The Expo Hall at PAX East in Boston
The Expo Hall at PAX East in Boston

The recent PAX East video game convention that took place from April 11-13 at the Boston Convention Center was meant to be a moment of re-invention for the PAX brand, however, some of the controversial issues that dogged the event and its founders in the past seem to keep re-emerging. That didn’t stop some attendees from making headway on some of the gaming industries most pressing social issues.

The PAX series of conferences was initially the brainchild of Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, who were best known for writing a Web comic called Penny Arcade, when they started the conference in Bellevue, Wash. The event now draws more than 70,000 attendees, and, as some recent events have shown, the popularity of the conference can withstand some pretty intense controversies.

The Controversy

In 2010, Mike Krahulik set off a chain reaction of PR disasters when he penned a controversial comic strip that used a character who rapes its victims as a gag. The comic was criticized for being insensitive to sexual assault victims.  

Those who expressed their criticism online were lambasted on Twitter by Krahulik’s fanbase. Penny Arcade didn’t help matters when it printed  shirts and merchandise based on the offending comic strip. Krahulik also made remarks on Twitter mocking “Trigger Warnings” for offensive material. He also issued a non-apology, that added to the drama. (For a complete timeline of the fiasco, see here).

In the four year’s since the incident, the PAX owners seemed to have put the moment behind them.

However, the sore spot was irritated again this September when Krahulik said he regretted pulling the offending merchandise off the shelves while he was on stage at PAX West in Seattle. Company president Robert Khoo later echoed his sentiments, declaring that those offended by the strip should have been ignored, rather than engaged. The Penny Arcade founders then issued another apology with Krahulik seeming somewhat repentant.

Measures were announced for PAX East that signaled that those involved wanted to make the convention more inclusive for everyone. 

Attempts to Make Amends at PAX East

This year’s PAX East featured a Diversity Lounge, volunteer-run rooms  where outreach and social groups, like Toronto’s Gaymer group, could set up booths to provide resources for LGBT, minority, and female gamers.

Instead of providing a solution, however, the Diversity Lounge felt like it existed on the margins of the convention.

Save for the moment when Krahulik tweeted that he was going to be playing a card game at the lounge on Saturday, it remained relatively quiet and somewhat detached from the rest of PAX East.  

However, there were a handful of panels that did take on social topics such as race, women, LGBT gamers, and online harassment.

Attempting to Bridge the Gender Gap

A few of the panels did not fare much better than the lounge, many with audiences of less than a dozen sitting in rooms set up for close to a hundred attendees. The feeling among many was that although resources were being provided for some of the underrepresented members of the gaming community, the panels were too marginalizing to engage the average PAX East attendee.

“I feel too often there is very little listening,” said Joystiq managing editor and PAX panelist Susan Arendt of one of the problems with the more critical discussions at PAX East. “After giving my panel (on being a woman in the gaming industry), it’s clear gender issues and acceptance issues still need to be discussed. Too often it feels like everyone is just waiting for their turn to give their opinion.”

Arendt, a longtime gaming industry journalist, said she is often let down by the way the online discussions break down between both those offended by sexism and the sexists themselves. 

Karen Rivera, managing editor for Pixelitis, was on the same panel and expressed her continuing disappointment about how people cheered when Krahulik expressed his opinion that the offensive merchandise shouldn’t have been taken down. 

Calls to boycott PAX have been made since the initial offensive comic strip, but until this year, no one actually stayed away from the conference. However, this year, for the first time, Nintendo decided not to attend. Both Sony and Nintendo pulled out of this year’s PAX East for undisclosed reasons, although it has been speculated that they may have been disinclined to attend due to the controversies surrounding the event. 

Many attendees, like Rivera, separate the founders from the event, which is a must attend for industry folk. “To be honest, I begrudgingly made peace with the idea of coming this December. At the end of the day PAX is some place I want to go to. The creators are in a position of power, but to me, PAX means the entire community,” Rivera said.  

For a sign of how wide the gender gap is at an event like PAX East, look to the bathrooms, literally, the numbers tell quite a story.

