‘Dickwolves’ cheered at Penny Arcade Expo

Life, it may be said, is lived in fiction. If you got up and went to a job today, odds are that you did it for the money – itself a fiction, but backed by the government, which is another fiction. Your house and car physically exist, but your loans on them constitute promissory notes – financial fiction – owed to a corporation – a legal fiction. Somewhere in all this fiction we write narratives that explain what kinds of people we are, who we talk to, what we find good and evil, and how we live our lives.

The Penny Arcade controversy may be said to be the clash of competing fictions. What is Penny Arcade’s identity in the yet-ongoing ‘Dickwolves’ fight? Are they rabble-rousing hatemongers hell-bent on pushing a pro-rape agenda? Are they freedom fighters, trying to cling to their own ways of thought in an increasingly pressurized society? Or are they merely two guys who made a dumb joke? Twitter was ablaze yet again as this clip from PAX 2013 circulated (click to open video):


“I think that pulling the dickwolves merchandise was a mistake.” – Mike “Gabe” Krahulik, artist of Penny Arcade

“One of these days he’s going to say something wrong to the wrong person and then suddenly, PAX won’t be a thing anymore.” – @DanielBriscoe, Fandom Press, a sentiment echoed by many online.

Perhaps it’s impossible to be for free speech – whether caricatures of George Bush, graphic violence and gore in anime and manga, girls with improbably large breasts, or Serrano’s Piss Christ – and to turn around and be for the censoring of speech and thought because one particular group of people you like is sacrosanct. The basic concept of free speech in art is: whether an artist’s speech is distasteful or tasteful should not control whether we as a society permit it to exist.


“If jokes about violence, rape, aids, pedophilia, bestiality, drugs, cancer, homosexuality, and religion bother you then I recommend reading a different webcomic.” – Gabe

To Penny Arcade, it appears this is more or less a straightforward free speech issue. From their point of view, they say stupid stuff but they don’t mean harm by it; some of it is hilarious and some is offensive, and some might even be both. They’re crass and careless, but they are equally crass and careless with each other. In the above PAX 2013 panel video, they publicly joke about how if one of them dies, the other already has plans to spend the life insurance money! Sensitivity is clearly not something they are any good at.

Penny Arcade’s fans cheer them because they are cheering the idea that in a complex world of disproportionate reactions – a scary world where kids get in trouble for chewing pastries into the shape of guns – it’s okay to be yourself. It’s okay to break the rules of politeness, it’s okay to say socially unacceptable things, and it’s okay to make a comic about utterly juvenile humor juxtaposed with gaming references. They don’t understand what all the fuss is, and they don’t accept that a joke about the absurdity of RPG questing that uses rape as its “BAD END” has anything to do with real life rape. They want to live without having to worry about consequences for every dumb thing that comes out when they open their mouths.

Set against this are those who believe that culture is deliberate. To them, every word and thought must be carefully measured for fear of contributing to one repressive culture or another. In this particular case, that’s “rape culture,” and all of Penny Arcade’s bluster is nothing less than horrifying. This is the other story; the other version of events; the competing fiction. Those who believe in rape culture believe in a sort of semiotic butterfly effect, whereby constant mention of rape as a laudable act (“we raped the other team in LoL last night”) or as an item of humour desensitizes people and eventually contributes to the incidence of actual rapes.

It would be easy to call this difference one of liberalism vs. conservatism, but that would be false: the Dickwolves argument is a clash between one liberal paradigm (third-wave feminism) and another liberal paradigm (free speech)! To third-wave feminists, it is utterly shocking that someone would willingly choose to wear a Dickwolves shirt after the backlash. After all, even if others don’t agree with their way of looking at culture, it’s obvious they are horrified by it. Why would anyone willingly offend them?

“A moral panic is a public panic over an issue deemed to be a threat to, or shocking to, the sensibilities of ‘proper’ society… Where the moral panic involves a group whose members are conscious of their subordination, the denounced behavior may become a symbol of opposition and rebellion.” – RationalWiki

It has to be noted that third-wave feminists do not form a majority consensus in society at large; only in educational institutions and on the Internet – where liberalism holds sway – are they taste-makers. “Rebellion” against any standards they impose may therefore also be understood as a clash between online and offline standards.

Of course, moral panic in the abstract is regularly derided in the gaming community, because of its associations with video game censors like Jack Thompson. Penny Arcade itself publicly feuded with the now-disbarred lawyer in 2005. Perhaps this illustrates a valuable lesson about how people apply ideals. People get that moral panic is absurd when applied to something they instinctively find harmless or positive like gaming, but change the bugbear to something like hurtful speech, and suddenly they’re all in. After all, stereotypical video game nerds and anime otaku have a long and storied history of being verbally abused.

Will Penny Arcade spawn more controversies in the future?

