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The Complicated Legacy of Penny Arcade

Whether you love or hate Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, you've probably got good reasons for it.

Generally speaking, people don't want complexity in real life. They like things to be black and white, right and wrong. This person is scum, that person is a saint. Ordinarily, the cultural narrative follows suit. Celebrities who do vile things (like torturing and executing animals as part of an illegal dogfighting ring) are hailed as a story of redemption as soon as they right their ways (play well in a nationally televised game). Likewise, incredible acts of charity (like starting a non-profit organization and raising $500 million to fight cancer) are quickly offset by an apparently unforgivable lapse in turpitude (like cheating to win bike races where essentially everyone cheats anyway).

But sometimes, the cultural narrative gets messy. Such has been the case with Penny Arcade, which Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik started as a webcomic in 1998 and grew into a global brand with video game and merchandising tie-ins, three global Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) fan conventions a year, and a charity that raised more than $5 million last year to provide sick children with toys and games for the holidays. (They also started a new gaming website in the post-social media era, which we'll chalk up as neither good nor bad, but just nuts. Clearly.)

Penny Arcade: Forever young or just immature?

The easy cultural narrative for Penny Arcade is "Underdog Makes Good." From humble beginnings, two average gamers built an outsider empire adjacent to the gaming industry, a place for enthusiasts to share their love for games without fear of being scorned by the outside world. At its heart, this narrative is one of triumph driven by inclusion and acceptance, of prophets with no aspirations of power leading their outcast people to a promised land.

And just like that Biblical story, the narrative isn't as clean and cheery as all that. While they haven't had a dogfighting ring moment, Krahulik and Holkins do have a growing history of questionable acts, poor judgment, and vile comments. (On the comments front, Krahulik has seemed more eager to shove his foot in his mouth than Holkins, but like I said, cultural narratives disdain nuance, so Holkins winds up sharing blame as well, fair or not.)

While they haven't had a dogfighting ring moment, Krahulik and Holkins do have a growing history of questionable acts, poor judgment, and vile comments.

The most recent example is from last week, when a series of Krahulik's tweets drew the ire of the transgendered community. In defending the idea that gender is determined solely by physical anatomy, Krahulik dismissed anyone who used the word "cis," which refers to someone whose birth anatomy matched their gender identity. Krahulik added, "If you use the word 'cis,' I probably will hate you too."

That blew up, prompting Krahulik to post an email exchange with a transgender freelancer for the Penny Arcade Report, as if to say, "Some of my best friends are trans." He has since offered a couple more substantial apologies on the site, and pledged to donate $20,000 to The Trevor Project, a crisis intervention organization to prevent suicide among LGBT youth.

The whole affair felt like a rehash of the "dickwolves" controversy, where Krahulik and Holkins unintentionally offended people with a rape joke and, thinking it was no different from the rest of their off-color humor, got defensive and doubled-down instead of reflecting on the possibility that they had done something wrong.

Then there's the pair's position toward their fans, which at times borders on exploitive. Penny Arcade started PAX in 2004, with the inaugural event drawing fewer than 5,000 attendees. Now PAX Prime in Seattle and PAX East in Boston each draw 70,000 people annually, with the first PAX Australia scheduled for next month. Despite that insane growth, the event still relies on a volunteer security force of "Enforcers" instead of properly trained professional security. And of course, the pair have run two Kickstarter campaigns, one to take ads off the site, and another to fund the return of a popular podcast showing how they come up with their comics. The former campaign included a limited $7,500 reward tier that let contributors intern at Penny Arcade for a day (two such spots were offered; both were claimed), while the latter had a goal of $10, essentially turning it into an exercise in taking whatever money the fanbase was willing to part with for content that would cost them very little to produce.

The same candor and lack of calculation that makes their humor resonate with the masses means there's no filter to keep whatever narrow-minded prejudices they hold from slipping out into the light.

There are other things that could be said of the Penny Arcade creators, both good and bad. But unlike so many celebrities, whether inside gaming culture or out, they resist the quick and easy cultural narrative. The same candor and lack of calculation that makes their humor resonate with the masses means there's no filter to keep whatever narrow-minded prejudices they hold from slipping out into the light. But they are also clearly admirable for what they've done in building their business from scratch, in cheerleading the gaming community, and far beyond that, in working to help sick children.

Ultimately, Krahulik and Holkins are wildly successful entrepreneurs with an unconventionally straight-forward approach to business. They are adult men with an adolescent's inherent lack of empathy toward people outside their sphere of existence. They are social pariahs whose response to being ostracized was to build a beautiful community, even if it was done partly out of spite. They are leaving a complicated legacy, one deserving of tremendous pride and tremendous shame. They are ideal representatives of the game industry, because they are the game industry personified.

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