The Penny Arcade Controversy That Will Not Die

Wired contributor Rachel Edidin has joined a growing contingent of writers and game developers that say they won't be attending PAX events in the future. Edidin says that a Q&A with Mike Krahulik (the artist of the web comic Penny Arcade and co-founder of PAX) this weekend was the final straw that broke the camel's back for her. She is not alone in that assertion.

The whole ordeal goes back to the 2010 strip about World of Warcraft and a mythical creature called a "dickwolf." As you may remember, the comic strip Arcade jokes about how the character is "raped to sleep by dickwolves." The strip was actually about the bizarre mechanics in World of Warcraft quests, but the rape joke was not well received by some in the community.

Critics, some of whom were rape victims, said that the strip could be a trigger for victims of sexual crimes. Krahulik and Jerry Holkins tried to smooth things over with a strip the next day and in a series of public posts, but critics described their response as flippant and unapologetic. Later in an act of defiance and possibly in the name of their right to free speech, they made and sold "Team Dickwolves" shirts and pennants, which further infuriated critics. Both sides claim they received verbal abuse through social media and death threats.

When some companies and speakers said that they were considering pulling out of PAX Prime that year because of the merchandise, Robert Khoo yanked the dickwolves merchandise from the store. At the time, Krahulik said that he objected to the decision to stop selling the merchandise, and would be wearing his dickwolves shirt at PAX to illustrate that point.

Eventually things quieted down on that front, but the wound was reopened this weekend when Krahulik said during a packed Q&A that the worst thing Robert Khoo ever did was pull the Dickwolves merchandise from the store. When word of this got out, a number of people began writing public proclamations that this year would be the last year they would be attending a PAX event.

Debacle Timeline's Tumblr, "The Pratfall of Penny Arcade – A Timeline," does a great job of showing how Penny Arcade and its critics have dealt with various controversies since 2010 – most notably, the whole "dick wolves" thing. You should read both Part I and Part II of the timeline to understand why this whole controversy just won't go away.

So now here we are with a brand new set of complaints from critics, but this time they are talking about never going to the PAX shows again. Among them are Loot Drop's Elizabeth Sampat, writer Leigh Alexander, Destructoid's Jim Sterling, Wired contributor Rachel Edidin, and many, many others. Even those who aren't calling for a boycott or saying that they will no longer be going to PAX events, say that they either don't feel comfortable or safe going there – even some who are trying to conduct business like game developers… (Janette Goering offers a unique perspective on the entire situation here as well).

After the show, Krahulik tried to apologize, or to "clarify" the situation, on Penny Arcade. The clarification offers profuse apologies about everything but continues to defend the original strip. It also seems to indicate that making and selling the "dickwolves" merchandise was done to target critics:

"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." (emphasis ours -Ed.)

You can read Krahulik's entire response here. He closes by saying that he can't "blame people who still want to hate him" for the things he's said in response to this entire situation, and that the PA guys never wanted to be role models. Critics argue that, whether they wanted to be role models or not, they are to a large segment of the gaming community and they should be a bit more responsible in the things that they say which can inevitably lead to encouraging bad behavior in the community…

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  1. FireWaterFX says:

    Also bare in mind that female enforcer that was assaulted/harassed continues to enforce at pax and reports that it helps her depression to belong to that group.

    Now I am really not buying the whole “pax isn’t safe cause of the dock wolves!” Line of logic. Again that person who did that rant should have researched that the person who went public regarding the assault is still a member of that community.

  2. Degraine says:

    In a gallows humour kind of way, this just keeps getting funnier. I'd bet a fiver before clicking that every single one of those complainers and boycotters failed to properly parse what Mike was saying, or only read halfway through, before some kind of social justice algorithm lit up their brains like a New Year's fireworks display.

    Mike was probably right that Robert's biggest mistake now was conducting that interview with them.

  3. jedidethfreak says:

    Your opinion is fair.  I disagree wholeheartedly, however.  Dickwolves should never have offended anyone in the first place, thereby making it so PA could do whatever they wanted.  Hell, most of the post-reaction stuff done by PA was done solely BECAUSE of the people who got offended anyway.

    In effect, they did it to themselves.

  4. FireWaterFX says:

    Sorry I should have specified, moving along with the t-shirts, as well as continuing to feed the whole dickwolves thing.  I think it was in poor taste.

  5. Andrew Eisen says:

    "1).  I feel mike was out of line with things said after his first strip"

    What specifically did he say that you felt was out of line?


