Gamer culture(s): why I’m not at PAX Aus

This post is gonna get long. I’ve thought about this a lot, and now I’m putting my thoughts here for all to see. I’ve put some headings in; I hope anyone who reads it finds it helpful.

TL;DR – it’s not the panel, Mike’s comments or PAX Aus itself, but the larger culture surrounding Penny Arcade’s slice of the gamer community that’s the problem. I want games to be a mature artform, to join the broader arts culture and tackle issues of social justice and discrimination accordingly. I don’t see that happening at PAX Aus, and so I’m not participating. But Penny Arcade is not the only gamer culture, and I will foster more inclusive ones wherever I can.

What happened with PAX Aus?

I was going to be on two panels at the first ever PAX Aus event, a games and gamer culture expo run under the banner of web comic Penny Arcade. One I submitted myself, a chance for Pop Up Playground and some other interested parties to discuss the new kinds of games being made: pervasive games, urban games, street sports, the sort of stuff we make at PUP. Another I was asked to join, about taking role-playing games “beyond the tabletop”; I was going to talk about fusing RPGs with improvised comedy, something I do every month in Dungeon Crawl.

The full program of panels was released on June 19, a month before the show starts. Immediately there was controversy, mostly surrounding a single panel titled “Why So Serious?”, discussing whether critics and the media take games too seriously. The original description included the provocative sentence: “Any titillation gets called out as sexist or misogynistic and involve any antagonist race other than Anglo-Saxons and you’re a racist.” The description was cleaned up, and I’ve heard many of the panelists involved didn’t know that’s the angle it was taking.

There was fallout; there were responses. Some game blogs ran pieces in support of the panel’s original themes. The PAX Aus organisers stressed that panels were submitted by the community and not vetted; they apologised for any offence. But, for some, the damage was already done; after some serious discussion with all the participants in the panel, Pop Up Playground pulled our panel from PAX Aus. I and most of the other participants also pulled out of other panels we were in, too.

Mike Krahulik

A day after the release of the PAX Aus schedule, Mike Krahulik posted on Twitter about a videogame that teaches women how to masturbate; someone suggested it would be great if someone made such a game that also included women without vaginas, and he went on to say some pretty grade school things about what makes a woman a woman, and to tell anyone who uses the word “cis” that they needn’t speak to him. Again: fallout, response. Krahulik first apologised for being angry and antagonistic on Twitter, then posted extracts from emails he exchanged with a transgendered friend, and finally suggested he may not be equipped to handle this sort of discussion, donated a large sum of his own money to a LGBTI charity, and bowed out of any further discussion. But again, the damage was done: the Fullbright Company pulled out of the indie showcase at PAX Prime.

I won’t talk more about this, because it’s not my primary reason of pulling out of PAX Aus. But it does illustrate that the voices at the top of Penny Arcade, and the culture connected to the comic, still have the same kind of issues we saw back in 2010 with the “Dickwolves” debacle. It was also important because, if it hadn’t happened, the previous issues with Penny Arcade’s culture wouldn’t have been brought to the attention of participants who weren’t already aware of them.

That panel

It might not seem a big deal, but – especially revealed through the language used in the original description – I think it is. First, it’s important because this panel is the only one which touches on issues of inequality in games or games culture (there is a talk, too, but I’ll come back to that). This means the “Why So Serious?” panel is the main representation of the PAX community’s attitude towards these issues. Unfortunately, the panel embodies a common (and probably unconscious) silencing tactic: rather than asking “what do we do about sexism and racism in games?”, it asks “do we have to keep talking about racism and sexism in games?” It puts those who are trying to change the culture on the back foot. We’re not talking about an even playing field; telling someone a game they like is sexist is not in the same ballpark as making a sexist game and the message that sends to women who play games.

Women and others who are insulted and treated poorly by games, excluded from the culture of making them (see Christian McCrea’s excellent analysis of recent figures and the attitudes and biases that has created them) and by the “proper geeks” of mainstream gamer culture are not in a position of equal power. Asking whether we need to be concerned about that sort of discrimination and negative attitude is a question that can only be asked by those who have the privilege of not being targeted by such depictions. Asking “can we just all get along?” (or worse, in the original: “can we get off the soapbox”) is an attempt to sidestep change. I’d love for there to be a proper dialogue between makers and players about the content of games, to believe that they will change. But this panel’s discussion has been framed in such a way as to preclude that.

