The audience can only be as inclusive as the games it plays.
Overhead shot of Pax East Expo Hall. Advertisements galore. Image: Pax East Community Facebook Page
The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) is meant to be a safe space for people who love video games, but when I entered the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center for my first PAX East last week, I instantly felt like I didn't belong.
E3 is for the press, publishers, and retailers. The Game Developers Conference is for developers. PAX is for the people who play games. What started in 2004 as a convention dedicated to tabletop and video games is now a globe-trotting franchise with annual events in Seattle, Boston, Texas, and Australia.
In some regards, it's trying to live up to its "for gamers, by gamers" standard, but in reality PAX is a reflection of the culture it praises, and our desperate need for more diverse spaces in games.
I've played games for years and have the fortune of writing about them, but PAX made me feel like an outsider. So many people of every race, gender, and sexual identity play games, but the majority of PAX attendees, staff, and developers were white and young. White men and women were the largest group. People of color were a rarity. I felt most out of my element when I noticed that most people of color at the show were working for the convention center in food service or as coat checkers, not as attendees or developers.
PAX was homogeneous not just in regards to race, but also in age, gender, physical capabilities, and even the games themselves.
The expo hall, home of the demo stations and merchandise booths felt almost unsafely crowded. I wondered about the difficulties in maneuvering a wheelchair through the crowd, or if someone simply has difficulties being on their feet for long periods of time. PAX jokes about its ridiculous waiting time, but how easy is it to wait with a young child or a baby, let alone walk in a massive crowd?
Wait times at big booths to play marquee games like Halo 5 or Nintendo's Splatoon spanned for hours. Smaller games had mere minute-long wait times, but were packed like sardines into the "Indie Megabooth," a single large space shared by 76 indie developers.
Mothers, fathers, children, people of color, and people with disabilities all play games. Yet so few attended PAX
The indie section was an acceptance of the rise of smaller games, but also a reminder that PAX is a business more than it is a community service. The games with the most financial backing that can afford giant booths and the large posters that hung from the ceilings pay for the most floor space and draw the crowds.
Mothers, fathers, children, people of color, and people with disabilities all play games. Yet so few attended PAX, which became a direct representation of the stereotypical gamer. So few people outside of that group attended because PAX banks on the mainstream gamer, and has done very little to remedy that.
As many PAX optimists point out, PAX banned "booth babes" to reduce the prevelance of oversexualized women in gaming. The diversity lounge, which started last year, is a small step towards acknowledging that PAX needs work on its inclusion. It's trying, but the convention is rife with issues.
Visiting the diversity lounge for the first time felt lackluster. The lounge was quiet and populated by very few people. I was also expecting more racial diversity in the lounge, but was disappointed. Even the diversity longue couldn't satiate my hopes of seeing people more like myself.
This year an "enforcer," PAX's title for an event staff member meant to generally help attendees around the convention, took pictures of Brianna Wu, a female game developer who's been a target of Gamergate harassment, and who decided to withdraw her booth from PAX after receiving death threats. The enforcer followed her, took pictures of her, tweeted them, and retweeted jokes about "going in for the kill." Wu said this was resolved fairly quickly.
As Motherboard pointed out last year, PAX is at an awkward phase, and it continues to stay there solely because its hands are tied to the big budget, mainstream aspect of gaming. These games are the foundation of the show, and as long as they continue to target and cater to a white, male, audience, that's who you we'll see there.
If looking for inclusivity, PAX probably isn't the place. Other conventions, like Gaymerx for example, work to make fans outside of the young, white male stereotype feel safe. But PAX is still fighting with itself to be somewhat inclusive. It's a tug of war between pleasing those who have always been accommodated, and those who are still being ignored.
The abundance of games were what I loved most about PAX and what made me feel most at home in a sea of strangers. I ended each day ritually with a game of Galaga in the arcade room. It was dark, loud from music and chatter, but secluded from the hordes of people walking around the convention. Galaga was, for me, a step back into familiarity, where I could play games and return to myself. Where I could remind myself of my history and love with games, without feeling Othered by the dominant audience I couldn't see myself in.
And even then I couldn't escape it. While playing Galaga, onlookers usually gathered, just to wait in line for when I'd finally game over. One particular guy consistently mentioned how good I was. I could hear him talking to other watchers behind me, in a tone that felt like impress and overall shock. Finally, when I did crash and burn (and took a new third place high score) he leaned over to, once again, say how good I was at Galaga. I said, "Thank you," and walked away from my previous safe haven.