Thursday, September 5, 2013

Dickwolf'd (UPDATED)

(Post moved from original location to allow for commenting)

So, I feel like I need to write this stuff down. And since the situation is still fluid and "evolving" (read: a clusterfuck) it's probably best that it be a blog post as opposed to an episode of this or that show. Plus, since there's no guarantee I won't say something stupid, this way it's all on me and not on any of my employers or partners.

That second part is one of the main reasons why the most recent Penny Arcade/PAX blowup is the mess that it is: The section of gamer-culture (sidebar: folks, we're all still on the same page that using the word "culture" alongside gamer/geek/etc and talking about various nerd-substrata as though they were akin religious or national identities was supposed to be mostly tongue-in-cheek... right?) where PA exists is built around this strange dynamic where fans, journalists, "celebrities," developers and companies are all thrown into a single space and the power structure changes from scenario to scenario. What makes PAX infuriating is also what makes it "work" - it's an independent gaming fan convention that's just big and visible enough that major companies show up to make/break news, but it's also just self-aware enough of it's own humble origins (the whole thing has grown out of fandom for a three-panel webcomic) to still feel mostly like a fan con and not a tradeshow (even though it kind of is, at this point.) At it's best, PAX feels still feels like a counterpoint to the likes of E3, a space wherein the giants of the industry go to genuflect and beg attention from their audience instead of the other way around.

That's the positive side of PAX (and PAXEast, and PAXAus), and it's not the only positive attached to the brand: The comic is funny, the two guys who run it (Jerry "Tycho" Holkins and Mike "Gabe" Krahulik) are talented and they're "Child's Play" charity arm does a tremendous amount of genuine good. (Full disclosure: I have not worked with Penny Arcade professionally myself, but I am connected professionally and friendwise to many folks in the business who are.)

The negative side, though - at least from where I sit - is that the same symbolic refusal to "mature" beyond a certain point that informs gaming/geek/fandom's more charming facets is also what causes an increasing number of it's more obnoxious issues. There's a point at which a "leader" in fandom needs to drop the "what, a leader? ME!?" ironic-naivety and actually assume a certain amount of responsibility... and not everyone is ready for it when it happens to them.

Maybe we should start from the beginning.

You can read an exhaustive breakdown of what this whole mess has been about HERE, but the gist of it goes like this: About three years ago, Penny Arcade did a strip about a game using "rescue slaves from a horrible dungeon" as the pretext for a fetch-quest, which involved one slave describing his predicament as including "being raped to sleep by The Dickwolves." To me, it was worth a chuckle - a cute (if obvious) observation of what we're irritatingly asked to call "ludonarrative dissonance" (read: "when game mechanics are silly/horrifying in a narrative context) mixed with clever wordplay, basically PA's entire forte.

And then what happened next... happened next.

As is the case with 90% of "big" things that happen around Penny Arcade, at first it seemed like they were only involved by virtue of their own visibility and relative tangibility (compared to larger entities in gaming, I mean.) At the time, the casual overuse of "rape" as an offhand term for dominance in gaming (online multiplayer especially) was a big heated topic of debate, and while I don't doubt that the (at first) handful of activists and bloggers who got on PA's "case" about the comic (summary of charges: using rape as part of a punchline is insensitive to rape-survivors) were sincere I do think it's plausible that there was a certain amount of "shoot the biggest, most attention-getting target, not necessarily the most-guilty target" thinking in effect.

Either way, it became a "thing" on the internet; placing PA in the always-awkward position (for a self-described pop-satirist, anyway) of being the type of "gamer-sphere news of the day" they existed to make jokes about. So they responded... and that's when everything went straight to fucking hell.

I want to be clear here: I care about Free Speech. Comedy is comedy, you have the right to joke about anything, etc etc. As far as I'm concerned there was nothing wrong with the original "Dickwolves" strip; and while it's both wrong and pointless to tell someone they don't have a "right" to be offended... in my opinion it's more than perfectly clear that the strip was was making fun of absurdity in game design (and, more specifically, the "_____Wolf/Bear/Hawk/Dragon" naming-convention for fantasy monsters) - not making fun of rape or rape-victims. So not only would I say Penny Arcade did nothing wrong in the original strip, I'd say a lot of early detractors stepped over the line in accusing them of having various unsavory political/social/personal views (agendas, even!) based on what was in my estimation a mis-reading of a comic strip. And if that had been the end of it, then this would be a story that nobody remembers about that one time when a bunch of misdirected outrage landed on the two goofballs who make Penny Arcade.

