PAX Prime is coming to a close, and the gaming industry and community are abuzz with excitement. But in one corner of the showfloor, there is a conspicuous absence. Indie sensation Gone Home is nowhere to be seen at the Indie Megabooth. In June, developer The Fullbright Company made an announcement explaining this. They were accepted, but they chose not to make an appearance. Co-founder Steve Gaynor wrote, “we’ve been bothered by the public stances that Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the founders of PAX’s parent organization Penny Arcade, have taken on a number of issues.”
Mr. Gaynor was referring to a series of faux-pas statements, exacerbated by lashing out in response to criticism. They were enumerated in this announcement, beginning with the “Dickwolves debacle”. This points to an episode beginning with a Penny Arcade comic strip involving an MMORPG quest to rescue a number of slaves. The player in this scenario, having reached the quota set by the quest, callously refuses to aid an additional slave, who cries of torture and rape by “dickwolves”. This led to a protracted debate about the propriety of rape jokes, during which Krahulik responded to a question of how it felt “to be actively encouraging rape culture” by saying “it feels pretty good.”
Gaynor went on to mention other incidents, including a Kickstarter project asking people to pay Penny Arcade for an internship, a claim that critical opinions of art (specifically, the sorceress of Dragon’s Crown) constitute demands to “censor yourself”, and the welcoming of a panel at PAX Australia that claimed calling out sexism and racism where they are apparent has “gone too far”. The final item on the list was a statement dismissing the identities of transgender people by asserting that genitalia are the defining trait of gender — a statement that he has not rescinded. In fact, Krahulik followed up with an unflattering email chain that reaffirmed and defended the position.
Criticism of all of these things arguably passed beyond what was appropriate. In fact, some of it was downright heinous and completely non-sequitur, including a “joke” threatening his family. But the true controversy began in most cases after Krahulik responded in anger to attacks on his character. After all, in one example, the joke in the comic, “The Sixth Slave” wasn’t even about rape. It was about the ludonarrative dissonance of morality-driven RPG quests that ultimately don’t support their alleged justifications in practice. Rape was rightly depicted as something horrible. The latest incident was born of ignorance, not malice, and he expressed genuine remorse for having hurt people: “it’s not okay when I make a bunch of people who are already marginalized feel like shit.” Beyond that, he pledged a $20,000 donation to The Trevor Project, and expressed a continued desire to make amends.
At the same time, however, he had this to say: “I’m not qualified to talk about the ambiguity of sexuality and frankly I don’t give a shit about it. I like drawing comics and playing video games. I’ll keep my mouth shut when it comes to all the other stuff.” And that would be fine, if he weren’t in a position of great influence and scrutiny. When he alienates people, he does it as a representative of the larger gaming community. He cannot escape that by ignoring it. He can’t know there won’t be another comic like “The Sixth Slave”, and if there is, he needs to be prepared to handle it with grace. If he wants to avoid hurting people in the future, and if he “[doesn’t] want to be the reason people don’t go to PAX or don’t support Child’s Play or don’t watch the shows on PATV”, he will have to start caring — actively. This is a burden incumbent upon anyone in his position. The alternatives are to walk away from Penny Arcade, or to accept that he will continue to damage the image of the organization with his apathy and defensive outbursts. And, if Penny Arcade continues to be important to the gaming community, he will cause the gaming community to be unwelcoming to marginalized groups.
As a transgender woman, myself, I don’t particularly want to be silently and begrudgingly tolerated, nor to be coddled or humored. That doesn’t make me feel welcome or respected. Mr. Krahulik doesn’t owe me an apology, by any means, least of all beyond that which he has already given. But closing his mouth and opening his pocketbook doesn’t resolve the issue, and I am not ready to forgive until I see that real inclusiveness, diversity, and respect for gamers of every stripe are among the core values of the Penny Arcade organization. To a grassroots movement focused on the community, this is essential.
The Fullbright Company’s announcement, signed by the staff, concluded, “We wish all the best to the organizers and participants in the Indie Megabooth, as we really do believe that it is an incredibly positive force for indie games and video games in general. // We just wish it weren’t at PAX.” All told, I respect that they are unwilling to compromise their principles in order to further their business. Refusing to appear at PAX Prime may have cost them exposure and potential customers for Gone Home, but it has gained them at least one.