A Beatdown Where No One Threw The First Punch

Halfway into the internet’s #1 white-hot outrage of the now, it is easy to spot the bully. But it’s not Paul Christoforo.

Bullies never take the first swing. They look for a pretext that justifies one. Mike Krahulik, the artist and co-founder of Penny Arcade, found it when Christoforo tried to big-time an unhappy customer with the fact the product he represented would be at Penny Arcade Expo East. The customer, unbeknownst to Christoforo, had forwarded the email to Krahulik, the guy who runs that show. And that single mention, according to Krahulik himself, is all the provocation he needed.

“It really was just the mention of PAX,” Krahulik told me on Thursday. “The guy was obviously being a jerk, but then to have him use PAX as leverage or a weapon and count me among his allies, that was way too far.”

By the time Christoforo mentioned PAX, his fate as an arsehole had been sealed. But if his reference implied any kind of relationship with or endorsement from its organisers, I’m not seeing it. “See you at CES , E3 , Pax East ….?” he wrote. “Oh wait you have to ask mum and pa dukes your not an industry professional …”

“Holy shit this is unbelievable,” Krahulik wrote, in the first email he contributed to this pissing match, a message he sent to both Christofo and “Dave”, the upset customer. “Dave, if this guy has a booth at Pax east we will cancel it.” His preceding ironic annotation “The Pax East comment gets my attention and I decide to engage. I tend to have a calming effect on these sorts of arguments,” betrays the fact he had no intention of providing that.

“This is a guy being a real bully, a real jerk to one of our readers,” he told me, “and then when I read the PAX quote where he aligned me with him in a nebulous way — it’s one thing to be a bully and it’s another to imply that I condone his actions.”

He’s reaching for a reason, where none exists, to say that someone else started it. This is strange because Krahulik plainly admits his tendency to act precipitously and self-destructively, to the point Penny Arcade’s business staff knows that managing the fallout from his behaviour is part of their job description. I think he wanted to kick Paul’s arse and was waiting for the slightest moral justification for doing so.

That’s his prerogative. Penny Arcade is not my business and I’ve never attended PAX. But the fact remains this incident never would have become the internet scandal it is if Krahulik didn’t decide it involved him and Penny Arcade. There’s a difference between saying, for example, “U2 endorses what I write,” and “I’m going to see U2.” Well, PAX is a U2 gig in this case; all Christoforo said was he was going to it, which more than 100 exhibitors do in Boston.

If Paul Christoforo dropped anyone’s name with the implication he had their support, it was Kotaku’s (and IGN’s and Engadget’s). And if anyone dragged Penny Arcade into the discussion, it was either Krahulik or “Dave”, the customer who unloaded a 1000-word complaint over a joystick attachment’s missed delivery date and forwarded that to Penny Arcade, Kotaku and other major gaming publications as a plea for support.

Krahulik sounds like he was all too happy to finally be the big friend on the playground.

“(Dave) approached someone in a reasonable way and Paul was a bully,” Krahulik told me. “It’s like Dave said ‘Hey what time is it,’ and Paul punched him in the face. And what I did was say, ‘Whoa, Paul, buddy, I know karate, believe me,’ and he didn’t, and so I gave him a little chop.

“Is that a bully? Maybe,” he said. “I’m an arsehole, and some day I’ll get it too, I’m sure.”

Re-read the email thread, before the fireworks begin, before Christoforo lips off to Krahulik and then truly gets what’s coming to him. Dave, full of customer-is-always-right dudgeon, is as much of an instigator in this as anyone. Paul is being offensively bureaucratic and his inability to use proper spelling or grammar, or to be bothered to correct such mistakes, certainly disrespects the reader.

The shit show really only begins when Dave unloads a pedantic lecture on his consumer rights and Paul’s responsibilities (with plenty of all-caps), appends some extraneous insults to let Paul know he looked him up on Facebook and then puts our tips email (and evidently IGN’s and Engadget’s) in the “CC” field as an implied threat.

Let me ask this: If Christoforo later dropping Brian Crecente’s name as an implied endorsement is false and obnoxious — and it is — then isn’t it also obnoxious for Dave to threaten Christoforo with our name (and other publications), making the same implication that we endorse his position?

Hours after Krahulik posted the email thread on Penny Arcade, this had completely devolved from a petty consumer complaint into total warfare. It’s easy to understand why. Hardcore video gaming culture carries a chip on its shoulder the size of a manhole lid, and among other things, it views itself as dismissed or taken for granted by monolithic forces who care only for money and nothing for the community’s artistic passion and independent spirit.

Paul Christoforo and Dave, in their attitudes toward each another, represented all of that conflict. It helped also that Christoforo’s Facebook photographs were as much of a self-parody as his atrocious grammar and typographical errors.

Timing had plenty to do with it, too. “What did you expect would happen,” a friend suggested to me. “It’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s, everyone’s on break with nothing to do.” It reminded me of why the JonBenet Ramsey homicide of December 26, 1996, and the Raëlian cloning hoax of December 26, 2002, got such traction. It’s an inherently dead news cycle, whatever you’re covering.

