The Penny Arcade eXpo Tries to Grow Up, With Awkward Results
At the first day of PAX Prime: the 'Diversity Lounge' and rape scenes.
All photos courtesy of the author
The sex ratio at PAX Prime skews male. This observation is obvious but unavoidable. Waiting near the ticketing will-call, I watch a group of five young men with one girl in the mix. The men all keep reaching their hands out to playfully pat her back or poke her arm as they talk, solicitous for physical contact. Finally, the men form a ring around their subject and hug her all as one; she's not hugging back, and rather appears to be ensnared in the middle. It is a ridiculous and possibly creepy scene.
PAX, known formally as the Penny Arcade eXpo, was started in 2004 by the creators of the Penny Arcade web comic. Its raison d'etre then was to bring together video gamers and tabletop gamers. Now it exists as the largest conference dedicated to gamer-culture/game consumers in the world. After first appearing in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, the fest grew rapidly, ultimately launching in other cities. The Seattle version of PAX was eventually rebranded as Prime. That's where I'm at now.
Originally intended to be for fans, by fans, PAX has grown increasingly commercialized, with large video game publishers making significant announcements during the convention, while spending scads on marketing: PR budgets manifest in the form of ride-able mechanical dragons, multistory demon statues, alien pods, and costumed actors.
There are no "booth babes," mind you. This video game convention eschews the tradition of having sexualized female models pitching wares. How PAX determines whether a female booth attendant is overly sexualized is a matter of some prurient subjectivity, but some actors/models hired to portray video game characters have been notably booted in the past.
This is my first time covering a convention and the courtship of the press by game developers is a new experience. The developer/publisher Square Enix somehow gets my email address and I am invited in to meet the director of Final Fantasy Type-0 at the neighboring Sheraton Hotel the day before the conference begins. I am given water in an actual glass and as we sit on leather couches for an interview, I see that they have a photograph of me printed out on a sheet of paper.
That same day, Microsoft shuttles me to a press event in a converted school bus with a fiberglass monster affixed to the front and rock music punching out of all speakers. A cheerful teenaged girl dressed like a high school cheerleader gives me energy drinks branded from the fictional company of the game they are promoting. At Microsoft HQ I am fed a chicken quesadilla before being shown upcoming games by Major Nelson, aka Larry Hryb, the Xbox Live network's director of programming.
The next day, the first of the conference, I go to the Diversity Hub and Lounge, created in the winter of 2013 in response to the continued Dickwolves controversy that began in 2010. For those unfamiliar, the two founders of PAX and writer and illustrator of the Penny Arcade web comic, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, upset fans and rape survivors with a comic in 2010 about a fictional character who was "raped nightly" by creatures called Dickwolves. In defiance of the criticism they received for making a facetious reference to rape, they launched merchandise that used the phrase " Team Dickwolf," which propelled the controversy into the mainstream. Eventually, Holkins and Krahulik relented, apologized and pulled the merch.
In September of 2013 artist Krahulik reignited the controversy by saying that "pulling the Dickwolves merchandize was a mistake" (to the cheers of the PAX Prime audience he was addressing). To make matters worse, that summer, Krahulik had made comments on Twitter in response to a Kotaku article that were seen as transphobic. So in December of 2013 the conference announced the Diversity Hub and Lounge, "a resource for PAX attendees to find information related to issues surrounding women, LGBTQ, people of color, disabled people and mental health issues in gaming" as a salve.
The Diversity Hub and Lounge is laid out in the hallway on the sixth floor of the convention center. It consists of just two round tables with nothing on them but a schedule of tabletop game activities to be hosted there intermittently throughout the day. When I first arrived in the morning, the Lounge was empty: just a white cisgendered man sitting alone in the Diversity Lounge.
I talk to a man at the welcoming desk, who is, in fact, Benjamin Williams (co-founder of GaymerX) whom PAX had brought in to help create the Diversity Lounge. I'd heard that there had been some blowback to the idea that minorities would be sequestered in a small area. PAX East had occurred earlier this year and that was the first tryout for the lounge—which was given, at best, a mixed response. But Williams dismisses some of the early criticism as coming from people speaking out before they had visited the Diversity Lounge.
"Ninety-eight percent of the feedback I've gotten has been positive," he says.
And the other two percent, he tells me, just wished that it was bigger.
But, unfortunately, PAX and the Diversity Hub crew had had to fight their venue, the Washington State Convention Center, to get PAX Prime's single gender-neutral bathroom.
"If I had my way, they'd all be gender neutral bathrooms, with maybe two that were gendered," he says, adding, "there are some great stall conversations in the gender neutral bathrooms."
Upon investigating said gender-neutral bathroom I am surprised to find a haphazard sign stuck hastily over the word "WOMEN"—not even fully covering it. The "woman" symbol is not covered at all. It looks ludicrous, a parody of noncommitment. Across from that door is the standard men's room, utterly unchanged. So: a gender-neutral bathroom and a men's room. The next dedicated women's room is across the conventional hall, a considerable journey. The idea that women don't have a choice whether or not to share with men, but the men do have a choice seems a bit lopsided.
Back at the Diversity Lounge's welcome desk, Williams explains that the reason only the women's room had been changed is that stalls were more useful than urinals to gender neutrality.
The nearby Press XY Trans Against Insanity booth has a sign inviting people to ask questions about the transgender experience. So I ask if there was any problem with the way the bathrooms had been set up. I am told there was none, and that, at least for the two transwomen at the table, having access to any gender-neutral bathroom was a good thing.
There were many games on display at PAX, but I am eager to speak with the developers of Hotline Miami 2. I'd played and enjoyed the first Hotline, but a few months ago Cara Ellison wrote about a tortuous experience playing an early preview version of the sequel that, evidently without warning, presented a rape enacted by the player-character in a mandatory cut-scene.
Her written account initiated a gritty debate on the internet about the nature of art, games, censorship, propriety, triggers, and sensitivity.
One of the game's developers, Dennis Wedin, is sitting behind a little table full of buttons and stickers, the hyperviolent game in question splattering rich red blood across a nearby monitor as the player-character shoots people.
I ask Wedin if he was removing the rape depicted in the early-preview build of the game that Ellison had played.
That's not what I want from my game, people being upset personally.
"We took it out of the demo," he says, "because it didn't really work without seeing the whole picture. Some people were very upset when they played it, because they had been through similar stuff themselves or their friends had. That's not what I want from my game, people being upset personally."
When I press him if they were even considering the idea of cutting the scene from the final game he says definitively that they were not cutting it out.
Was he surprised by the reaction the rape scene got?
"No, I wasn't surprised," Wedin says. "We knew what we were doing. There was a really big idea behind it, why we added it."
The developer explains that there is a tradition in violent games of upping the ante in the sequel and the idea behind that scene involved the anticipation of people's expectations along those lines, even though that was not the actual direction of the game. The scene in question is a fiction within the fiction, Wedin explains, a film director making a film inspired by the events of the first game.
When I ask him whether he thought video games as a medium should be able to address the topic of rape he says, "I think games are ready to move into what movies and music are... They are not a toy anymore."