But that wasn't where it ended.

There's an old saying: "When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail." Well, all Penny Arcade had was a webcomic and a default stance of "There's nothing wrong with games and gamers, fuck you, stop picking on us!" self-righteousness (born, it's important to note, of the very real persecution of the medium and it's fans by censorship advocates, hack lawyers and the Religious Right in the 80s and 90s) expressed as smug satire. And so that's how they chose to respond to the blowup, with a follow-up strip featuring a glib non-apology and lots of eyerolling at the very idea that joking about rape somehow contributed to the "it's no big deal" undercurrent at the heart of what's called "the rape culture."

You may or may not have caught a recent piece I did that touched on this topic, but what I said there bears repeating here i.e. the hammer/nail metaphor: Not all criticism is the same, and you can't respond to all critics the same way. Merciless mockery of, say, Jack Thompson or Pat Robertson? Perfect marriage of weapon and target: Assholes, vile subhumans for whom no (rhetorical) attack should be out of bounds. Fuck those guys, and fuck the twin forces of hack-legalism and religious conservatism that spawned them - bad responses coming from a bad place. Light `em up. But using those same "weapons" on criticism coming from, say, feminist, civil-rights or sociological perspectives - i.e. schools of thought that are at least foundationally correct and fighting on the side of progress (if not always in the best ways)? No, wrong response. Just because all you have is a hammer doesn't make them nails.

But Penny Arcade used their hammer, and the backlash against them got (predictably) bigger. So did a backlash to the backlash from PA fans and the growing, vocal segment of gaming/geek culture that had been infected by the knee-jerk toxicity of "Men's Rights Activism." As we've seen with the rise of the Tea Party in the U.S., any space that had up until recently been dominated by white/heterosexual/males tends to sprout a version of this nonsense when that power-dynamic seems threatened by "change;" and in the less than savory corners of gamer fandom the "Dickwolves Issue" became a symbol of their cause: Yet another vanguard of the culture "under siege" by the Forces of Feminism, who of course wanted to "destroy" Penny Arcade just like they wanted to "destroy" everything else they loved.

I should stress that I don't intend to conflate Mike or Jerry (or Robert Khoo, the business-face of the PA machine) with the awful folks who jumped so stridently to their defense. I don't know them personally (we've "met," briefly, but not in any kind of real conversational sense) and I have no real sense of their respective views or outlook on anything other than the game and pop-culture stuff they joke about in their strips. I've never heard anything second hand that would lead me to conclude that they aren't generally decent guys, and if nothing else their "public face" as two guys who still haven't totally wrapped their heads around what they've built. In other words, when all this was unfolding and their constant refrain was that they didn't quite see what the big issue was, I believed them... and I think that was the problem.

What happened next was the "will someone please protect these guys from themselves??" moment of the affair. The fact that being "pro-Dickwolves" had become a rallying-cry for anti-feminist bullies across the interweb had been lost on one or both of the PA duo - evidently all they saw was another mass-rallying of support from their fans against yet another bunch of buzzkills. So they did what you do in this business: They made merchandise, in this case "Dickwolves" mock team-jerseys.

This was the point where even a lot of the games media that were inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt had to throw up their hands in exasperation: Did they really not grasp that - however off-base they might have found the original criticism to be - that by now they'd stumbled across the line from defending their material to giving horrible people looking to bully rape-survivors (and those sympathetic to the same) into not voicing their objections an officially-endorsed banner to rally around. Ultimately, the outcry about this was enough to get the shirts pulled, with PA making a concerted public effort to tell their fans to drop it and to distance themselves from the darker stuff that others were spouting in their names and in general make nice.

Eventually things died down... or rather, they died down on that specific front while the PA crew got in trouble for different things; mostly but not exclusively Krahulik, who can't seem to help but get into these fights usually in the context of going way the hell overboard at even the mere suggestion that he might've said something insensitive. (Sidebar: People tend to assume comedians and humorists must have really thick skins. They are incredibly incorrect in that assumption.)

In any case, 90% of that happened 2 or 3 years ago. But now it's back, because PAX Prime 2013 was this past weekend and someone thought it was a good idea to make "blunt honesty" a topic during Mike and Jerry's annual Q&A stage show and Mike decided to "get off his chest" that he's still sore about pulling the Dickwolves merchandise and considers it a mistake. The footage of this is out there. A lot of people claim this was met with huge applause from the attendees, and maybe it was - but what I hear on the tape sounds more like an awkward, uncomfortable buzz followed by one or two guys giving a "WHOOOO!!!" and then more joining in. Either way, what's more interesting is watching Holkins and Khoo in the unmistakable posture and expressions of a drunk-and-misbehaving person's relative cycling through their practiced rationalizations for later.

