pax

Penny Arcade, PAX, and “gamer culture”: a few more thoughts

I’ve written about Penny Arcade and the Penny Arcade Expo quite a few times before, though not more recently than about a year and a half ago on this blog. In fact, these old posts are a pretty good way to trace the development of my views on PA, PAX, and “gamer culture” (a nebulous term to be sure, but I think not a wholly meaningless one).

It would not be overstating the case to say that my opinions of all three things have gotten no more favorable since that last post. (Elizabeth Sampat’s Quit Fucking Going To PAX Already, What Is Wrong With You from last September is another worthwhile read.)

I’m still friends with a number of people who regularly attend PAX, some of whom are indie devs who exhibit there. I know that the “should you boycott PAX” question is a prickly one for some, and I want to try to be careful here not to blame individual choices for systemic problems. In any case, I think my views on whether PAX can be “reformed” or “improved” or “changed from within” have been clear for some time now: it can’t, because the people who run (and profit from, let’s not forget) it and actually most of the people who go to it either actively oppose any such efforts, or simply don’t care.

I’ve sometimes taken a harder line on things like this, and I certainly know and respect many people who still do — whose position is a flat “don’t go to PAX”. In the abstract, I think that’s the right choice, but practice is always messy. Ultimately, PAX isn’t going to stand or fall, or change or stay the same, on the choice of any individual to go or not to go. All the same, if you’re a ticket-buying attendee, I hope you’ll consider not going; the people in charge of the event do not deserve your money, and there’s a great deal else to do in Boston, and many offsite or after-hours chances to meet up with other games people who’ve come to town for PAX.

It’s important to remember that the problems with Penny Arcade, and with PAX, are symptomatic of problems in game culture writ large, which themselves are symptoms, or manifestations, or particular versions of societal problems. Most everything wrong with any of these microcosms is, ultimately, linked to the racist, patriarchal, capitalist structure of society.

But it’s a funny kind of symptom — we can see this in other sexist media, for example, as well — in that culture is a feedback loop, so the symptoms actually exacerbate and prolong the disease. A fever is a symptom of an infection, but imagine a virus that could survive at 98.6°F but thrived at 103°: the fever would only make the infection worse.

How do you fight that kind of disease — how do you diminish or break the cultural feedback loop? That’s a good question. If PAX does collapse, without any general improvement in gamer culture, something just as bad will likely take its place. To switch metaphors abruptly, audio feedback can be diminished by attenuating the signal at the input, the output, or both. Criticism of games, games culture, games media, and games events (and in particular of prominent events like PAX, E3, GDC, etc.), on grounds of diversity, inclusivity, and social justice has become much more vocal and widespread in recent years (meeting, of course, predictable resistance and backlash); and “counterprogramming” (though much of it is not positioned directly in opposition to the “mainstream” events) like Lost Levels, Different Games, No Show Conference, etc., also seems to me to be on the rise.

I don’t mean that to sound like blithe it-gets-better-ism; “things” are not “getting” better — many people are putting in real, hard work, often with little or no compensation, to make things better. I think probably the best way to “fix” the culture, insofar as we can, regardless of anyone’s individual decision on PAX attendance, is to try to support those critics and counterprogrammers, to join them in the work, or to give them what support we can, or to contend with those who try to tear them down in defense of the status quo.

Again, it’s no secret I dislike Penny Arcade and all their works, with considerable intensity. If their offices were shuttered tomorrow I wouldn’t feel the world had lost anything of value. I avoid visiting their website, and I definitely don’t go to PAX. But (if these are the only two possibilities, which they probably are not) I’d rather see a future in which PAX and Penny Arcade rumble on, perhaps a slightly smaller fish than they are today, in a somewhat bigger pond — but one full of clear, sparkling water and every kind of fish and water plant — than one where they float belly-up, but everyone keeps struggling through the same shallow, polluted muck.

Oh look, it’s time to talk about gamer culture and rape culture again.

