PAX is a behemoth. A monolith. It's nearly outgrown the ubiquitous webcomic that spawned it. It's an incredibly popular event, where tens of thousands of video game fans come together to celebrate their favorite pastime. But I think the convention still has a lot more growing to do, and in some ways is growing in the wrong directions. This year, I decided to skip PAX East entirely.
I should note that this is a personal thing. It doesn't reflect the feelings of Kotaku as a whole or anything like that. We've had people on the ground covering this weekend's PAX East convention in Boston, and there's been plenty of fun stuff going on there: Star Citizen's dogfighting debut, Transistor's release date announcement, lots of great cosplay, and heaps more. The current state of PAX, however, is something that's been turning off a lot of people, myself included.
You've probably heard the story by now, but just in case: Penny Arcade has a rather rocky history with tolerance and inclusivity, up to and including the notorious Dickwolves controversy - in which an offhand rape joke became a banner PA heads Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins rallied countless fans behind in objection to those hurt or offended by it - and a number of more recent gaffes/Twitter tirades from Krahulik. PA has apologized on multiple occasions, with the most recent coming in the form of a seemingly heartfelt confessional in which Krahulik owned up to being an oftentimes vicious bully. It was an exceedingly brave thing to post, and I applaud him for doing it. It takes guts to face one's own mistakes. It takes significantly more to do so in front of millions of people.
Apologies, however, do not always translate into meaningful change, and on that front all we can do is watch and wait. Penny Arcade has since unveiled the PAX diversity lounge initiative, describing it as a "resource for industry professionals and fans to interface in a setting focused on diversity, receive diversity training, learn more about diversity, and meet people from diverse communities."
Fair enough, but as many have pointed out, that also makes the space separate. Removed. Different. Granted, PA is not corralling all creators of "diverse" games into its signposted paradise, effectively creating a "zoo" for everyone else to gawk at. The goal on PA's end is to establish a focal point. One, they presume, might go there, talk to people, find out about other efforts within PAX to create a safe space for all, and just generally learn.
Maybe it will work slowly but surely, and maybe Penny Arcade will tweak it over time to ensure that everyone benefits (they've said in the past that they're open to doing so). Or maybe it will only perpetuate the notion that diversity is Other, a tiny soapbox island adrift in an ocean of stubbly faced white space marines and their desperately mewling damsels. Maybe it will also foist unnecessary pressure on women, people of color, and people who identify as queer, trans, or what have you to represent their group instead of themselves. Maybe the people who need to learn most will just avoid it, mistaking open arms for red tape—a base of operations for "those people" who are supposedly taking their hobby away from them.
I'm definitely interested in talking with attendees and hearing how it went this weekend. What the diversity lounge setup gets right and wrong, how it helps and how it needs to change. Because—and I can't stress this enough—there is something to be said for talking to individuals one-on-one, face-to-face about this stuff. It is, bar-none, the best way to learn and become a more empathetic individual. I've always considered myself an ally. I've always thought I "got it." But there's so much you don't consider until you sit down, plunge the moldy wax of preconceived notions from your ears, and listen.
I dedicated the entirety of my previous PAX to it, and I'll never view the convention the same way again. It's one thing to understand that people feel out of place on an abstract level. It's another to see, hear, and experience exactly why. Faces. Talking. Smiling. Laughing. Crying. Enjoying the convention as more than just tools for the education of more privileged folks who might not understand where they're coming from. Those need to be present at places like PAX. As ex-Journey dev (now of Funomena) Robin Hunicke said to me:
"Life is a struggle. We all have our challenges. Everyone who looks a certain way definitely doesn't feel the same way on the inside, and they don't get the same opportunities. As long as we can continue to tell the story that diversity is already present in the industry, then we can break the myth that PAX is filled with white guys who don't like gay people or women. That's just a myth. The more we do to collectively destroy that myth and bring the reality of our situation—which is that we're all different and we're all part of the struggle—to light, the better off the industry is. I truly, truly believe that."
