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Mar 26, 2013

PAX Australia: expo culture, videogames, and exclusion

Though the news that the famous Penny Arcade Expo would be coming to Melbourne in 2013 was greeted with excitement, the Penny Arcade brand has a history of exclusion and harassment that should be watched closely.

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When it was announced that Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) would be coming to Melbourne for 2013 and 2014 in its first international event, the reaction was almost uniformly ecstatic. When announcing PAX Australia, the Victorian State Minister for Innovation, Services and Small Business Louise Asher described attracting PAX Australia to Melbourne as, “a major coup for Victoria.”

I’m similarly thrilled that Australia continues to be a highly visible part of videogame culture globally, and the arrival of PAX Australia represents a big step for Australian videogames. PAX East in Boston and PAX Prime in Seattle attract tens of thousands of people. Three months in advance, PAX Australia is already sold out. PAX is a big deal.

So it is vital that we think about what PAX means for Australia.

Penny Arcade, founded by Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, is the incredibly popular webcomic that is the original force behind PAX, though today, there seems to be a growing distinction between the webcomic and the event. Yet it is still important to look at Penny Arcade—the comic—and its impact on its associated events. Penny Arcade may be central in videogame culture, but it is also a hub for its worst elements.

Some background: in 2010, Krahulik and Holkins published a webcomic that presented rape as a punchline, and responded to criticisms with childish belligerence, mocking trigger warnings, recreating elements of the webcomic for cheering live audiences, creating a women’s t-shirt featuring the comic (since withdrawn), and generally ridiculing their critics. Others rallied under the Penny Arcade banner (some of whom were disavowed by Krahulik and Holkins, to their credit), using twitter handles like @teamrape and @rapefatchicks. Later, inspired by these events, MIT’s Gambit Lab created a ‘Hate Speech in Game Communities’ project, stating that, “Many of our staff and colleagues will not be presenting their work at PAX East this weekend because they feel uncomfortable attending the expo this year.”

An incredibly in-depth timeline of the awful affair can be found here.

Krahulik and Holkins have also continually acted as the biggest bullies in videogames culture. In late 2011, they led an internet mob against one PR worker and released his personal contact details for anonymous attacks. That the PR worker had acted appallingly himself did not take away from the ugly spectacle of Krahulik and Holkins orchestrating public humiliation. Earlier this year, Krahulik tweeted his support for the card game Tentacle Bento (in which players attempt to rape high school girls as a tentacle monster) after its Kickstarter campaign was shut down. Krahulik and Holkins also run a yearly competition to see who can bake the most genitally-explicit cakes.

But how does this translate into PAX? A vile webcomic and personal actions do not necessarily tell us much about an associated event, though it may have something to say about its organisational culture.

It’s true that throughout its short history, PAX has often been claimed as an open and welcoming place. When it was founded, PAX’s slogan was “E3 for everyone,” positioning themselves as against E3, which was open only to press and industry professionals. In his keynote in 2010, Wil Wheaton declared that for gamers, coming to PAX is “like coming home.” It’s a sentiment that is frequently mirrored in writing about PAX, even in criticisms of the events.

Having never been to a PAX—they’ve all been in the USA so far—I can’t comment. It’s worth noting, however, that there are also accounts of exclusion and alleged outright harassment at PAX, too.

There’s also the direct line between Krahulik and Holkins and the expo, and how their actions in part shape what kind of event PAX is. Recently, Penny Arcade ran a strip intended to make light of so-called ‘creepers’: those men at gaming expos who routinely fail to understand, or deliberately ignore the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and harass women expo attendees. As others have noted, Krahulik and Holkins’ once-lauded decision to keep ‘booth babes’ out of PAX reads in retrospect more as a move to ‘respect’ core, male gamers, than one to avoid the use of women as props to sell videogames.

Krahulik and Holkins will not have full control over what happens at PAX Australia. Perhaps they will have no direct input at all. Yet they still play an enormous role in defining the conference’s culture, from their foundational comic strip to their individual actions. Make no mistake: PAX Australia shares their brand with people who actively do damage to videogame culture.

Whether the actions of Penny Arcade’s founders will translate to PAX Australia remains to be seen. The event is run by ReedPOP, the same group that has organised PAX East and PAX Prime. However, a new event is a new event, and PAX Australia brings with it a new set of local organisers and groups, such as sponsors Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (iGEA), Game Developer’s Association of Australia (GDAA) and the Victorian State Government.

PAX Australia presents these groups with the opportunity to prove that they are less tolerant of the exclusionism and harassment that has recently defined Penny Arcade and its related projects. It is an opportunity for Australia, for Melbourne, for the local videogames culture to stand and say that videogames can here be defined through inclusivity and welcomeness, that it can genuinely be “like coming home.”

But with Penny Arcade’s history in mind, Louise Asher’s “major coup” is one that should be watched closely.

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3 comments

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3 thoughts on “PAX Australia: expo culture, videogames, and exclusion

  1. Mazarin

    Hi Benjamin,

    I just read your comment. I think it says “Sure, these people think rape is a joke, but they like kids and furry creatures, so give them a break”.

    I know you also say things like ( to paraphrase) ” its not OK” and “they have definitely stuffed up”
    Are you serious? Are you even paying attention to what you are saying?
    I’m sure they are doing good things,and I know it is always hard to make progress. But making excuses for the progress *not* made is not good.

  2. Benjamin Westcott

    This is a startlingly one sided article. So much so that I feel the need to comment to defend Penny Arcade.

    The Dickwolves incident was unedifying, but the comic which started it all was unremarkable. In fact, looking through their archives, there have been dozens of other comics relating to rape. Does that make it okay? No, but it does show what readers could expect and as Krahulik points out, there is no shortage of other controversial topics discussed in their comics.

    Gaming culture in general is deeply chauvinistic and homophobic. With that in mind, ‘Gabe’ and ‘Tycho’ have done some good work. Their Child’s Play charity, which you have not mentioned once, raises millions of dollars for sick children every year. On a number of issues, they present a very considered, thoughtful approach, such as violence in videogames and diversity in the geek community (people like ‘furries’ which they acknowledge and support).

    I’m sorry some of these very positive factors didn’t make it into your article. They’re not perfect, and they have definitely stuffed up. But they are making progress in a deeply sheltered and prejudiced community. I’m glad PAX is coming to Melbourne.

  3. Gabriel McGrath

    *This* is the post I’ve been waiting to read for months. Dan you’re one of very few Australian gaming writers (I’m happy to be proven wrong in the comments here) who’s reacted to “PAX Australia” with all these valid concerns.

    So many Australian gamers seem to have said “PAX is big in America – therefore it must be good.” – and of course the politicians’ equivalent is “PAX means $, so it must be great”.

    Well, all that vile behaviour is not good. Far from it.

    And it would be sad if we’re that desperate to “BE JUST LIKE THE USA” that any sort of critical thinking about PAX is thrown in the bin (with the empty Doritos and Mountain Dew containers).

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