I guess I don’t need to elaborate here on how I feel these days about Penny Arcade and their bicoastal, twice-yearly paean to conspicuous consumption, PAX Prime/PAX East. They represent some of the worst of gamer culture, they gleefully profit from misogyny and rape jokes, and their convention (increasingly, it seems) disregards its own “no booth babes” rule, making women feel less welcome and encouraging (presumed male) attendees to see all women, booth babe, cosplayer, developer, PR, or “regular” attendee, as sexualized objects there for men’s pleasure.

It’s distressing, then, but hardly surprising to hear that, at a party thrown by Mojang’s Markus “Notch” Persson, noted fedora enthusiast, indie-game-scene darling, and creator of the wildly successful Minecraft, a female game blogger seeking some relative solitude in a corner was accosted, harassed, and sexually assaulted by a male party-goer. Understandably upset, she fled the party, and when her friends sought out security, they were greeted with shrugs.

Some salient points:

  • The party was paid for by Persson himself, not by Mojang. It’s not entirely clear to what extent he organized it, and to what extent the party venue handled those details.
  • The party took place during PAX Prime, but was not an official PAX event, nor was it at the PAX venue. However, as it was a party thrown during PAX by a video game celebrity; it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of attendees were PAX-goers.
  • A notable exception: some attendees, distinguished (according to Ky, the blogger who was assaulted) by red wristbands, were women hired from a modeling agency.
  • Lydia Winters, Minecraft’s “Director of Fun” commented on Ky’s blog post clarifying that Persson, not Mojang, had thrown the party and that the models were hired by “the production company” to “have more girls there to up the girl to guy ratio. It’s a pretty typical club procedure.” (Winters confirmed via twitter that it was in fact her who posted that comment.)
  • It’s not clear, then whether hiring the models was in fact Persson’s idea, or whether he knew about/approved it. (One would imagine that, if planning were left to the venue or some other third party, given that Persson was paying, he’d at least have been asked to sign off on the expenses.)
  • Persson himself, about three hours ago, tweeted:
  • In an update at the top of her post, Ky emphasizes that she doesn’t feel PAX or Mojang is responsible in any way for what happened, and that in her view “The ONLY person who should be held accountable for what happened is the asshole himself.” She also states, “Also this post isn’t about nerd or gamer culture or blaming those cultures at all, this could happen in any community, at any party, to anyone.”

There are a few points I want to make about this.

[Author's note: I added a few sentences and split the next paragraph into two, because I wasn't entirely comfortable with its original tone.]

Perhaps predictably, I disagree with Ky that this has nothing to do with PAX or with nerd/gamer culture. She is obviously the final authority on her own experience, and just as obviously the man who attacked her is the only one who bears direct (let alone legal) responsibility for that crime. But from my perspective, one shouldn’t be too quick to discount cultural and environmental factors that make predators feel they’re free to operate in a given situation — and that make bystanders more likely to shrug, to see the warning signs of predatory behavior as “normal”.

It’s certainly true that things like this can and do happen “in any community, at any party, to anyone” — rape culture is endemic, and no subcultural niche is entirely free of it. However, gamer culture — fueled by Nice Guy (often shading into MRA) bitterness over high-school bullying and lack of “success” with girls (an historical injustice elevated to mythic proportions in nerdism) — clings to especially overt misogyny and objectification. One need only look at the vitriolic response to Anita Sarkeesian‘s proposed (now underway) “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” video series, the myriad examples at Fat, Ugly, or Slutty?, or of course the Dickwolves debacle, to see this in action.

PAX encourages and revels in these attitudes — reflecting the views (so far as one can surmise from their actions) of its founders and their core fanbase — but it certainly doesn’t start with PAX, or with Penny Arcade. Society’s misogyny has always been an element of nerd culture, and nerd culture’s tendency to be self-referential, insular, and distrustful of “outsiders”, makes it self-reinforcing. Critics, whether from without or within the subculture, are almost invariably dismissed out-of-hand as “not understanding”, not being “real gamers”. And people growing up in gamer culture — especially young men — have spent a decade, or two, or three, absorbing these attitudes with very little real challenge to them.

