became a cultural force that suddenly has to play nice across cultural bounds.  If their comic had a fanbase the size of, say, Sinfest’s, this would be a non-issue.  But the fact that they’re a major brand, complete with a convention, a web magazine and whatnot, means they are a major force.  Plus, their audience is monstrous in size and utterly devoted to them . The fans will fight to the death for them, even sometimes when the PA guys ask them not to – Penny Arcade has made one of the greatest gaming communities on the planet, but they’ve also created a monster they can’t entirely control.  All this means that when they say something you disagree with, it quickly becomes a thing.  And now, likewise, saying you’re going to boycott or not go is also becoming a thing.

Let’s take a step back for a second, and consider the possibility that perhaps, even if you happen to think this event is reprehensible and some subset of their audience is beyond hope, that Penny Arcade is on top of all of this one of the most positive and progressive major voices in gaming.

And this is all supposed to be undone because a humorist would fight to the death over the ideal that he should be able to tell unpopular jokes that might offend some parties?  Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, and George Carlin are all spinning in their graves enough to drill into diamond.

Elizabeth Sampat is one of the most widely quoted of the critics:

But I have to go for work! PAX is mandatory in the game industry or you fail!

That is total bullshit. If you are the person deciding to bring your game to PAX: the game industry existed long before Penny Arcade and it will exist for a long time after. You can be successful without PAX, just ask The Fullbright Company. And if you’re an employee being told to go to PAX: does your company know how shitty the Penny Arcade guys are? Maybe tell them. If you’re afraid it will sound too personal, you can just link them to this article where the Financial Post compares Mike to Chris Brown. That’ll sound plenty official.

But there are no other cool conventions to go to!

I already linked Geek Girl Con and GaymerX. There’s also GenCon, Dreamation, DexCon, DragonCon (who successfully ousted their gross owner!) and a million others. You can do this. I believe in you.

First off, doing tiny cons is not usually very cost efficient unless a sizeable game audience is there.  GeekGirlCon has a population of 4000.  GaymerX is about 2000.  Building a pre-release demo build of a game is incredibly time-consuming and demanding, and not worth it for those tiny numbers.  Each of the American PAX shows, by contrast, draws more than 70,000 fans.  Building a demo for that is effectively what allows game companies to hit these smaller shows. Also, it goes without saying that if you’re a small indy company who can only do two conventions per year, reaching 140K potential customers is a lot better than reaching 6K.  I guess you could just do E3 — but joe and jane consumer can’t get into that.

Secondly, given that passes for PAX sell out in less than a day, I very much doubt there will be much financial impact to them if a minority of gamers opt to boycott.  You might push that sell out to two days.  Worse, the douchebag ratio will only increase negatively.

Third, game culture is in desperate need of dedouchification, but you don’t change public opinion by preaching to the converted.  You don’t need to sell girls on Geek Girl Con that the concept of ‘fake geek girls’ is broken and insulting.  You don’t need to sell GaymerX attendees that trans gamers need understanding.  You need to bring this understanding to the gaming audience at large.  In America, that audience’s largest gathering is PAX.

Bank robbers rob banks because that’s where the money is.  If you are an activist who wants to enact social change in the gaming community, you need to go where the gamers are.  You can set up talks, you can challenge the PAX guys to give you a booth like they did AbleGamers, you can organize protests, you can set up debates, you can wear coordinated T-Shirts designed to shame and expose douchebaggery in all its forms.  Or, you can run away and hope somehow that the problem fixes itself.  Turning the largest american consumer-oriented gaming show into even more of a sausage fest makes it pretty unlikely that that’s going to happen.

You know how you beat a free speech zealot?  Challenge him to give you the megaphone.

(By attending), [y]ou are giving them something more valuable than money: legitimacy.

This reminds me of when the Obama White House tried to delegitimize Fox News by taking away their front-row seat in the press briefing room.  It didn’t work – Fox News is already legitimate in the eyes of their viewers.  All the White House did was worsen their relationship with an important news outlet and create a martyr in the eyes of their viewers.

But yeah, Mike saying he wishes they didn’t take the t-shirt off the store was mindbendingly stupid, in oh so many ways.


  1. Unconvinced.

  2. It is true that when you put everything on the scales, Penny Arcade is more a force for good than not. Child’s Play is a big part of that.

    I submit it is also true that Penny Arcade is also supporting and promoting a part of the videogame community that we would be better off without.

    The strip offended people. Fair enough. And I think had they left things there, they’d have been on fairly firm ground; there is no right not to be offended, after all. And in the original script the rape reference is an aside, the actual slap is to the way that virtue ends up being played out in MMOs. Had they simply said, “we tell jokes in poor taste, that’s part of who we are”, that would have, to my mind at least, been fair enough.