For games to be seen as a mature art form we must be able to ask the same questions about them as we do about films, television and literature; I can’t imagine a panel with a similar theme appearing in a writer’s festival, film festival or any other kind of celebration of an art form. I want to see games join the broader arts culture, to judge itself by the same standards as other art forms. Games are art; that “debate” is dead. What is ongoing is the transition to a mature, artistic culture – one that embraces social and political issues. The desire and need for change is there, in some corners it’s a deep and vocal hunger, but criticism is rejected, and indeed those doing the criticising are attacked, much more viciously than any videogame maker.

The revised description for “Why So Serious?” still mentions that “developers and publishers are professionally and personally attacked” – but again, this is a privileged description. Outspoken critics – especially women – bear much worse than any game developer will ever imagine, but this discussion is framed to exclude the rape threats and graphically violent images directed at Anita Sarkeesian; the violent and deeply misogynist trolling attracted by those who posted during the #1reasonwhy hashtag; the backlash and bile levelled against Jennifer Hepler for daring to suggest some players might like to skip combat in games, six years after the fact. (It’s also worth pointing out that this behaviour seems more frequent and extreme with games. Anita was only attacked after asking for help to make videos about the ways videogames get it wrong when it comes to depicting women – she’d been doing the same pretty uncontroversially with film, television and literature for years beforehand.)

Pulling out

I’ve been asked by several people whether, by pulling out of the show, I’m depriving PAX of a possible feminist voice, of in fact making things worse. I’ve also been challenged over whether I should have pitched a replacement panel to try and deal with these issues. And I seriously considered doing just that. I even came up with a title, a list of people I’d want on it…but it didn’t feel right. There are many reasons why. Not least among them is the fact I’m a white, straight, able cis-male; I possess all the privilege I’d be trying to challenge. There’s some credence in the idea that if you have a privileged voice the least you can do is use it to give volume to the voices of those without such privilege, but it still felt a bit off for me to head up a panel about how non-white, non-straight and non-cis-male people are treated in games and gamer culture. Certainly I couldn’t do it alone; and I even asked a few of the people on my list. But they weren’t going; they never felt comfortable associating with Penny Arcade in the first place. A hastily assembled panel with second choice participants wouldn’t do any of the issues justice.

I don’t think the organisers have created an event which is non-inclusive; I’m not boycotting the event based just on the description of the panel or Krahulik’s comments. As the Pop Up Playground statement says, those things just revealed to us that the culture surrounding PAX Aus is not that different to the problematic culture associated with Penny Arcade in the past. We weren’t invited to speak – we submitted an idea for a panel and were accepted. Most of the panels are community suggested; the organisers and the high ups at Penny Arcade have pointed this out in the wake of criticism. They didn’t title them or write the descriptions. So the program of panels ought to give us an idea of what the community at PAX wants to talk about; the community that created them is the community that wants to engage with PAX Australia.

Given that, is it telling that something like only 15% of panellists overall are women? That a clear majority of panels have no women on them at all? (I’ve no idea what the ratios of non-straight, non-white participants are like.) Perhaps they weren’t invited; perhaps they were and didn’t feel comfortable participating, despite the clear harassment policy and lack of “booth babes”, both things I certainly applaud. When you look closer at the PAX Aus program, you find a lot of near misses; panels that almost, but don’t quite engage issues of social justice. There’s discussion of games being criticised for being sexist and racist (“Why So Serious?”), but not of the racism and sexism in games. We have two panels critical of how other forms of media portray geeks and gamers (“That’s What She Said”, “Is There Such A Thing As A Fake Geek?”), but none about how our own medium portrays women and minorities. There’s advice on how women can navigate games as a man’s world (“Not Fair? Then Grow Some Ovaries and DO Something About it!”), but no challenge of the systemic sexism which makes the industry unwelcoming to women. There’s even one about the entitlement players feel and the impact this has on makers (“Gamer Rage – Entitlement Issues”), but nothing about the entitlement and privilege unconsciously possessed by white, straight and/or cis-male players.

Looking at all that, it’s easy to be left with a clear impression that the PAX audience hasn’t thought about these issues yet – or doesn’t want to. In such a climate, it’s not hard to see how people wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing them up.

