Why I’m Not Speaking at PAX East 2011

PAX East logo

It’s the time of year when I get asked at least a few times a week whether or not I’m attending PAX East. Since I’ve had this conversation several times now, I’ve decided to just write it down and point people to this post in the future, rather than have to hash all this out over and over for the next two months.

A couple of months ago, I got asked to be on a panel at PAX East 2011. I’d attended the IGDA Leadership Forum in October and been kind of a bitch (aka myself) on Twitter throughout the conference, mocking the verbal fuck-ups of men speaking about an industry that’s supposedly trying to be less of a sausage fest. (Free Tip From A Lady: Stop saying “guys” when you talk about your employees or potential employees. One of the men, from Sony I believe, even talked from the podium about the impact of employee relocation on, “girlfriends and wives.” I’m now assuming Sony has an all-lesbian development team on God of War 3.) This got the attention of someone who was (and maybe still is, for all I know) working with the PAX East team to put together some less sausage-fest-ish content for the convention, and I got offered a spot on a panel about women and video games in some way or another.

I said no, which given the circumstances probably doesn’t surprise you. Leaving aside the fact that I think it’s a little wrong-headed for people in the industry to get too tied into a fan convention in general, what I want to say is that as someone working in the game industry, I think the recent merchandising decisions of Penny Arcade have made PAX and PAX East into spaces that I don’t want my industry to align itself with, and I’m not going to give Penny Arcade content as long as they keep selling that merchandise.

I’m not alone in this decision to not give Penny Arcade content for their events. I’m also not the person organizing this boycott. That person, for several valid reasons, doesn’t want to be identified or to publicize their protest, and I respect them and their decision. I do want to speak out a little about my participation. While conventions like PAX East are spaces for me as a fan in theory, and providing content to PAX East is something that I should want to do as a game producer in theory, Penny Arcade has, by their decision to market shirts that use rape as a punchline, made PAX and PAX East into events I won’t (and kind of can’t) set foot in. Which is ironic, when you consider that PAX began as the only overtly non-creepy convention to attend, as a woman.

For real, it is true! PAX and PAX East don’t allow booth babes, something I definitely noticed at the first PAX East last year. These conventions also actually have decent security and enforced sexual harassment policies — again, breaking new ground in the name of making the event less threatening to women. Awesome and appreciated decisions that I really value as an attendee. Now, if you’d taken a poll before the first PAX and asked, “Do you like booth babes?”, I would guess the majority of respondents would have said, “yes” because the majority of attendees at conventions like PAX are straight guys. I obviously don’t have data on this, I don’t think the Penny Arcade or PAX teams had data on this, but I also don’t feel like the statement, “straight guys who are active in video game culture like to look at semi-naked ladies,” is a radical or controversial statement.

And yet, PAX: No booth babes! Paying attention to the threat of sexual assault! It’s like the PAX team was interested in protecting and making room for the minority (women attending without being surrounded by objectified women), even if there was a small cost to the majority (straight men attending without random girl eye-candy).

I’m going to…not so much *make* this personal as *point out* the personal connection (I can’t really make this not personal)…as a rape survivor, the Dickwolves tshirt is disgusting as all hell to me. The idea of being in a room full of mostly men (if the demographic holds true to last year, anyway), where some of those men are wearing it, feels like a threat against me. (Which, given the shirt basically says, “Team Rapist!” on it, doesn’t seem too far-fetched). Penny Arcade has gone out of their way to make sure that the floor of PAX East is no longer a safe space for me.

This is not just me and it is not just women. One of the problems with rape culture is that there is a very rigid cultural narrative about who does or doesn’t get raped. So please let me assure you, if you work in the game industry, you probably know at least one male survivor of sexual assault. I’m not relying on statistics here — I’m saying that *I* know at least one male sexual assault survivor, and he’s pretty fucking popular. If we *do* look at statistics 1 in 33 American men has been sexually assaulted, and the video game industry is still rather male-dominated. I’m saying that *at least* one guy you know and count as a colleague is noticing your silence about this.

Penny Arcade’s continued use of rape as a punch line on their merchandise, and their sale of that merchandise on their site and at their events, is poisoning video game culture and video game fan events. If their charity work and structuring their cons to be less creepy to women were in the name of positively changing the perception of video games and gamers, then I do not understand their decision to pander to a puerile, sexist portion of their fan base, especially when it is so starkly prohibiting the participation of the people whose lives are being used as a punch line. In short: Why have they stopped following Wheaton’s Law?