    Andrew Eisen

  6. FireWaterFX says:

    I feel there is a lot of knee jerk reactions going here so I would like offer a more reasonable opinion.

    1).  I feel mike was out of line with things said after his first strip

    2).  I also feel he has the right to say what he wants.

    3).  People who were offended by those comments have a right to be

    4).  Those same people also have the right to avoid any PA events or merchandise.

    That's really it, I get the outrage, but I am having difficultly understanding the "I'm offended so therefore I can express myself in the same way that I am criticizing" like that one person who wrote the FAQ on why everyone should ban pax here:

    This is exactly what we don't need.  A community that processes things purely off emotion, and condescends to anyone who disagrees.  That post likely to do more harm than good because the reality is that there vastly more people not offended or apathetic regarding the dickwolves controversy.  I would hope that the other would take out be extreme statements in her post and post more rationally.

    Also to the person who is the indie developer who wrote the open letter to Jerry:  despite what you are saying in your rhetoric, your behavior is only what matters.  You paid to exhibit your indie game yet don't feel safe or comfortable at the convention but still went any way.  I would challenge that statement, if Pax was really that unsafe, then you shouldn't have gone.  If the risk of rape is greater at pax is greater than the risk  of rape at any other location than that should be a warning flag to stay away.  No ones job is worth getting sexually assaulted over.  Because you and others keep paying, the event continues to exist.  YOU are contributing to the "problem" so to speak

    As far as that same author blaming mike and Jerry for virtually monopolizing the con scene for Indie developers, my response is that is a load of horseshit.

    1) indie games have sold without being presented at pax long before it existed

    2) if anything they have helped the indie scene, they can charge whatever they want

    3) Indie developers do not have to use PAX in order to sell their games, it certainly helps though.


    The bottom line is that people are getting worked up about this issue, and I see why.  However that doesn't justify using similar tactics (i.e. the bullying to get one's way) to make things "right".  Smartest thing these gamers can do:  Have each and everyone of them send an e-mail to Jerry/Mike/Robert stating why (don't use a template, everyone can write their own letter) expressing their feelings as to why they cannot support Penny Arcade/PAX anymore, including any and all media that goes to PAX, as well as designers/publishers that present there as well.  Forward these letters to the major AAA companies/exhibitors.  And then stick to your word and do not pay any social attention or give any money to these organizations unless they pledge not to show up at PAX.

    A legitimate Boycott is necessary to send a message.  Not an emotionally disregulated rant, or an open letter (YOU GUYS SUCK but I need you so I guess its ok for me to go, BUT YOU STILL SUCK).

    Anyways, that about sum's up my thoughts.  We need to do better with regards to communicating dislikes in the gaming community.

  7. prh99 says:

    I am just finding it odd that he can say that to someone even if provoked and think Dickwovles is over the top.

  8. jedidethfreak says:

    Nobody wants those groups to "go away."  What they want is for them to stop acting like every little thing absolutely destroys their life.

    If even a tenth of the things most of these people whine about "triggering" them actually offend them, they need counseling.

    Also, while they may not have the legal ability to outright censor PA, THAT WAS EXACTLY WHAT THEY TRIED TO DO.  Their comments were done with the explicit goal of having the comic removed, which is censorship for all intents and purposes.  When they didn't get that, and instead got what basically amounts to a middle finger, they flipped the hell out and continue their faux outrage, spreading it everywhere.  "SEE!!! SEE WHAT THEY SAID!!! IT'S BAD, AND THEY SHOULDN'T HAVE SAID IT!!! AND WHEN WE ASKED THEM TO REMOVE IT, THEY DIDN'T!!! THEY'RE HORRIBLE PEOPLE!!! STOP GIVING THEM MONEY UNTIL THEY REMOVE IT AND APOLOGIZE FOR HURTING ME!!!"

    Both sides have power here.  The difference is, only one side was attempting to wield it at the expense of the other, and it wasn't PA.

  9. Craig R. says:

    Aye, there is that, too. At this point, Mike needs to take the higher road, but he seems rather incapable of it. In the end, it's just not worth continuing to drag it out every 6 months just to prove you're right.

  10. Ultenth says:

    I totally get that sense too, my guess is he was bullied quite a bit in school, and now that he feels he's successful and done good works, he has decided to stand up to what he felt was bullying.

  11. Neeneko says:

    Thought is is a good example of how bad blood and incomplete information can extend a narrative.

