Let’s Agree: The PAX Problem

With PAX East just past, it’s clear that the steps to clear the toxic air the show has gathered has not succeeded- not yet, anyway. With Colin concerned, and Ben frustrated, we decided to make our discussion about it public.

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Given previous controversies associated with Penny Arcade and PAX, is it reasonable for average con attendees to continue supporting PAX?

Colin:

The burden isn’t on people going to the con to have a good time to go to a bad convention just to make a social statement. That’s a three day commitment, and dammit, for most people these cons are a once-a-year chance to let loose and have fun. PAX needs to get better, for sure, but that’s not the responsibility of con-goers. Right now, there is no good alternative- much love to the GaymerX team and what they’re trying to do. Emphasis on “trying”- the team just announced that they’re giving up because it’s not working. I don’t think that’s because the community conspired against them to forward misogyny and transphobia- I think that’s because the show just wasn’t that good in reality. I really wish it was.

The fact is, PAX was created at the right time, in the right place, to become a juggernaut. It’s a massive, sprawling thing now, and it’s kinda toxic as well. We need to neutralize that poison for sure, but a show that has brought so much joy, relief, and community to so many people… taken tiny indie games and brought them into the spotlight, brought creators in touch with their fans, and given us all a place where we can feel welcome is incredible. And it makes us all that much more angry when the Penny Arcade guys- Ben, I don’t care, I’m breaking our unspoken swearing rule- engage in some of the flagrant fucking bullshit they have been. Their behavior has been troubling, at times disgusting, to the point that I get upset seeing them as MCs of the show.

I’m a long time Penny Arcade reader, and it’s been a gradual process of disenfranchisement. That I don’t find them as funny as I used to doesn’t really matter. That they have revealed themselves to be kinda shitty people is a much bigger problem. The burden to change is on them… and I really hope they do. I still have a lot of nostalgia for what they’ve made, and PAX has the potential to be a really magical thing. But the way their administration is run, with public anti-trans and misogynist behavior, is completely unacceptable and disappointing. The people attending your show deserve better, and it’s not their job to fix your fucked up attitudes.

Ben:

Look, I know how much PAX means to its visitors. Built around a common love for gaming, thousands of people come together for a few days every year to play unreleased titles, meet their favorite online personalities in the flesh, rekindle old friendships and foster new relationships. I went to QuakeCon back when they were pushing Raven’s Wolfenstein and WET; even at an event that fit into an ostensibly smaller niche of id fans, it was awe-inspiring to see a myriad group of visitors, each and everyone one having a blast.

However, I cannot, in good conscience, buy tickets to PAX in its current form. I’ve seen too many groups thrown to the site and actively made unwelcome to simply funnel more money into their ever-expanding coffers. I’m not interested in ordering its legions of fans to do the same; I simply want them to stop for a moment, take a step back and listen to some of the voices protesting PAX. Do you really want to support a venue where some of the visitors are looked down upon (both silently and aggressively) because they’re a bit different?

You, the fan, are the one who funds the whole show. When you purchase a pass, you’re empowering PAX to continue on its current, ugly course. But if you abstain, even for one show, you could make a big difference in the lives of others by telling PAX to step up and make things right. It’s your call, but I find it important for attendees to know exactly the kind of culture they’re supporting with their dollars.

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Is it reasonable to expect  PAX to be “saved” and turned into a more welcoming place?

Ben:

There’s no doubt that Penny Arcade’s odious behavior has impacted the audience of PAX, and for the worse; this year’s PAX East appeared to have an all-time low female-to-male ratio. The convention goers were also rowdier and more unpleasant, with vandals defacing a room set aside to collect oneself, and a pack of disgusting sub-humans harassing anyone who needed to use the gender-neutral restroom. One would hope that the organizers would make drastic changes and fix the altogether unpleasant atmosphere, but is there any real motivation for them to do so?

Despite the less diverse crowd, Penny Arcade is far from hurting; PAX South, the fourth convention under their banner, will have its first stint in January 2015. They’re not under any immediate financial pressure to make things better, and fixing a poisonous culture isn’t exactly a cakewalk. It’s great that they’ve acknowledged that there IS a problem to begin with, but simple tokens of awareness like the diversity lounge are not enough.

I’ve heard talk of exhibitors working to change PAX “from within” by turning their booths into safe spaces and immediately ejecting troublemakers, but it doesn’t quite work if the worse attendees are empowered to be awful in other parts of the convention center. If Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins are serious about changing PAX for the better, they’ll have to make massive, sweeping changes and work tirelessly before it becomes a welcoming place. Given Penny Arcade’s past history, I have almost no faith that they’ll do the right thing, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

Colin:

I hope things will change, I really do. There have been some pretty grand, if clumsy overtures towards improvement on the part of the PA guys. Interestingly, it’s mostly been the problem customer himself that’s been doing better of late- it makes me really optimistic to see Mike making his public New Year’s resolution to be more sensitive and considerate, openly and blatantly calling out his past behavior as unacceptable. Plenty of people say things like “I’ll believe it when I see it,” and I get that, but intent is everything to me. It’s incredibly hard to step out into a public space and say “Not only was I wrong, my attitude was wrong, it’s been wrong for a long time, and I’ve been a shitty person.” That’s hard. And if you’re willing to do that I’m willing to give you another chance. Asking for more before you’re even willing to consider that they may have changed seems unfair to me.

My problem, actually, is Jerry. Jerry doesn’t say offensive stuff. He doesn’t spew ignorance or hatred. But he has a powerful influence over his friend, and he’s a damn smart man. He does nothing to stop Mike from alienating or upsetting thousands of people. He has said, in an interview, that he often knows Mike is about to say some deeply offensive stuff and he sits back and watches it play out. And as much as I deeply respect Jerry Holkins as a writer (which, man, do I ever), that is a terrible policy for a company, that is a bad way to treat a friend, and that is cruel to your audience. Mike is trying to change himself, but that’s never going to happen unless his best friend in the world and lifetime business partner is on board with it.