Thing is, the gaming landscape has changed a lot in three years. The initial blowup over Dickwolves started a discussion not only about "rape jokes" in comedy but also about the marginalization/"othering" of women and LGBT persons in the community and harrassment on the convention circuit, and things have moved in positive directions like the "Cosplay Is Not Consent" movement. THE biggest thing happening in game press/commentary right now is "Tropes vs. Women." PAX itself has even been good about this - ironically, one of the big stories this year before Mike ressurected this issue was the big reception for several feminism and bullying themed panels. Now? Increasingly prominent people and entities in the industry and community are saying they might have to reevaluate their participation in future events.

A hard lesson to learn in life is that you can be 100% "in the right" about something and still lose, because life isn't fair. An even harder lesson to learn is that you can be right about something only to have it be negated by the wrongness of your reaction. Speaking as one internet-humorist about another, I sympathized (and still do, to whatever extent it matters) with Penny Arcade about the reaction to the initial strip. I can even sympathize with their desire to say "fuck you!" in response, the first time. Having your words misinterpreted to mean something horrible you didn't intend and the subsequent accusations that come with it is an AWFUL experience for a person in a creative enterprise, since it's a personal attack ("you're a rape-apologist!!!") wrapped around a professional criticism ("You told this joke poorly.")

So yeah, even if it's not generally how I handle this stuff, I totally get the compulsion to lash out. What I don't get is continuing to do it (and I'm talking about the shirts and such) after it's been demonstrated that this is A.) now bigger than you and your joke and B.) that whether they misread your comic strip or not, you don't "battle" rape-survivors and women's rights activists the way you battle some asshole lawyer from Florida because they're not the same guys. Doing so makes you the bad guy even if you started out "right," and bringing it up again - unprovoked! - when the vast majority of your "enemy" had moved on... that really makes you The Bad Guy even if you are not, in fact, a bad guy.

Why did he do it? That's what I keep coming back to. The issue was a memory for most. People were moving on. Things had "worked out" as best they can in these situations: He and his strip had survived, a lot of the people who'd raised initial objections had parlayed their visibility in positive directions, things had grown - or had seemed to. Why dredge this up again. Like I've said, I don't know the guy. Everything I've heard about him from folks who do would suggest he's a good person/husband/father/friend/etc. What was he thinking? He has literally nothing to gain from this but a fight... and maybe that's it.

I'm not looking to psychoanalyze Mike Krahulik or anyone else from Penny Arcade, though, because I don't know them as people and that wouldn't be fair. But what I'm comfortable positing that, from a spectator's position, their problem appears to be the same that afflicts too much of broader geek/game culture: I don't think they've quite figured out how to inhabit a world where they aren't in a constant state of war-readiness - a world where they (and their fans) are no longer the besieged underdogs beset by powerful attackers.

In many respects, Penny Arcade is a victim of it's own success: The very fact that they've been able to build a comfortable livelihood, a mini media-empire and a convention circuit on the scale of PAX puts to lie the idea of video-games as still being this niche, "insider" secret-club of absurd codes and contradictions and "Gabe & Tycho" as just being a pair of overgrown kids playing games and goofing off. Sorry, fellas, but you won - gaming is mainstream culture and you are the public faces of a not-insubstantial business in mainstream culture. As such, Penny Arcade the strip is kind of a relic; a leftover from a bygone era where gaming was an outsider "culture" in need of vigilance and defense, a time when Jack Thompson stalked the Earth and the biting, relentless sarcasm of this particular webcomic was one of the key weapons in undermining him. Essentially, Penny Arcade's reasons for being were to make gamers feel like they "belonged" to something and to slap around gaming's powerful enemies... and neither of those things are really "problems" anymore.

Unfortunately, it seems as though PA - like most of "geek culture," is either unwilling or unable to recognize it's own victory... indeed, it's own supremacy. When a sense of ostracism and victimhood are seen as being vital to your own sense of self; the realization that the power dynamic might have shifted in your favor can be incredibly jarring: "I am a nerd. Nerds are victims. If I have the power I am no longer a victim... does that mean I am also no longer a nerd? And if so, what am I?" And the even more troubling implication that having become "The Man" means you might be capable of having the same negative effect on others as the previous "The Man" had on you? It's not hard to imagine being personally affronted and defensive about that. Christianity, for example, was the most powerful cultural force in the Western World for centuries... but it's orthodoxy is still grounded in a sense of victimhood over the martyrdom of it's namesake and the (relatively brief) period where it was a persecuted minority religion in Rome.