    You were making a good about power imbalance thought.  Krahulik is, socially, a VERY powerful person.  Not just legions of fans, but also a lot of political capital from the good work he does… and unfortunately both rape victims and trans peeps are pretty badly treated by society… and while people like to talk about all the political and cultural control they have, they are both in pretty sorry shape and are pretty vulnerable.  They are groups many people just want to go away, and that really comes out when mobs feel that their fun is being ruined.

  12. Neeneko says:

    I agree that he does not seem to be malicious in intent.  He really strikes me as someone who got picked on at some point and is sensitive to it, and lashes out when he feels wronged.

    Though on the topic of umbrage.. people get annoyed at stuff all the time.  Pretty much any topic or comic someone puts out there you will get some amount of complaining about it.  The initial response to the comic was not that much worse then the general background noise.  It was not till he retaliated and started activly mocking people that it turned into a wider shit storm.

  13. Infophile says:

    My mistake there, I was simply reading the timeline, and I didn't follow the links in it. Thanks for the correction.

  14. Craig R. says:

    I don't think it sidesteps the point at all.

    The fact is that this only became a controversy because people took umbrage with the *original* strip, those who claimed that the strip was a rape joke when it was anything but.

    Granted, the response from Mike has been poor, and then poor again (the other recent one about gender identity goes right along with this). At this point, I feel it's more a case that Mike is just terrible at PR. He feels he has to be the public face of the PA brand… when he's not really suited for it at all.

    I don't believe he's being malicious in any of this, but there are those out there who at this point will simply pounce on anything he says. And so it's pretty obvious that PA isn't going to be able to please those people short of shutting down PA, PAX, and then disappearing off the face of the earth.


  15. Andrew Eisen says:

    "From the timeline, the first use of power is early on, on August 13, 2010, when Krahulik posts links to bestiality and pedophilia on a comment thread which criticized the original comic, in a deliberate attempt to trigger people there."

    I think it's important to point out that he posted links to his own comics, not to trigger anyone, but to answer specific questions directed at him.  You make it sound like he posted links to pics of kids being molested.  He did not.  He posted stuff like this:


    Andrew Eisen

  16. Infophile says:

    These things always seem to get particularly nasty when both sides feel (rightly or not) that they're being bullied. Krahulik feels that the "anti-free speech brigade" is trying to shut him up, and his opponents feel that he's deliberately trying to trigger rape survivors. Since both sides see themselves as the underdog and in the right, neither is willing to give up.

    Now, who actually is being bullied here? Well, bullying requires a power differential; the bully must have some sort of power over the victim. So who has power here? None of Krahulik's opponents have any power to censor him. They can criticize him, but they can't remove his ability to speak. They can, however, pressure people who financially support Penny Arcade to withdraw that support (advertisers, companies who attend PAX, etc.). This wasn't done in the first wave of this controversy, but this card did get played after Krahulik began to dig in.

    On the other side, Krahulik has the power to trigger rape survivors (as well as others who might be triggered, such as those who know people who have been raped). Many of them have the ability to simply no longer read Penny Arcade or attend PAX, but for people working in indie games, showing it off at PAX is very important to a game's success, I hear. So, Krahulik has the power to make rape survivors have to choose between risking a trigger and the benefits of attending PAX.

    So, at this point, the power systems are complicated. No one is completely powerless here, but that doesn't mean neither side or both sides are necessarily bullying the other. One has to look at what power is being used when – just because a target of bullying fights back doesn't mean they're being a bully as well.

    A good thing to do is to look at who uses their power first. From the timeline, the first use of power is early on, on August 13, 2010, when Krahulik posts links to bestiality and pedophilia on a comment thread which criticized the original comic, in a deliberate attempt to trigger people there. (There's criticism and mocking before this, but neither of those can be characterized as a display of power. I'll leave out a discussion of the morality of those acts to keep focused here.) Next display of power is Krahulik making the dickwolves merchandise available, which allows his followers to trigger others. It's only after that that someone exerts any power over PA, when Courtney Stanton declines to speak at PAX east due to PA's handling of the controversy. Most other incidents of people withdrawing support from PAX are due to recent actions by Krahulik. Looking at it this way, it certainly seems to me like Krahulik is the one first exerting power over others, and others are fighting back to his displays. Conclusion? Krahulik seems to be the one engaging in more actual bullying here.

