PAX Speakers Withdraw Over Controversy

By Alexander Bevier in Features, Gaming News
Thursday, February 3, 2011 at 4:00 pm
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The Penny Arcade Expo was once a mecca to the gaming community. The convention's fabled walls held amusements for every facet of gaming, and everyone was happily welcomed to the PAX family.

"My first visit to PAX was a revelation for me," said game designer and PAX panelist/speaker Corvus Elrod. "Here was a geekdom con that seemed, from my perspective, to embrace all aspects of geek culture and geeks of all ages, genders, sexuality, and ethnicity... I attended with my wife, who felt similarly. She was completely comfortable."

Penny Arcade--the web comic the convention was based around-- is well known for their irreverent gaming humor. Their site has often makes jokes about pedophilia, atheism, and cannibalism. Most of the audience typically finds it funny, but there are occasionally people who object to the content.

On August 11, Penny Arcade posted a comic parodying the lack of impact players have on virtual worlds. In the comic, a male slave--rejoicing that he will be saved by the player--mentions that he will no longer be raped to sleep by "Dickwolves." But the player character walks away without helping because he's already freed five slaves. Quest complete.

Despite rape being merely referenced in the comic, and wasn't the punchline for the joke at all, people took offense to it. Alerted by the use of this trigger word, several bloggers wrote about Penny Arcade's comic. The website responded with another comic of the two star characters apologizing for potentially making someone a rapist. "If you're raping someone right now, apologize. And leave," the comic states in its last panel.

Once PAX rolled around, the controversy seemed over. The Penny Arcade fans, however, never forget a joke.

At the event, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins (the creators of Penny Arcade) hold a panel in which the audience asks the creators questions as a comic is created over the course of an hour. During this time, an audience member asked Krahulik to draw a Dickwolf.

During this time, one of the satellite theaters decided to unofficially change its name from the "Wolfman Theater" to the "Dickwolfman Theater". One month later, Penny Arcade released a shirt with a dickwolf emblazoned on the front.

"Both years I have spoken at PAX," Corvus reflected, "A woman has stood up during the Q&A and shared an abusive experiences she'd undergone in the context of gaming. That made me very glad I could be there to say, 'That is not okay. That should not happen,' and have everyone in the room applaud in agreement. It should also be noted that both women seemed surprised to hear this in the context of geek culture--even within the heart of what I perceived to be the most open and accepting portions of that community."

It wasn't the Dickwolves that were offensive. It was Penny Arcade's mockery of those offended by the passive reference of rape. The Dickwolf had become a symbol; a metaphor for mocking those sensitive to rape culture.

As Penny Arcade kept producing Dickwolf garments, industry members starting feeling uncomfortable about the company and what the merchandise represented. In turn, PAX--the hub of the gaming community--also was being affected. Would the convention reflect humor over rape culture? Would gaming be perceived as something that makes fun of rape and rape culture?

"I'd distinguish between rape culture and the use of the word 'rape' in games culture." Says Neils Clark, academic and ethics teacher at DigiPen. "There's a different set of connotations between, 'one in 13 college-aged American men will have raped somebody (true),' and, 'bygolly but did we just rape Arthas!' A lot of male gamers have said or typed 'rape' during play. And while nobody wants to feel guilty for a cultural norm, for being a part of the games culture especially, these two connotations don't coexist. We need to stop while we're behind."

As a few potential speakers to PAX East stated that they would not attend a convention run by people selling dickwolf shirts, it seemed that Penny Arcade began to realize that the dickwolf shirt was causing more trouble than it should. Krahulik apologized and removed the shirts from the PA store.

"We want PAX to be a place were everyone feels welcome and we've worked really hard to make that happen," wrote Krahulik. "When I heard from a few people that the shirt would make them uncomfortable at PAX, that gave me pause." The pause didn't last long, as Krahulik later wrote on Twitter that he would be wearing his Dickwolf shirt to PAX.

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"When Mike tweeted that he planned on wearing his Dickwolves t-shirt to PAX, I was done," Corvus said. "I was now officially angry. Members of the gaming industry had reached out quietly and respectfully to the PA crew. But instead of trying to understand the issue so many people were having with their actions, they continue to mock the very notion that the concept of rape should be taken seriously."

Unfortunately, the "Dickwolf Debacle" has cost PAX several potentially interesting panels and sessions. Corvus himself was intending to present a panel with the International Game Developers Association at PAX East entitled "One of Us," featuring "members of the gaming community who are underrepresented and often subject to verbal abuse because of it. The panelists will share the coping strategies they've developed and tactics they've used to deal with the effects of being part of a larger gaming community that can be hostile."

Other people who have decided not to attend PAX includes developers Deirdra Kai and Courtney "Kirbybits" Stanton. Writer Arthur Gies of Rebel FM has also decided to abstain from the convention.

"I realize the public perception is that I had something to do with the shirt getting taken down - I can assure you that's not the case," wrote Stanton; who created a "Dickwolf survivor shirt" for charity in response to the controversy. "(Penny Arcade business manager) Robert Khoo has friends, and some of those friends are in the video game industry, and some of those industry friends talked to him, and he talked to Mike and Jerry. The people who actually got this to happen -- the person who called for a boycott privately within the industry, the people who put pressure on Penny Arcade -- doesn't want to step forward and take credit for some reason."

"Maybe Jerry and Mike feel like people have got them wrong, too, that they're now being accused of "supporting rape" or of being these dismissive, insensitive people," wrote Leigh Alexander on her blog. "When a community turns on you like that it's sick-making. It can be hard to want to say you're sorry. It's hard not to say 'if you don't like me anymore, then leave.' Admitting you're wrong often feels like you're giving your power away to these people who are tearing you down or are taking their reactions to an extreme that feels unfair."

Earlier today, Jerry Holkins addressed the dickwolf matter on the Penny Arcade website. Holkins--who had been silent during much of the recent controversy-- was astonished by where the discourse went, "When I look at it now," he said, "it's hard to imagine the chaos this comic stands at the center of. To the extent that it discusses rape, it is in the context of men and an imaginary creature. It's certainly not the "'joke.' The depicted scenario seemed so ridiculous to us, so unmoored from reality, and its indictment of player "morality" so complete, we felt like it was worth doing.

"I don't expect to mollify anyone with this - I think we're long past that. When I look at the state of play now, dialectically, I don't even recognize it: in the absence of my participation, in the abdication of my responsibility to communicate, the entire dialogue is based on a sequence of assumptions about each party so long that it's impossible to untangle. ... As I said, so much of this happened because I assumed that a genuine dialogue was impossible. Maybe I was wrong. It's certainly happened before."

Right now, PAX East in Boston is still set to go on as planned and it's likely to be an enjoyable weekend for attendees. Jane McGonigal will be delivering the keynote on how game design can change the world. Unfortunately, it looks like people like Corvus will be missing out. "If Jerry and Mike become involved with MenCanStopRape.org and use their wit and geek-culture influence to help put a stop to the hostile disregard for women that has been evident throughout the gaming community, before and during this controversy, I will considering returning to PAX as a gamer and as a speaker," he said. "Until that point, I will direct my energies to other conventions and work with their staff to foster an environment of inclusivity."


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