As you may have surmised from the Instagrams and Vines and Tumblr posts of me losing my mind for the last month, I’ve attended and survived another Penny Arcade Expo, and I’ve been feeling pretty terrible about it.
Penny Arcade Expo (PAX for short) is the largest gaming show in the country… it’s so big that it’s now split into two conferences. PAX East (which happened in March) fills the Boston Convention Center and PAX Prime (which happened a few weeks ago) fills the Seattle Convention Center and all of the theaters and hotels in downtown Seattle.
To the extent that any gaming event can be described as “cool,” PAX is the coolest gaming event. It’s filled with fans who are there to celebrate things they love, it has none of the slick salesmanship of a trade show like E3, and only trace amounts of the competitive neckbeardery of a convention like Gen Con.
Even by PAX standards this was a pretty incredible convention for me. I announced a new game that I’m publishing and a number of publications called it best in show, I passed out tons of Werewolf sets, I spoke on five panels, Cards Against Humanity did a sold-out comedy show at the Triple Door, we launched the Bigger Blacker Box, and we built a 20-foot tall black cube outside of the convention center with a classical cellist inside. This year I even got upgraded to a VIP badge and was able to catch part of the Strip Search panel and the Omegathon for the first time.
Our booth at PAX took about three months to plan and we hired a team of people who were dedicated to the project. Our total cost (after buying space for the booth, building the booth, hiring staff, musicians, airfare, hotels, etc.) was about $150,000, which is more money that I or any of the Cards guys or anyone we know has ever spent on anything.
This isn’t unique to us either - most of my friends who come to PAX do their most original, creative promotions there, and spend months of work (and a small fortune) preparing for the show.
But now it’s two weeks later, and everyone I know (myself included) is pretty depressed about the whole thing, based entirely on a single comment by one of the founders of Penny Arcade, Mike Krahulik.
To understand what happened, you’ve really got to have some context. I won’t be able to give you all of that context in this post, but I recommend this Tumblr post which is so long and comprehensive that it had to be split into two parts: part 1 and part 2.
- Three years ago, Penny Arcade made a strip with a rape joke in it (a video game character says they’re “raped to sleep by the dickwolves.”)
- People on the internet were upset by the joke, and complained to Penny Arcade
- Penny Arcade (mostly Mike) made fun of those people and argued with them on Twitter
- Penny Arcade sold dickwolves t-shirts to troll the people who were upset about it
- About a year later, they apologized and pulled the t-shirts
Anyway, the “dickwolves” controversy was before my time at PAX, but even two years after the apology, it seems to just keep coming up.
After our panel on Sunday night, I was walking home to my hotel, and I caught up with Robert Khoo, the business manager of Penny Arcade. Robert and I talked shop for a little bit, and then at some point I congratulated him on an incident-free PAX, free (at that point) from any of the drama or controversy that always seems to pop up at these things. “Well,” Robert said, “there’s this panel tomorrow where I’m interviewing Mike and Jerry and we could still screw it up.”
And of course sure enough that’s exactly what happened. Robert asked Mike and Jerry if there was anything he had done that they regreted, and Mike said, “I think that pulling the Dickwolves merchandise was a mistake,” to a smattering of cheers in the audience.
I wasn’t at that panel, but word reached me that afternoon and I knew shortly after that a good amount of the work we had done for PAX had been washed away. After the show, nobody would remember the cube that I spent months designing or the cards and fortune cookies that we gave out, they would only remember that quote. I believe my exact words were, “Mike just fucked us.”
The next day, R. Stevens wrote:
It’s just so disappointing to see people I’ve known since we were all new and broke turn out to be such tone-deaf, old man bullies. [Mike is] Rush Limbaugh with tattoos. I could get over the original comic if they’d just moved on or apologized, but they had to make merchandise out of rape just to poke back at people and then encourage fans to wear it to a convention that supposedly has pro-woman policies,”
A number of people announced their boycott of Penny Arcade and PAX, like Rachel Edidin, who wrote a piece for Wired called “Why I’m Never Going Back to Penny Arcade Expo.”
For Emma Story, a Penny Arcade fan who also designed and maintained the comic’s website from 2000 to 2004, this incident also proved to be the final straw. Story remained friends with Krahulik and Holkins after she stopped working for them, but this week, she publicly cut ties with Penny Arcade.
“Mike’s reaction when he’s criticized for this kind of behavior is always to comment on how he hates bullying, and how he sees himself as fighting back against a bunch of internet bullies,” Story told WIRED. For her, the primary conflict is about Penny Arcade’s continual abuse of power. “The unexamined privilege in [Mike’s] viewpoint is sort of breathtaking — the fact that a straight white male, a celebrity with countless followers who will agree with anything he says, doesn’t see that he is in a position of power over other significantly marginalized groups is almost beyond believing. What he is doing is bullying, no question, and it’s not excused by the fact that kids were mean to him when he was in school.”
In Krahulik’s mind, he’s still the underdog rebelling against an unfair world bent on keeping him down. Despite decades of success and influence, he’s never learned to distinguish between criticism and censorship or understood the relationship between power and personal responsibility. He’s an angry teenager with the clout of an industry baron, and he’s cultivated a horde of followers who respond to criticism with death and rape threats. This are the sorts of people Penny Arcade courts when it digs in its heels and goes to the mat in defense of its right to punch down.
So now it’s a few weeks later and tempers have cooled, but people (at least the people I know) are still not sure if they still trust Penny Arcade or will go back to PAX. A number of veteran Enforcers (the incredible volunteers who make PAX work) have told us that they’re done with PAX, vendors have pulled out of PAX East, and people want to know what we’re going do.
The way I see it, we have three options:
- Ignore Penny Arcade just enjoy the rest of PAX. PAX is more than Mike and Jerry, in my experience it’s a pretty incredible community.
- Boycott PAX. This is something that we’ve seriously considered, and the benefits are obvious: if we remove ourselves from PAX and any association with Penny Arcade, their PR blunders can’t hurt us.
- Protest. Protesting at PAX would mean participating in the convention and the culture, and using our place there to change it for the better.
I can rule out ignoring Penny Arcade and just doing PAX. This has been our strategy through the last few Penny Arcade controversies, and unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be working for us. We try harder and harder to do cool stuff at PAX and all anyone remembers after the convention is the drama. It’s also incredibly demoralizing for us; when Penny Arcade upsets people we get tagged too.
Boycotting PAX creates a huge problem as well: If all of the progressive people boycott PAX it will just become a carnival of rape culture and there will be no cool game show to go to.
That leaves us with the latter option, which is to protest. This year we put a “Safe Space” banner in our booth to indicate that we wouldn’t tolerate discrimination or harassment. Nobody came in to our booth wearing a dickwolves t-shirt, but if they did, we’d ask them to leave. If you’ve got a booth at PAX, I encourage you to display similar signs and adopt a similar policy. Here’s our print file if you’d like to use it. We will most likely be back at PAX East and PAX Prime 2014, but we’re going to use our place there to talk about what we think is right and fair, and welcome all kinds of gamers into our booth.
I’ll leave the last word here to Damion Schubert from BioWare, who absolutely nailed it:
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’.
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.
In which Max handles things beautifully.