Full disclosure: On a personal level, I’ve been boycotting Penny Arcade and affiliated properties since Mike Krahulik’s statements in June, and stated as much in an open letter back then. It’s my feeling that I’ve not let this conflict with my duties as Social Media Director for GAB though, as I’ve stayed true to our mission of education and outreach. I’ve also been sure to pass anything Penny Arcade related through GAB channels for approval, so as to avoid a personal skew when commenting or posting. Besides, it’s very rare to find a closed door at GAB, and I would very much like to consider myself a Penny Arcade fan again, at some point in the future, when I’m comfortable with all that’s associated with.
In Sam’s previous opinion piece, he touched on the debacle that capped off PAX this year. There’s since been an apology issued by Mike Krahulik. I’m not going to deconstruct that apology, or otherwise point out where I think his language deviates from his intent. If that really interests you, you’ve probably already read something like it from better writers than I, and we’ve probably already linked them by the time this gets posted. With the apology made, this is more indented as a follow-up to Sam’s piece, plotting out how Penny Arcade should go about engaging from this point on.
It’s our goal with this article to reach as many people as possible, but specifically those that feel they’re antagonized by social justice advocates like ourselves. Consider this article one of those open doors. We want you to understand why people are bothered, and how you probably aren’t a bad-guy, but can be part of a problem you may have been contributing to without knowing it.
As a result of the above, I won’t be lecturing. I won’t be using terms like male gaze, cis-sexism, privilege, or even rape culture. These words and many like them are powerful tools, and I hope this piece becomes a gateway to newcomers exploring and using them in a constructive manner, but one person’s tool is another’s weapon, and as such I understand how some feel they’re divisive, and only used to belittle and exclude. I can assure you that’s not the case, but let’s put that aside for the moment.
As far as the “Sixth Slave” comic, the reactions to it, the merchandising, and any of the twitter exchanges that have happened since are concerned, I won’t be touching on them either. This isn’t critique; it’s moving forward.
What’s to move forward from? Stay with me here. This is about the very real sense of feeling unsafe and not welcome in spaces like PAX. Even if you feel the threat of danger is an illusion, please understand how strong fear is. In the instance of women feeling unsafe around men, it’s often based on experience. That’s not irrational; it’s a survival mechanism. Be it meant to protect oneself from a potentially dangerous encounter, or avoid being reminded of previous encounters, this is to be taken seriously.
Your personal intent really doesn’t matter when you or those around might be seen as a potential threat to somebody. I’m 6’1”, with broad shoulders, and unless I wear ridiculous shades, style my hair, and wear light clothing, I can look intimidating as hell. I’m also a pussy-cat, but the old ladies that avoid sitting near me on buses don’t know that.
Fill an entire auditorium with dudes who look like me, who cheer when they hear something that makes a lot of women uncomfortable, throw in the odd catcall and unwanted sexual advance, cover hundreds of monitors with half naked women rendered with jiggle physics, on a loop, and then interrogate someone who spent three months on a costume about the validity of their fandom, and you’re just barely scratching the surface of why a woman would not feel welcome at a gaming convention.
That’s what we want to move forward from. So, how do we even do that?
- Playtime’s over. Be a role model.
The fact that you’re reading this means the creators of Penny Arcade have a great deal of respect and influence. There’s no debate there. The issue here, is how Mike has mentioned more than once that he has had no interest in being a role model. We don’t all get what we want though, and it’s part of the trade-off in being the foundation of a source of critique and satire read by millions, a charity that raises just as much, and a convention founded on the ideal of opening up game expos to everybody.
I’m not saying you have to completely grow up, and that you can’t make dick and fart jokes anymore. You just can’t be a dick. You need to lead by example, expect the con-goers to do the same, and lay down the law when they don’t. A well placed “Hey man, that’s not cool”, coming from Mike or Jerry, would have some serious stopping power. It’s easy for someone like me to be dismissed when saying things like that, but nobody’s going to question Gabe and Tycho, and it may get some people thinking as well. The point is: whether you want to be a role model or not, you are one — it’s up to you what you do with that influence.
- Do what you say. Say what you mean.
