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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Post-PAX Regrets

You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.- Harvey Dent, "The Dark Knight" (2008)

Trigger Warning

While this quote tends to get far too much mileage online, I find it does contain an unfortunate truth about life. Reading about the recent fallout when Penny-Arcade Co-founder Mike Krahulik announced in the last day of PAX that pulling the infamous "Dickwolves" mechandise from their online store was one of his biggest regrets.

I grew up inspired by webcomics like Penny-Arcade; I really got into that culture in my senior year of high school. Back then I had comics like VGCats, Real-Life, Ctrl-Alt-Del, Penny-Arcade, and MacHall (now at ThreePanelSoul). I identified with these comics; predominantly drawn by socially awkward male gamers like myself. Penny-Arcade often said what I had been thinking, and I cheered them on as the plucky rebel taking the "system" to task.

I was once one of those people that would have cheered at Mike's statement; I was once a person who lived in his privilege and believed that people "whining" about that sort of thing were just complaining. I mean, "rape jokes" didn't bother me, why should I stop because other people are being so sensitive? Time passed and I grew; I developed a sense of empathy, and stretched to put myself into the shoes of others....and my opinion changed. I realized that, for a culture that wants to prevent bullying and promote inclusion, it's vital to remember that when someone says, "You are making me uncomfortable" it is not an attack on your fun, it is not an attack on you, it's a request you stop because you are hurting another human being. That is not censorship, but respect. Put yourself in the shoes of others; try to understand that the topic of rape is extremely uncomfortable for some people for legitimate reasons (like that ~1 in 5 women will experience some form of sexual assault in their life).

Lets get one thing straight; the dickwolves comic was just the catalyst. The issue people have with Mike is his conduct afterwards. People expressed discomfort and he essentially lashed out and mocked them. This concern did not come from some shadowy feminista-cabal out to destroy him, it came from his own fans. But he decided that his right to make whatever joke he wants is more valuable to him than his fans feeling included in the community he represents. No one is saying he can't make jokes, he has a legal right to, first amendment and all (not withstanding that the first amendment is mainly limited to government action, and that "Freedom of Speech" does not mean "Freedom from all Consequences"). Still, just because we CAN do something, doesn't always mean that we should.

PAX and it's accompanying community were supposed to be havens for ALL "nerds"; people who loved gaming and wanted to have an opportunity to celebrate it with others without fear of judgement or discomfort. PAX is a place where I can turn to someone and strike up a conversation about the merits of Wildstar versus WoW without the person staring at me like I am some kind of troll or laughing in my face. Instead, Mike has made it clear that this policy only applies to those who share his personal views and experiences. In doing so and reacting as a victim whenever he is called out on this conduct, Mike has let himself become the villain. With this, and every other misstep he's made, he has doubled down and held his ground rather than show any remorse or humility. His apologies are halfhearted at best, appeasement at worst. It strikes me as immature to insist on one's own righteousness and use your voice and legion of fans to shout down dissent. This is not the hero I worshiped as a teen; this is a man who's let power go to his head, who's convinced himself that he is a victim, and can't bear the thought of being wrong about anything or having to truly apologize. I respect people who have the ability to recognize when they are wrong; I think that to fail and learn is more admirable than to never fail at all. While to some it can seem like admitting to failure is a sign of weakness, I think it displays a greater integrity of character.

For the record; this, is not an apology. He admits that his actions were the result of a knee-jerk reaction, but he never apologizes for fanning the flames, hurting people initially, or his words at PAX. He may feel bad for how it happened, but the words come off more as "I am sorry that it happened" not "I am sorry that I caused it." In it, he says that he regrets pulling the shirts only because it "dug us deeper." I hear this and think of a burglar standing my house saying, "Well I was already here so it'd just be engaging to leave...why are you so angry?" The only scenarios in which he shouldn't have pulled the merchandise are ones in which he never made it in the first place.

"I certainly can't blame the people..." This looks like a good start, but, "...who still WANT to hate me." (emphasis mine). See he starts it nicely, but switches it around at the last second; now we're not hating his actions, we're hating him because we're mean, angry, and unreasonable and we WANT to hate him. The onus is placed on the injured. No Mike, I don't want to hate you, quite the opposite. You brought up the dickwolves merchandise, not us. I "want" to be able to look forward to going to PAX without having to worry that you're going to make anti-trans* comments or bring up dickwolves again. I want to know that when you say PAX is "inclusive" that you genuinely mean it, even if it occasionally means keeping your mouth shut when you don't want to because the welcoming nature and cohesion of the community is more important than your ego. I used to respect and look up to you guys, and if you genuinely shaped up I could again. But I do not "want" to hate you. There is a vast gulf between "pissing people off" and making part of your beloved community feel excluded or hated.

Whether Mike likes it or not, he is not the plucky agitator he once was, nor is he the rebel artist speaking out against "the man." He represents an institution in the video game industry, and a convention that many developers feel they must attend to succeed. He is not just some guy drawing a comic anymore, much as he likes to think he is. With that great power comes responsibility that Mike does not seem to want to accept. You started from noble roots, but so did the companies you often mock; Microsoft, Apple, EA...they may be "the man" now but at some point they were just a few people reaching for a dream.

Mike's actions are why I regret supporting PAX this year; I enjoyed myself, I especially enjoyed spending time with friends and wandering the halls, but I can't support Mike. I find myself torn between not wanting to go and thus support that conduct, but at the same time not wanting to abandon the community I enjoy. Yet, how can I do the latter if one of the men in charge has decided that the only voice that matters is his own?

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