This decision is about me and Pop Up Playground

I don’t think everyone should “boycott” PAX Aus. If you’re reading this, chances are it’s because you’re going, or are participating, or maybe even involved in running it. I don’t think you’re sexist or racist or homophobic or transphobic. But we don’t live in a world without sexism and racism, and those things raise their heads far too often in games cultures, so you can’t make a games event truly inclusive just by not excluding anyone. You have to take active steps to make the event inclusive and welcoming. We’ve tried to do that with Pop Up Playground, to make sure everyone feels welcome at our events; I try to do it at all my shows and events. We do it in lots of little ways: choice of venues, the design of our activities, the information we provide about them, the language we use. If there’s a chance – and it’s more than a chance, judging by the reaction – that being associated with PAX would make even one person feel less welcome at our events, it’s not worth it.

Personally, I am in a particular position; I’ve made feminist activism a big part of my life. I am (or have been) associated with a variety of events and organisations – Pop Up Playground, SlutWalk Melbourne, Cherchez La Femme, Can’t Stop The Serenity, PlaySpace Australia, Freeplay – whose agenda is specifically inclusive.  My responsibilities, priorities and concerns are necessarily coloured by these things, and so I preference intersectional feminist ideals – those that consider all forms of privilege, discrimination and injustice.

The decision is not without personal cost, either, though I’d be first to admit that the cost to me is far smaller than to someone like the Fullbright Company. Still, I won’t be able to spruik my particular nerdery to new (potentially large) audiences, I may not see good friends in town for the show, and I’ll also miss perhaps my only chance to see one of my biggest heroes of game design, Ron Gilbert – a man who, by the way, put seven playable characters in The Cave, and still managed to find a way to make exactly half of them female (and also put a pretty even number of male and female faces in his latest game, Scurvy Sallywags). I wonder what he thinks of all this?

Does it matter?

It’s only a games expo, some people will say. It’s just a bit of fun. It’s just boys being boys. It’s just a bunch of maladjusted nerds.

Those aren’t acceptable responses. They also aren’t things people say about a mature art form and those who engage with it. Those on panels decrying the media portrayal of gamers without examining the game portrayal of others are making their own problem.

But geek cultures do matter because – traditionally at least – they’re the dominant culture where people who don’t fit in with the mainstream can go and be embraced. (The idea that “geek” grew as a counter-culture for men seeking an alternative to traditionally masculine power out of their reach is perhaps at the root of many of these problems, but that’s another discussion.) Sci-fi conventions – good ones at least – are among the most inclusive places on Earth. If you have strong opinions of women in the works of George R. R. Martin, steampunk fiction’s glorification of empire and misappropriation of non-European cultures or the sexual politics of Russell Davies’ era of Doctor Who then it doesn’t matter if you’re L, B, G, Q, T, A or I, which gender and/or sex you might (or might not) have, or what level of ability or mobility you possess. They are places which have made the effort to be truly inclusive, even if they are still niche, still a mystery to mainstream culture.

Games matter all the more because in many ways they are the mainstream. Games are a dominating force in modern culture; they matter as much now as television or film ever have, and they will only have more influence in the future. We have to be able to have conversations about the content of games and the culture of the people who play them.

Luckily, there’s no such thing as “gamer culture”; there are multiple cultures of people who play games. And in some of them, these conversations and changes are already happening. Freeplay is one such place; the (in)famous “The Words We Use” panel of 2011 was proof that there is a games culture out there that wants to engage, to be better, to include everyone in the evolution of what making and playing games is like. PAX doesn’t feel like part of that culture, at least not yet, so for now I’ll bring my energy to those who are willing to listen; and I’ll come back next time and see if things really are changing, and be among the first to muck in if I think anyone will be on board.

I love games. I want them to be better. I want the cultures surrounding them to be better. And when I think talking on a panel at PAX Aus will help that, I will be the first to do so.

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Gamer culture(s): why I’m not at PAX Aus by Ben McKenzie, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

8 comments

  1. Sean Riley says:

    BTW, thanks for the post. I first heard about Pop Up Playground at the libraries panel at PAX Aus, and this is what saw me find this post. I’ve used some of the thoughts here to fine tune my feedback for PAX Aus and hopefully drive the force for change.

  2. Toll says:

    PAX and Penny-Arcade and games in general aren’t the problem. The problem starts much earlier, aim your sights on Disney… Look at what they did to the Princess in Brave..

  3. “Sexism is so entrenched in this industry that attacking it head on as Anita Sarkeesian and others have done is only going to get people to throw up walls. We’ve seen that time and time again throughout history. America in the 60′s is a prime example of that.”