This company doesn’t represent me or the type of culture I want to work in or create for. Fortunately, I can keep being a producer without speaking at PAX East…but I’m pretty sure that they can’t keep claiming to be a place for “all” of us if we stop showing up and stop giving them content to market and sell.

And for anyone saying, “but think of the women and girls you could reach out to who might be interested in the video game industry!” — the first monthly meeting of Women in Games Boston is tomorrow night. :)

(Originally posted here)

About Kirby Bits

Co-founder of Bitches of Destiny. Software development project manager. I get out of bed to get shit done.
This entry was posted in General Gaming and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Why I’m Not Speaking at PAX East 2011

  1. Lyndsay says:

    I completely agree with this post. I had thought about road-tripping to attend PAX because I’m a huge fan of tabletop roleplaying games as well as video games. But after watching the dickwolves callout, fallout and finally merchandising? I’m not longer interested in the comic or in the convention. If an apology is published, I would consider returning… but it is getting a little late for that.

  2. thefremen says:

    Thanks for talking about this and putting this out in the open. I remember when this all began I was still woefully ill-equipped to talk about the fact I’m one of those 1/33 publicly, which made explaining my auction of PA merch hard to explain beyond the obvious “I don’t like rape as a punchline” angle.

    At any rate, such a shame they have an anti-sexual harrassment policy and also an anti-safe space for survivors policy.

  3. Jayle Enn says:

    I have a friend who attended and really enjoyed PAX East last year, and who I imagine might be thinking about attending again. He isn’t aware of the original dickwolves ‘joke’ or the shitty responses from PA following the backlash, but I’m going to link him this post by way of some explanation.

  4. jccalhoun says:

    Wow, I was aware of the original strip and their horrible response. I was not, however, aware of the shirt.I more or less boycotted them after the initial thing but had started to occasionally read their comic again. Now that I’m aware of the shirt I’m back to boycotting them.

  5. muttonchoppe says:

    Thank you for writing the article!

    I have a question to you, a writer: why are people usually leaving out the fact that they also specifically mocked rape trigger warnings? Is that just too much of an Internet specific thing?

    • Nezumi says:

      I have no idea on that one. I was willing to tolerate the original joke, despite its problems. Even the shirt, for how ugly it is to merchandise that after the conflict, has an actual joke to it — the idea of a sports team whose mascot is the least appropriate thing for being a mascot. It was the mockery of trigger warnings that finally got me, personally. There isn’t a joke there, there’s absolutely no reason to do it except to say “I’m a giant ass who thinks PTSD is no big deal!”

      • Kirby Bits says:

        Nezumi, given the intersection of professional sports players and sexual assault charges, I actually find the “sporty” aspect of the shirt to be particularly sickening and one of the worst things about it.

    • Kirby Bits says:

      Honestly, the rant about the PTSD-mockery got so long that I cut it and decided to hold it for another post. In the past month or so, I saw an old episode of their web TV show where Jerry talks about *his* PTSD related to drug use/abuse, and oh geez, the hypocrisy, it is breath-taking.

      What I was trying to do with this post was point out, as someone working in the video game industry, what I see to be the ongoing, visible, and tangible problem (the shirt), and why that continued choice is impacting my continued choice to boycott PAX and not help them make PAX events better. Their past behavior lost my fan engagement — this highly visible and continuing business decision has lost me as a business partner or supporter.

      I cannot give you any more detail about PA or their business development team than to say: These guys are, in fact, aware of what they’re doing. They just don’t care. They’re making money, and so they don’t feel like they’re doing anything wrong. I feel like the best way I can get them to stop selling the shirt is to try and cut into their revenue stream, or at the *very*, *very* least, not help them make money by promoting me and whatever awesome talk I would give.

    • Blake says:

      I know that while I was disturbed by them mocking trigger warnings, it wouldn’t have kept me personally away from PAX East. While it is run by these guys who have lost my respect, I was never going to the convention because I thought they were awesome.

      However, they are going to be selling stuff there, and they will probably be selling a shirt that I find reprehensible. The t-shirt, in addition to making a profit off of joking about the actual rape of actual people by professional athletes, is as though they stood up and said, “we will be hosting a pro-sexual assault booth at this convention.” It’s no longer just their behavior and their attitude, but rather what I can expect to find promoted at the convention.

      I can certainly understand boycotting the convention because of their behavior. But even if I separate the convention from them, the t-shirt turns it into an issue with the convention specifically.

