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Future Fragments: Gaming with “Dickwolves” and “Sluts”

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If you follow Twitter or the insanely popular and influential gaming webcomic Penny Arcade, you probably came into contact with the Dickwolves “debacle“. It started with a comic. Dickwolves, with a habit of raping slaves, were a one-shot joke. On their own, they aren’t very impressive–and the comic is only vaguely funny, with its reference to the stupidity of MMORPG quest objectives trite. The comic got a backlash for trivializing rape, so PA responded with another comic that trivialized the objections. The story could have ended there.

But then they made this t-shirt. And, in doing so, they brought out some of the worst in gamer culture, and what has resulted over the last two weeks is a reminder that online communities are not as evolved as we might wish they were.

You see, it’s no secret that being a female gamer sometimes sucks. As a female gamer, I could tell stories of all sorts of encounters with pigs–both over voice chat and at gamer-centered gatherings that I attended a few times and, well, stopped. Most of the problems came in quiet spaces, in “whispered” messages in an MMO or in derisive comments from males spotting a girl in their midst. Those sorts of things usually go unremarked, and certainly undocumented, in spaces where conversations go past and rarely linger.

But in the last few weeks, just as the Dickwolves debacle has reached its heights, an archive has grown up around stories from female gamers who thought to document the attention. The new repository of horror stories, Fat, Ugly or Sluttly is already filled with clips around the theme: “Every message is the same. I’m always either fat and ugly, or a slut.” When World of Warcraft threatened to use Real ID for its forums, women were among the loudest protesters: many pointed out that they played male avatars in game to avoid exactly this type of attention. Blizzard backed off, but the harassment female gamers face remains.

This really is nothing new — Julian Dibbell’s A Rape in Cyberspace documented one of the first incidents where a male gamer, using the avatar Mr. Bungle, imagined his fellow (female) players engaged in sexually violent acts and typed those actions into the world. This was back in the days of text-based games, when with the help of a virtual “voo-doo doll” Mr. Bungle could make it seem like his victims were typing the actions themselves. Mr. Bungle was toaded. That community, LambdaMOO, decided they’d had it. It wasn’t the end, of course, as this was still the ‘net and the man behind Mr. Bungle came back in a new form.

And now, years later, Mr. Bungle’s spirit lives on.

In response to the Dickwolves shirt, Kirbybits posted a blog on her decision not to speak at Penny Arcade Expo.

Are things really still that bad for women gamers? Even the Penny Arcade guys have taken on the gender relationship gap among gamers. The site they were referring to? GameCrush – – a site for male gamers looking for some game time with “PlayDates.”

No, seriously.The site crashed during launch week—supposedly thanks to high traffic. It’s still active today, and while it seems to have mostly escaped a reputation as a pornographic site, it’s definitely got its uncomfortable aspects. A message to “PlayDates” that’s making the rounds included advice on how to avoid saying no to potential male customers so as not to put them off their experience and to instead redirect them when they’re asking for things the PlayDate doesn’t want to give.

Here’s the GameCrush PlayDates at Penny Arcade Expo in 2010:

These are some of the elements of gaming culture that played their part in the elevation of the fight over the Dickwolves shirt–which, of course, wasn’t a fight over just a shirt. If it had been, than the decision of Penny Arcade to stop selling it would have been enough. But the cultural war that played out on Twitter was about much more than that–and only a small conflict beside a larger movement.

Recently, Twitter has been a site of several showdowns over defining communal standards for the discourse of rape both in and out of online spaces: the #MooreandMe campaign called for an apology from Moore in dismissing the allegations of rape against Julian Assange as a “so-called crime;” the #DearJohn campaign was a concerted effort to lobby Congressional representatives involved in a bill that would redefine rape for the purposes of abortion funding in a way that severely limited the term’s application. The organizer for both #DearJohn and #MooreandMe, Sady Doyle, explained that Twitter was the perfect medium for the campaigns because “it was really equalizing, it wasn’t hierarchical, it ensured that voices and perspectives could influence the conversation regardless of how well-connected or well-known they were, and it was a very visible, trackable way to register dissent.” These attributes have strengthened Twitter as a space for activist movements large and small—with results ranging from Michael Moore’s statement on TV retracting his earlier words to the removal of the Dickwolves t-shirt from the Penny Arcade store. #MooreandMe asked for a change in rhetoric, for an admission from Michael Moore that his words had encouraged the silencing of women, and got it.

The activists in every one of these endeavors have found themselves assailed with rhetoric worthy of Mr. Bungle. The attacks on Dickwolves protesters came from accounts with names like “TeamRape” and “Dickwolvington” created under a veil of anonymity. Here’s a sample of TeamRape’s parting rallying cry:

Like Mr. Bungle, Dickwolvington no longer exists: a Twitter search on his username turns up no results. This occurred after a tweet from Penny Arcade’s writer, Gabe, requesting him to stop. The dynamic of the Rape in Cyberspace is here re-enacted: the “toaded” account has gone silent, but the communal space (in this case, Penny Arcade Expo) has lost its status. Wil Wheaton gave his “Don’t Be a Dick” line as part of a keynote at a Penny Arcade Expo, the same speech that resulted in the founding of Wheaton’s Law.

Where’s Wheaton’s Law now? Still in action:

And even as these hashtags slowly go silent, the cultures have not changed. As Grayson Davis pointed out, “When we talk about dickwolves, we’re not talking about a single off-color joke: we’re talking about prominent spokespeople of gaming culture making their fans feel threatened and alienated.”

The Dickwolves backlash isn’t about a t-shirt. There are plenty out there that are worse. It’s driven by disillusionment: the idea that Penny Arcade Expo was classier than other gaming conventions had long persisted. Their Boothbabes Ban, initiated in part by a community poll, eliminated the practice of models with no other role than eyecandy from the event.

Or, as one tweeter remarked:

There are incredible ideas right now for ways gaming–and gamer culture–can make the world a better place. An amazing and iconic female game designer, Jane McGonigal, just published a book entitled Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. But perhaps, before games can make the world a better place, gaming culture might need a bit of rethinking. For those outside the community, the Dickwolves accounts become just another confirmation of what they already suspected: gamers, whatever their age or gender, are stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence.

If gaming has really come of age, perhaps the culture should find a way to show it.

Author: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

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