The other factor is Robert Khoo, and this is where things get dark. I do not get into the world of business that much, but in my relatively innocent eyes, Khoo is one of the most brutal businessmen I’ve ever seen. The job posting last year (http://www.linkedin.com/jobs2/view/9887522) was the most obvious example- a post for a job opening at Penny Arcade that made it clear you would not be paid well, you would be working ungodly hours, you would be expected to have an insane amount of expertise, the interview process would be akin to hell, and you should be grateful for the chance to suffer for them. Few companies would have the audacity to even suggest such a deal, but Robert Khoo thought that the prestige of working at Penny Arcade was enough that he didn’t have to treat a new employee like a human being. This is Robert Khoo’s business- this is what he does. There can be no claiming ignorance of what he was doing.

In other decisions, it is harder to tell how much influence Khoo had… but at the very least, he gives the greenlight to any major operation. He is the last chance to say “maybe this is a bad idea.” And with that knowledge, we know that he thought it was a good idea to try and profit off the outrage of rape victims with the Dickwolves merchandise. We know he’s brought back PAX Enforcers (volunteer event staff) that have sexually harassed convention attendees. We’ve seen him ask questions on stage at PAX looking for a controversial response, such as when he encouraged Mike to stir up the Dickwolves outrage once more at PAX 2013. Robert Khoo is interested in profit and success like any company, but he’s very willing to offend anyone and everyone to get it. Cutthroat, you might say.

So while I am hopeful that this can change, it can only change if it’s profitable to do so. Robert drives things along at Penny Arcade- he is the man that gets things done. If he’s on board, everyone else will follow. If we want PA to mend their ways, we’re gonna have to hit them in the wallet. And this leads to our next question.

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Should publishers, developers and sponsors support organizations focused on inclusivity instead of PAX?

Colin:

To whatever extent they are financially capable of, the answer is absolutely yes. For a lot of indies, success is balanced on a razor’s edge- when an opportunity comes along, they cannot afford to say no. PAX is, for better or worse, a fantastic business opportunity- a great chance to show what you’re working on to an informed, excited, and engaged audience. The value of that is undeniable. Not taking your game to a show is always your call, but for many developers it’s a nondecision- if no one knows about your game, you’ll fail and go bankrupt. No one is going to choose that. It really sucks that you sometimes have to set aside your personal politics for the sake of your game (which might well be about your personal politics) but sometimes that’s just what happens. I’m not going to judge anyone for doing what’s best for their game.

Publishers, too, are in a similar boat. When a team working for you makes something really incredible, is it fair to that team to not show their game because you don’t agree with the politics of the venue organizers? If you have other options, if you have other places to show the game that are more inclusive, please please please use those. But if you don’t? Do what you gotta do, man. I don’t have a problem with you trying to make your art succeed- I empathize in the way only a guy who’s tried stuff that no one cared about can.

It is important to keep in mind and be objective about what you’re doing, though. If it’s what the project needs, go for it, but remember that you’re contributing to some really shitty behavior and discrimination. I may not hold it against you if you take your product to PAX, but I sure make a note of people who show their stuff elsewhere, at more diversive and open-minded venues, and I try to look out for their products. I might never have bought Gone Home (as the pitch really didn’t do anything for me) had The Fullbright Company not said that they weren’t comfortable showing the game at PAX. It made me sit up and pay attention, and while it wasn’t necessarily the best business decision, I wanted to reward that kind of conviction and courage.

Sponsors need to ask themselves if it’s even worth it to be associated with misogyny, transphobia, and general hatred of the Other. The primary interest of a sponsor is to look good, and you’re not going to look good putting your arm around Mike Krahulik and calling him a pal. If you don’t wanna look like a fossil, PAX is not your friend.

Ben:

Many smaller developers are in the unfortunate position of relying on PAX attendance to publicize their own game, even with they disagree with the politics of PAX or even feel straight-up uncomfortable setting up shop there. Exposure is a vital part of the indie developer scene, and PAX is one of the few venues with enough pull to make a difference; it can be the key factor that lifts you from barely making rent to earning a sustainable income for the rest of the year.

If you’re a larger company like Gearbox, Ubisoft, Bethesda or even a popular gaming-themed website like Giant Bomb, you don’t exactly need PAX appearances to stay afloat. It certainly helps their bottom line to touch base with fans and spread the word about their latest game, but they are, by far, the biggest financial supporter of the convention. Their presence not only costs a pretty penny (promotional material, booth space, prominent adverts on the official Twitch channels), but also fuels ticket sales, as people scramble to catch first glimpses of the next big thing.

It’s no secret that developers and publishers alike want to be a bigger part of the community and attract gamers from all sorts of backgrounds. And while rewriting and redesigning games to support typically disenfranchised groups is a necessary yet daunting task, they’d make quite the significant first step if they backed conventions like GaymerX. This particular convention is run almost exclusively by volunteers or staff working at lower wages in order to make their dream of an inclusive convention a reality. And after this year, it’ll be gone; they can’t run like that forever, and without any big-named sponsor to pick up the checks, their tank is running on fumes.

This would be an altogether different story if a large publisher, peripheral manufacturer or cult Internet site offered their assistance to draw in bigger crowds and affordable wages for everyone putting their necks on the line to build a friendly, welcoming show. Such conferences may not ever reach the same volume of attendees as the PAX behemoth, but when you help fund an event that makes that one person feel like they truly belong, you’ll earn more than a few life-long fans.