  6. Alex H says:

    The 1/33 number is also probably woefully underreported, I’ve heard it’s closer to 1/10, which makes it that much more ludicrous that any large group of people would openly condone PA’s behavior. It hath made me mad. I actually had the opposite reaction: I was not planning on going because of the problems you point out in your post, until I was asked to speak/moderate. Hopefully we can help talk some awareness into people.

    • Denis Farr says:

      Yeah, the problem with statistics like that are which get reported (as with any sexual assault and rape statistics)–most male friends I have who’ve admitted to being subjected to such never brought it forth in any public way. In which case, overall, rape is a higher incident than we can even statistically report. Therefore, the sheer absurdity of trying to ignore it as some issue that does not affect you or those you know does not compute.

      Was a pleasure to meet you at PAX East last year, and I hope you are able to do some good with your attendance. Unfortunately, even were I in the country, I don’t believe I could convince myself to attend this event–I’d be far too apt to ask questions of every person I saw wearing that shirt and probably being thrown out in the process.

  7. Lake Desire says:

    I live in Seattle and have never been to PAX or any other con because I experienced such horrible sexism and misogyny from geek communities online when I was a teenager, why would I want to go hang out with these people IRL? I am thinking about going to Geek Girl Con in Seattle this October, though: http://www.geekgirlcon.com/ Looks like a nice alternative.

    • Deirdra says:

      Ooh, thanks for posting that link to the Geek Girl Con. I live in Vancouver, so it’s pretty close to me!

    • Lucas says:

      I’m very excited for GeekGirlCon! Sadly I’ll be out of town, but I have the highest hopes for it. Being its first year, this is the opportunity to make it a nice alternative.

    • Ra-chan says:

      HOLY CRAP I did not know about this!! Thanks so much for making me aware!

      • Lake Desire says:

        I just learned about GeekGirlCon last week from a coworker who was discussing her NorWesCon plans. If other folks from Border House go, let me know. I’d love to meet up.

        • Brinstar says:

          I’m probably going to GeekGirlCon, if only to observe how they got on with organising their first con. Would love to meet up with any TBH people. Perhaps we can organise a casual gathering there?

  8. Kaonashi says:

    I understand your decision, but I wish things could work differently. Reading the discussion about rape culture following the PA strip was an eye-opener for me, and it helped me to see the other side of the joke and how the aftermath was all kinds of effed up. I wish you or someone could bring that to PAX, make other male gamers like me open their minds, and maybe have a panel about it. Some will be wearing the tees, yes, but that doesn’t mean they’re pro-rape, does it? I’d say for the majority it means they’re clueless. They’re the ones who need to hear the other side of the story the most. Maybe that’s naive of me or maybe it’s making undeserved excuses for PAX, I don’t know.

    • Quinnae says:

      It is a long running debate that will, I think, be all but interminable in activist communities: do you lose more by not participating in events like this where there is much potential to educate, or do you only enable and legitimise them by showing up while making no real headway against ignorance?

      It is a worthy debate, which easy answers elude but in this case I think Kirby has more than justified her decision and I agree with it wholeheartedly. Why? Well your comment does provide some interesting counterpoints that, to me, help to justify that decision.

      For example, you assert that people wearing the shirt are not pro-rape. Technically true, but also not a claim that Kirby attempted to dispute. It’s a lot more complicated than something being pro/anti rape; such dichotomies’ obscuration of reality is belied by their evident simplicity. I’m quite certain that most of the men at that convention are not going around talking regularly about how wonderful it is to rape people. But then that’s a straw man consideration, that’s not what Kirby was talking about. The real problem with rape culture is not active, vociferous support of rape (even if that is a frightening, occasional feature) but the *indifference* towards it that creates that culture. Those shirts symbolise that indifference, as did Gabe’s sorry attempt at humour, tastelessly at the expense of those who suffer from PTSD.

      Aside from utterly lacking in class, tact, or decency, apropos our discussion here it represented reckless indifference to the plight of rape victims. A cheap, unoriginal and unfunny joke, and a print on a T-shirt is more important than being a good citizen when it comes to rape survivors. The issue is not being pro-rape, but being so indifferent to it that you may as *well* be.

