thanksgiving scramble for pennies / library of congress

Penny Ante

The webcomics, gaming event, and reality web TV company wants you as its underpaid, overworked, cherished employee in its offensive office.

Penny Arcade is no stranger to controversy, but a job posting for an IT worker seems to have struck a different nerve. In a posting at LinkedIn, operations chief Robert Khoo, who identifies himself in the posting’s opening, describes a 24/7 on-call position with terrible hours, pay worth apologizing for upfront, and ostensibly great working conditions and benefits.

Great working conditions except for the following: “You should have no problems working in a creative and potentially offensive environment.”

At this writing, 43 people have applied via LinkedIn.

Job posting: If you “don’t mind having a really bad sense of work-life balance, this is the job for you.”

The webcomic empire, which encompasses a children’s charity, multiple strips, a series of large gaming conventions, a reality web-TV show, a reality talent-search show, videogames, pins, and even more has had its share of problems related to its quirky founders who create the eponymous strip.

Mike Krahulik (Gabe is his avatar in the strip) and Jerry Holkins (Tycho) lack nuance and sensitivity, to say the least, in how they handle criticism when they produce something that may fall outside the bounds of taste.

Their “raped by dickwolves” strip in 2010 made some sense in the context of videogames that require characters to make dubiously moral choices. But when confronted by people who found the use of rape to make a joke troubling or even a trigger for trauma, the pair lashed out, and eventually created T-shirts that helped spiral the whole affair into an ugly battle in which they weren’t directly involved. The situation died down, but resurfaced in August 2013 when a casual remark on a videotaped panel re-opened old wounds.

Krahulik and Holkins often make an initial statement that reeks of naïvete or an attempt at humor, defend it vigorously, claim they are being bullied by those who attack them (or even, sometimes, just question whether they understand the impact of what they said and who it might hurt), and then back off, and apologize in part or whole. (To be fair, it’s usually Krahulik.)

It has come to a point, after PAX Prime in Seattle this summer, where various exhibitors at PAX, former employees, and long-time allies or supporters have finally said, “Enough is enough.” Others, like Max Temkin of Cards Against Humanity, are staking out a safe space at the gaming event. Max wrote following PAX Prime:

We will most likely be back at PAX East and PAX Prime 2014, but we’re going to use our place there to talk about what we think is right and fair, and welcome all kinds of gamers into our booth.

When Penny Arcade warns that its workplace might be offensive, they aren’t just whistling “Dixie.” (The song “Dixie” might be offensive to some people.) That’s one reason why the job posting generated perhaps as many gleeful, confused, and angry messages on Twitter last night as it did.

Krahulik: “I hate the idea that because I can’t stop being an asshole I hurt all these other amazing things.”

The other has to do with money. Penny Arcade is privately held, and has apparently not disclosed any of its financial data. The group raises millions of dollars a year with Child’s Play, a non-profit that uses videogames to “improve the lives of children in hospitals around the world.” But that obviously doesn’t go to its bottom line.

In 2012, Penny Arcade had a semi-controversial Kickstarter campaign to raise money to remove advertising from its site. The controversy stemmed from using crowdfunding, rather than, say, subscriptions at the site, in a public broadcasting model for a for-profit company. But it fit within Kickstarter’s guidelines and was very successful.

The company raised $528,000, and used part of the proceeds to fund Strip Search, a terrific, positive reality web TV show that gave comic artists a chance to show their stuff, and launched a bunch of people into full-time careers from the attention. The first $250,000 was meant to replace lost advertising income, but that’s hardly a full benchmark for earnings from the website, and that number was floated over a year ago.

PAX Prime, its flagship event in Seattle, brought in about 70,000 attendees this year, and takes over the Washington State Convention Center and much of the surrounding hotel space in downtown Seattle. Numbers aren’t disclosed about revenue and profit, but a one-day pass is $30 and a four-day pass costs $95. That could conservatively bring in over $3,000,000, not including payments from vendors.

Max Temkin says CAH spent $150,000 all in for the booth space, construction, airfares, shipping, and so on. The Fullbright Company (“Gone Home”) had a tiny space in the Indie Megabooth, a booth full of tiny booths, for which it said in a blog post critical of Penny Arcade that it had paid over $1,000.

Millions comes into Penny Arcade’s for-profit hands. And yet, Khoo says in its compensation discussion for the job listing:

…you should know up front we’re not a terribly money-motivated group. We’re more likely to spend less money on salary and invest that on making your day-to-day life at work better.

They are clearly fairly good at generating revenue for a company that the LinkedIn listing describes as a team of about 15–20 people. Perhaps they just aren’t good at making a profit.

Job posting: “We are quite literally looking for a person that can do four jobs…”

But let’s break it down. In reality, most IT jobs in most smaller companies combine many roles and are nightmares for all but the right person who can have an inner sense of calm and a remarkable ability to balance many thousands of priorities at once, while also leaping into priority situations at 2 a.m. on Christmas morning or after an 18-hour flight across an ocean or hemisphere.