It's true, too. I can count the number of truly jerky people I've met at PAX on one hand (although I've met plenty of other people with seriously unsettling PAX horror stories). PAX is an odd thing, because its identity is all at once bound up in and wholly separate from Penny Arcade.
Avoiding it on the basis that one doesn't agree with Penny Arcade or its actions, then, is valid. It sends a message that non-inclusive spaces in the gaming industry should no longer be tolerated—a stance Gone Home developer Fullbright very publicly took last year. That we want to see results before we step back into a space that recently had a crowd cheering over the idea that maybe PA shouldn't have apologized for the Dickwolves fiasco, shouldn't have pulled merchandise that essentially mocked rape survivors for being sensitive about the subject.
It is, however, also perfectly valid (and important) to attend PAX with the same mindset. To be there in person representing what you want to see out of that community and gaming culture at large. The community attending PAX is not necessarily Penny Arcade. It's people—bastions of understanding and civility, bad eggs, and all. A mixed bag of backgrounds, mindsets, feelings, and experiences, all united by a handful of hobbies.
This time, I've opted to abstain—to stay on the sidelines until PA has proven it can clean up its act. Maybe I'll try attending again in the future. Both are equally acceptable. Both are equally important.
That is the main reason I'm not attending PAX this weekend. It is not the only one.
What're Ya Buyin'
Once upon a time, I adored conventions. Wandering a show floor that looked like a Where's Waldo page of popular video game brands made me feel like I was in My Place, among My People. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, only the candy was free and also it was gaudy bags, tiny posters, and ads for other conventions. Then I'd wait in a line for an hour-and-a-half to get my hands on The Next Big Thing, adolescent limbs abuzz with excited static.
I'm older now. The glitz and glamour of it all has faded, and PAX's growth into an almost relentlessly (in some places) commercial entity hasn't helped. PAX isn't just about it games anymore. It's about selling them. Gaming has a tenuous relationship with advertising, and one could argue that I am at times complicit with it simply by way of being a journalist in an industry often focused on consumerism. I don't know, though. I get enough ads hurled at me on dashboards and websites and in free-to-play games. Gaming and advertising have—in many ways by necessity—become inextricably tightly knit. That's not a deal-breaker for me, but when it becomes the main story of a thing, when it obscures the art and human beings in question, then I start feeling a little grossed out.
Fliers! DLC codes! Quickly shuffle into this small booth so we can give you canned demo of our game! OK now leave immediately so we can do the same for the next group! I'm press. Companies view me as an extension of their marketing outreach, even as I struggle not to be. I'm used to dealing with this kind of treatment. But when a gaming community is herded around in the same quick-and-dirty, faceless fashion, something feels off about it. These people attend this event brimming with passion, and they get a glorified commercial for their troubles.
That's not true of all of PAX. Hardly. There are tons of wonderful, truly heartfelt events that go on ever-so-slightly outside the spotlight. It is, however, a disturbing trend, and I'm not sure if I feel OK supporting it. We're dealing with a lot of big businesses. I get that. PAX's alleged purpose, though, is to be THE fan-oriented convention. The place that's about people coming together, meeting each other, and experiencing games and gaming culture together. Can't business take a weekend off? Or at least, like, rein it in a little? Let's hawk wares and make deals someplace else.
More and more, however, that's the nature of this thing. PAX is enormous. Of course people want to advertise and sell their products at it, and that's the main purpose of many gaming conventions already. I suppose the off-putting part for me is watching something that originally proclaimed itself an alternative to those sorts of conventions becoming one.
I don't begrudge people for attending PAX in any of its multifarious, increasingly hydra-esque forms. There's plenty of enjoyable stuff to see and do there, and plenty of fun to be had. These days, I'm just not sure if it's for me.
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry. And I do mean everything, thus the name. It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.