Let’s get one thing out of the way first: it’s pretty much criminally stupid to put out a t-shirt of what effectively has become the spirit animal of the worst mouthbreathing misogynistic trolls on the Internet, and then act surprised when it becomes a thing. That’s not nearly as stupid as publically saying you regret taking it down. So there’s that, and I won’t defend it.
That being said, I love PAX. It is currently the best game show available, largely because it was organized by gamers, for gamers, and the event therefore feels like a real and genuine love affair with gaming, completely unlike the publisher-driven plastic-coated circle-jerk that is E3. The gaming is great, the independent games portion is a feast for people like me, and the convention has a hundred little subcommunities that are all welcoming and affirm your love for gaming. I will continue to love PAX. Despite the fact that it no longer is cool to do so.
My Facebook feed is currently full of outrage towards the Return of the Dickwolf (General summary here). In a recent Q&A at PAX, Mike of Penny Arcade said that he felt that removing the Dickwolves shirt they briefly sold was a mistake – to generally horrifying applause from the audience. To Mike, who is first and foremost a humorist, the Dickwolf shirt is a statement about free speech. Comedians of all stripes tend to be among the most vocal defenders of free speech you’ll find in the world, because it’s almost impossible to do anything other than the Family Circus unless you’re willing to offend someone. But in this case, the point was lost on Mike – the Dickwolf shirt was and is a bad idea because it effectively says to some in the audience (particularly women) ‘I’m on Team Rapist’.
Which is not cool.
Despite Mike’s statement, Dickwolf shirts have not made a reappearance on the Penny Arcade store. (Surprisingly, you can’t even get one on eBay). Which means that Mike is effectively being pilloried for having an opinion regarding comedy and political correctness.
Which is also not cool.
One of the things that is infuriating about reading about any Penny Arcade debacle (and yes, it’s not good that that’s a plural) is how quickly it escalates to stupid – on both sides. People who criticized PA were receiving death threats. But so was PA. PA was absolutely unwilling to admit they were wrong. So were their critics. Their critics tend to be women, and are very invested in the cause of reducing the amount of douchebaggery that women face in games. Cartoonists are very invested in the cause of protecting their freedom of speech.
For (mostly) better and (somewhat) for worse, Mike and Jerry are now an important, major voice of gamers in the industry. I suspect that Mike and Gabe wake up in the morning and wonder how the hell they became a cultural force that suddenly has to play nice across cultural bounds. If their comic had a fanbase the size of, say, Sinfest’s, this would be a non-issue. But the fact that they’re a major brand, complete with a convention, a web magazine and whatnot, means they are a major force. Plus, their audience is monstrous in size and utterly devoted to them . The fans will fight to the death for them, even sometimes when the PA guys ask them not to – Penny Arcade has made one of the greatest gaming communities on the planet, but they’ve also created a monster they can’t entirely control. All this means that when they say something you disagree with, it quickly becomes a thing. And now, likewise, saying you’re going to boycott or not go is also becoming a thing.
Let’s take a step back for a second, and consider the possibility that perhaps, even if you happen to think this event is reprehensible and some subset of their audience is beyond hope, that Penny Arcade is on top of all of this one of the most positive and progressive major voices in gaming.
- PAX has had a firm ‘no booth babe’ policy since early on, one I have actually witnessed first hand (the Lollipop Chainsaw model was removed from the booth one over from the SWTOR booth a couple years ago). They also have proven willing to kick out assholes who are rude to female cosplayers.
- Penny Arcade is one of the strongest supporters of the AbleGamers Foundation, the group that tirelessly works to increase the visibility of disabled gamers, and game accessibility for those gamers. AbleGamers at PAX East is, in fact, granted prime real estate right next to the escalators down to the main floor.
- A lot has been made about PAX’s decision to show a panel called “Why So Serious”, which wanted to open the discussion of how much Political Correctness was too much. Putting aside the fact that this sounds like a discussion that needs to happen – designers can always use guidance balancing between giving a progressive measure and dealing with pressures from executives and the market – calling this representative of the overall tenor of panels at PAX is incredibly misleading. They’ve also had talks about family friendly gaming, sexism in games , gay/lesbian issues in games and how it affects their community, gender diversity in games and character design, facing prejudice while gaming as a girl, and mental health and video games.
- No one would every call PA politically correct – which is one of the things that endears them to their legions of fans. That being said, Penny Arcade is responsible for keeping the hardcore gamer spotlight on all manner of important studio fuckups and calls shame to the gaming public’s occasional questionable choices. They remain the voice with the loudest megaphone at calling gamer attention to many progressive issues in games and geek media, including racism, gratuitous sex, creepy stalker based startups, booth babes, bullying, perverting child aimed franchises, gun violence, Legalization, “fake geek girls”, letting your kid on the internet, and the absurdity of chain mail bikinis. They address these issues for laughs, but they still address these issues, and are merciless towards companies who cross the line.