“With me not being able to keep my mouth shut – I’m trying very hard to be better about that . . . When and where it’s OK to say the things that I think. When I do things or say things that hurt not just me but fourteen other people who rely on Penny Arcade for their livelihood, when I say something dumb to make somebody mad . . . that I can see happening again. I hope it doesn’t, but I know who I am.” – Gabe

There you have it. It looks like it will happen again, and they are aware of it to the point of being fatalistic. While Gabe and Tycho are incredibly crass and offensive, perhaps we can at least say that they are also incredibly honest about who they really are. Time will tell whether they are remembered as hatemongers, advocates of free speech, or guys making dumb jokes.

Author: moritheil

One might be forgiven for thinking that Moritheil is a postmodern literary critic who started reviewing video games in 2001, and spent the early 2000s learning at the right hand of con staff and fansubbers. However, those rumors are spurious: Moritheil is actually a distant relative of Genghis Khan who stands poised to conquer the world via the Internet. Follow along at http://twitter.com/moritheil.

9 thoughts on “‘Dickwolves’ cheered at Penny Arcade Expo

  1. I believe that with regards to free speech, if it is threatening our “community”, we have a huge ingroup bias towards it. Cognitive bias just blinds everyone and gives off a wacky sense of entitlement that you deserve it better over everyone else.

  2. I don’t buy the dichotomy drawn between free speech and feminism. In my view, the dichotomy is in fact between two sides of free speech – because the criticism of PA from the feminists is *also* free speech. Shouting down, ridiculing, setting mobs of fans to attack such criticism through online harassment thus feels like censorship, as well, even if it is done in the name of free speech.

    What is particularly hurtful and stupid about the PA actions is its attempt to conflate criticism with censorship – what feminists want is not for PA to stop existing, but for their voice to be heard. PA could have considered their objection and reasonably disagreed with them. They could even have ignored them. Instead they escalated in a bid to silence their detractors.

  3. Interesting analysis of the dickwolf controversy.

    Over the past year I’ve become estranged from Penny Arcade due to their handling of the dickwolves controversy, as well as some more recent transphobic tweets from Gabe, but this article (as well as the linked video) is a good reminder though that even if they’re ignorant about certain issues, they’re still just two guys making dumb jokes.

    That being said, at this point the issue isn’t so much that Penny Arcade made a rape joke, but that they continually fail to acknowledge why people are so offended by the dickwolf comic in the first place; calling the criticisms “censorship,” and going so far as to commercializing the controversy with dickwolf merchandise.

  4. Many successful comedians suffer from a poor choice of word, their sponsors pull out their sponsorship, forced them to apologize. Don Imus got fired from CBS for racist joke. Even Hillary came out to denounce him, that was during that historical presidential election. I was subscribing to Hillary website at that time, and I got email from Hillary campaign, and that’s how I knew about Imus. So, that was the first time I ever heard of Imus, and also at the same time, this is my first time I heard of PA and Dickwolves.

    i think most of us are already feminists, so probably making these noises are femi-nazis. But I don’t think anybody will care if Gabe and Tycho aren’t famous. If you write a cartoon with rape jokes or any insensitive jokes, post it on your blog, and nobody bothers to read, it won’t be any problem. No need to apologize for anything. No self censorship. A lot of people read PA works, so they get targeted as a symbol of sexism. I would think if any big politician picks and criticizes them, that would be their greatest ad. I don’t yet to see that happening. But I think this controversy is serving as PA’s ad. Even I know PA now.

  5. Two things I want to raise:
    1. A lot of people choose to exclude and not engage with PAX as a result of what PA is doing in terms of this rape issue. I think that’s the wrong choice. It’s like boycotting McD because of some personal reason. It is not going to change anything really. In fact, i think by actively engaging them and changing their attitudes within, more can be accomplished. It’s too easy to turn this into a story about two conflicting groups when it’s perfectly that the group who are feminist and pro-free speech stands to have something to lose, those “liberals” (LOL) those who enjoy Penny Arcade/PAX. The rest is just pissing on each other because, well, they do not. And that is a lose-lose proposition.
    2. Story is about right. I think the bottom line comes down to whoever has the better narrative, the more persuasive narrative. Not sure if my POV is sufficiently 3rd wave, but I think awareness is still the biggest goal to achieve many of the objectives for 3rd wave feminism. By blowing it up (some would say out of proportion), it actually furthers 3rd wave agendas. Especially when the target is the alpha male gamer nerd. So in some ways I find some of the people who engage Penny Arcade a little bit inauthentic–they don’t stand anything to lose. Others are more like what I said above, and are the real pressure points/victims of this ongoing debacle.

    PS. All the “adult” jokes or name calling is pretty lulz.

  6. Feminists are all about control through divisive identity politics. They are against everything gamers stood for, and only want to subjugate. If someone pushes back with a joke, it’s excellent.

  7. Good Day,

    Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade has directly trolled comments section of articles, mocked survivors, antagonized people with PTSD, and his actions have caused companies, speakers and fans to do everything from voice feeling excluded and not safe to withdrawing support. I was commiserating with a few friends and wondered what would it take after everything he’s done for him to lose support. As it turns out, in 2006, satirist August J. Pollak came up with a thought experiment…Would supporters of President BUsh “still support him if he went as far as to kill a kitten with a hammer for no apparent reason? What if he killed several?”. In this spirit, I am conducting the 2013 Mike Krahulik Dead Kitten Thought Experiment.

