Should You Support PAX Even If You Don't Support Its Figureheads? Here's What You Need to Know
If you're not familiar with the concept of "Dickwolves", I envy you. I envy you because this is a mess on an epic scale that has been going on for 3 years now, and I think my world would be a little brighter if I had never known about it myself. But here we are. It's far too much for me to sum up, but here's an incredibly thorough timeline of the controversy if you'd like to get up to speed. In a nutshell: A wildly popular webcomic makes a tasteless rape joke; people are upset/affected by it; the artist paints them as censors; he and the others behind the comic begin selling t-shirts featuring said rape joke for supporters to buy and wear... But thankfully the t-shirts are eventually removed and it all fades out of the public consciousness. Admission of guilt, the end, roll credits.
Well, like an incredibly low-budget horror movie franchise, the Penny Arcade Dickwolves controversy just keeps coming back.
This time it reared its head on the very last day of PAX Prime, a convention in Seattle that started as a get-together for fans of Penny Arcade and over the years turned into one of the top video game cons in the world. On stage, Penny Arcade artist Mike Krahulik admitted that he thought removing the Dickwolves t-shirts was a mistake. That listening to people who were upset and even hurt was a mistake.
And then the crowd applauds enthusiastically. Whistles and howls, even. See for yourself.
Now it was only a matter of months ago that Krahulik was in hot water about some ignorant and transphobic assertions he made on Twitter, which was the straw that broke the camels back for some. The Fullbright Company, creators of recently-released (and pretty damn excellent) game Gone Home, publicly explained why they would not be attending PAX Prime. They weren't alone, but at the same time many others chose to attend anyway, and I bet those are the groups and individuals that feel particularly upset with Krahulik's comments on the last day.
I know that incident made a lot of my friends and acquaintances in attendance feel less-than-great about the time and money they'd just spent at that convention, but this isn't a "Hah hah, told you so!" moment for anyone. Their choice to attend wasn't a bad choice or a wrong choice, because PAX was better for it. This year PAX Prime had many outstanding panels about marginalized groups in gaming, with women's issues particularly well represented. ironically enough Krahulik and partner Jerry Holkins often beat their chests about how inclusive a space PAX is, and the event has honestly done a lot to earn that pride, right down to banning booth babes. PAX as an organization has earned its stripes, even with Krahulik off to one side being as brazen and off-putting and downright gross as humanly possible.
This is the real heart of the dilemma. It's easy to stop reading Penny Arcade itself, but in PAX's case it's not as simple as voting with your wallet. On the one hand, you have the option to attend an event and bring your perspective to the table even if it means tacitly (and financially) supporting one less than enlightened event figurehead. On the other, you have the option not to attend, which removes that element of support... But also removes your perspective entirely.
If everyone who rolls their eyes in disgust at some of the things Mike Krahulik says opted to stay home, PAX wouldn't collapse. It would just look very different. PAX is big, and loaded with firm supporters as well as people who just aren't interested in a boycott for any number of reasons. Maybe they don't think it would make a difference, or maybe they don't feel the issue is quite so black and white. That's an opinion they're entitled to have. PAX is also an incredibly important event for indie game developers; the Indie Megabooth was one of the most trafficked areas of the event, and that exposure is desperately needed for many indie devs. While stepping back from PAX the way The Fullbright Company chose to is laudable, many indie devs just don't have the economic flexibility to do the same.
For many it's a no-win scenario, which puts a lot of gamers and developers in an awkward position... And I don't think there are any easy answers to be had until there are more options available to everyone. Given the crowd's response to Krahulik's statement, the sooner those options are available, the better.
If you'd like to read more (in addition to part 1 and part 2 of the debacle timeline) I highly recommend Mammon Machine's blog post about Penny Arcade's failed satire, developer Christine Love's open letter to Penny Arcade writer Jerry Holkins, this NeoGAF post that's been making the rounds about PAX's status as an "inclusive" event, and Elizabeth Sampat's post which takes a much firmer stance than I have. Personally I don't think I'd attend a PAX event in the future, but I also don't begrudge anyone who would. Let me know in the comments where you fall on the issue.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.