The Spectrum Of Gamers At PAX Australia

The Penny Arcade Expo represents almost every kind of gaming you can imagine. There’s tabletop, old school consoles, laser tag, card games, board games – they’re all there. But in June of 2013, something happened that caused some gamers to wonder whether they were welcome at PAX.

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This story was created as a radio piece, but we’ve also created a written version of the story below:

The Penny Arcade Expo represents almost every kind of gaming you can imagine. There’s tabletop, old school consoles, laser tag, card games, board games – they’re all there. But in June of this.year, something happened that caused some gamers to wonder whether they were welcome at PAX.

It all started with a Twitter post, made by Penny Arcade co-founder, Mike Krahulik. He found himself at the center of an online argument about transgender issues after he overlooked the existence of trans people. That is to say, that for some people your biological sex and your gender identity can be two very different things. Suffice it to say, people got angry. The day after the post was made, the Full Bright video game company pulled out of appearing at PAX Prime in Boston. The day after that, Mike issued a public apology and donated $20,000 of his own money to the Trevor Project; an organisation that fights against suicide amongst queer youth.

Walking into PAX Australia, there’s a sign that says “welcome home.” But following these events some people weren’t sure if this welcome included them. We spoke to everyone involved to look across the spectrum of gamers at PAX Australia.

Ben McKenzie is the head game designer at Pop Up Playground, who were originally set to run a panel at PAX Australia. “I’ve had reservations about the culture of Penny Arcade and the way they handled things like the Dick Wolves controversy and other issues that have popped up over the years,” said Ben describing his initial thought process, “but I kind of wanted to feel that PAX Australia would be different.”

Now the original story received a lot of media coverage when it first happened, but in case you missed it here’s the rundown. So a month before PAX Australia was due to be on was, as Ben describes, “when Mike Krahulik made some very transphobic comments on Twitter.” So Mike was on Twitter, talking about a new game “that was intended to teach women and girls how to masturbate.” And then Mike received this message. “Wouldn’t it be great if they made for all women; even women without vaginas. And he was thrown by that.”

The conversations aren’t fun to read. A couple of excerpts include: “Love the death threats. I think that women have vaginas. I think that you call someone with a vagina woman.More death threats please” and “if thinking that all women have a vagina makes me a monster, then yes, I am a monster.” Mike would later admit that he got angry and should have walked away. But he defended against being labeled as transphobic. Nonetheless, the event led people like Ben to reconsider whether they wanted to be a part of PAX. Pop Up Playground announced their decision to cancel their panel, citing concerns over the maturity of other panels and Mike’s comments on transgender issues as key reasons for their withdrawal.

“I agonised about the decision, personally,” Ben explained. “Should I pull out? Is that the right thing to do? Should I go and have a feminist, queer friendly voice at the event? But a large part of the motivation behind it was really we wanted to send a very clear message to people about Pop Up Playground that we want people to feel welcome [at our events] and we don’t want to associate with any group or event that might make people feel unwelcome or unsafe.”

Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins are the co-founders of Penny Arcade. In the last fifteen years they’ve created a hugely successful web comic, founded a video game charity and then started the Penny Arcade Expo. The press Q&A with Mike and Jerry started off with questions about staying in Melbourne and attendees keeping amused in the lines. But then at the back of the room, a journalist brought up topic of these games companies pulling out of PAX. “I know that they decided not to come,” Mike said, “that’s absolutely their prerogative. Maybe they’ll come back, I don’t know. That’s up to them.”

And then, for the next ten minutes it was all we could talk about. So I asked the question that seemed to underpin this whole issue: “I just wanted to get your view on whether you feel that this is a queer-friendly, welcoming place for any gamer?”

“I think it is,” replied Mike, “I mean we try very hard to make it that way. I mean couldn’t tell you; I’m not coming into PAX from that perspective. I can tell you on our end we try very hard to make it inclusive to everybody. There’s this sign when you come in that says ‘welcome home’ – we really mean it. We want everybody to feel welcome here. Regardless of what you think about Penny Arcade or the comic strips that we make or anything like that, PAX is separate and PAX is a place that any gamer can come and should feel welcome.”

