The Penny Arcade Expo Tries To Remedy Its Terrible Image By Creating A Sideshow Of "Diverse" People, And Gets Literally Everything Wrong

Publish date:
December 19, 2013
sexism, race, diversity, pax, video games, geeks, rape culture

PAX, for those not in the know, is a massive fan-centered convention for geeks who like games. Short for the Penny Arcade Expo, PAX originated in Seattle in 2004 as a place for fans of the webcomic Penny Arcade to convene and play games together, and it has since ballooned to a massive juggernaut of so-called “gamer culture” with annual cons in Seattle, Boston, and Melbourne, Australia.

That’s the unbiased description. The biased description also identifies PAX -- and its progenitors at Penny Arcade -- as being home to some truly impressive ugliness, above and beyond the standard base level of douchebaggery one might find in any gathering of awkward nerds in a masculine-dominated environment. Indeed, one of Penny Arcade’s two creators became a bit infamous for both publicly mocking some rape survivors who criticized the comic's humor, and, later, for expressing some stubbornly ignorant transphobia on Twitter.

PAX’s ongoing problems with appealing to a broader audience -- or even just not actively alienating people -- have had a few results, one of which is that earlier this year I decided that I would no longer be attending. This, I’ll admit, is hardly a loss that PAX is likely to notice, nor do I expect anyone to cry about it. My intention is not to boycott the con in hopes that will inspire them to change, because there’s actually very little reason to believe that a boycott would even work in this case, as PAX reliably sells out and if I don’t buy my ticket, someone else will certainly do so.

I decided to stop attending simply because I didn’t like the idea of being associated with the event. See, one of the bigger results of these missteps is that PAX has, however unwittingly, created a volatile divide between those who think Penny Arcade is unforgivably offensive and unfunny, and those who think Penny Arcade is practically messianic in its unflinching brilliance.

It’s true there are also a lot of people in the middle who are ambivalent, or who simply don’t care, but the passionate feelings of those who do -- on all sides of the issue -- has turned PAX into a bit of an ideological battleground between the gamer stereotypes (generally assumed to be straight able-bodied cisgender men with a lot of entitlement and no sense of social perspective) and the far more complicated identities of folks who don’t neatly fit the expected "gamer" mold.

PAX, however, has now decided to try to address this divide, to bring everybody together in a big round of tolerance and hand-holding kum-ba-ya -- and, I mean, I want to give them credit for trying. But it’s going to be a very very small amount of credit, quickly erased by how face-palmingly bad their “fix” is.

According to documents leaked on Tuesday and subsequently confirmed by top Penny Arcade business guy Robert Khoo, PAX will be implementing “diversity hubs” at future conventions, starting with PAX East in April of 2014. What the hell is a “diversity hub,” you ask?

In an effort to continue to provide a safe and welcoming environment, PAX is introducing the Roll For Diversity Hub & Lounge. This space will exist as a resource for PAX Attendees to find information relating to issues surrounding women, LGBTQ, people of color, disabled people, and mental health issues in gaming. The hub will also be a resource for industry professionals and fans to interface in a setting focused on diversity, receive diversity training, learn more about diversity, and meet people from diverse communities.

(Can I just take a moment to mention how much I hate it when people use “interface” as a verb?)

Lest you think this is a funny spoof, this is indeed a REALDOCUMENT. Read the whole thing if you doubt me.

In fairness, the folks working on this solution probably didn’t mean for it to sound like a literal sideshow -- COME SEE THE PAX MUSEUM OF DIVERSITY! BOGGLE at some gamers’ use of ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY! Ask whatever questions you’d like of a REAL LIVE GENDER NONCONFORMIST! -- and yet that is exactly what they’ve managed to do.

This hub establishes a separate-but-unequal "diversity" space, set up and managed by the same people guilty of making PAX a difficult place for many "diverse" people in the first place, and the result, intentional or not, is to give the impression that diversity and conversations related to it should only live there, when really they should be living everywhere, if the atmosphere of antagonism that PAX hopes to remedy is going to be repaired. I mean, even the language in the document betrays this idea: the space is meant for people to interact “in a setting focused on diversity,” the unspoken acknowledgement being that PAX as a whole is really not.

Furthermore, there is also the problem of laying the responsibility for educating people on “diversity” issues at the feet of the diverse individuals themselves. The fact is, not every “diverse” person wants to spend PAX being an Official Ambassador of Difference; many just want to come to the event and play games and have fun and not feel like a massive weirdo outcast. And yet this new approach, however accidentally, creates an environment in which “diverse” attendees may be expected to explain their lives to anyone who asks.

Yes, it is easier to just demand a handy trans person explain body dysmorphia to you, rather than do independent reading on the subject, but it can also be incredibly intrusive and othering for that trans person.

It's true that the PAX document does specify that there will be specially-trained folks managing the space, who will ostensibly be preventing more overt attacks and hatred from happening. But simply barring people from using slurs does not a safe space make. A space that is truly “safe” for diverse individuals is not one in which they may find themselves interrogated at every turn. It is instead a place where they can relax knowing that won't happen.

Although I’ve never been to WisCon myself, s.e. smith suggested I give props to WisCon’s “Safer Space” for people of color as an example of this approach done right -- a place organized by so-called “diverse” people as a support resource for “diverse” people to use. Also I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Gaymer X, a gaming fan convention that tries to make the entire event a safe and inclusive space for a variety of people.

PAX, on the other hand, is forging an approach that still puts the comfort (not to mention the "education") of non-diverse attendees first, which is the absolutely wrong thing to do if you're really trying to foster a community in which diverse individuals are as welcome as anyone else. As stated in that same internal PAX document:

Discrimination often stems from ignorance, but people are unlikely to learn if they feel judged or attacked for not having prior knowledge of diverse communities. By providing a place for people to meet and learn about these communities, the hub helps promote a safer and tolerant space at PAX.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it sure sounds like this resource is far more concerned with the feelings of "ignorant" attendees than with those of the actual real-world people who have felt unsafe at PAX because of the opinions and actions of Penny Arcade's leadership. Who is this really helping?

Ultimately, while I give PAX half a point for trying (which I will then deduct from their score for the aforementioned use of the verbal “interface”), this approach is doing diversity wrong on the most basic scale -- you don’t throw all the diversity in a pile off to one side, openly invite folks to go and gawk at it, and then get to claim that you’ve created “safe space.” Essentially what this implies to the average PAX attendee is that they will now be safe from diversity if they don’t want to be exposed to it -- they can just avoid the room(s) where all the diversity is staying, and keep any stupid and damaging assumptions they may have fully intact.

Now, there is always the possibility that the “diverse” people whom this hub intends to showcase for the "normals" may well take it over and subvert it into something truly supportive and awesome. After all, it's the people who make a space like this work. And I sincerely hope they can make it happen, for the sake of all those folks who, unlike me, haven’t thrown their hands up at PAX in disgust already, and who are still committed to attending and working in whatever ways they can to create their own space at the expo.

But if they do, it won’t be because PAX made it easy for them.