- In cartoons that don’t specifically call out games and game companies for being overly sexist, Penny Arcade’s women are respectfully and tastefully drawn, they show realistic and healthy female characters (as the love interests) and family bonds, and have the wonderful Ann-archy character.
- They are the hosts of Strip Search, and clearly made a concerted effort to ensure half the contestants were women.
- The Penny Arcade Report is currently one of the best gaming magazines on the web, confronting many touchy and progressive issues head on. It is, in my mind, what the Escapist wishes it were. Top of mind articles have included coverage of the Fighting Games Sexism scandal, Investigating the reboot of an inherently racist game franchise, challenging nerd shaming, how transgenders use games for support, safety and exploration, how one studio faced the challenges of making your game’s heroine a female, and how out of control game communities level abuse and death threats on developers they disagree with.
- Penny Arcade has been large proponents of independent games, frequently mentioning interesting projects on their blog as well as giving free space for indy games at their shows.
- And lest we forget, Child’s Play was a charity set up by the Penny Arcade folk, and has so far gathered and donated twelve million dollars worth of toys and games to sick kids worldwide
And this is all supposed to be undone because a humorist would fight to the death over the ideal that he should be able to tell unpopular jokes that might offend some parties? Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, and George Carlin are all spinning in their graves enough to drill into diamond.
Elizabeth Sampat is one of the most widely quoted of the critics:
But I have to go for work! PAX is mandatory in the game industry or you fail!
That is total bullshit. If you are the person deciding to bring your game to PAX: the game industry existed long before Penny Arcade and it will exist for a long time after. You can be successful without PAX, just ask The Fullbright Company. And if you’re an employee being told to go to PAX: does your company know how shitty the Penny Arcade guys are? Maybe tell them. If you’re afraid it will sound too personal, you can just link them to this article where the Financial Post compares Mike to Chris Brown. That’ll sound plenty official.
But there are no other cool conventions to go to!
I already linked Geek Girl Con and GaymerX. There’s also GenCon, Dreamation, DexCon, DragonCon (who successfully ousted their gross owner!) and a million others. You can do this. I believe in you.
First off, doing tiny cons is not usually very cost efficient unless a sizeable game audience is there. GeekGirlCon has a population of 4000. GaymerX is about 2000. Building a pre-release demo build of a game is incredibly time-consuming and demanding, and not worth it for those tiny numbers. Each of the American PAX shows, by contrast, draws more than 70,000 fans. Building a demo for that is effectively what allows game companies to hit these smaller shows. Also, it goes without saying that if you’re a small indy company who can only do two conventions per year, reaching 140K potential customers is a lot better than reaching 6K. I guess you could just do E3 — but joe and jane consumer can’t get into that.
Secondly, given that passes for PAX sell out in less than a day, I very much doubt there will be much financial impact to them if a minority of gamers opt to boycott. You might push that sell out to two days. Worse, the douchebag ratio will only increase negatively.
Third, game culture is in desperate need of dedouchification, but you don’t change public opinion by preaching to the converted. You don’t need to sell girls on Geek Girl Con that the concept of ‘fake geek girls’ is broken and insulting. You don’t need to sell GaymerX attendees that trans gamers need understanding. You need to bring this understanding to the gaming audience at large. In America, that audience’s largest gathering is PAX.
Bank robbers rob banks because that’s where the money is. If you are an activist who wants to enact social change in the gaming community, you need to go where the gamers are. You can set up talks, you can challenge the PAX guys to give you a booth like they did AbleGamers, you can organize protests, you can set up debates, you can wear coordinated T-Shirts designed to shame and expose douchebaggery in all its forms. Or, you can run away and hope somehow that the problem fixes itself. Turning the largest american consumer-oriented gaming show into even more of a sausage fest makes it pretty unlikely that that’s going to happen.
You know how you beat a free speech zealot? Challenge him to give you the megaphone.
(By attending), [y]ou are giving them something more valuable than money: legitimacy.
This reminds me of when the Obama White House tried to delegitimize Fox News by taking away their front-row seat in the press briefing room. It didn’t work – Fox News is already legitimate in the eyes of their viewers. All the White House did was worsen their relationship with an important news outlet and create a martyr in the eyes of their viewers.
But yeah, Mike saying he wishes they didn’t take the t-shirt off the store was mindbendingly stupid, in oh so many ways.