    But they didn’t leave things there.

    The “non-apology apology” was an example of “kicking down”. It belittled people who didn’t deserve it, and frankly, is poor form. When you buy ink by the barrel, kicking down is already crossing the line into bullying.

    The shirts went wayyyyy over the line. That went from “look, the point of the joke was bad player behavior” to “let’s go team rapists!”. That isn’t just kicking down, it’s stomping down. For all that Robert Khoo said they shouldn’t engage in these things, just the act of designing and selling those shirts was most definitely engaging.

    Then the shirts are withdrawn, and there is another apology.

    And then, in an inexplicable unforced error, Mike decides to reveal that the apology wasn’t really meant, and in fact, they should never have stopped selling the shirts at all. And Robert agrees with him.

    Mike and Jerry are the Penny Arcade brand. There is literally no way to separate them from it without destroying it. And there is no way to separate the Penny Arcade eXpo from Penny Arcade.

    Now, the decision to forgo PAX in the future is a fairly easy one for me. I don’t make games anymore, so I don’t have to decide how much publicity I want to forgo to make a stand on principle. And since I have yet to play a single videogame at PAX, I can get almost everything I go to PAX for at the Sheraton Bar — I go for the people. I’ll miss the tabletop play. And the occasional panel. So for me this is an easy decision.

    But I’ll put it bluntly. Mike Krahulik has become a bully, and with the megaphone he has, and some of the worst parts of the videogame community cheering him on, he is an incredibly powerful one.

    I choose not to stand with bullies. But I have the luxury of not having my livelihood impacted by that decision, and I’m not going to judge people who have to decide differently.

    • Is it really wise to just have everyone who disagrees with them leave PAX, though?

      People can go to smaller cons that fit their tastes better, but all that does is have you preach to the choir.

      If everyone who cares about issues like this leaves, that just makes the place worse. The bad influences will stay there regardless, but they won’t have any good influences countering them.

      The thing is, you can’t just shelter yourself from toxic elements of society and think that that’s actually helping matters.

      • You cannot change an event from within when the problem is with the people who own and control the event.

        • Damion Schubert

          September 5, 2013 at 4:06 pm

          Well, that’s certainly bullshit. History is replete with examples of people changing organizations from within.

          • You can change an organization from within when there is a path to control.

            There is no path to control here. Mike and Jerry own PAX. They can do whatever they want, and there are no rules that are ever going to be put in place to change that.

            Volunteer organizations? Sure. Public companies? Sure. Cases where the organization is owned and run by the *problem* you are trying to fix. No.

  3. I just wanted to drop a note saying that Mike’s track record around rape jokes is more than “not cool.” It actively promotes rape culture, which means it actively endangers people.

    And since we’re both in geek communities, let’s be even more clear about what that means: it actively endangers women that we know, and people that we care about.

    This isn’t a dismissal of your post – it’s a side-note.

    • Mike’s track record regarding quite a LOT of thing is worse than “not cool,” I think it’s safe to say.

  4. Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, really? Do you think that Mike Krahulik is brave in repeatedly encouraging a young audience to attack some of the most vulnerable sections of society?

    You don’t get it, and I look forward to the day when the massed inertia that you are part of no longer directs publishers’ marketing budgets.

    • George Carlin seems relevant:

      “Say you can’t joke about something because it’s not funny. Comedians run into that shit all the time.
      Like rape. They’ll say, “you can’t joke about rape. Rape’s not funny.”

      I say, “fuck you, I think it’s hilarious. How do you like that?”

      I can prove to you that rape is funny. Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd.

      See, hey why do you think they call him “Porky,” eh? I know what you’re going to say.

      “Elmer was asking for it. Elmer was coming on to Porky.

      Porky couldn’t help himself, he got a hard- on, he got horney, he lost control, he went out of his mind.”
      A lot of men talk like that. A lot of men think that way. They think it’s the woman’s fault.

      They like to blame the rape on the woman. Say, “she had it coming, she was wearing a short skirt.”
      These guys think women ought to go to prison for being cock teasers. Don’t seem fair to me.
      Don’t seem right, but you can joke about it. I believe you can joke about anything.

      It all depends on how you construct the joke. What the exaggeration is. What the exaggeration is.
      Because every joke needs one exaggeration. Every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion.
      Give you an example. Did you ever see a news story like this in the paper?

      Every now and then you run into a story, says, “some guy broke into a house, stole a lot of things, and while he was in there, he raped an 81 year old woman.”
      And I’m thinking to myself, “WHY??? What the fuck kind of a social life does this guy have?”

      I want to say, “why did you do that?” “Well she was coming on to me. We were dancing and I got horney.
      Hey, she was asking for it, she had on a tight bathrobe.” I’ll say, “Jesus Christ, be a little fucking selective next time will you?”