    I may be missing something here, but isn’t the point about the 60s not that the entrenched interests threw up blockades, which of course they did, but that those blockades were overturned by concerted action and organisation? The civil rights movement marched, and took part in boycotts, and challenged discriminatory laws in the courts, and achieved sweeping reform. I don’t think that’s a good example of coming at things sideways, or of the inutility of direct action…

  4. Bec says:

    Thank you so much for writing this.

    I have worked in this industry a while for studios, but won’t any more, due to the level of sexism (in Australia anyway). The industry is an immature, maconistic one, and I refuse to participate it in any way (including all events). Instead, I’m ‘carving my own’ path, making games and utility apps alone. I don’t care for the (excuse my crassness) dick comparing culture of the game communities little meetings. I am a professional business person and I intend to be a part of the arts community at large (the mature sector), rather than this self-loving, testosterone filled games industry.

    Thank you.

  5. Shannon Dean says:

    I respect your argument but I think pulling out simply because there aren’t many panels that specifically state they’ll be dealing with feminism is a wrong move.

    Sexism is so entrenched in this industry that attacking it head on as Anita Sarkeesian and others have done is only going to get people to throw up walls. We’ve seen that time and time again throughout history. America in the 60′s is a prime example of that.

    You’ve got to come at it sideways. The panel descriptions that they’ve given are all vague enough that they can draw an audience in that might outright refuse to attend a panel that’s explicitly about sexism or racism.

    I know for sure that a panel discussing “Do we really need to keep talking about sexism?” would start with Jerry, if he was attending it, simply saying “Yes. Here’s why…”

    I understand for those that just understand intuitively what’s wrong with the gaming industry might find this idea an affront but if it works, if it gets people to listen? It’s worth it.

    I was shown this article during a conversation about your own post here and I very much agree with the lady and think it applies, even though she wasn’t specifically talking about gaming.

    http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2011/03/24/the-politics-of-queering-anything.html

    And a final point, this community is broken, sure, but it isn’t so broken that it can’t be fixed. You acknowledge that yourself in your closing argument. If I had the voice that you do, I’d be doing everything I could to change it, not the least because it’s one of the biggest gaming events in Australia, ever.

    • Ben says:

      Hi Shannon,

      Thanks for commenting; I was beginning to worry no-one was actually reading this!

      Your point about head-on “confrontation” is spot-on, though; tackling sexism or other contentious topics directly may well not be the best tactic. It’d be great if the “Why so serious?” panel avoids sidelining the issues; it could answer it’s own question with “no, reviews aren’t taking games too seriously; we’re not taking the criticisms seriously enough”. I’d love it if that happens – though as the revised description has taken those issues out altogether, I’m not too hopeful. But another reason I pulled out is that inserting stealth feminism on the panels I was in was quite a stretch; discussions about pervasive games and extending role-playing beyond the tabletop are unlikely to touch on feminist themes, and in one-hour presentations from four to six people, I’m don’t think I’d be doing either the topic under discussion or feminism any favours by looking for somewhere to shoehorn it in.

      The lack of panels tackling sexism and the other problems head on isn’t the reason I’m not at PAX, though; it’s the reason I feel the culture of the event isn’t as inclusive as it wants to be. As I mentioned, for the kind of shows and events I represent – Pop Up Playground and all the rest – if even one person feels uncomfortable about us because we’ve associated with PAX or Penny Arcade, it’s one too many. That came before any agenda to “reform” PAX. Our agenda is to make a safe, inclusive space for games – but we can’t make PAX Aus become that space, not on our own at any rate. We acted more to protect our existing space than to comment on theirs.

      Knowing what I know now, I’ll be seeing what I can do next time – when I firmly expect things will have changed. But I also stand by my belief that there are multiple games cultures, and that right now, energy is better spent building up those which are more inclusive, making them a safe and welcoming place for people who feel less than welcome at PAX. For example, I look forward to some level of involvement with the Freeplay Independent Games Festival later in the year.

      But I’d also love to see it tackled on a more structural level: diverse representation on panels (which requires work; you can’t expect it to happen on it’s own), oversight on panel submissions, education and public committment. Those are things that need to come at least partly from the top.

  6. Jay Bedeau says:

    Honestly it’s reassuring to know that among the gaming community there are those who are invested in the medium intellectually seeing that there is more to this great artform than the fanboyism and addiction which make the headlines.

    There is a cultural shift whoch needs to take place, like Jane McGonigal and Davod Cage explain games have a much more important role to play for EVERYONE moving forward but to accomplish this the community must no longer be so insular.

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