So inasmuch as gamer culture is tainted by rape culture, and PAX is one of the purer expressions of contemporary gamer culture, yes, this is about PAX. This is about the kinds of people who felt welcome at PAX, and what they thought they could get away with. It’s about the constant presence of “booth babes” at gaming conventions, and the still abysmal representation of women in mainstream games. It’s about the kind of people who think it’s reasonable to “up the girl to guy ratio” by hiring models to attend a party, because they think their (presumed male, presumed heterosexual) attendees neither possess nor need to be encouraged to develop any social skills, and thus are and will remain repulsive to women not paid to tolerate them. (There are, of course, far too many problems with this to unpack in a single blog post.) And it’s about what all this, taken together, in constant dosage over many years, teaches people who didn’t even notice they were being instructed: women are decorative objects, there for men’s enjoyment; they have no significant interests of their own; they are not skilled; they are not peers; if they are not attractive to men they are failures; they are merely things for men to desire and despise. (If you think I’m overstating, now would be a good time to go look again at those links a couple paragraphs up.)

Now, almost everyone — even in the comments section of her blog post, a rarity here on the interwebs — has reacted to Ky’s story with horror and disgust. But almost everyone (including Ky herself) has directed that horror and disgust solely at the individual assailant. It’s easy in this case, because “grabbing a stranger’s hand and putting it on your penis” is behavior (in point of fact, a crime) even most MRAs will recognize as beyond the pale. Oh, that one guy did something really unacceptable! He’s terrible, nothing more to see here. But given what we know about sexual harassment and assault, it’s highly likely that he harassed more than one person that night, and furthermore that he wasn’t the only one who did. How many of the models paid to be there put up with harassment and perhaps assault? How many women party-goers were harassed by sexist nerds who thought harassing the models was “part of their job” (nope!) and extrapolated from there that it was an acceptable way to behave toward any women at that party (again, nope!)? Rape culture teaches men that they’re entitled to sexual gratification from women, whether visual, verbal, or physical; hiring models to “mingle” with partygoers declares the same thing explicitly.

Ky’s assailant is the only case from that party, that we know of, where someone decided he was entitled not only to sexual gratification but to enforce his claim to that gratification with violence — and make no mistake, all sexual assault is violence — and that makes him a relatively egregious example. But that doesn’t make him an isolated, unconnected, free-floating Bad Person whose worldview, impulses, and actions come from nowhere and cannot be interrogated. His attitudes came from somewhere, and for every person like him who physically sexually assaults someone, there are dozens or hundreds who hold basically the same views, absorbed from basically the same sources, who “only” harass and intimidate and make gamer culture hostile to everyone who isn’t heterosexual, cisgender, white, able-bodied, and male.

Finally, here’s the kicker. If past incidents in gamer culture are any indicator (Dickwolves, Fat Princess, Duke Nukem Forever, Resident Evil 5, the Borderlands 2 “Girlfriend Mode” controversy, and countless others) there will be no lasting consequences. A few more people will be alienated from gamer culture, but the majority of gamers will brush it off, and continue to support the institutions that promote these attitudes. The gaming press — even the smart, progressive gaming press — will write about Penny Arcade and PAX and Gearbox and Mojang to talk about their press releases and upcoming games, and will not mention the kinds of things that happen under their various auspices. No lasting opprobrium will attach to any of their names, and the culture will not change. People, even smart, thoughtful, progressive people who understand rape culture and how it works, and work tirelessly to break down race, gender, and sexuality barriers in gamer culture, will keep attending PAX and buying games produced by developers with toxic, misogynist studio cultures. The overwhelming sense will be that yeah, that stuff was bad, but that’s all in the past. Like the security guard in Ky’s story: “Okay? What do you expect me to do?”