  5. “Or, you can run away and hope somehow that the problem fixes itself.”

    I’m conflicted, to use a word that’s appeared in this discussion before, about the best way to respond to the whole situation. But… I don’t know.

    That sounds like people who want a better PAX culture (often women and/or survivors of sexual assault) are “running away” if they don’t buy a ticket, potentially pay to travel to or across America and then make themselves highly visible targets at a convention headed by a company whose spiritual coparent has just said should not have made a concession it had previously made explicitly out of consideration for those people’s desire to feel safe _at PAX_.

    That feels like asking quite a lot. I’m impressed by people who have the fortitude to do that, certainly, but I’d be hesitant to judge people who don’t.

  6. As someone who vaguely heard of all the drama in far away France, I’m glad you chose to post this – gives a little perspective.
    However, I’m very surprised you describe Fox News as a “news outlet”. I’ve watched a few of their reports “back in the days” (mostly 2007-2010) and quite frankly couldn’t understand why these people were not placed into mental health institutions. Denial of reality is a sign of psychiatric disorder, not of journalistic truthfulness…

    • Because unfortunately, being proven to lie in your reporting does not stop folks from watching. No matter how wrong Fox News may objectively be, they have a large viewer base for whom they provide most if not all daily news.

  7. John Scott Tynes

    September 5, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    If Mike is a bully, he’s a terrible one. Bullies don’t stop. They take pleasure in hurting, on a daily basis. This issue is something that has arisen on just a handful of occasions. The other 98% of the time consists of PA doing a lot of great things, which Damion helpfully articulates. Do you really have no friends in your life who occasionally fuck up or hold opinions or biases you don’t agree with? If so, I can only hope you enjoy your echo chamber.

    And I wonder where in this is the fascinating episode where Mike revealed his ignorance about transgender people, said some ignorant things, got schooled, and then posted a very moving blog about how he was genuinely ignorant and regretted hurting people.

    The guy is just fundamentally not invested in the larger culture. He doesn’t give two shits about Syria or the debt ceiling. He’s an obsessive old-school nerd, a netherdweller. He only comes out for games and comics. On some topics he’s deeply, infuriatingly clueless. But not everyone has to participate in the culture with their every breath, and some times what looks like evil is just clueless.

    I’m happy to air these conversations because Mike has demonstrated he can actually learn and grow. But frankly, the emotional and intellectual development of that human being is not actually our special responsibility.

    • “Bullies don’t stop.”

      I have to disagree with you here. I’ve seen too many cases of people who bullied certain targets (whether people or classes of people) but did not exhibit that behavior anywhere else.

      “I’m happy to air these conversations because Mike has demonstrated he can actually learn and grow.”

      I’d like to believe that.

      But what we found out on Monday was that first apology was something that Robert Khoo made him do.

      So how can I believe him when he apologizes after being called out for bad behavior in the future? Did he really learn and grow, or is he just saying something to make people stop complaining?

    • What part of PA’s positive work is dependent on Krahulik holding socially unacceptable opinions all the time, and airing them infrequently?

      There is a base level of empathy that we need to reach for to participate in a wider culture, let alone claim to represent it. It’s not something you just do when it’s good business sense.

      And yeah, I’m pretty cool with this echo chamber of friends who don’t take pleasure in mocking rape survivors and transgender people or fomenting an atmosphere of distrust and fear at public events, thanks!

  8. Didn’t PAX start out as a small convention? Or did it spring forth from the heads of Mike and Gabe full grown? If people don’t show to PAX and go elsewhere, then PAX will shrink and become smaller. So the whole “There’s no point in boycotting it” is just stupid. I’m a game creator, I won’t be going back. Or is my voice not good enough? I also plan on writing all the companies who DO go with links to these conversations asking if they WANT to be known as in support of these guys. No, it won’t work the first year… But maybe a couple of companies will pull out, then the next year a few more and a few more. I will be putting my money into conventions that welcome all gamers, and promote, in the actions and their words, respect.

  9. Thank you for being the voice or reason in this shit storm of people screaming ‘rape culture!’ The knee jerk reactions, ranting blog posts and witch hunts are ridiculous and tiresome. Was the DickWolves thing stupid and perhaps a little insensitive yes was it anything else NO.

  10. Mike and Jerry are very a small part of PAX as are their panels. The panel in question was 3,000 people, out of over 70,000 in attendance.

    People seem to forget the amazing community stuff that goes on at PAX. I actually help run the Cookie Brigade and this year alone between PAX East, PAX Aus and PAX Prime we’ve raised over $45,000 for Child’s Play.

    The same group has raised over $115,000 at PAX since 2007.

    PAX has an amazing culture, Mike and Jerry were only the catalyst that started it.