But Ben McKenzie believes that the issue is more difficult to resolve than that. “I know that the organisers, particularly the organisers of PAX Australia, really do want the event to be inclusive. But I think they don’t understand that it’s not enough to put a big sign up saying ‘welcome home’ and tell people everyone is allowed to come. You have to actually make that happen.”

There’s a deeper question here. And that is: what does it even mean to be a queer friendly event and why does that matter? To answer this, I called in a friend: Dorian Ellis. Dorian is a queer rights advocate who has first hand experience with the subject matter, since they identify both as an avid gamer and as transgender. “I usually use queer as a shorthand,” Dorian told me, “because otherwise it makes me sound a bit long winded. But my sexual orientation is asexual, my gender orientation is female-to-male transgender and my romantic orientation is poly and panromantic.” We asked Dorian to explain why queer friendly events matter. Dorian began by saying, “well it depends on which perspective you’re coming to that from. For organisers and corporations it’s just really good for business. It shows you’re ethically reputable and that’s a progressive cultural impact. It’s also just more professional and mature.”

“For queer people themselves,” Dorian continued, “they can feel like they can go to an event and be treated with the same respect anybody else would get. When people who aren’t educated on the matter say insensitive things it can be really hurtful and dehumanising. And that’s just needlessly cruel. When you get down to it really queer rights are human rights.”

Now no one we spoke to argued against inclusivity, but there were differences of opinion when it came to where responsibility lay and how inclusivity is achieved.

Jerry Holkins, the other co-founder of Penny Arcade, had this to say during the press Q&A: “The show sold out, so what we lost by them not coming was their perspective and their voice. I think that the attendees could have been well served by their perspective. Generally speaking, I think that if there’s something being said that you don’t approve of, strategically, I think you should add your voice to the conversation and not remove it. I think that tactically speaking, I think that communication is actually the answer.”

In Jerry inviting communication, it also has the side effect of making you wonder whether companies like Pop Up Playground did the right thing by pulling out. “I got a lot of criticism from different people who disagreed with our decision,” Ben explained. “That was always their catch cry: ‘what are you adding by not being here? Why aren’t you here talking about it?’ There’s kind of two answers to that,” Ben continued. “First of all, we didn’t go silent. We made a public declaration of why we weren’t going and what our problem was and I wrote a long and involved post analysing the issues that lead to our decision.”

As the story of Mike’s Twitter argument spread, the coverage included Full Bright and Pop Up Playground pulling out of PAX events. “I mean I had more people read that blog post I wrote about my decision not to go than anything I’d ever written. That would not have happened if I had gone.”

Ben also added that the panel Pop Up Playground was intended to present wasn’t about issues of gender or sex, and he felt if the tried to shoehorn those issues in it would have done the topic a disservice. But even if think Pop Up missed an opportunity, whose responsibility is it to foster an inclusive culture? Does it come from the panelists or the attendees or the event staff – or is it a shared responsibility?

At the press Q&A, another reporter asked if the stance Mike and Jerry take on issues impact on the rank and file of the gaming communities. “We’re certainly not role models,” answered Mike. “We’re not even especially nice people most of the time. But as Penny Arcade grew we started to realise that we had this power. In sort of a Spider Man style: ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ We didn’t ask for it, but it grew and we have it. And we try to do the best that we can with it. So that’s where things like Child’s Play come.” To date, the Child’s Play charity has raised over $5 million and distributed toys and games to children’s hospitals worldwide. “We try to put as much good out there as we can because we know that we’re also making a lot of shit,” Mike said, chuckling. “Like Penny Arcade is caustic and sarcastic and mean and violent – and we recgonise that. But we also try to do a lot of good stuff as much as we can.”

Mike and Jerry jokingly referred to themselves as the mascots of PAX, but Ben argued that they can’t distance themselves so easily. “When I was listening to them answer that question, I think one of things that I hoped someone would follow up with is that honestly it’s never Penny Arcade that’s the problem; it’s not the comic strip that’s an issue. It’s how they react to criticism of it. When you say you want to put good out into the world, it’s great that you do charity work and it’s great that they run PAX and want it to be inclusive. But if the message they are sending as the people who started PAX is we don’t think you’re a woman unless you have a vagina – if they think they can say that to their massive audience and PAX is not effected by that. When for all their protestations that they don’t organise it, they go to every one. They are a massive part of [PAX.]”