By late in the day of December 27, Reddit’s gaming front was a CNN-esque all-Paul, all-the-time crawl, devoted to the original offence, pictures culled from Christoforo’s Facebook page, a hunt for anything embarrassing about his company “Ocean Marketing” (sometimes hilariously misspelled) and imgur parodies trying to cement the latest meme off the controversy. Nearly every gaming blog and site had written something about this foofaraw. Sage voices of gaming journalism took to Twitter to sound their disapproval, and the spread was so wide it inevitably trickled into mainstream outlets.

Christoforo at first expressed confidence that this was fine, in an any-publicity-is-good-publicity vein. His tune changed later in emails to Krahulik, in which he claims to have a wife and child in a plea for Krahulik to calm the internet’s fury.

By the end of Tuesday, a parody video already had been released. Reddit oscillated between calling off the attack because the Avenger was a product some of its users enjoyed, and pressing the abuse because the company’s ownership still had connections to Christoforo and either hadn’t disavowed or was being duplicitous about them.

The upshot seems to be what everyone who despises Electronic Arts, Activision, Bobby Kotick, Ubisoft, DRM and Call of Duty has always wanted: Getting some marketing douchebag fired. Except he didn’t represent any of those companies or products or anything that actually makes zillions and truly shapes the video gaming market. He sold what is basically fetish gear for a controller. By Wednesday evening, N-Control had hired a new publicist, guaranteed a January 15 delivery date, offered a $US10 discount to everyone with a standing order on the product, and more or less KGB’d Christoforo from company memory.

And everyone, evidently, was happy.

I don’t think anyone in this fiasco has anything to be proud of. Christoforo surely deserves no benefit of the doubt. He said plenty to reveal his contempt for you and me. His conduct, however provoked, is deplorable and a firing offence on its face, and he does not belong in any customer-facing job.

N-Control had its head up its arse, too. Its amateurish customer satisfaction operation placed an inside sales contractor at a consumer call centre desk, creating the ferment for this needless psychodrama, which evidently had precedent. And — speaking purely for myself — my publication isn’t innocent either. We’ve also provided a megaphone to both the combatants and the cheering section in this pointless, communal hurricane of entitlement, narcissism, imagined persecution and arrogance.

But there is also an arrogance in the conduct of Dave, Krahulik and Reddit and it is also contemptible. Who appointed any of you the cop? More importantly, who appointed you the sentencing judge? These three parties demonstrated that they have no concept of a proportionate reaction to or suitable retribution for petty disappointment. Their methodology is the tarnished golden rule of do unto others before they do unto you, propped up by a purely emotional justification — I was once bullied; I’m an aggrieved customer; I am lied to by corporations. All of these are abusive relationships shaped by the consent of the abused, and are the contrived basis for the total annihilation of Paul Christoforo over a 36-hour span.

“I have a real problem with bullies. I spent my childhood moving from school to school and I got made fun of everyplace I landed,” Krahulik later wrote on his blog. “I feel like Paul is a bully and maybe that’s why I have no sympathy here. Someday every bully meets an even bigger bully and maybe that’s me in this case.”

As his example implies, bullying behaviour is indeed often a manifestation of once being bullied. Krahulik retrofitting his actions as a justifiable adult reaction to being bullied as a child is offensive to those who have legitimately suffered such peer abuse.

And then there’s his closure: “When these arseholes threaten me or Penny Arcade I just laugh. I will personally burn everything I’ve made to the fucking ground if I think I can catch them in the flames.”

Krahulik did not back down from that a bit when I read it back to him and asked for a deeper explanation.

“I have messed up, and I will definitely hurt myself if I think I can hurt someone else,” he said. “I’m not defending that as a noble statement, I’m just being who I am.”

It’s especially sad to consider that, for the millions who enjoy Penny Arcade, the thousands who attend its expos each year, and yes, I’ll go here, because I’ve met them, the hundreds of sick children, many of them terminally so, given games and toys by its charitable foundation.

Like Paul Christoforo, I am 38. Like “Dave,” I have a gift for the highly offended screed. In the autumn semester of my junior year at NC State I got three tickets for parking in the lot of my own fraternity house. The third time, I was beyond outraged. It was all a scam, a ripoff, a means of control. The university had recently annexed all the parking spaces at or nearby frat court and was forcing me to buy a permit, or pay fines for nothing, to subsidise the debt on an enormous deck the campus had built and couldn’t fill. I paid my ticket with a “FUCK YOU” written in the memo line of the check. And boy it felt great.

Naturally, that check had my address, name and handwriting on it, so it wasn’t too hard to trace. A couple weeks later I got a call from the office of student affairs and was directed to meet with its senior administrator. His office was in the building next door to where I worked as a writer for the student newspaper. I came over and he presented me with the cancelled check, asking if it was mine.

Of course it was. I laid out all the reasons why my anger was justified. I told him the check was a contract and by cashing it the university accepted its terms, an argument that, in 1993, foreshadowed all the condescending logic and horseshit legal scholarship you read every day on the Internet.

“That’s great,” he said. “We’re not going to waste our time punishing you. That’s not why I brought you here.

“I read you in the paper,” he said. “You’re a real pissed-off guy. You keep doing this kind of shit, someone’s going to take a shot at you some day.”

That was as axiomatic for Paul Christoforo as it is for Mike Krahulik.

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