The Problem With PAX
Posted on Tuesday, September 10 @ 11:55:00 Eastern by ryanbates
Seriously, we NEED to talk about PAX.
Now, if you've been reading my pieces since I've come on board to GameRevolution, you know two things:
And PAX has some serious issues we need to discuss, as gamers, as humans. Hey, come back here! Diablo III can wait five minutes.
PAX, for those who have never looked up anything about video games on the Internet ever, stands for “Penny Arcade Expo” and consists of the original convention (now termed “PAX Prime”) in Seattle, which began in 2004, “PAX East” founded six years later in Boston, and as of this year “PAX Australia.” Born from the webcomic Penny Arcade by authors Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the expo celebrates all things gaming, including console, arcade, tabletop, and card gaming, and routinely pulls in close to twice the amount of attendees as E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo. This difference in attendance is due to the fact that PAX primarily touts itself as a fan-facing expo, as opposed to E3, which is classified primarily as a trade show.
PAX Prime just wrapped up in Seattle for the 2013 year, selling out as usual, with the conference expanding to a fourth day. Amidst the competitions and cosplay contests, developers are out there giving the fans a taste of what's to come in the upcoming year. And though every year brings a new batch of heroes, villains, and mythical species of every shape and size, there's one creature that Holkins, Krahulik, and the rest of Penny Arcade (or do they?) wishes would just go away: the Dickwolf.
The Dickwolf, an unseen creature in a 2010 Penny Arcade strip, “rapes” an NPC to sleep nightly, as he begs a hero-type to rescue him. What was meant as a little light humor turned into a firestorm because, as most rational people understand, rape is never funny.
Penny Arcade could have simply issued a statement apologizing; instead, they wrote it into another comic, in a prime example of “how to apologize without actually apologizing.” And they doubled down on the snarky retort when Dickwolves merchandise started to appear for sale. The merchandise was eventually pulled, but the damage was done: supporters had their stuff, Krahulik and Holkins had been smacked around, and those who spoke out against the rape joke were dragged through the mud by the webcomic's fans.
As that controversy died down, another one flared up, as Krahulik nearly committed Twitter-cide by tweeting repeated transgender-exclusionary comments to his followers.
Not that the creators of Penny Arcade seem to care. Of the SNAFUs, Krahulik wrote, “If jokes about violence, rape, AIDS, pedophilia, bestiality, drugs, cancer, homosexuality, and religion bother you, then I recommend reading a different webcomic.”
Very progressive, Mr. Krahulik... While “if you don't like it, don't read it” is fair advice, this doesn't address the problem, which still exists three years after the comic's first publishing. In a panel on the final day of this year's PAX, Krahulik tells Penny Arcade's business manager Robert Khoo what he would like Khoo to do differently.
Said Krahulik to Khoo, “You know that I don't hold grudges, like I can be incredibly mad and then fine the next minute, as long as I get it out. And I feel like we got this out, so I'm not mad about it anymore, but, I think pulling the dickwolves merchandise was a mistake.”
What Krahulik told everyone, essentially, was that he wasn't sorry for what he said, and that he hadn't learned a thing over three years.
"Now, Ryan," people say. "That's unfair. Your issue is with Penny Arcade, not PAX. Leave PAX out of this." I'd love to, but the creators of PAX have ensured that people cannot; as I mentioned before, PAX stands for the Penny Arcade eXpo. Despite PAX being a convention of all things gaming, it is eternally intertwined with Penny Arcade, whose writers and creators believe that rape jokes, as well as a slew of other crap, are comic fodder and that “gender is the same as genitals.” (To clarify, “sex” and “gender” are not the same. For further information, please enroll in Psychology 101 at your local community college.) These people, ergo, are the ones running PAX; therein lies the problem.
In a blog addressing this point, indie game developer Elizabeth Sampat launches into a tirade on Krahulik, Khoo, Holkins (who has remained relatively low-key on all the matters), PAX, and everything associated with the whole situation, and boils it down to the politely stated point titling her piece, “Quit Fucking Going to PAX Already, What Is Wrong With You.”
Whereas Sampat alleges that the “crowd went wild” while others contend that it was merely a smattering of applause in a hall of hundreds, I cannot diagnose. I was not in that hall nor was I at PAX; it is not my place to make that judgment call. But Sampat also turns her fire on companies that attend PAX. Addressing the companies that attend PAX who call it a necessity in the industry, she states:
Allow me to be 100%, absolutely Swarovski-crystal clear: I am completely against rape, and rape jokes are never ever okay, EVER. Penny Arcade may want to hide behind their new “do not engage” policy on sex and sexuality, but they definitely need to face the jury, confess their sins to the public, and explain how they will advance the cause of equality for all, not for some, in both sexuality and gender.