PAX touts itself as being welcome to everyone, and it’s admittedly made great strides compared to other conventions. The Enforcers are largely lauded and respected for making attendees and exhibitors feel welcome, the booth babe policy tries to make sure women don’t immediately feel objectified on the floor, and there are well publicized cases of more visible harassment resulting in bannings. It’s bothersome then, when a considerable portion of people say they feel unsafe and unwelcome, and the object of that apprehension is met with cheers and applause.
It doesn’t matter what you find funny or where you feel the lines of taste and free speech intersect; the PAX that welcomes all, and kicks people out for being jerks, can’t be reconciled with the PAX that doesn’t immediately follow even unintended intimidation with corrective language or actions, and places old conversations we were promised were over, above the sense of safety of others.
Mike and Jerry’s language and actions need to reflect PAX’s values, and they need to be vocal about it. Very vocal. Rosie from MMAS has a great proposal, in which Mike would record pre-scripted PSAs. As a bonus, the Penny Arcade team have the benefit of already being able to expertly write for the intended audience. There are some things that seem too obvious to say, but that’s just the problem. Some people have never been told, by a person they respect, that their behavior is unacceptable. Some need to be told not to stare at a woman’s breasts. Some need to be told they can’t just touch a cosplayer. Some actually need to be told not to rape. Seriously.
- Represent all of PAX, not just the “real” PAX.
There’s a certain divide at events like PAX, between all the talk of shiny new games, and the talk of everything else. When a panel tackles anything outside of specs, features, or dev Q&As, it’s seen as being on the fringe. People are thankful just to have a venue, but it’s easy to get the sense that you’re more tolerated than welcomed.
Mike and Jerry are busy guys, and it would be mad to think that they can sit in on every panel, but taking part in a panel on inclusivity would send just the message that PAX’s spirit is supposed to exude. These panels, while great, are often preaching to the choir. With the con founders on hand, they could be made more appealing to the broader PAX audience, and be a much more educational and entertaining experience. It would send the message that the presence of such a panel isn’t just approved, but endorsed.
As a con-goer, you should challenge yourself to attend one of these panels too, and don’t be afraid to ask questions! You’d be surprised by what you can learn.
- Brevity is the soul of wit, but we really need the rules to be smart instead. The current rules for PAX are comprised of six items total. They cover all the major stuff that should be self evident, but what’s really lacking is a sort of mission statement. This is hinted at all the time when people, myself included, talk about the “spirit” of PAX, or how it’s intended as a safe space, but it’s not actually written down. I won’t argue that this leaves certain things up to interpretation, but a more verbose description of exactly what kind of environment PAX wants to nurture would do well to shape behavior and keep the organizers and participants on a common baseline. It also leads into the next point.
- Make people feel welcome by making people feel unwelcome.
PAX is a great idea, but when you generate the kind of numbers it does, you’re bound to foster some idiots, jerks, and pervs — no question. These are the people that need to be made to feel unwelcome. They are there specifically to ruin the experience for others. Policy alone doesn’t cut it. Enforcers don’t cut it. The buddy system doesn’t cut it.
There needs to be an overarching culture of acceptance and positivity, to the point that these people simply stop coming. If the last few days online are any indication, the only shortage that PAX will be looking at is women. Say what you will about all the events that transpired, but take a step back and think for a moment: do I really want to be a part of a convention that is actually driving women away? No? Then help fix it.
When I was a kid, and I fall within the age bracket of the average gamer, there was nothing cool about video games or the people who played them. Seriously, Johnny Arcade was the coolest gamer we ever saw. Gamers had to stick together, and I’m happy that getting together to share in this passion is something that stuck around, but somewhere along the line, we seem to have forgotten about the path that took us here.
We’ve managed to make ourselves into these fascinating, super specialised tribes. We’ve become experts on rag-doll physics, starship schematics, medieval siege weapons, re-spawn frequencies, non-canon story lines, costuming, digital brush techniques, programming, sound design, and any other bizarre little obsession you can think of. Wouldn’t it be silly if we learned all of these things, only to be seen as bullies from both outside and within?
We can clean up this space. We can move forward. It’s just going to take a little time, and we’re going to need your help.