Video game culture is hyper-masculine. Much of this is a result of trends in the industry, as normative gender roles have been locked into gaming plot structures for decades (Feminist Frequency provides an excellent analysis.) Other times, it is a result of how privilege becomes manifest in the video game geek subculture. The ongoing Dickwolves controversy with popular indie gaming flagship Penny Arcade is a great case study.
The controversy began with a Penny Arcade web-comic, uploaded in August 2010. It mocks the morality behind quests in MMORPG games such as World of Warcraft, where “kill ten bad guys” is a commonly assigned task. The fact that it makes a rape joke with the “dickwolves” line was considered immediately objectionable, with criticism from Shakesville, and Fremen, among others.
And probably the worst part about it is how terribly the web-comic’s staff, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, handled the critical response. Penny Arcade uploaded an “apology” strip two days later, clarifying further in the first paragraph of a blog entry that they weren’t “advocating the actual rape of human beings” (the problem not being the joke’s context, for which its defenders tirelessly argued, but the fact that it ever took place at all). Dickwolves merchandise was sold on Penny Arcade’s website until 26 January 2011. Krahulik even drew a dickwolf for his audience at a 10 September public appearance.
Krahulik had also been defending Dickwolves on Twitter for this entire period, continuing to do so despite the merchandise being taken down in January. When asked by @bloodparade: “How does it feel to be actively encouraging rape culture, pal?” Krahulik issued a bizarrely entitled response (though he later claimed he was only being snarky on 3 February.) His defense also gave birth to accounts such as @teamrape, which made a point out of graphically harassing those who objected to the comic (some of which are seen in an uploaded graphic by outspoken critic Courtney Stanton.) The tone of the controversy even led to Krahulik’s family being threatened, which finally led to his calls for calm on all sides.
However, simply asking for calm missed the point. Penny Arcade made an offensive rape joke that, despite not being offensive to the strip’s creators and those who enjoyed it, was being taken very seriously by other audiences. Penny Arcade, along with its conference PAX, are successful precisely because they reach out to fans and address their concerns. The fact that this was not happening with Dickwolves was at once unusual, and adding to an overall social problem. Personal pride about the right to tell a violent rape joke was considered more important than people feeling safe. And personal pride about resisting the idea that Penny Arcade could unknowingly be reinforcing rape culture was considered more important than admitting the mistake.
And the poor response kept on evolving. A post by commentator James Portnow on September 18th added to what seemed like a legion of posts that minimized the problem. Penny Arcade printed another (more explicit) rape joke on December 16th. Critics of this post were met with similarly generic comments about freedom of speech as occurred with Dickwolves. Of course, this raises the question of whether or not freedom of speech includes a muddled right to perpetuate dynamics of sexual violence. Krahulik, proving that he hadn’t learned anything, acted oblivious to the problem with publishing the December strip.
Later, Krahulik reopened the controversy by stating that he regrets removing the Dickwolves merchandise at a September 2nd 2013 appearance. His comments led to excellent commentary by Lesley Kinzel about how not to handle a controversy such as Dickwolves. Finally, on September 5th, Krahulik definitely apologized for both the web-comic and Penny Arcade’s reaction (more than two years later.)
There is a long debate among comedians about whether or not there is a funny rape joke. Some argue that rape is never funny, and that rape jokes cannot be treated like jokes about other violent topics because sexual violence continues to have a massive impact on modern society. What other joke affects at least 1 in 5 U.S. women, and at least 1 in 33 U.S. men? Others argue that rape jokes can work if the power dynamic is laughed at rather than affirmed, such as through Wanda Sykes’ detach-ability standup, instead of Daniel Tosh’s spontaneous rape joke last year.
Regardless of how one feels about this discourse, it seems obvious that when a line is crossed with rape jokes, it should immediately be apologized for, with the joke’s impact healed as much as possible. Penny Arcade’s sense of entitlement in handling this affair illustrates just how easily rape culture can manifest itself. Rape culture isn’t a singular phenomenon: it is an oppressive framework that is noticeable in various subcultures. Video game geek culture is no different.