  17. Longjocks says:

    Could the problem be that Penny Arcade actually made a funny? (I know I've said this plenty of times before) I mean, after seeing the "raped to sleep by dickwolves" quote above I actually giggled and it'll probably be something I quote for as long as my shitty goldfish-like memory will allow. People aren't used to finding Penny Arcade comics funny and laughing at them so they get confused and disoriented when they do.

  18. DorthLous says:

    Jim Sterling is also a man who's show I refused to watch at the beginning because of how disgusting they were. But then he wisened up. Talked with the other side, apologized for previous mistakes, corrected his shows and, quite frankly, now it's a show I watch every Monday. That's one thing I dislike of the punish vs rehabilitate mentality. People are not set in stone and aren't unrecoverable. He's a pretty good example of this.

  19. Andrew Eisen says:

    As to the link you posted, so far as I can tell, the woman Sterling was talking to was being an obnoxious asshole and appears to have started the whole thing.  That doesn't make what he said any nicer but I think it does put the conversation in the proper perspective and removes any grounds her girlfriend had to whine at Sterling for being mean.


    Andrew Eisen

  20. prh99 says:

    So they felt comfortable and safe enough to go to PAX after the rape joke, but only now do feel uncomfortable or unsafe since Mike admitted he did not agree with pulling the Dickwolves stuff (an opinion he's probably had since it was pulled)? That's just stupid.

    Jim Sterling, really? The man who called a woman a “feminazi slut”, "an attention-seeking little bitch", and "a cunt". That's not something one expect from someone who is publicly very critical of sexism.

    Let's not forget calling Felicia Day a booth babe, another perl from Destructoid.

  21. jedidethfreak says:

    I don't know about anyone else, but I think that's really the only response any outrage over Dickwolves deserved.

  22. SeanB says:

    The following was Gabe's response the following day. I think it paints a pretty good picture of the state of "being offended" on the internet.


    What surprised me most about some of the reactions to our Dickwolf joke was not that people were offended. But that this was the comic that offended them. In each case the emails I got started with something like “I’ve been a long time fan” or “Been reading the comic for years…” and then they go into how this particular comic really bothered them.

    I just don’t understand that. Did the comics about bestiality, suicide, murder, pedophilia, and torture not bother them? Or how about the fruit fucker? I mean, we have a character who is a literal rapist. What comic strip have they been reading all these years?

    For the most part I think that people are perfectly happy to laugh at offensive jokes until the joke offends them. Then it’s not funny anymore.  There is no way we can know what each and every person who reads the comic has decided to find offensive.

    In the end I just disagree with these people about what’s funny and that’s perfectly okay.

    -Gabe out


  23. SeanB says:

    What is often left out of this "controversy" is context. So many people try to make it sound like they were glorifying or joking about rape. Read the damned comic.

    The only purpose of the word "rape" in the comic was to define horrible living conditions by a slave, begging to be rescued, and the hero refusing because it wasn't part of his quest.

    Ask any of these "offended" people to tell you in which context rape was used wrongly here.

  24. jedidethfreak says:

    "Wired contributor Rachel Edidin has joined a growing contingent of writers and game developers that say they won't be attending PAX events in the future."

    To be honest, I don't think anyone at PA really cares.  PAX has never been about writers or devs – that's what E3 is all about.  It's been about gaming fans having fun, like an anti-E3.

    Now, as for the controversy in question, I think the whole thing is nothing but people getting upset for absolutely no reason.  It wasn't just people being "offended" by a joke that featured digital characters being raped by nonexistent creatures – people were making up that Mike and Jerry had no problems with rape.  People verbally attacked them and their families.  People even threatened their children.

    THIS is the behavior that they found so abhorrent that guaranteed no apology would ever come.  I personally agree – if you're going to attack a man's children, you have no right to an apology over your fake offense.

  25. Ultenth says:

    Basically to me this comes down to Krahulik doing something stupid, apologizing, people saying it wasn't enough and trying to bully him into more, and him getting pissed off and starting to react out of spite.   Seems like a fairly normal human reaction to me.  When I apologize, feel I'm being sincere about it, and someone tries to act like it's not enough and tries to bully me into more, I too tend to get pissed off and take a "well then screw you" path.  Krahulik's initial statement was off-color and politically incorrect, but then so is 95% of their comic strips, just like most comics in the world.  But they did try to apologize, and then people tried to bully them.  As far as I'm concerned both were in the wrong, and people need to stop acting like idiots and just move on at this point, or things are just going to get worse because my guess is that as far as the guys at PA are concerned it's not about the rape jokes anymore, it's about public floggings and free speech, and they are done apologizing.  But I do feel they understood people's initial complaints and their initial apology was sincere, it just "wasn't good enough" for some people, and those people need to step back and look at the fact that their reaction and subsequent bullying caused the PA overraction out of spite.

