Taking PAX Back from the Trolls

I spent Labor Day weekend in Seattle at my first-ever convention: PAX, a gaming convention hosted by Penny Arcade.  I had my reservations about going, partly because I was going to cosplay for the first time and partly because PAX has something of a sordid history, which I’ll get into below.

But first, my costume:

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It wasn’t excellent, but it looked pretty cool.  Brittneigh loaned me makeup and gave me costume feedback, and Kevin helped me out all day by keeping the stupid laces on the stupid gauntlets tied.

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Overall, I felt like a badass, which was my main goal.  I wanted to wear something that made me confident when I strutted through this potentially terrifying expo.  (It helped that my friend went as an excellent Lara Croft, so she deflected most of the attention.  I am 99% okay with this – much as I would have loved a few more compliments, it looked like it was getting annoying to be frequently stopped for photos.)

Personally, I had a good experience.  It’s kind of sad that the bar for enjoying PAX is set at “not getting harassed,” by hey, I met that mark.  I attended a couple panels that were entertaining, if not enlightening.  I was pleased by how many panels were about the gaming community becoming more inclusive, even if I didn’t get to attend many of them.  I got to see some sweet game trailers, watch some demos on the new consoles, and try out a bunch of games.  I returned home with tons of codes for MMORPGs I’m never going to play, a special-edition Cards Against Humanity pack, and a short list of indie games I want to track down.

Then I found out that the Penny Arcade guys made a stupid comment that’s derailed the entire experience.

Three years ago, Penny Arcade made a stupid joke about rape in one of their comics.  People let them know a joke like that was not okay, and the Penny Arcade guys, instead of considering the possibility that they may have done something wrong, promptly made it worse.  Like, “make merchandise featuring the rape joke” worse.

Eventually, after boycotts and much online arguing, PA pulled the merchandise.  I agreed to go to this year’s PAX thinking hey, maybe we’ve all learned something by now, three years later.  After all, this year offered sixteen diversity- and sexism-themed panels, including three related to LGBT gamers and five for women.  Overall, the expo had a pretty big emphasis on inclusion and breaking down stereotypes, whether it’s the “fake geek girl” or the gay gamer or female gamers and characters.

But one of the Penny Arcade guys just couldn’t keep his mouth shut and announced that he regrets pulling the merchandise based on a rape joke.

And people cheered.

It’s baffling to me that the guys who created this multi-city organization and curate all these booths and panels can still be so incredibly dense.  Mike “Gabe” Krahulik, one of the PA artists and the source of most of the stupidity, including the above comment, has admitted that he’s “very good at being a jerk.”  And really, it seems like being a jerk is the only reason he would have bad to bring the three-year-old dickwolves incident back into the spotlight.  For all his fame and authority, for all his responsibility as a media creator, he can’t keep himself away from the podiums from which he’s so frequently said such hurtful and idiotic things.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t had much motivation to do so.  Like I said, people cheered and agreed with him when he said that he regretted not continuing to sell rape-joke-themed merchandise.  Tens of thousands of people go to PAXes across the country, and apparently at least a few of them remember that one time when they were denied the opportunity to buy a particular t-shirt.  They spend lots of money.  Tons of big-name game companies participate.  PAX is huge, popular, and provides absolutely no incentive for Krahulik and his peers to check their language or the messages they send.

Penny Arcade’s “fans” – the ones who want to bring back the dickwolves and whose behavior requires the existence of sexual harassment policies at these events – are trolls, simple as that.  They exist to stir up controversy, and as the vocal minority, they both ensure they get their controversy and guarantee a continuation of behaviors that lead to controversy.  They legitimize the PA artists’ hurtful messages, and when the artists don’t use their position of authority to stop it – like, say, telling the cheering creeps to stop cheering in support of a rape joke – that, in turn, legitimizes the trolls.  They build themselves into a gleeful self-perpetuating cycle of adolescent obnoxiousness that hurts some people and alienates everyone else.

“Don’t feed the trolls” is tossed around to discourage online commenters from trying to pick a fight with trolls, because those fights can’t be won.  But real-life trolls can be defeated.  They attend PAX, they speak on panels, they wander the floor and try out games, and our money benefits and encourages them.  Many of the articles I link to here beg people to boycott PAX, which can be a good solution – but it might not be everyone’s solution.

Too often, boycotts are ignored or pushed aside.  “Gone Home” is an indie game that multiple members of the gender diversity panel I attended referenced as a great example of an inclusive game with a beautifully-told story.  I didn’t realize at the time that they were talking about a game whose developers chose not to present their game at PAX because “Penny Arcade is not an entity that [they] feel welcomed by or comfortable operating alongside.”  “Gone Home” was mentioned multiple times at the panel, but no one brought up the decision to sit out of PAX, and I think that would have been a valuable discussion.

A critically-acclaimed indie game featuring a lesbian protagonist was essentially the victim of bullying, and no one said a word.  It’s not enough, unfortunately, that “Gone Home” wasn’t present – it’s that their absence wasn’t noticed.

I think if we want change, we need to keep ourselves present.  “Gone Home” did cause a stir by choosing to boycott, but that stir didn’t reach as far as the actual event.  I would have loved to see an empty booth where “Gone Home” should have been.  I would have loved to hear a panelist share their disappointment that a game they liked couldn’t be present at PAX thanks to the hosts’ attitudes.  Gabe and Tycho will just keep behaving as they always have if we don’t call them out at every opportunity.  Maybe the way to do that is a boycott, maybe it’s not.

To those of you who want to give up and write off Gabe and PAX as a lost cause: please don’t.  Or, less politely but more how I’ve been feeling this morning: f*** that.  Put on your Wonder Woman gauntlets and punch that in the face, because they can’t win.  We can’t yield that space to them.  It’s ours too, and if we don’t fight for it, it’ll be forgotten.  We can have our own spaces, like Seattle’s Geek Girl Con, but we can’t let ourselves be segregated like that.  Keep fighting, whether it’s through writing or boycotting or picketing or buying certain games or supporting certain writers.  Keep fighting, please.

I don’t know if I’ll be going to PAX again, but I’m definitely going to try “Gone Home.”  That’s where my money is going to go, and that’s how I’ll be fighting.

EDIT: Krahulik responds and I’m 98% satisfied.

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4 thoughts on “Taking PAX Back from the Trolls

  1. I’ve been saving this post in my Feedly because I wanted to take the time to engage with it more closely, but I feel like all the words have tumbled out of my brain lately so I’m not very coherent. I love the togetherness feeling of conventions, but I hate that so many of them do not work to be a safe space for everyone who might not want to attend–especially when invited guests behave badly (harassing attendees, etc.) and the organizers hush it up to prevent bad press. I am frequently disappointed in the behavior of the Penny Arcade creators. Not surprised, but it’s still crummy to see a couple of guys with such influence act ignorant and bratty when folks call them out on their sexist/transphobic language. After reading the “clarification,” I’m not sure that I buy it. The apology is as it should be, but I’m not convinced that either of them have actually learned much about privilege or rape culture in the grand scheme of things. I guess we’ll see.

    • It is really disappointing, especially given the progress PAX as a convention has made (like no booth babes). I think his apology – and I think this is agreeing with you – while well-written and hitting most of the key points, still makes it sound like he believes the problem is how PA responds to criticism, and not their own understanding of the issues they’re criticized about. I believe he’s making progress, but it would be lovely if he could keep his mouth shut more often.

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