Right about the time that PAX Australia was on, a friend of mine who is a non-gamer, but well-versed in online feminism, put two and two together realised – with horror – that the big gaming show that a lot of her friends were talking about, and even attending or presenting at, was the same one that had been implicated in a matter she had been following quite closely.
“Really?” she asked of me and a whole lot of my other friends, “you’re going to PAX? The same thing put on by that guy who makes fun of rape victims and likes abusing trans folk?”
It was uncomfortable. This woman is one of my oldest and closest friends; the idea that she was equating my job and one of my favourite past-times with the absolutely deplorable comments of Mike Krahulik was alarming, to say the least. I have trans friends, I have friends who have lived through sexual abuse. I have written out against rape culture in gaming, not because it’s cool or the thing to be seen to be doing, but because it’s a message that simply cannot be repeated enough. It's there - it needs to be addressed.
But when I was talking to her about PAX, and those attending it, and its place in gaming culture, I defended the institution. I held out hope that those at the top of the organisation could learn from past behaviour and mistakes; I and others pointed out how important the event is to fledgling developers, and how for a lot of people it really does fit with that oft-repeated phrase at the heart of the PAX experience – it’s a home, a welcome one, for so many people.
Surely there’s an argument for PAX and its community being bigger than the idiots involved with it at the upper level.
But then Krahulik got up on stage at the recent PAX Prime and admitted that he regretted pulling dickwolf merchandise from the Penny Arcade store. And he was applauded.
The dickwolf debacle... man, where to start. I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with the incident, but to sum up, Penny Arcade published a comic that, in effect, made light of rape. A number of sites objected, so the PA crew got defensive and went on the attack. Krahulik mocked the idea of trigger warnings, and then decided to go further and release a line of dickwolf merchandise – the ultimate ‘screw you’ to anyone who disagreed with his idea of humour.
So then you get the even more onerous situation of a bunch of dudes proclaiming themselves as Team Dickwolf – loudly, proudly and aggressively. Because, yeah, associating positively with rape is fun and edgy, yo.
This was all back in the relative dark ages of 2011, and soon after Penny Arcade removed the merchandise. In internet terms, it’s almost millennia old, but the prattish behaviour of Krahulik continues to make sure that the matter is not laid to rest.
Before PAX Australia, he got in trouble for a series of anti-trans comments on Twitter. Looking back at his dickwolf comments, it suggested a pattern. A pattern of a man who simply does not get it, and who doesn’t even care to try. A man who will happily boast, when asked how it feels to be supporting such a toxic culture, “... it feels pretty good.”
As I said, this is years old. But that pattern continues to play out, and when Krahulik stated his regret at pulling dickwolf t-shirts and banners... well, that’s bad enough. It’s worse when he does it on stage, with a huge audience.
But what stabs me in the heart is that applause. A crowd of howling men, proclaiming their support for rape merchandise.
The Penny Arcade Expos are big business, and not just for Penny Arcade. If you’re a struggling indie developer they’re an almost essential part of your marketing cycle. They get your game in front of eyeballs, and maybe even get you exposed to big publishers. PAX is ultimately ‘for gamers’, but it’s unmistakably an industry event, too.
Indies just cannot afford, by and large, to say no to opportunities like that, and PAX has made huge efforts to make indie developers welcome. Bravo for that.
But consider the conundrum, then, if you’re an indie developer that feels that PAX simply isn’t the safe space for all gamers that it promises to be.
I don’t feel comfortable attending PAX. If I felt like I had a choice in the matter, if I could reach the awesome people I did while I was there without supporting the other figurehead behind the show, I would absolutely not be there. But I don’t. You’ve made it so in order to make a decent living for myself in videogames, I’m obligated to show up. That’s why I was there. It wasn’t because I felt comfortable, nor was it because I felt okay supporting your organization.
This is in the words of developer Christine Love, in an open letter to Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins. He visited her booth during PAX Prime, and Christine recounts her conflicted feelings at him wanting her to feel happy and safe at the show, while not far away an auditorium full of dickwolves howled at the moon.
I don’t blame her. All I can think of is how I would feel if I’d been in that audience – how the fuck could I justify that to anyone I know? My friends who are survivors, who've copped untold mountains of hate because of fear and transphobia.
Some of my best friends attend PAX. They present panels, they travel internationally to attend the show, they give their time as volunteers. Hell, I know the guy who helped run PAX Aus, and he’s your regular ‘tops bloke’. I know he hates this kind of shit as much as I do.
For him PAX is all about community, and he believes in creating a welcoming space. When he took a photo of the ‘Welcome Home’ banner at PAX Aus, and said howproud he was to be a part of it, I believe him. At its best, PAX is pretty amazing, and it’s certainly bigger than the misguided prattishness of its ‘stars’, like Krahulik.
Even then, there’s Krahulik’s apology, posted overnight, which seems genuine. I’m not sure he gets the whole issue, but I’ll take him on face value.
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.
But his apologies are not enough, and his actions do not exist in a vacuum. He has abetted the creation of a community that wants to be Team Rape. And I’m not being figurative, here; a Twitter account under that very name represented all those who felt their ‘free speech’ was being threatened. @teamrape exhorted others to wear their dickwolves t-shirts proudly, to actively shout down their so-called oppressors. The amount of sheer hate on display was... abhorrent. It is quite literally almost impossible for me to read through, even now.
And so, that auditorium, years later. Mike Krahulik and PA’s business manager admit they should have ignored everyone calling for dickwolves merchandise to be pulled. It’s like a dude saying everything would have been fine if they’d just ignored that guy asking to not be punched in the face – because ignorance helps everything go away in the end. Fuck engagement and understanding.
And in that auditorium, the howls of a community that wants to be on team rape. Christine Love said this in her open letter, and I cannot fault her thinking:
I don’t really care about Mike or Robert. I can’t imagine we’re ever going to meet or talk, so I don’t think it really matters much that they think shitty things. What I care about is that when they said those things on a public stage, an entire auditorium full of men cheered loudly. Like, literally an entire giant auditorium of men got excited at the idea of making rape survivors feel uncomfortable, and the idea of not listening to people when they say they feel unsafe. That is terrifying. It’s not Mike I’m worried about; it’s being in the same convention of that room full of people. They scare the shit out of me, man, and I don’t understand why anyone would want those sorts of people around.
It scares the fuck out of me, too.