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Controversy in Seattle Nerdom

Normally on Fridays I review a game or share a video, but I’ve been cheating a bit with extra fun content, so today’s post is going to be a bit more serious. I’ve been following the Penny Arcade “Raped by Dickwolves” controversy for a while, and this past week it’s gotten completely out of hand.

Last August they created a comic that made reference to “being raped to sleep by dickwolves” to exaggerate the pitiful state of NPCs that are ignored by MMORPG players in only freeing a set number of slaves for a quest. When I read it, I laughed, because the humor was fairly dark, but also fairly out of touch with anything based in reality, and totally in keeping with the spirit of Penny Arcade. Feminists and rape survivors, however, were not pleased, with some speaking out against the strip, and others questioning whether the “male-dominated” video game space was fostering rape culture.

In their usual “it’s the internet, it will blow over,” the creators of Penny Arcade made light of the criticism, creating Dickwolves t-shirts, and selling them online and at PAX. Commentary and criticism got a bit more heated (see the full timeline here). In the past week, at least one speaker pulled out of PAX because of the t-shirts, and suddenly there were twitter accounts accusing rape survivors of lying about being raped, and calling for attacks on the wives and children of the Penny Arcade creators.

Did Penny Arcade respond badly to the first controversy? Yes, no question. They dismissed concerns and played up the sarcasm regarding a very real problem. Did they eventually remove the shirts from the store? Yes, which is good. Have they totally lost control of the vitriolic attacks? Yes, meaning that yesterday’s call for sanity is probably not going to have that much effect. Even Jerry Holkin’s reasoned and intelligent post is probably not going to do much to calm the waters at this point. Part of the intelligence of that post is his acknowledgment that the whole thing is out of his hands.

While with PAX having a creation take shape and become self-sustaining could be a great and positive thing, so that they could step back and be lauded like royalty, this contretemps has taken on a life of it’s own in such a way that their inattention and instinctive responses (twitter can be a bad thing) during the early days may haunt the rest of their legacy.

So let’s spend a moment talking about legal issues. Threats of physical violence can be considered a crime if there is a reasonable chance the person making the threats (or inciting the violence) could actually follow out on those threats. Insults and name-calling, while petty and juvenile, are generally not actionable, unless they are intentionally harmful because the attacker knew that the insults would cause serious mental damage to the specific target. It’s the problem of “which part of the mob started the mob?” Hopefully nothing will happen, and no one will be attacked or injured as a result of the comic, on either side of the fence.

But in the same way that people tried to blame explicit lyrics for juvenile delinquency, and violence in video-games for violent anti-social behavior in teenagers, if anything does happen here, the fingers are going to be pointed at the people behind the webcomic. I don’t think that’s entirely fair, but I’m not in charge of people on the internet. I can only hope things will calm down on their own, and apologize for the potential extension of the discussion that this post causes.

Posted in Make-Up Post.

9 Responses

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  1. Tarah says

    I’ve been thinking about posting on the same topic. I have followed the issue too, and I tend to fall on the side of any creator’s right to do as they please with their creations so long as they are not endangering others.

    Did Mike and Jerry endanger women by their humor? I doubt it. I, like 98% of the people who read the comic, saw the critique of the moral character of MMORPG players and simply interpreted the rest of the comic as an illustration of the horrors we casually dismiss in-game. Also, it was funny.

    • Nwells says

      I agree about the original comic, but Mike’s response since has done a lot to make the situation worse, and I don’t think any of his “ceasefire” posts have really done much to help.

      • Erronkelly says

        So it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, then? The best PA could have done at this stage of the game was make an open plea for the hostilities to end. They did that. The other option was to *not* do that, and then what?

        Their response for a call to end hostilities has been met with negativity anyway. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

        • Jay says

          It’s hard to see what harm a sincere apology would do at this point.

          Actually, nevermind: I guess they might lose the support of @teamrape and @rapefatchicks.

