I've been on the fence numerous times about attending Penny Arcade Expo. I attended this year, thrilled at how many panels were discussing issues of inclusion and diversity in gaming. I had a wonderful time becoming involved in these discussions, networking with enthusiastic panelists, and basically carving my own safe space out of the massively populated convention center. There were small things that kept creeping in, though.
A few panels maybe underestimated their audience, sticking to the very basics, framing arguments for those not impacted by these issues, even going so far as to seem apologetic for our actions as pop and game culture critics. There were the people who attended the Political Correctness Panel who were there to start arguments calling "cis" a slur and defending their right as white men to say the n-word (which they did, more than once.) There was the time my friend heard a guy yell at a woman on the escalator, "SHOW ME YOUR BOOBS!" and then run off before she could grab an enforcer. There was the time one female enforcer was made to feel uncomfortable by a fellow male enforcer. Even though there were ways to anonymously report these things (which is wonderful), there was still that overhanging guilt of "creating a big deal" out of behavior that is widely commonplace and accepted still.
And the nail in the coffin, as it were, was the statement given at closing ceremonies this year. I did not attend, so my friend linked me to this tweet made by Patrick Klepek of Giant Bomb. Mike states he wishes they had never pulled the Dickwolves shirt from their store, followed by loud cheers in the audience. The basic message here being, no, they didn't learn anything from the exchange, and yes, their audience continues to support every action they make even when it involves behavior that goes completely against their proclaimed mission at PAX.
If you're not familiar with the Dickwolves discussion, here is a very extensive history, and here is a post on why many people feel boycotting PAX is the only way to curb this behavior. And in a way, I agree. But I also realize that PAX has a certain sway that is not going to be undone by those of us who understand how harmful their actions are. GaymerX is brand new, Geek Girl Con is much less reported on, as well as other conventions. So I definitely understand when people who disagree with the actions of the PA owners continue to host panels at PAX which focus on addressing this behavior. We still need a voice. But this year had the highest number of panels focusing on diversity and inclusion and women within gaming. So how could a closing ceremony make such a statement and be PRAISED for it? Because PAX, as much as they claim wanting to be inclusive, does not understand that they are still promoting segregation. You're fine going in this corner and talking about your issues. Sure, have this panel. But if you try to tell US that we are doing something wrong? No, we are telling you that we will ignore you and your concerns. Flat out ignore.
Here is the part where I explain to fellow Americans the difference between censorship and criticism. Bear with me, people who already understand this, I'll keep it brief. First, threats and personal attacks are never okay. You're protected under Freedom of Speech from the government forcing you to stay silent. You are not immune to criticism, as the PA owners seem to believe. In both the case of Dickwolves and of transphobic statements, it would be much easier to dismiss these things as ignorance or being sheltered by privilege. I'd accept this if the response to the criticisms was not to increase disrespect of not only the stance of those who dissented, but those who dared question them, as well. You make art, and that's great, and you're allowed to make statements within that medium. But you are NOT immune to criticism, and you're still expected to realize what sort of social impact you are creating as an artist. You don't get to turn in your social awareness card for an artist card, and if someone has an issue with what you have created, listen to them first maybe before deciding they are only trying to limit you. As a public figure or artist, you're still held to the same standards of respecting others, which includes people who may not agree with your actions or stand to receive harm from what your actions support. People who use the "but it's art" argument remain inconsistent. If they encounter artwork that depicts, say, violence of a sexual nature against men by women, or women debasing men, they certainly will not insist that it shouldn't be criticized due to it being art. They exist within a society that caters to them and their comfort zones, and if you breach those, prepare for everything they've previously told you to be thrown out the window.
The panels I attended discussing inclusivity all mentioned Gone Home, a game that was not at the convention due to the actions of the PA owners making The Fullbright Company feel PAX was not a safe space. These panels elaborated on why these actions are harmful but did not delve into the recent reason many of us nearly followed The Fullbright Company's example. Transphobic statements, made of either ignorance, malice, or both, help contribute to a society where misunderstanding trans* people furthers their endangerment. And yet, only two panels briefly mentioned the recent actions, touching on why they almost did not attend, but still wanted to have a voice. And I agree, having a voice is important. But why can't we discuss the impact of what PA does? They certainly feel that they can, why can't we? Everything PA does impacts gaming and game culture in some fashion, so why is it off limits? I feel that as much as we are saying amazing things to help encourage better representation of everyone in gaming, we are still not hitting with everything we have. We are told to hold our tongues when what we do risks to make those in the socially reinforced position uncomfortable. This is regardless of how many things they do that go even further than infringing on our comfort but also serve to contribute to beliefs which cause us harm. When do we stop saying the stuff everyone already knows, framing it for people who don't care to listen to us in the first place? When do we actually address the silencing tactics of those who claim to want to help us?
Mike went on to say that he has learned things, but only in respect to how he is creating trouble for his employees, not in relation to the toxicity of his statements toward marginalized groups. He even continues to excuse this behavior by saying he "hopes" it doesn't happen again, but it's just "how he is." This is proof that he only cares about the people involved in PA, not the people he might be impacting outside of this by negating their importance. Even in clarifying the statement with Kotaku in the article here, they still try to make the issue about censorship, which it NEVER was. By reframing the issue as "Penny Arcade was being censored" as opposed to, "Penny Arcade unwittingly created triggering content, failed to listen to criticism, and instead generated even more harmful environments by silencing those who respectfully disagreed with them" you are erasing the statements of those who had the courage to speak up against their actions.
How do we let people know this erasure of entire segments of the community needs to stop? As far as I can tell, we need to start letting the media and game companies know how we feel. They only thing that PA responds to is the threat of vendors and exhibitors not attending, so this is the best place to be heard. Let the game companies know what they are supporting and representing by attending. Tell them how it harms us, and we don't agree with it. Let media know that there is another aspect to game culture that impacts a very large portion of the gaming population. Tell them we are marginalized due to bullying and a lack of voice and coverage. And let Penny Arcade know, as well. Tell them that just saying they want to create a safe space for inclusion doesn't DO anything if what they are promoting as artists works to undermine that very cause.
I'm not saying everyone should boycott. We all have varying positions of ability to do so. I'm telling everyone to speak up! SPEAK. UP. Really. Even if you're an ally and not directly impacted by these things. DO IT. Because the more we call out this behavior and refuse to accept it, the less acceptable it becomes on a much larger scale. My goal, along with many others who feel this way, is not to bankrupt PA for a few mistakes or even for those at the top who consistently disregard the safety of others. The goal is for people to LEARN from this and to move past the allowance of these detrimental behaviors by not accepting them. PA is not the perfect model for inclusive communities, but they can be made an example. They can show how refusing to understand those impacted by damaging beliefs has consequences, is not acceptable, and can be addressed without creating further harm. We can make PAX a safe space, but only if everyone, including those at the top, is consistent with this cause.
- Published in All Games Blog