    The survey will take a mere moment of your time, and consists of the following scenario:

    I would like for you to imagine the Mike Krahulik, killing kittens one-by-one with a hammer. When doing so, please keep in mind the following conditions of this hypothetical scenario:

    The kitten will be killed by Mike Krahulik. It will not be ordered killed, nor terminated in any way by a subordinate. You are to assume for the whole of this scenario that the reference to the killing implies a scenario in which Mike Krahulik will sit at a desk, place a small kitten on the desk, and kill it by beating it with a hammer until it is dead, and possibly for a short time afterwards. No other means or individuals will be employed in the death of the kitten.

    The hammer will be a standard carpenter’s hammer, of steel construction with a rubber handle grip. It is not a sledgehammer or any form of giant hammer that will guarantee the death of the kitten in a single blow.

    You are to assume that for every kitten death you accept, you will be willing to watch the actual act performed by Mike Krahulik. It will not be done privately or in any intimate conditions to which the act may be deemed “more humane” or “less graphic.” Assume you will watch the full act of him terminating the life of the kitten by one or possibly a series of blows with a hammer. You may determine the distance at which you are watching depending on your estimate of how messy the act may be and how much you may enjoy kitten parts being sprayed on you, if at all.

    You are not to assume the kitten needs to die, is already dying, or has a reason to require being killed with a hammer by Krahulik. In fact, assume that the kitten is perfectly healthy and of normal temperament, and would be perfectly suitable living a full life in any normal American household had it not been selected by Krahulik to die.

    Furthermore, no acknowledged benefit shall be suggested by death of the kitten nor any practical use be made of its remains. When Mike Krahulik has declared his satisfaction with his repeated blows to the kitten and a medical advisor concurs it is without question dead, an aide shall squeegee the remains of the kitten off the desk into a bag which shall then be incinerated.

    At no point will you be given a reason for Mike Krahulik doing all of this. The only statement that will be offered by Penny Arcade regarding the killing of kitten will be that Mike Krahulik was well within his authority. While you may personally surmise a legitimate reason, Mike Krahulik himself will give no reason for killing a kitten with a hammer other than his desire to do so.

    For the sake of this experiment, assume Mike Krahulik is not insane, nor of any unsound mind or condition suggesting a rationale for his actions above. Assume Mike Krahulik has decided that it is not only within his authority, but a necessity in his capacity as part of Penny Arcade, that he begin to murder kittens one by one with a hammer on the top of his desk.

    Given the terms of the scenario described above, this Survey presents the following three questions:

    Were the event detailed above to occur, would you still support Mike Krahulik?

    If the answer to Question #1 is yes, is there a number of kittens Mike Krahulik would kill with a hammer that would change your mind?

    If the answer to Question #2 is yes, what would that number be?

    At your earliest convenience, you may answer these questions by responding to this e-mail or by sending your answers to deadkittenexperiment13@gmail.com. While there is no established time limit to respond, the faster you respond, the faster an accurate assessment of the average stance can be established.

    I would venture at this point you’re assuming I’m mocking you. I assure you I am not. This is a legitimate survey using a hypothetical situation that, albeit gruesome and bizarre, is no less hypothetical than other surveys asking one’s opinions of a politician selling you a used car, or enjoying a drink with you at a bar- both actual survey questions used during the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. I am not asking all this rhetorically, and I am honestly accumulating all responses in the hope that all of you whom I have written will legitimately respond.

    That in mind, please understand that like any other legitimate survey, responses that violate the accepted guidelines of a response must be invalidated. While I expect some responses that violate these guidelines- likely in the form of verbal abuse- they may not be incorporated in the final statistical results, although they may be posted in a full account of all received data.

    I will be keeping a record of all persons I have submitted the survey to, and will update the results accordingly on my site. In addition, I will be preparing official Certificates of Participation in the Survey to any participant I solicit who honestly and accurately responds with a set limit of kittens they would tolerate the Mike Krahulik killing with a hammer. The Certificate will state the following:

    “Be it known on this day, ____ of _____ in the year 2013, that ____________ has stated for the record that, albeit a staunch supporter of Mike Krahulik, such support would cease should Mike Krahulik kill ______ kitten(s) with a hammer.”

    Again, I thank you for your participation in this survey. In a time when gaming culture seems divided as ever, I am hopeful that a honest consensus can be reached among the most left or right leaning of Mike Krahulik supporters: that regardless of our stances on gaming culture, Penny Arcade, or the Penny Arcade Expo, maybe, just maybe, we draw the line at killing kittens with hammers.

    Disclaimer: this e-mail is a one-time solicitation. Should you decline to participate in the survey, your name has not been added to any mailing list, nor will you be contacted again by this address.

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