That seems like a harsh way to close, but I don’t know what else to say. A lot of people have been patient and polite about this for a great many years, and the results have been rather underwhelming. Nerd culture resists change, and perceives efforts to bring change as attacks, no matter how moderate, no matter how careful the phrasing. I think the best hope is to work to make explicit what it is the pillars of the subculture support: to label their behavior indelibly as sexism, and to finally attach some modicum of shame to behaviors that should always have been seen as shameful. Challenge harmful structures, don’t support them. Don’t let praise for misogynist companies and institutions go unquestioned. make all but the most committedly sexist nerds uncomfortable voicing their boy’s-club attitudes, and make it socially unacceptable for the majority to associate with the hardcore misogynists.

Update: Now cross-posted at Shakesville and The Border House!

Really, Gearbox? Really?

[Cross-posted at Shakesville.]

I had really expected that nearly two years ago would be the last time I’d write about Duke Nukem. I’d happily put the character, the franchise, and its gleeful participation in the worst traits of gamer culture, out of my mind. Until Gearbox Software announced they had acquired the rights and that the vapor-for-fourteen-years Duke Nukem Forever would be seeing release after all. So, thanks for that, guys. That’s just swell.

Since that miserable announcement, almost like clockwork, predictably awful globs of congealed misogyny have been flung forth from Gearbox HQ, splattering all over the gaming press. They held a press event at a strip club; they flagrantly violated PAX’s longstanding “no booth babe” policy (a policy which, it seems, contrary to how it was presented, was basically voluntary all along); and most recently they announced that the multiplayer capture-the-flag mode (a de rigueur component, of course, of any multiplayer shooter) would be entitled “Capture the Babe,” and that when a player had “captured the babe,” slinging the presumably-otherwise-passive female character over his shoulder, she would occasionally “freak out,” and need to be slapped (on the ass, Gearbox hastened to clarify, not the face! So that’s OK then) to “calm her down.”

…yeah. The aim of the game mode is to 1) abduct sexually objectified “babes” who have no agency of their own, but 2) who hysterically “freak out” at being bodily lifted up and hauled around, 3) who you then physically abuse to ensure their compliance, and 4) collect them as trophies.

I was going to write at more length about this, but Gunthera1′s excellent post at The Border House pretty much covers it, so I recommend reading her if you need more background or detail.

I’ll add a couple of other notes, however. As a bit of background, Randy Pitchford from Gearbox was on the “Irrational Interviews” podcast produced by Boston-based Bioshock developers Irrational, back in February, and when asked about the challenges of marketing games, he (I’m afraid I’m paraphrasing from memory, but I don’t believe I’m misrepresenting him) explained that seeing marketing materials for a game is like “when you meet a girl (sic), and you decide in 5 seconds ‘would I do her, or not?’” It’s obviously a total shock that a fellow like that might be insensitive to concerns about sexist content in the game he’s making.

And finally, Penny Arcade — having, perhaps, after the Dickwolves debacle, decided to prove everyone wrong who ever praised them for attempting to take a thoughtful approach to game-related controversies — have joined in.* In an echo of their earlier misrepresentation of criticism of the “Sixth Slave” comic, here they misconstrue the DNF criticisms as being solely about the slap rather than about using women as trophies — literally objects — ignoring that at least within the conceptual framework of the game enemy soldiers in the Call of Duty games have agency and contend directly with the player, and slandering hundreds of thousands of soldiers as “murderers” into the bargain.

It seems like for every lovely moment like David Gaider’s eloquent rebuttal to an aggrieved “Straight Male Gamer” there’s still a half-dozen episodes which (to borrow Mr. Walker’s phrase) make my spine hurt. This is why we can’t have nice things, game industry.

Addendum: Denis Farr pointed out to me on Twitter something I’d missed: evidently the game also includes cigarette vending machines labeled “fags”. So, uh, yeah.


*For those who may not want to click through, the comic shows Tycho, in an exaggerated “moral scold” posture, wagging his finger at Gabe and declaiming, “Did you know there’s a mode in Duke Nukem where you slap a woman’s bottom?” In the second panel, Gabe, looking bored, responds, “Did you know there’s a mode in Call of Duty where you murder, like, a million people?” as Tycho appears taken aback. In the third panel, Gabe continues, “It’s called Call of Duty.”

