On Dickwolves, Humor, and Cultural Sensitivity
UPDATE: I’ve changed some emphasis in sections, including a rewording to my mention of GaymerConnect and its convention, GaymerX. As Ryan gracefully points out, the focus should be on the event and the participants, not the people putting on the show. Perhaps this logic is particularly relevant to this piece, but I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Let me start by saying this: this piece isn’t about being politically correct. This isn’t about caring about people’s “feelings.” This is about A) being a good businessperson, B) being a good person, and C) (primarily) respecting culture. So let’s go ahead and get started with a little history lesson just in case you think this article is about clones of the Executive Producer of Law and Order–
The background: Three years ago, popular webcomic Penny Arcade featured a strip about a mythical race of creatures called (in case you weren’t putting the pieces together) “dickwolves,” a beast where its every appendage is (you guessed it) a penis, better known in this context as a “dick” (one of you didn’t put that last part together, and bless your heart for it). Here’s a NSFW image to spell it out for you:
There are opportunities for humor here that likely wouldn’t have raised so much controversy: perhaps it could have run really, really fast but only for very short periods of time before it goes to sleep, or maybe it could at inconvenient times or places (like middle school speeches and dances). But this particular creature, according to the comic strip, is a rapist. In the strip, a villager petitions a videogame hero to save the slaves in the village because they’re beaten in the morning by unnamed assailants and raped to sleep at night by the dickwolves. The hero responds by saying that his quest is just to save 5 villagers, and when the slave tries to make his appeal, the hero responds with “Hey. Pal. Don’t make this weird.”
Even as I type this article I feel conflicted about condemning the strip itself. To get all English major-y for a quick minute, the “hero” is drawn as a wolf of sorts and he’s acting like a dick by blowing off the request of the villager. It begs the question: “Who’s the real dickwolf here?” Conveniently, the very next strip gives a temporary answer: Mike Krahulik and Jerry Hopkins.
Krahulik and Holkins, aka Gabe and Tycho and the creators of both Penny Arcade and PAX, meant to point out how absurd it is that a hero would ignore a cry for help simply because the terms of his/her quest dictates saving fewer than ALL of the victims. But the part of the strip that rings the loudest is the hero’s flippant disdain for the victims of rape and physical abuse. It gets worse when Krahulik and Holkins make their rebuttal in the next strip, saying
“We want to state in clear language, without ambiguity or room for interpretation, we hate rapers, and all the rapes that they do.” (emphasis added)
And this little closing gem:
“If you’re raping someone right now, stop. Apologize. And leave. Go, and rape no more.”
Yeah, I’d say that’s dickwolf language.
The word “dickwolf” sounds like something that should be funny. If you were to say “dickwolf” in a vacuum, in a world free of contexts and backgrounds and people with opinions on the subject, then you could probably just laugh at it and move on. But we’re not in a vacuum. “Dickwolves” carry a bunch of contexts and backgrounds with it, primarily ones laden with imagery of victimization as a result of rape. Consequently, many people have opinions on the subject and usage of dickwolves, as would be expected.
I’m not going to make some sort of stance about how certain types of jokes are never ok. We seem to be stuck in this radicalized humor war in all sorts of media, with one side saying “These types of jokes can’t ever be told,” while the other side digs in and says, “I should be able to say whatever I want! If you don’t like it, then go home!” Then we have gridlock.
I think both camps are wrong. Dealing in absolutes is what got us to this point of anger and malice, and continuing to deal in absolutes will only continue to make the discussion rage on forever. If we plan on advancing as a community of gamers, or as a society as a whole, we’re going to have to learn how to handle situations with individual attention.
GotGame writer Ryan Bates recently posted a piece over at GameRevolution which condemns rape jokes as a whole, saying that rape is never funny. And I’ll stand by that: rape itself is never funny. But I don’t think this means that rape, or other taboos like violence, disability, or race can’t be the subject of jokes that end up being funny. And yes, there’s a difference between the two.
In my experience, following two general rules creates effective controversial humor: the humor is used to highlight to ridiculousness of the topic, and the humor comes from the offended party. I’m black, and I’m a fan of black comedians like Dave Chappelle, Katt Williams, and the duo Key and Peele. All three regularly make jokes about racism, particularly in regards to black people, and I tend to enjoy them because they use race as a topic for their jokes, not just a tool. Chappelle points out the absurdity of racism when he says, “I thought I liked chicken because it’s delicious; turns out I’m genetically predisposed to liking chicken!” Katt Williams irreverent usage of the N-word highlights the word’s foolish nature. Key and Peele poke fun at the eccentricities of the black culture itself in sketches like this one where they make fake names for black college football players. In each situation the controversial topic is the subject of the joke, not just a tool used for setup. (By the way, my favorite Key and Peele sketch deals with racism and Power Rangers. Watch it and understand.)
In contrast, the dickwolves strip uses rape as a vehicle for a game joke, making the rape itself seem superficial. Also, the rape joke is purveyed by men, the general perpetrators of rape, which only enhances the discomfort. These may be subtle differences, but they become significant when read by an audience sensitive to those issues.