      I do not doubt the veracity of your claim that some of these people may be clueless. But it is a significant operation of power in our world that such people have the -privilege- of ignorance, and the privilege of being entitled to people like us going to them and teaching them what’s what. Education has value and not every act of teaching is an act of collaboration or concession. But PAX East will not be the place for it. Like many male-dominated events that allow a token presence of women, there will be -enormous- pressure to be politic, and inoffensive. As always, -their- feelings as heterosexual male gamers are more important than those of, say, rape survivors. Do you really think a frank discussion about rape culture and the role of gaming in promoting it will go down well at PAX? I honestly doubt it.

      It is part of a sad and unpleasant reality, but I think KirbyBits’ decision is the best one. This is, of course, my debatable opinion: but I feel strongly that this is an instance where there is more to be gained in abstention than in participation.

      • Kaonashi says:

        I agree with you about my pro-rape comment. I realize it’s more complex than that and it wasn’ tmy intention to reduce rape culture to something that simplistic.

        I know that no feminist has any obligation to teach these people anything and I fully understand why someone wouldn’t want to go through the pain of doing so. Maybe it’s better to stay away, as you say.

    • Gunthera1 says:

      It is wonderful that this post helped you understand the issues people had with the comic and the aftermath following it. But, it is also not the place of a marginalized group to teach others to not keep pushing them around. It is unfair to kick someone around and then ask them, “So can you please explain to me why this is wrong?”. Plenty of people have already explained exactly why this was a problematic “joke”. The creators of Penny Arcade did not listen, and instead made these shirts. They made a climate where they have already responded loudly that they don’t care about the people hurt by such “jokes”. I don’t see how it is fair to have to put ourselves out there again to use this as a teachable moment in a place that has already said are not very willing to listen. If the Penny Arcade guys chose to create such a panel, it would be different. Then we would see that they are willing to listen. But right now I don’t see them as being receptive to such a thing.

      • Kaonashi says:

        I agree with everything you write. I don’t blame anyone for not going near that shitstorm again, especially not uninvited. I guess I’m a bit frustrated at these people’s close-mindedness.

    • Blake says:

      The other sad truth is that a feminist talking at PAX will probably be viewed as an outsider. As the “dickwolves” shirts show, this is about in group/out of group definition, and right now, by their definition, if you don’t like it you aren’t part of the group. Anyone who goes to PAX as a Feminist Spokesperson is likely to be dismissed by anyone potentially-educable as Those Sort Of People. If anything the internet is a better medium, as each person can encounter arguments at their own pace and won’t loose face if they change their mind while reading them.

      I do think there are some forms of activism that might work well at PAX, but most of them would involve people who are already well-known and considered part of that tribe speaking out to a large and receptive audience. I’m thinking of something similar to Mick Foley’s work with RAINN, rather than something that is an Very Special Feminist Educational Session.

      Because this is the other thing: who will actually take time out of their PAX schedule to attend? We saw last year at PAX East that the “Women In Gaming” panel self-selected for people who were already interested in that sort of thing and already seemed up on many of the issues (*cough*except the moderator*cough*). Chances are that a large, busy convention with many opportunities to do anything else isn’t the place to change people’s minds.

  9. Stephanie says:

    I hadn’t even known about the shirt symbolism, or seen the shirt before. That’s very powerful of you to stand behind that – that’s part of the only way for people to get their message across, even if you don’t get to enjoy one of the most woman-friendly video game conventions available to fans. I’m not sure I even want to look up what the joke was about the shirt, but, I respect you as always for sticking to your guns.

    Plus, the Women in Gaming panel last year was pitiful as all shit.

  10. Lucas says:

    Kirby Bits,

    I admire you for shining such a bright spotlight on this issue. It’s clear that you won’t be speaking there, but can I ask if that means you also won’t be attending? Do you see any difference between providing content and paying for content, as far as your protest is concerned? Should it be obvious to me that your boycott includes not giving them any money whatsoever?

    I have not made up my mind about whether to attend PAX Prime. Meeting and talking to game devs and seeing firsthand their love for their work is a hard thing to give up, but PA’s behavior is absolutely rotten and I cannot abide it. I’ve attended PAX in the past while easily ignoring Gabe and Tycho because I had long before dismissed PA as plagued with frat-boy humor, but the Dickwolves thing and their monetizing it is unacceptable. However, not attending is not, I believe, effective enough on its own as a protest. They already believe they haven’t done anything wrong and a silent protest from me will, figuratively and literally, not be heard. Whether I go or don’t, what’s the best way to protest?

