Penny Arcade reopens the "dickwolves" controversy

Mike Krahulik: "I think that pulling the dickwolves merchandise was a mistake".

Penny Arcade, the gaming webcomic which has expanded into a multinational brand covering everything from journalism to conventions, yesterday plunged itself back into controversy by re-opening a wound from long ago.

In 2010, the "Sixth Slave" comic ran on the site, with a pretty blunt gag about being "raped to sleep by the dickwolves". That sparked a small amount of protest, if nothing else showing that 2010 was, in some ways, a surprisingly different time to 2013. Penny Arcade's response was another comic, a blog post and comments making many of the same arguments that still occur in disputes over rape jokes today: that rape jokes are no different from bestiality jokes, that no-one rapes because of a joke, and that it's just comedy anyway.

As is the nature of massively-distributed online arguments, the whole thing spiralled out of any one person's control. It's now far too big to summarise, but if you're interested in what went down from then on, a comprehensive – if obviously subjective – timeline has been compiled.

But perhaps the most questionable response of Penny Arcade themselves was to start selling "Team Dickwolves" t-shirts. Even taking the pair's defence, that there's no problem because the comic features "an imaginary person… raped imaginarily by a mythological creature whose every limb was an erect phallus", at face value, selling merchandise putting that creature front and centre was a needlessly provocative move.

A month and a half later (this now six months after the original strip), the merchandise was pulled from the store. That wasn't the end of the matter, not by a long shot. In fact, search traffic for "dickwolves" peaked a month later as Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, the artist and writer of the comic respectively, continued to defend their initial reaction. The discussion bubbled on for months, but as a mark of contrition it was important. The issue eventually faded away rather than coming to any natural ending, until yesterday, when it returned with a vengeance.

Yesterday, during the closing stages of PAX, Penny Arcade's convention in Seattle, Krahulik told a panel that he thought "that pulling the dickwolves merchandise was a mistake," to cheers from the audience. Robert Khoo, the company's President of Business Development, who was acting as chair for the discussion and had been behind the decision to stop selling in the first place, agreed, saying that doing so was "a way of engaging", which they now try not to do "in these type of things".

For many gamers, the dickwolves debate three years ago was the first time they had been introduced to a number of concepts, from the ideas of triggering material and rape culture. Some reacted defensively, as people being exposed to these ideas still do today; but others examined the opposition and saw where it was coming from.

Today, that excuse is not available. These ideas have been mainstreamed to the extent that Krahulik and Holkins cannot get away with pretending that it's only a vocal minority who see problems with using rape as a punchline which don't extend to problems with using murder in the same way. But the last three years have not seen the pair toning down the rhetoric. From Holkins writing about the "censorship" of criticising a game's exaggerated female characters to Krahulik being dismissive of trans people (leading to a $20,000 donation to the Trevor project), there have been no end of sub-dickwolves controversies, causing one prominent indie developer to pull out of their shows entirely. The Financial Post's Daniel Kaszor summed them up in an article titled "Penny Arcade needs to fix its Krahulik problem".

But by reopening the wound that first suggested that all was not well at Penny Arcade, Krahulik has also firmly reopened the debate about whether the pair can be trusted with the power they have in gaming. The contagion of the rest of their properties starts at the top, and it's looking less and less likely that they can avoid getting part of the taint. The PA report is a good news organisation; PAX conventions seem like genuinely good fun; and Child's Play raised over $5m to buy games for children's hospitals last year. All three started with a boost from the PA brand, but will it become a millstone dragging them down instead?

"The Sixth Slave" comic. Image: Penny Arcade

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Our treatment of today's refugees harks back to Europe's darkest hour

We mustn't forget the lessons of the Second World War in the face of today's refugee crisis, says Molly Scott Cato.

In the 1930s, thousands of persecuted people fled Europe. Our own press ignominiously reported these as "Stateless Jews pouring into this country" and various records exist from that time of public officials reassuring readers that no such thing would be allowed under their watch.

With the benefit of historical hindsight we now know what fate awaited many of those Jews who were turned away from sanctuary. Quite rightly, we now express horror about the Holocaust, an iconic example of the most shocking event of human history, and pledge ourselves to stop anything like it happening again. 

Yet as Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War we are witnessing a deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror. We must therefore reflect on whether there is an uncomfortable parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s.

Our response to the current refugee crisis suggests we feel fearful and threatened by the mass movement of desperate people; fearful not just of sharing what we have but also of the sense of disorganisation and chaos. Does the fact that these refugees are from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and so not part of our continent, provide an excuse to allow them to be bombed at home or drowned during their desperate journey to safety?

We are not helped by the poorly informed public debate which—perhaps intentionally—conflates three quite different movements of people: free movement within the EU, irregular or unauthorised migration and the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. While our misguided foreign policy and unwillingness to tackle change may give us a moral responsibility for those fleeing famine and conflict, our responsibility towards refugees from war zones is clear under international law.

Due to our commitments to the UN Refugee Convention, the vast majority of Syrian refugees who reach our territory are given asylum but the UK has taken fewer Syrian refugees than many other European countries. While Germany admitted around 41,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 alone, the UK has taken in fewer than 7000.

The problem is that any sense of compassion we feel conflicts with our perception of the economic constraints we face. In spite of being the fifth largest economy in the world we feel poor and austerity makes us feel insecure. However, when actually confronted with people in crisis our humanity can come to the fore. A friend who spent her holiday in Greece told me that she saw local people who are themselves facing real poverty sharing what they had with the thousands of refugees arriving from Turkey.

A straightforward response to the growing sense of global crisis would be to restore the authority of the UN in managing global conflict, a role fatally undermined by Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. Our role should be to support UN efforts in bringing about strong governments in the region, not taking the misguided ‘coalition of the willing’ route and running foreign policy based on self-interest and driven by the demands of the oil and arms industries.

We also need EU policy-makers to show leadership in terms of solidarity: to co-operate over the acceptance of refugees and finding them safe routes into asylum, something the European Greens have consistently argued for. The EU Commission and Parliament are in clear agreement about the need for fixed quotas for member states, a plan that is being jeopardised by national government’s responding to right-wing rather than compassionate forces in their own countries.

Refugees from war-torn countries of the Middle East need asylum on a temporary basis, until the countries they call home can re-establish security and guarantee freedom from oppression.

The responsibility of protecting refugees is not being shared fairly and I would appeal to the British people to recall our proud history of offering asylum. Without the benefit of mass media, the excuse of ignorance that can help to explain our failure to act in the 1930s is not available today. We must not repeat the mistakes of that time in the context of today’s crisis, mistakes which led to the deaths of so many Jews in the Nazi death camps. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.