Well, I Guess That Resolves Things

Again, probably reading Kirby Bits’s post is the best place to start; I only have my own commentary to add on a couple of points.

One is that Krahulik has been out front, and taking most of the heat, on this issue. That’s probably by design; he’s always seemed more comfortable with confrontation than Holkins. And it’s left room for people (including me — I have certainly always preferred to think that he was in general a more thoughtful an empathetic person than Krahulik) to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions about where he stands on the issue. I think at this point, though, Krahulik’s behavior has become hostile enough toward rape survivors that Holkins’s apparent neutrality begins to look like tacit approval, or at best cowardice. Jerry, if you happen to read this, this isn’t actually a complicated question. You can just speak up. Are you for, or against, mocking the suffering of rape survivors? Having a voice other than Mike’s speaking for Penny Arcade, at this point, would probably be a good idea.

The other point, which Kirby Bits doesn’t directly address, is the dig in this section:

I’ve gotten a couple messages from people saying they are “conflicted” about coming to PAX. My response to them is: don’t come. Just don’t do it. In fact give me your name and I’ll refund your money if you already bought a ticket. I’ll even put you on a list so that if, in a moment of weakness you try to by a ticket we can cancel the order. (emphasis added)

Sure enough, Krahulik threatened to blacklist anyone so upset or angered by his mockery of rape survivors that they weren’t sure they’d feel comfortable attending PAX.

Guess I’m not so conflicted anymore. It’s a shame — as I mentioned in my last post, I really enjoyed going to PAX East last year, and I think that the work Child’s Play does is really valuable. But even if I’d still have a good time — which I very well might — if I went to PAX East this year, PAX attendance numbers (among many other factors, obviously) affect Penny Arcade’s clout in the video game industry. So my having fun would go hand in hand with helping to boost Krahulik and Holkins’s profile, driving more advertising dollars to their site, and increasing their legitimacy as representatives of video game culture. I’m not willing to contribute to Penny Arcade’s push to define gamer culture as hostile to everyone but heterosexual, white, cisgendered men. So whether or not Mike has actually put my name on the auto-cancel list at Penny Arcade Expo HQ, I won’t be going to PAX this year.

Child’s Play is a somewhat trickier issue. I worry that on the one hand, if people stop giving to Child’s Play over its association with Penny Arcade, Krahulik and Holkins will yell “look, they’ve got a vendetta against us and they don’t care if they hurt sick kids!”; but that on the other hand, if people don’t stop giving to Child’s Play over this, they’ll point to those numbers as evidence that they’re Good People, and so all the mean things those Nasty Internet Feminists said about them must be false. I think that I’ll continue to give to Child’s Play, myself, because ultimately it’s only an aggregator — the gifts are still picked from wish lists put up by the hospitals, and still go directly to the hospitals. And because even if Gabe and Tycho don’t, people like this woman deserve to be honored.

Why I’m Conflicted About Attending PAX East 2011

Kirby Bits’s excellent post at The Border House pretty much sums it up, actually. As KB notes on her blog, in the two days since that post went up, the “Dickwolves” merchandise appears to have been removed from the Penny Arcade store; that’s certainly a good step, and it deserves some recognition.

But it isn’t really very much — to, months after initially responding to criticism with dismissal, mockery, willful misrepresentation, and attacks, quietly stop trying to turn a buck by trading on rape culture in a couple of instances. (Especially when they’re still trading on rape culture, misogyny, and violence against women as a punchline.) It’s a step — and, again, it deserves recognition as such — but it’s also important to recognize that it’s only one, fairly small, step, and for it to be meaningful they need to follow up on it. If you hurt someone accidentally, and especially if at first you reacted defensively and insisted you’d done nothing wrong, doing something small in the way of redressing that hurt late is better than nothing or never, but if you don’t also make a point of being careful to avoid hurting them again, people are going to find it harder and harder to believe the “accidental” part.