          • Sfvklkjfdnfkdj says

            Maybe they don’t think they have anything to be sorry about? It’s not like they weren’t even more dismissive and insulting to people arguing that violence in video games creates a culture where violence in general is more acceptable. This issue triggers people more and has a different block of society behind it (more left-leaning than right-leaning), but the basic argument on both sides is the same.

        • Anonymous says

          I reject your false dichotomy. There’s a difference between the dudebros at PA saying “C’mon guys, cut it out now, it’s getting out of control” and saying “Look, we screwed up. Big time. We’ve got idiots launching death threats, bullshit is flying around and it’s because we weren’t big enough to see that there are idiots in every crowd. So, for our part in starting this mess, we’re sorry. Now, people thinking they’re defending PA? We don’t need you to. Knock it off.”

          So it’s not “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. It’s “damned if you do it badly, damned if you don’t do it at all.” The third option, and there almost always is one, is “do it well”.

  2. Harbour Master says

    I’ve been watching this one from afar and was surprised that it was still going after so many months. It’s not the kind of thing I’d write about simply because I don’t think I can offer much in terms of remarkable insight. Plus, it’s a hot potato.

    But I’d say part of this is playing into the current discussion on the “gamer misogyny culture” problem. It’s a real problem with all sorts of examples – The Brainy Gamer covered one – and I’ve got embroiled in one myself on a site I frequent.

    As with any movement to right the sins of the past (and, well, not so past) there is potential and sometimes desire to imbalance things the other way rather than rebalance. I would argue that Affirmative Action and female quotas are institutionalised prejudice aimed at fixing things with brute force. Do two wrongs make a right? Is this the equivalent of hitting a child to stop it hitting others?

    I’m sliding off-piste here. I think we’re wading into a period of correction and over-correction, where we fall over ourselves not to upset others and stamp on things deemed offensive – a form of political correctness in the gamesphere. This always raises issues of chilling effects, where censorship is implicit, enforced through fear of the mob. I’m tired of RPGs being populated with scantily-clad near-nude women who apparently only need a bit of armour over the breast and groin region, but I’m not going to demand a boycott.

    Rape jokes are extremely difficult ground to tread on; perhaps not so much ground, more like thin ice. Having said that, I didn’t think the original PA strip made light of rape nor played into the general misogyny of gamer culture. But such an evaluation is subjective; it obviously offended others. The reaction feels like the sex vs violence thing. Jokes about murder and killing are okay, and no one bats an eyelid. Sex, however, lands you in hot water quicker than you can run a scalding bath and disrobe. For the record, I just realised I ended my last web post with a coarse joke about being screwed; although the word used isn’t rape, you can see it if you look hard enough.

    There are a number of people who I respect that endorse the anti-Penny Arcade position, but I reserve my right to disagree with them. =) I agree they handled the initial response badly – I believe they were refusing to bow down to an “offended minority” – a rejection of artistic censorship – and now the thing has grown into some monstrous conflict that increasingly appears to be characterised as “pro-rape” vs “anti-rape”.

    Sad times but perhaps necessary fire and chaos until gamers can feel more comfortable about themselves as a community.

  3. Joeski says

    Thanks for being a cool head: I agree with you whole-heartedly: you had the original situation, along with the original overreaction, then Mike poured gas on the fire, then…

    Well, long story short: nobody wins.

    I honestly wish someone would mediate between these parties and find a solution where PA could atone, and the Rape Culture awareness folks could stop the attacks, but between Mike and Jerry now ‘turtling’ and the Anti-DW folks engaging in petty name-calling, spiteful slander, and even the occasional outright lie, it seems that we have ‘irreconcilable differences’ going on here.

    As an aside, I don’t know what your area of expertise is, but as a lawyer, what is your take on the legality of the bastardized Penny Arcade strips at I realize that the argument of satirical use might come into play, but I think that is a very shaky foundation.

  4. Anonymous says

    What about this?