pointless ramblings

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.