    • Olivia says:

      I had long before dismissed PA as plagued with frat-boy humor

      Ha, this comment is great! :-) I get the impression that the PA jerks think of themselves as the antithesis of frat boys and frat culture (and would probably get really indignant at the implication that they have anything in common, see their Jan. 14th, 2011 comic) but you are so right: their brand of humor positively reeks of dudebro (at least two or three of their comics every month is a penis joke of some sort /sigh).

    • Kirby Bits says:

      I’m not planning on going to PAX East in any way, no…now that they’ve pulled the Dickwolves shirt, I guess I’ll think about it, but I was actually looking forward to not *having* to go. Last year was my first PAX-related event, and I happened to have one of the worst migraines ever the day I was there, so it definitely didn’t leave the best impression. I know that’s not tied to this directly, but fan cons, while awesome, can be exhausting, even in the best of circumstances.

      For me personally, not attending really isn’t a sacrifice (especially compared with the missed opportunity of getting to speak about my work and my field to hundreds or thousands of people). There is “stuff” going on around PAX East that’s specifically for the game dev community, and since none of that is co-branded with PAX East this year (you can guess why), I’ve got no problem going to the party with an open bar, a lot of of my friends, and Dance Central on a giiiiiant screen. (I am The Best at Dance Central, it’s the only game I’ve ever felt competitive about…I bully people into being my XBL friend just so they can see how much better my scores are than theirs.) That was my favorite part of PAX East last year, anyway.

      • Lucas says:

        Really appreciate the reply. It’s a lot more to consider.

        I will freely admit that you are better at Dance Central than I. The wine, however: I make a worthy opponent.

    • Kirby Bits says:

      …and re-reading your comment, you asked a lot of questions I totally didn’t answer, choosing instead to brag about my dance skillz. Sorry. Wine.

      “Do you see any difference between providing content and paying for content, as far as your protest is concerned?”

      I think that PAX East is going to sell out this year (again), no matter who chooses to boycott attending. Hilariously, this is because the PAX and Penny Arcade brands are SO HUGE and SO GENERALLY POPULAR — y’know, that thing Mike and Jerry tried to pretend wasn’t true by acting like people speaking out against their “joke” must 1) not read the comic regularly or 2) not understand Penny Arcade and what it’s about. There’s going to be a ton of people there, and I don’t think there’s enough support to get an attendance boycott to make a monetary difference — it’s part of why there was just a pretty quiet industry boycott instead of a call to Give PAX A Pass or something. I think that if you want to go and be a visible advocate/protester, go for it. If you want to go and be a face in the crowd, go for it. This was my answer to people before they pulled the shirt, and I don’t see a reason to change it.

      “Meeting and talking to game devs and seeing firsthand their love for their work is a hard thing to give up”

      That’s true, and that’s one of the things I thought was so great about PAX East (and, one assumes, PAX). Getting to just walk around and play games all day with other people who love games is *great*. Again, I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to go.

      “They already believe they haven’t done anything wrong and a silent protest from me will, figuratively and literally, not be heard. Whether I go or don’t, what’s the best way to protest?”

      I’m not sure what the best way is — writing to them will get seen by someone in their office, although not necessarily them. They haven’t proven to be very sympathetic or receptive in the past to that, and I’m interpreting the decision to pull the shirt without comment as having to listen to other people without wanting to admit they ever did anything out of line. That’s fine, I’ll take that, but it doesn’t mean I trust their intentions toward me or my space in the supposed “all gamer” community they want PAX and PAX East to be.

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  12. Jacob Sommer says:

    What an introduction to Penny Arcade. (ish….)

    I didn’t make it to PAX East last year due to time commitments (back at college, Daddy duties) but I would have liked to have gone – I occasionally demo for Steve Jackson Games. Let’s just say I’m considerably less interested in attending now and still have the same kind of time commitments as last year…

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  15. Megan says:

    Thank you very much for putting everything I wanted to say into words. I’m so tired of people desensitizing themselves and others with rape, and making it seem normal or acceptable. They are constantly condoning the rape culture we live in whether it’s knowingly or not. I am a survivor, and dealing with this kind of behavior and insensitivity also makes me feel unsafe in participating in such events, which is why I won’t attend them. I was told however, in my “Valuing Diversity” course last year that 1/6 men are sexually abused in their lifetime and 1/4 females. I wish these conventions would try harder to make these things more safe, or at the very least, make them less distasteful. While men may lead in the number of gamers, that number gets smaller everyday with the growing number of women who are joining the ranks.

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