After PAX Australia, I put out a call trying to find attendees who identified on any part of the queer spectrum. This led me to tune into the Technogaze program on Joy 94.9, which is Melbourne’s own queer radio station. Two of Technogaze crew did a report live from PAX Australia. During the coverage, the on-site reporters were asked how the culture of PAX appeared to them. “The tagline here is ‘welcome home,’” said reporter Avi, “I wouldn’t class myself as a full time gamer, but it still felt like coming home to me because these people get what I do and I relax.” Raena added, “it really is delightful. I have seen quite a few hand-in-hand same-sex couples”

One of the PAX attendees who was holding hands with their same-sex partner was Steve Wright of “I didn’t feel excluded; I felt quite loved,” said Steve. “People were not only accepting of who I am and my relationship with my partner – but also asking where he was which made him feel pretty good too.” Steve said that their partner wasn’t much of a gamer, so he only attended part of PAX. “He’s not so much into the gaming side of things as some of us are – but he definitely came out for the parties.” In our email correspondence, Steve wrote: “Not a single element of PAX Australia made me feel unwelcome in my relation to my gender or orientation. In fact, not a single element of PAX Australia made me feel unwelcome at all.”

On top of this, Joy 94.9’s Technogaze also reported on people with disabilities attending. “The one thing that I’ve also been amazed by here at PAX is the inclusiveness here for differently abled people,” reported Avi. “The volunteers who help run PAX on the ground here are called Enforcers – and they’ve gone out of their way to make sure that those attendees who might not get a good look in at other conventions certainly get their time here at PAX.” At Canned Geek we recently published a story in which PAX organiser Rober Khoo helped out a teenage boy in a wheelchair. We were however unable to get into contact with any people with disabilities to personally verify if they felt PAX Australia was as accessible as it appears.

But in keeping perspective, remember that these are just a handful of accounts across a crowd of some thirty thousand attendees over the three days of PAX Australia. Yet in casting out a net for queer attendees, I wasn’t able to find any negative experiences either.

Going back to the press Q&A, Jerry also added the following: “Again I think that it’s a choice you can make whether or not to attend, but we absolutely need the full spectrum of those experiences. And we get them by people attending and communicating. That’s the goal.”

Considering this, Dorian offered the following advice on how to be open to communication and education on queer issues. “I think compassion and empathy and respect are really important – and a little introspection,” said Dorian.

“Really prepare to let your beliefs be challenged,” Dorian continued. “You might have unwittingly picked up some assumptions and prejudices from society and they need to be unlearned. Before you make any grand sweeping generalised statements, just take a moment to critically analyse them and where they’re coming from. Simply just taking a moment to stop and check that you’re not actually using slurs or spreading a misinformed cliche can be really beneficial. Because in recent history queer people have been really scapegoated and othered, such as homosexuality being considered a mental disorder and also the undue fear and stigma surrounding HIV Aids which is still often considered ‘the gay disease’ – which is really untrue.”

“It’s going to be one of those things like allowing women to vote that in the future it’s going to seem like a no brainer. Being accepting of queer people and allowing queer people to have better representation in media isn’t going to take away anything in value from that media; it’s really only going to enrich people’s lives.”

Meanwhile, Jerry finished his comments at the press Q&A by saying, “I think that it’s unfortunate, and I hope that they’ll come back and put themselves in the mix.” Looking to the future, Ben hopes to organise a panel at PAX Australia next year that will discuss issues of representation, since he feels that PAX doesn’t currently have the schedule of a mature art form and wants organisers to take greater accountability for panel content. “What I want to do is make [PAX Australia] even better next time,” said Ben, “I want to be involved with that.” Ben also underlined that these issues are bigger than PAX. That regardless of how well PAX might deal with them, issues like inclusivity and representation are still developing within in the video game industry and other video game communities. “I would love to see people expand their horizons and start to learn about the problems that still exist in games culture that are reflections of the problems that exist in the broader world – because that’s where they come from.
These are not problems that are endemic to games; they’re problems that are often exacerbated and seem more pointy (for want of a better term) in games. But they are a reflection of broader society and I would love for a really truly inclusive PAX to not just being a safe space but to having those cultural discussions as well.”

This story touched on a number of issued that we only just skimmed the surface of. Dorian gave the following list of recommendations for further reading:

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