    I personally feel safer at PAX then I do in most places and I’ve not had a single negative experience since I started attended in 2009. And considering the fact that I distribute for the Cookie Brigade I probably meet more people during PAX then most people.

  11. It’s nice how they assume all Dickwolves are rapists, freakin’ fictional racists. Just because a creature is made out of penises doesn’t automatically make them rapists, nor does having a single penis. The comic itself speaks of captive Dickwolves, not free range. Most offensive thing, the shirt? Why is that?

    Team Dickwolf, doesn’t mean Team Rape; it means Team Free Speech, comics and t-shirts are a form of speech. If you don’t understand why people are defending them, might wanna do more research, and think it over; try removing the fictional racism.

    • Though, the main reason I am so passionate about defending this is because I was discriminated against for wanting to be a male baby sitter when I was younger. Another part of rape culture, discrimination against males in child-rearing professions. I take offense that people automatically assume that a creature made out of penises is a rapist, it is sexual discrimination and racist. Will companies stand up for me? Most likely not, because I am male.

      • Well, I believe people offended by Dickwolves are racist and sexist. Perhaps not liking Dickwolves within the comic itself is fine, but those dickwolves had masters, that most likely trained them to act in that manner. If the masters of fictional creatures trained them to rape, is it their fault? I blame the fictional masters of the dickwolves that never graced the spotlight. Dickwolves are just genital creatures that want to be loved.

        I ask someone offended by Dickwolves; would you hire a male baby sitter over a female? If you answered no, then you might be part of the problem; the same problem you are trying to fight. Please stop attacking rape culture with sexist and racist rape culture stereotypes; you are not helping anyone, only causing more grief.

  12. > you can wear coordinated T-Shirts designed to shame and expose douchebaggery in all its forms

    Err… Look… No.

    T-shirts are what got us in to this debacle in the first place. This sort of stunt is petty and confrontational. If you’re looking to do more than merely “preaching to the choir” as you had said, stunts to ‘shame’ your opposition isn’t the route to take.

  13. We’re talking about a comic which, just a couple months before this year’s PAX, ran a strip where Mike’s comic alter ego was tricked into touching the penis of a man he met on Craigslist. So, at the very least, he’s willing to be the butt of his own joke on the subject. If all of their jokes on the subject were directed towards women (which they aren’t; even the original dickwolves comic involved a male victim), I could see the point, but their treatment of women in a comic that almost constantly makes men the butt of the joke and the recipients of significant harm borders on pedestalizing.

    We’re talking about a comic which has featured at least 100 strips with jokes about murder and brutal violence, in an industry whose bread and butter is the indiscriminate slaughter of humans, humanoids, and other sentient creatures, generally by other humans, humanoids, and other sentient creatures. Would any of us claim that killing hundreds of thousands of imaginary people and reading comic strips about killing people promotes “murder culture”?

    The amount of harm done by their occasional rape joke (none of which particularly promote rape any more than their more frequent jokes about murder promote murder) seems strongly outweighed by the amount of good done by their criticizing of unequal gender treatment in games, the oversexualization of female characters, and the exploitation of women’s sexuality in gaming culture. For a comic whose writers are completely willing to dish out as much to themselves as they dish out to everyone else to come under fire for this sort of thing in an industry where atrocity is a form of entertainment…. I don’t know if it proves that we weren’t intelligently designed, that god is a nihilist absurdist, or that some people are simply incapable of putting things in perspective before complaining about them, but seriously, when even the guys who made Cards Against Humanity are criticizing PA for a rape joke after making a game with jokes about rape and child molestation, I just don’t even.

  14. Oh look the internet was given a chance to flame and it did, what a surprise…DON’T FEED THE TROLLS! That is how shit gets out of hand. This issue has blown past what was right or wrong and gone well into person feelings and attachments which is never the best way to get two groups to come to an understanding.

  15. I’m basically a feminist (and a woman-person) and I thought the original dickwolves comic was hilarious and not especially offensive (any moreso than PA usually is).

    I didn’t think the “joke” in the joke was about rape so much as wordplay and, of course, the topic of quests. But neither did it particularly make light of rape — I think the awareness that rape is unconscionable was *required* for the strip to function on any level.

    Others were offended. I do not understand, but being offended is personal and subjective. However, I can say that objectively that the comic was NOT a particularly good example of the symptoms of rape culture or sexism.

    I do sympathize with people who do not think that PA reacted well to the feedback. Their reaction was, in ways that the comic was not, an good example of sexist privilege and an example of the type of bad behavior they do engage in.

    For worse, now, dickwolves is iconic of not just its original context, but its ensuing one. They should not perpetuate it further. Absolutely leave the comic up, it’s hilarious. But no more merchandise, no more using the situation as an example of out of control political correctness.

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