The job description itself is well within the scope of reason (sadly), and I have known many people who have taken such jobs and some who are still in them. If you don’t work around startups, Internet-focused companies, or in IT, the job description probably sounds hellish. But, as Khoo writes, for the right person, this is the right job. For someone who is a videogame player and fan of Penny Arcade, this might even be a dream come true. (It comes with bonuses, plus medical, vision, and dental insurance, and they match 401(k) contributions to 2% of salary—but when can you take the so-called “vacation time” it offers?)

The problematic parts are an “offensive environment” and the unstated but apparent low pay—perhaps low relative to what someone could make for a similar position at a bigger company? It’s unclear.

Penny Arcade’s offices are located in Seattle, and Washington State Human Rights Commission has a lot of verbiage about discrimination and harassment. It’s perhaps unfortunate that Khoo used the words he did, as it parallels what the commission relies on as a formal definition of sexual harassment:

Any unwelcome verbal or physical conduct that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity makes the case more bluntly:

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Is Penny Arcade attempting to immunize itself against a human-rights complaint by stating upfront that it has an offensive environment? Even if the offense is general—”dickwolves” comics and T-shirts rather than inappropriate touching or comments directed at someone—this doesn’t eliminate someone’s ability to file a complaint and win an action.

It also doesn’t prevent a discrimination suit if someone loses out for a position because they state that they can’t work in an offensive environment. The latter is trickier to prove.

The money issue is less complicated. Penny Arcade either has an exceedingly thin margin, leaving it not enough money to hire enough people for its actual needs, or it’s bought into a philosophy of running so lean you can see its ribs.

This is simply unreasonable. In an established company like Penny Arcade with several mature lines of businesses and apparently significant web and IT needs, running lean means running stupid. If their single hire doing “four jobs” gets sick, has a mental breakdown, or quits in the middle of the night, the firm has no backup plan. I’ve seen what happens to “lean” companies that underhire. They have IT disasters, and some don’t recover, or are never the same. (Those stories are rarely told publicly, either.)

We could give credence to it not being a “money-motivated group”: looking at its projects, Penny Arcade doesn’t work to maximize returns. PAX Prime is popular partly because it’s an awfully good deal, and even with 70,000 attendees, the event could have more if it didn’t set a limit on passes. It does leave money on the table.

But in this job listing, Penny Arcade is effectively saying, despite bringing in millions of dollars, we have no idea how to hire correctly for a job critical to our company.

Job listing: “So yes, we run lean. Most of us would say maybe a little TOO lean, but being pushed to your limit is part of the job.”

Penny Arcade isn’t asking us to invest in them, and they will reap the reward or penalty of the decisions they make in listing and filling this job. We don’t pay the price. Some chump who takes the job does, as well as Penny Arcade for thinking it’s funny, when it’s misguided.

They unfortunately confirm some of the opinions many of us have formed around the people involved in the company. Through willful ignorance and a lack of self-awareness, it put its best foot forward—into its mouth.

Glenn Fleishman is the editor and publisher of The Magazine, hosts the podcast The New Disruptors, and is one of the writers of the Economist's Babbage blog. The father of two, Glenn won two episodes of Jeopardy! in 2012, and he won't let you forget it.


  • The IT guy who currently occupies the position posted a long and pleasant note on Penny Arcade’s forums explaining he’s not burnt out. He describes the job’s requirements, and as I note above, there are plenty of IT jobs like this. But he’s leaving the job because it pays too poorly for him to save enough money to pursue his plan to become a teacher: “It is true that I am paid below market value, but not so significantly as folks on the internet assume. I live quite comfortably on this salary, and while it’s less than I could make elsewhere, it’s not out of the bounds of reasonable expectation.” He says he was treated exceedingly well (and he’s not leaving for three more months).
  • R. Stevens simultaneously published a cartoon satire of the Penny Arcaders here on Medium. This was not planned.
  • Penny Arcade also used the “offensive environment” language in a 2010 job listing, before we had viral outrage.
  • Will Smith of Tested notes that the clause is standard in the entertainment industry, where adult language or offensive situations may be portrayed or involved as part of the routine work environment. However, it’s unclear whether such a clause could immunize an employer, as discussed (outside of the entertainment context) in Eugene Volokh’s “What Speech Does ‘Hostile Work Environment’ Harassment Law Restrict?”, 85 Geo. L.J. 627 (1997).

Photo: “Scramble for pennies—Thanksgiving,” ca. 1910–1915, Library of Congress.

Disclosure: I am not a lawyer. Also, I was in touch several times with Robert Khoo about coming over to interview the Penny Arcade founders about their work a couple of years ago. He put me off, certainly politely, and I eventually took the hint. I didn’t lose an assignment over it. I’m turned down for interviews and site visits regularly, although most people agree.