Whither art thou, Dickwolf?

Something is rotten in the state of videogame discourse.

Now that the dust has largely settled, I think we can begin to assess just what happened since the infamous "The Sixth Slave" strip (pictured above) ran nearly six months ago, and why the controversy surrounding it reached a breaking point two weeks ago.

I felt it'd be negligent of us to let the recent Penny Arcade controversy pass by without offering comment. But before we go any further, let's just clarify a couple points:

  • This controversy deals with some pretty serious and potentially upsetting issues, including slut-shaming, rape and threats of violence. These aren't topics we would approach lightly, but be aware that this isn't going to be your typical "I played a game, it was pretty good" article.
  • The opinions expressed in this article are mine alone and don't necessarily reflect those of any of the other editors or contributors here at Silicon Sasquatch. While I think we all share some common ground here, I wouldn't want to put words in anyone else's mouth.

Everyone good with that? Great. Let's move on.

Background

There's a very good chance you're already familiar with the Dickwolves controversy, or, as site contributor Spencer Tordoff put it, Dickwolfgate. Much of this article was pieced together with the assistance of this thorough timeline of events. But for the uninitiated, here's a quick synopsis:

On August 11, 2010, Penny Arcade ran the strip pictured at the beginning of this post — "The Sixth Slave" — based on the World of Warcraft Cataclysm beta. The joke was in how the arbitrary mission structure in an MMO leads to some profoundly amoral behavior; because the hero had already rescued the five slaves required to complete his quest, there was no motivation to rescue a sixth.

I'd wager that almost anyone who has played a videogame — particularly a massively multiplayer role-playing game — has run into a situation where the rules of the game run contrary to basic human decency. Situations in games where the protagonist can shoot innocents or perform other heinous acts without penalty utterly disrupt the game's believability. It's absurd, and absurdity is the basis of humor.

So yes: there was definitely a joke to be made there. But in typical Penny Arcade fashion, they didn't stop at the baseline. Not only did the hero refuse to rescue one extra slave, but he was completely apathetic to the prisoner's suffering of being beaten and raped by "Dickwolves," which is where the controversy begins.

The strip prompted some readers to respond with concern and disgust. The most prominent example came from Shakesville, a feminist blog.

The right thing for Penny Arcade to do at this point would have been to admit that they had unintentionally upset and offended some of their readers. If they had simply apologized and acknowledged that rape is more than just yet another heinous crime — that it's an issue that often leaves victims feeling perpetually belittled (or worse) by how casually it's tossed around in society — things would have resolved in a nice, quick, amicable way.

Lines are drawn

Instead, this happened. And now, nearly six months later, the strip's creators (Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins) are still feeling the repercussions of their actions as supporters and detractors of the infamous strip continue to argue. To trace the back-and-forth would be an exhaustive process; fortunately, as I mentioned above, someone already did the legwork.

Things settled down for a few months until Penny Arcade announced on January 29 that it had pulled the Dickwolves shirt from its online store. Their reasoning was that, while they felt they had the right to publish whatever they wanted on their site (a right that, for the record, I don't think anyone would seriously contest), they wanted to ensure that the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) was a welcoming and safe environment for everyone who attends.

I think that was the right decision. Unfortunately, that doesn't put the issue to bed, as Krahulik mentioned in a tweet that he planned on wearing his own Dickwolves shirt to PAX East. Then things went from bad to worse. Threats of violence were slung from both sides of the divide. Prominent community members declined to attend PAX.

There have been some great insights from the community on the controversy, and in particular I'd recommend reading Courtney Stanton's post on why she won't be attending PAX East, which led to the shirt being removed from the store, and Arthur Gies' astute summary and interpretation of the whole debacle.  But I'd like to draw some conclusions of my own.

What it all means

Here's my interpretation of the matter:

  1. Penny Arcade is allowed to make comics about whatever they damn well please, even if they offend people. But:
  2. When people feel belittled, bullied or threatened by something or someone, they deserve to be listened to.

In my view, the real problem was never that Penny Arcade published a comic that used rape as part of its joke. It's my firm belief that anything can be joked about given the right audience and the right approach, but given that rape culture is a very real thing, it's not a topic I think should be tossed around lightly. But that's secondary to much larger problem: When Krahulik and Holkins, with their millions-strong readership, use the word "rape" casually, they need to recognize that they're no longer just a couple of guys making a webcomic out of a crappy apartment. They are among the strongest and best-recognized figureheads in one of the largest entertainment industries in the world. They're at the forefront of a cultural movement. Their message carries far and wide into a culture that has for decades been rife with a bizarre, disgusting, offensively faux-machismo mentality.

Videogames have long been stereotyped as a hobby for out-of-touch boys and men, and make no mistake: there's a very good reason for that. But over the years, things have been changing. Game-players are now a much larger and more diverse group of people than they were even three years ago.

So, when the de-facto mouthpieces of gamer culture make a joke that does more than just offend a few people — when they cross that line where people begin to feel threatened — they need to own up to it, apologize, and learn to be more cognizant of their readership.

Making a rape joke in poor taste isn't exactly the high point of anybody's career, but it sure pales in comparison to humiliating concerned readers when they express their discomfort.

If there's one final point I want to take away from Dickwolfgate, it's that there's still a fundamental divide between the so-called "old guard" of videogames — the boys' club, if you will — and those of us who feel like it's time to grow up a bit and recognize that, as it turns out, not everyone playing these games is locked into a permanent state of male adolescence. It's wishful thinking to hope that I won't ever again be called a fag or have someone declare that they "totally raped" me in an online shooter, but change has to start somewhere. And if we can't believe in the power and importance of a meaningful message, what hope is there for us as a people?