Due to a gender ratio that, according to PAX President Khoo, was 35 women to 65 men, the Boston Convention Center converted six women’s bathrooms  to men’s rooms and the women’s room by the Diversity Lounge to a gender neutral one. Rivera was excited at first when she noticed a line at the women’s room, thinking there were a lot more females attending the event. “Until,” she said, “I realized that there were a handful of women’s rooms at best in the entire convention center.”

Trolling and Bullying Online

One female game developer, Zoe Quinn of the avant garde text adventure “Depression Quest,” had to deal with a deluge of harassment from internet “trolls” after her game was published.

“It got so vile,” she said, “I had to change my phone number.”

After uploading her game onto a streaming service, she started to get sexually explicit and anonymous rape threats, which unfortunately are par for the course for many female gamers who disclose their gender while playing online games. It got to the point where someone emailed her a link to a message board thread in which commenters were “planning to do awful things” to her.

“I took a screen shot of the discussion just to laugh with my friends, a lot of the people posting on that thread took issue with me being a girl claiming to be depressed when, according to them, ‘girls can’t be depressed, because a man will always be willing to help them’,” Quinn recounts.

The next day she began getting threatening phone calls from unknown numbers. “It was just some random guys who would call and threaten to do sick things to me. I changed my number and had to lay low,” she said. 

Quinn decided to make something positive out of the situation and polled the 300 or so online trolls, to find out what exactly their problem was. She presented her findings, alongside research from Patrick Klepek, senior news editor of Giant Bomb, at a PAX panel titled, “Why Internet Jerks are Not Going to Win, and How You Can Help.”

Quinn found that those harassing her were much more willing to engage with her than she initially thought they would. She found that their hatred thrived on a feeling of powerlessness, and that they didn’t think of the object of their hate as a real person but a concept of a person.

Quinn realized that, “haters thrive on the silence of good people.”

During his presentation, Klepek confirmed Quinn’s findings. “By staying silent we’ve given complete control of the internet to a specific kind of person,” he said.

“When you actually talk to the people who are the most vitriolic, and ask them a genuine question, you find that they are completely disarmed and will drop the act. They’re sort of taken aback that you actually paid attention to them,” Klepek added.

While informative, the discussion was a bit one-sided. Despite the panel being packed with 100 people, none in attendance were likely those doing the online bullying themselves. “When you put on a panel like that,” Klepek said, “the people who show up are not the people you’re talking to. You’re preaching to the choir.” 

Tackling Diversity as Well

Another woman who featured prominently in many of the diversity oriented panels was Dianna Lora, community manager of Dualshockers, a gaming editorial site staffed mostly by minorities with a focus on New York City gaming news. Dianna said that the women in gaming panel was the highlight of her career.  

“It was so very powerful to see a panel packed with women. It was such a good vibe,” says Lora.  

Lora also noticed an  interesting commonality among  some panelists she took part in talks with. “On the three panels I spoke at, three of the five panelists were Hispanic. We sat back and thought, whoa – that is actually amazing.” she said.

Before fully taking on bullying and bigotry the gaming industry needs more visibility from women, minorities, and members of the LGBT community.

At a Hip-Hop and Gaming panel, Gerard Williams, the editor in chief and chief executive of Hip-Hop Gamer, spoke about how difficult it was to break into the field of games journalism that was overwhelmingly white.

“I remember people used to always define me as weird,” Williams said. “Being black in this industry, you have a lot of people suggest or think that you can’t do this.”

Hip-Hop Gamer now has major partnerships with companies like Sony Entertainment and New York’s HOT97 radio station. 

Williams says that it’s only a matter of time before game editorial reflects the diversity of gamers and game development. “I’ll take the hits now so that we can all eat and make money in the future,” he said.

Dianna Lora agrees with much of what Williams said. “It’s an uphill battle when you’re a minority trying to gain that respect in this industry that has a very corporate way of viewing things,” she said.

She is hopeful that some of the issues that plague the tech and gaming world can be solved by more LGBT community members, minorities, and women taking things into their own hands.

“If you feel there is something missing, we have the power now to change that,” Lora said. “We can fill that void.”

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