Basically, this latest nonsense from PAX is unfortunate, but it's indicative of a bigger problem in this "culture" - we need, at long last, to grow up. Not about what we're into but the way we're willing to conduct ourselves. The notion of cons as a vacation from proper behavior in addition to being a trip to a space concentrated around your interests needs to go away, for one thing, and so does the idea that "we" the conventional majority of geek culture (or the culture itself) need to be playing hard-defense at all times.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: We won. We're in charge. We're The Man now, and it is our obligation to make ourselves worthy of not being toppled. Instead of hyperventilating about some New Gestapo coming to confiscate our unapproved books every time someone says we might've crossed the line in a joke, we should be bending over backwards to be more inclusive, more inviting and more safe space friendly to more diverse fellow travelers - not in the least because the sooner we do the sooner we'll have authentic moral high-ground for "defending" ourselves when we really are wrongly-accused of this or that transgression.

So where does this leave us? I know a few people, already, who are looking to bow out of the PAX scene for one reason or another related to this mess. At this time, I'm not necessarily looking to make that jump. For one thing, it's a reality of business that PAXEast is an unprecedented networking opportunity for me in the gaming business that I don't otherwise have access to because I don't live in NY, LA, Seattle or Japan. For another thing, it's a place where I see friends and colleagues I don't otherwise get to see - that's honestly the more important one, and if any number of my friends came to me and said "we're not doing PAX this year, would you consider not doing it as well in solidarity" I would be pretty likely to say yes.

But me, speaking only for myself, I don't see the "help" that I'd be doing by not going just on my own. This isn't like "Chic-Fil-A" thing, where the idea is to hit the bottom line of a company because it was giving it's money to a political cause. Penny Arcade isn't a political organization, and the only thing not going would really do is remove my meager financial contribution not only from the one guy who keeps screwing up but also from all the other largely guiltless people involved. I also understand, however, that I say that from a place of privilege - if I saw someone walking around PAX in one of those ill-concieved Dickwolves jerseys, I might think they were assholes... but it would never cross my mind that the person wearing it is looking at me and thinking that I'm less than human, or a target. And while I know for a fact that PAX organizers work really hard to make it a safe and fun space, I absolutely get people who don't feel like it is and won't go because of that.

It's a shame, though, because a lot of the people bowing out will inevitably be the sort of people who can affect change for the better. The one absolute good at the heart of PAX is that it really is very much not "about" Mike and Jerry, or Gabe and Tycho, or the comic in general - it's a fan convention through and through, and they've been consistently willing to greenlight panels and events that run seperate or even counter to their own views and issues. Holding a panel about a hot-button issue at PAX potentially puts your opinion in front of fans who might not otherwise have listened and industry pros who can help amplify you. Opting not to do so to basically say "not cool" to a one of the figureheads would be - I stress, TO ME - perhaps not the best alignment of priorities.

I don't know where else to go with this. The whole situation is unfortunate, and the "point" isn't really much more complicated than the plea that maybe we could all try to be a little nicer to one another? Maybe not go looking to start new fights or dredge up old ones? Maybe understand that having personal pride in yourself and your interests doesn't mean you ignore opportunity (or need) for self-improvement? I don't know about you, but from where I sat the convention circuit got better when we started to regard hygiene and social-skills as being more important than we had. "Nerd culture" is getting better the more sexually, racially, culturally and politically diverse it gets - and I hate seeing it take steps backwards, fairly or not.

I also don't know if anyone from or related to Penny Arcade will read this. I doubt it, but we know some of the same people so who knows. If they should happen to, though, my message would be as follows: Whether or not you ever planned to be "more than" a pair of happy-go-lucky cartoonists, you are. You're figureheads in this industry and community, what you say - even flippantly - carries weight, has repercussions and matters. And if you want to keep being the public-faces of your own empire you need to start acknowledging and respecting the responsibility that comes with that kind of power - yes, even if it's less "fun" as a result. And Mike, specifically? I don't know you, but I get the sense we might come from the same place in a lot of respects and based on that I'd offer this: Get some help. Not in the "something is wrong with you" sense, but in the "it might help to talk about this stuff" sense. Take it from me - a persistent feeling of persecution (which is the only thing I can imagine being "behind" this seemingly compulsive need to take a combative "come at me" stance) is usually a symptom of other things that just aren't good to let fester.

And that's what I've got to say about that. Let's all try to be better.