  26. prh99 says:

    I doubt their intent is to starting a constructive dialogue, they are only interested in shouting down anyone who set off one of their politically correctness landmines.  Either tow the line or we'll try to ruin you.

    Edit: I'd just to point I am not talking about everyone offended by it, just about the ones calling Mike a rape apologist etc. I don't see how the comic could be seen to legitimize rape.

  27. MechaTama31 says:

    Maybe calling somebody a "rape apologist", when they have no idea of your nuanced meaning of that phrase, is not the best way to start a constructive dialogue?  Had I been in Mike's shoes, I probably would have responded with sarcasm and snark, too.  "Rape apologist" sounds like "pro-rapist", and that's an incredibly offensive and inflammatory thing to accuse somebody of.  I know it doesn't mean that if you are familiar with the language used by these people, but I think we can agree that it should have been pretty obvious that Mike was not going to be familiar with that kind of talk.  I sure wasn't, until this shitstorm had already happened and I was reading up on it during the aftermath (midmath?).  It seemed to him that he was being misunderstood (because, as mentioned, the comic is not pro-rape) and unfairly ripped on.  The first responders immediately jumped down his throat and he got defensive.  Doesn't make him right, but doesn't make him a monster.  And as things escalated, he got more and more defensive and did dumber and dumber things.  Again, not right, but understandable given the high tensions involved.  The Triggerists aren't just innocent victims here, either.  They picked the fight, and they did their share to fan the flames.

  28. Neeneko says:

    I liked that comment, but I think it kinda sidesteps the point.

    While reactions vary, from what I gather, people are generally less upset with the original joke and more with how the authors handled the reaction to it.

    The difference between a quick flash and a controversy that will not die is how the people at the center of it handle it.  If one responds with respect people quiet down pretty quickly, but that is not what they historically have been doing.  Each time they were called out for producing something people found hurtful they circled the wagon and started attacking their detractors, which tends to cause a rather vicious cycle.

    But that is why things keep flaring up.. not because they made a rape joke, not because rape controls victim's lives, but because when they got criticism for their joke (or in other instances, comments) they were asses and took it out on the people who were upset, making them the butt of more jokes or outright 'how dare you bully me by being hurt!' nastiness.

    Crow, I know plenty of people who really enjoyed the dickwolf joke itself but were still disgusted by how they behaved afterwards.

    And while I can see that they are trying to say they have learned form the experience, they only applied the lesson rather narrowly.  

    Still, credit where credit is due, they have looked at their behavior and I think how they talk about it now is a good step forward…. and tbh I think it has gone a long way to breaking the cycle form this particular snafu.

    They handled the trans issue from a few months back better, but still not so great.  It is hard to say how much of that wind down was due to improvements in their handling vs the wider problem that anti-trans stuff is still pretty socially acceptable so the size of the backlash was much smaller.

  29. DorthLous says:

    "Mae K
    I was raped. Twice, before I was even 17 years old. Each experience was horrific, terrifying, dehumanizing and remains in my memory and nightmares eight years later. I was raped.

    And I still didn't have a problem with the Dickwolves because the point of the Dickwolves "raping" the little dude was to evoke that horror and revulsion even in people who have never experienced it. It did so. If other people who have been raped cannot even look at the word rape, they need to spend their energies on healing and counseling – not on ripping someone for a comic. There are lots of people who don't like gays – but Green Lantern is still gay. There are lots of people who don't like transfolk – but Barbra Gordon's roommate is still trans. There are lots of people who don't like lesbians – but Batwoman is still a lesbian. We defend the creators of these heroes – why not defend Mike's right to create a monster?

    I don't support rapists, and Mike & Jerry don't either. You're no more likely to get raped at PAX than SDCC or any other large, public gathering. You're no more likely to get raped because of a single two year old comic strip than you are because of 14 years of Law & Order: SVU.

    My point is that your rape need not control your life. If you were raped, please get help and learn to function in a world where there are jokes and offense and dickwolves."

    One of the replies to this :

  30. tacc says:

    And after being done with their complaining they go play Call of Duty and kill hundreds of people. I bet they don't even think a second about people killed in reality.

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