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.
This is, of course, the part of the post where after praising my subject, I turn around to criticize it as well.
Gamer culture* has a lot to recommend it. But it is also a subculture that reflects — and in some senses amplifies — the hierarchies of the culture in which it’s embedded. Even though the population of gamers is much more diverse, whether along lines of race/ethnicity, gender, sex, orientation, cis/trans status, ability/disability, age, socioeconomic class, etc., gamer culture remains dominated by, and defined in terms of, white, cisgendered, heterosexual, non-disabled boys and men from their teens to their mid-twenties. Indeed, I fit this profile, except for being 30.
This imbalance between the changing makeup of the gamer population and the focus of the gamer culture (which, despite thinking itself, as you can also see in Wheaton’s address, a bastion of nonconformity and a refuge for the “weird kids,” still centers and privileges the same people American society at large does, and similarly ignores or degrades the same people US culture does — what a shock!) causes problems. Games, which have become a hit-focused industry in much the way film is, pander to the spurious “norm,” in much the way films do, because artistic risks also have a lot of money at stake; encouraged by both the games they play and the rest of the society around them, gamers who do look like me tend to accept what they’re given and not think too deeply about how (if at all) anyone who doesn’t look like me is portrayed. On top of this, gamerdom tends to hold on to a certain degree of resentment — against the “cool kids” who made fun of us for playing video games, against the crackpot Floridian lawyers who blame games for all society’s ills, against a stigma in the larger society that games are just for kids and we’re therefore all childish and socially maladjusted — and to react extremely defensively to any criticism, often without bothering to consider whether it’s a valid one or not.
I’ve previously discussed one particular instance of gamer culture’s ugly investment in established societal prejudices bubbling to the surface. In this post, I want to talk about a related issue — how well-meaning attempts to address these kinds of problems can be unhelpful or even counterproductive if handled with insufficient care — on a different axis of oppression — gender, rather than race.
On Friday night at PAX East, my partner and I went to a panel called “Girls and Games: The Growing Role of Women in the Game Industry.” PAX is, of course, a fairly mainstream gaming con, so perhaps I was expecting too much; but surely they could have done a little better with the panel. The panel consisted of a moderator who works for Penny Arcade, and (as listed on the site) one representative each from gaming community/news sites Spawn Kill and SFX360, a community manager from Terminal Reality, makers of the BloodRayne and Ghostbusters games among others, a marketing manager for Sanrio Digital, makers of Hello Kitty products, and a producer from Turbine, makers of Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online. I thought that, right from the start, it was a disappointment not to have any female game designers or developers involved, as though women’s only proper roles were on the non-technical side of the house.
I should note here that I did think many of the questions asked by the audience — including a blogger from The Border House, whose name I’m afraid I didn’t catch — were perceptive and interesting, and could have led to some valuable discussions of how the game industry and gamer culture could work to reduce institutionalized sexism, and make the hobby less unappealing to many women. But…well, I had a little notebook with me, and I kept a tally at the bottom. By the end of the hour, it looked like this:
Opportunities for Structural Critique
Not Missed: 2
And 2 and 33 is not really a very good record (I wasn’t, unfortunately, a fast or well-organized enough writer to keep track of what those opportunities were or which questions corresponded to which tick marks in my tally.)
Virtually no mention was made at any point of institutionalized sexism, or of the ways that banter and trash-talking with imagery of rape and sexual violence, even when male gamers who employ it think (or claim to think) it’s just all harmless fun, at best functions as a signifier to the demographic that is overwhelmingly more likely to be targeted by perpetrators of real rape and sexual assault that they are not welcome. Panelists mentioned that “sex sells,” but didn’t unpack the implicit identification of “sex” in that phrase with “women’s bodies as sexual objects;” and on at least two occasions a panelist insisted that the unrealistic, hypersexualized, mostly passive depiction of female characters in video games was equivalent to the unrealistic, hypermasculine, massively muscled, powerful and active depiction of Marcus Fenix in Gears of War, and therefore the former wasn’t sexist. There was much insistence that things are getting better, and much placing of the burden for continuing that improvement on girls and women who feel unwelcome in gamer culture, rather than on the boys and men who make them feel unwelcome.
Like I said, I know this was a mainstream gaming convention. I didn’t expect a lot of deep critical analysis, but even something as breezy and accessible as Daniel Floyd’s YouTube lecture from nine months ago would have been an improvement: at least Floyd puts most of the responsibility in the right place.
Chances that anyone who has anything to do with organizing PAX panels will read this post are, of course, slim. But on the off chance some such person does: it wouldn’t kill you to try to make sure you’ve got at least one panelist who actually works as a developer, and at least one who starts from an explicitly feminist viewpoint.
*I’m really just talking about US gamer culture here, because that’s what I’m most familiar with.