I’ve been a Penny Arcade reader for over a decade (and yes, that means I’ve passed over a lot of problematic material without comment in that time, for various reasons; that’s not something I’m proud of), I attended and enjoyed PAX East last year, I’m a huge fan of their charity work, and I’ve offered praise for Tycho’s relatively thoughtful engagement with difficult issues in the past. So I would like to believe — and I do have some hope — that they will follow up appropriately on this, educate themselves on rape culture, and react more thoughtfully to criticism in the future. I don’t know how likely it is, but I’d like to believe it. (I mean, while we’re at it, I’d also like for Gearbox to have left Duke Nukem Forever to rot, so…)

So ultimately, I’m conflicted about attending PAX East this year. Some friends are going to be in from out of town to go to the convention, and Gabe and Tycho have always been insistent that PAX isn’t about them, it’s about the gamer community. I don’t necessarily think writing PAX off and conceding the space is a productive approach, but it also can’t be denied that Penny Arcade sets the tone for PAX, and at the risk of being redundant, just pulling the Dickwolves merchandise is far from sufficient, and while it deserves recognition as a positive step, it doesn’t deserve a whole batch of cookies or renewed unconditional support.

Of course, there’s still about a month and a half until PAX East, so any number of things could happen in that time to affect my decision on this. One possibility — I did this in the case of Talib Kweli’s new independently produced album, Gutter Rainbows, because I like his music and want to support independent music production, but was troubled by the line “life’s a bitch, it’s how you handle her” in “I’m On One” — is that I’ll go to PAX, and also give an equivalent amount to an organization like BARCC that works to fight rape culture and provide help and resources to survivors of sexual violence. On the off chance that any of my approximately four readers are feeling similarly conflicted about this situation, perhaps they’ll find that approach to be workable as well.

Quick Hit: Minibosses!

(While I’ve got PAX and games on the brain…)

I’m way behind the times on this.  Apparently, awesome 8-bit rockers Minibosses — whose performances were, I am assured, highlights of the already spectacular PAXen 2003 through 2008, and whose albums all tragically appear to be out of print — put up the entirety of their album Brass as free MP3 downloads on their above-linked website…about two years ago.

If the 8-bit NES was as big a part of your childhood as it was mine, the dulcet strains of their arrangements will have approximately this effect on you, with a healthy dose of \m/ thrown in for good measure.

Update: Minibosses’ Mega Man 2 medley, via YouTube, below the fold.

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Et In Penny-Arcadia Ego

I was very happy to be able to attend PAX East in Boston this past weekend. I had a great time, despite missing Wil Wheaton’s keynote and some of the panels I hoped to see. Penny Arcade is a remarkable phenomenon, and one I don’t think could have been possible at any historical moment other than this, or more precisely other than 1998 to 2003: that first half-decade in which, with a combination of timing, talent and luck, Jerry “Tycho” Holkins and Mike “Gabe” Krahulik turned a hobby webcomic into a successful business venture and into a focal point for the nascent gaming community — until it had reached a sort of critical mass, and Gabe and Tycho were able to use it as a springboard for additional projects.  In 2003, they launched the Child’s Play charity, which to date has provided nearly $7 million worth of toys, books, movies and of course video games to children’s hospitals around the country; and a year later, when it was announced that E3 would no longer be open to the public, they decided to launch their own convention, the Penny Arcade Expo.  In 2005, after noted anti-video-game crackpot and public nuisance Jack Thompson (this was back before he was disbarred) offered $10,000 to a charity to be chosen by the head of the ESA, and reneged, claiming it was “satire,” Gabe and Tycho gave the $10,000 in his name.

What I’m saying is, they’ve built a hell of a thing, and they’ve done some real good in the world, in the process of doing it.  They have managed to become sort of a nucleus around which gamer culture, or at least a subculture of it, is starting to coalesce.  The first PAX, in 2004, had some 3300 attendees; PAX 2009 was over 60,000, and it’s my understanding that this first east-coast incarnation of the convention was of a similar size.  Watch Wheaton’s keynote, and the sense of love for and pride in gamer culture is palpable; watch exchanges like these two (from just a single panel I happened to attend) and also easy to understand.

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