However, to be fair, PAX is not wholly evil. They have made several hefty charitable donations, including scholarships, Hurricane Katrina relief, and their own charity, Child's Play, which supports children with terminal diseases. They've banned the use of “booth babes,” unlike E3, and ensure panels representative of all attendants. So we're not talking about Satan and his hell-born armies here.
Also, Ms. Sampat is quite wrong here.
Yes, the game industry did exist long before Penny Arcade. This is true, and it will long after as well. But to dismiss PAX is to misunderstand the industry. PAX is now crucial to success. Company travel budgets in the game industry now primarily consist of E3 and PAX.
Unfortunately, what Ms. Sampat is asking is for companies to stop being part of the biggest fan-facing convention in gaming. “Quit f***ing going” would work for Gamescom or for Tokyo Game Show, but PAX has evolved to something beyond this. "Not going to PAX" equals "not going to E3" at this point. It tells the gamersphere—fans, media, and other studios alike—that you have nothing worthy of showing. Or worse yet, it says that you have something you deem poor enough in quality that you don't want to showcase it. And in the industry, that's damning. At that point, take a big red marker, and just cross off every page until the holidays, and hope that word of mouth about your product spreads like wildfire.
Smaller studios, like The Fullbright Company, the creators of the critically-acclaimed Gone Home, have the luxury of choosing to attend or not. By virtue of the “independent” scene, they can give Krahulik and Co. the figurative middle finger, pick up their toys, and—if you'll excuse the pun—go home, because indie games rely on the word-of-mouth factor anyway. They rely on a blitzkrieg of previews, hoping it catches on with one or two major game journalism sites, and that people pick up on those reviews and watch the buzz spread.
For a smaller indie studio, not attending is virtuous. Seriously, kudos to The Fullbright Company. Well done standing on principle. Not to mention that by that same virtue, by explaining their position and sending it out to as many press people as they know, they get a little notoriety. They're the David to the Goliath of PAX. But not every studio has that luxury. Some of them have to pitch their game and pitch hard, and the big boys are watching.
Let us not forget, the studios are there to do one thing: implant the seed into fans' minds that their game deserves the hard-earned disposable income of gamers everywhere. And with major games headed into the $60-and-beyond realm, that argument sometimes finds itself to be a tough sell.
And don't blame us, the media that covers PAX, for doing our job. The fact of the matter, frankly, is that if your editor looks at you and says, “You're going to be part of our PAX coverage,” “no” is not an option. You go. PAX is the jelly to E3's peanut butter, and if you can put on a resume or CV that you've been to both, you have one hell of a tasty sandwich other editors are now looking at. You're now a tasty little meal of awesome writing and experience.
Like it or not, the only group that really has the luxury of not “f***ing going” to PAX are the very people PAX was designed for—the fans. That sucks. And it sucks hard. It puts a huge social problem in the lap of the gamers, conjured up by dear Mr. Krahulik, and says, “This guy is a schmuck who thinks rape is funny, and that some of your fellow gamers are simply confused by their genitals. And he's running the biggest fan con for gaming. You going or not?”
Gamers shouldn't have to decide if they sacrifice their experience because Krahulik is a jerk. Yet honestly that stands as the quickest way to change.
Sure, gamers can protest and write in and hit Twitter (carefully, might I add) and the whole nine yards to make their voices heard. But Penny Arcade's newest policy of “don't talk to us, we're not here” saves them from having a real debate about the situation or face accountability for their past sins. By gamers silencing their wallets, they give the loudest protest possible. PAX numbers dwindling translates into fewer dollars into the coffers of the webcomic's creators. It also translates into fewer people for game companies to showcase their goods to. Fewer people translates into less purpose for the companies trying to pitch future sales, and less purpose translates into more studios opting out of PAX to find suitable alternatives. I'm not saying that companies shouldn't be noble and opt out to voice opposition to such prejudices as presented by Krahulik; I am saying that nobility takes a backseat to the dollar bill, for better or for worse.
Things continue to spiral at that point: Fewer game companies means less press covering an event waning in importance. Less press means less coverage, meaning fewer fans and fewer companies bothering to pitch at PAX. The only thing that would be able to stop this cycle would be the heads of Penny Arcade stepping forward and righting their wrongs instead of just ignoring it.
The truth of the matter is that anyone in the actual industry cannot just “quit f***ing going.” PAX has evolved beyond this point. It is up to the gamersphere to speak with their attendance and their wallets. It's a hard choice to make and a huge sacrifice to ask of gamers. But in a society ruled by consumers, they're the only ones who can make a substantial impact at this point.
And until, as a group, gamers band together and announce that they're tired of such regressive thinking as that which fills Mike Krahulik's head, there will continually be a problem with PAX.
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