Meanwhile, Andrew Kent, another writer here on the GG team, posted a rebuttal to Ryan’s piece where he accuses gamers of hypocrisy because they are sensitive to jokes about rape but not sensitive to the imaginary violence and murder that has become part-and-parcel of mainstream gaming. It’s a little interesting that he says the world isn’t a string of binaries, that there’s a “gray area” between the black-and-white world of right and wrong, and yet he seemingly equivocates blowing the head off of a psycho midget in Borderlands with forcing someone into sex. Yes, both would be morally reprehensible in reality, but I get the feeling that even just reading that sentence, most people feel the difference between the two acts, whether they’re virtual or not.
Gender comes into play here, too. Notice that most all menial, grunt-style characters killed in shooters are male; just like in the American military where it legislation was just recently passed to allow women on the front lines of combat, we seem to culturally have reservations about killing women. Why do you think Activision deemed it worth announcing in a press conference that Call of Duty: Ghosts would have female combatants? Whenever there’s a news report about people killed as the result of some tragedy, the news report tends to sound something like this: “Today 74 people were killed in this horrendous event, including ___ women and ___ children.” For better or for worse, women tend to be a protected class in our culture, and crimes tend to be considered different when a woman is involved, either as the victim or the offender. So to somehow conclude that a sex crime, one which overwhelmingly victimizes women, is both on-par with and deserves the same treatment as the violence that takes place in video games ignores the increasingly-female culture of gamers as well as the overall culture of society at-large. As the gaming community (and the global community) becomes more diverse, we need to be respectful of the viewpoints that come as they appear.
My point (because I’m pretty sure many of you were wondering when I was going to get to it) is that we can’t expect to use one paintbrush to handle every situation we approach. We’re all sensitive to different issues: I get tense about some racial humor, while a couple black friends of mine don’t care. Ryan is a man and is sensitive to rape jokes even though rape is typically (and inaccurately) considered a woman’s issue. A friend of mine is a woman and isn’t bothered by rape jokes, but hates jokes that are unnecessarily cruel to animals. We’re all going to have different viewpoints, and those viewpoints deserve RESPECT. Keep in mind though, that respect DOES NOT EQUAL kowtowing and change, and this is why, even after all of this, I still have respect for both Krahulik and Holkins.
I respect that Krahulik and Holkins still have The Sixth Slave posted on Penny Arcade. I respect that they stand by their position to use controversial subjects in their strip. But more than anything, I respect Krahaulik’s second apology. I hope you read the blog post yourself, but I’ll repost this section because I think it’s particularly relevant:
So let me start by saying I like the Dickwolves strip. I think it’s a strong comic and I still think the joke is funny. Would we make that strip today? Knowing what we know now and seeing how it hurt people, no. We wouldn’t. But at the time, it seemed pretty benign. With that said I absolutely regret everything we did after that comic. I regret the follow up strip, I regret making the merchandise, I regret pulling the merchandise and I regret being such an asshole on twitter to people who were upset. I don’t think any of those things were good ideas. If we had just stopped with the strip and moved on, the Dickwolf never would have become what it is today. Which is a joke at the expense of rape victims or a symbol of the dismissal of people who have suffered a sexual assault. the comic itself obviously points out the absurd morality of the average MMO where you are actually forced to help some people and ignore others in the same situation. Oddly enough, the first comic by itself is exactly the opposite of what this whole thing has turned into.
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.
Penny Arcade claims a “do not engage” policy: they’ve said in prior posts that if someone doesn’t like Penny Arcade that they should read a different webcomic, that if they don’t want to support PAX, then they shouldn’t go. And both statements are completely true: in this consumer-driven economy we vote with both our dollars AND our time. But “do not engage” in itself is the biggest mistake of all: we need to have these discussions, we need to have discourse about what we consider acceptable and what is considered offensive, even if individual artists choose not to change their positions. You can’t respect what you refuse to acknowledge. That being said, there are other conventions out there which would gladly welcome your patronage, for instance GaymerX, a convention put on by GaymerConnect (which Ryan Bates is a part of) that caters to the positions of the LGBT+ community while remaining all-inclusive. Sure, PAX is a big deal right now, but that doesn’t mean other conventions can’t become big deals, too.
I respect the views of Penny Arcade and those who stand by the dickwolves strip in its entirety. I respect the views of those who would choose not to attend PAX or read Penny Arcade because of their views. I respect those who never want a rape joke used in their presence, and I respect those who want us to take a critical look at our own viewpoints and double-standards. I respect Lindy West, who wrote a phenomenal article over at Jezebel about how to make an appropriate rape joke. And I respect Ryan Bates, Andrew Kent, and anyone else who entered into the discussion to make their viewpoint known. We need to listen to other people’s viewpoints, though we also need to be willing to stand for our own viewpoints and be willing to step out and sacrifice to stand for what we believe in. As our community grows, so will the ways that we’ll choose to celebrate being a gamer. And all of those occasions, the ones meant to celebrate instead of denigrate, should be respected.