The PAX problem

It’s PAX Australia this weekend. Some friends of ours over at Pop Up Playground recently decided to pull out and cancel their panel there, on live, pervasive and urban gaming, and today Ben McKenzie posted a long explanation of his decision, which includes Mike Krahulik’s public transphobia and the way that’s been handled, as well as the fallout over the Why So Serious? panel.

I don’t think the organisers have created an event which is non-inclusive; I’m not boycotting the event based just on the description of the panel or Krahulik’s comments. As the Pop Up Playground statement says, those things just revealed to us that the culture surrounding PAX Aus is not that different to the problematic culture associated with Penny Arcade in the past. We weren’t invited to speak – we submitted an idea for a panel and were accepted. Most of the panels are community suggested; the organisers and the high ups at Penny Arcade have pointed this out in the wake of criticism. They didn’t title them or write the descriptions. So the program of panels ought to give us an idea of what the community at PAX wants to talk about; the community that created them is the community that wants to engage with PAX Australia.

Given that, is it telling that something like only 15% of panellists overall are women? That a clear majority of panels have no women on them at all? (I’ve no idea what the ratios of non-straight, non-white participants are like.) Perhaps they weren’t invited; perhaps they were and didn’t feel comfortable participating, despite the clear harassment policy and lack of “booth babes”, both things I certainly applaud. When you look closer at the PAX Aus program, you find a lot of near misses; panels that almost, but don’t quite engage issues of social justice. There’s discussion of games being criticised for being sexist and racist (“Why So Serious?”), but not of the racism and sexism in games. We have two panels critical of how other forms of media portray geeks and gamers (“That’s What She Said”, ”Is There Such A Thing As A Fake Geek?”), but none about how our own medium portrays women and minorities. There’s advice on how women can navigate games as a man’s world (“Not Fair? Then Grow Some Ovaries and DO Something About it!”), but no challenge of the systemic sexism which makes the industry unwelcoming to women. There’s even one about the entitlement players feel and the impact this has on makers (“Gamer Rage – Entitlement Issues”), but nothing about the entitlement and privilege unconsciously possessed by white, straight and/or cis-male players.

Looking at all that, it’s easy to be left with a clear impression that the PAX audience hasn’t thought about these issues yet – or doesn’t want to. In such a climate, it’s not hard to see how people wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing them up.

PUP aren’t the only people to have pulled out; Brendan Keogh has also decided not to take part, and there may be others I’m not aware of, who have decided not to participate at all or rescinded after seeing the events of recent months. Their decisions won’t have been easy ones. Ben’s been careful to articulate the tricky decision here: is it better to stay and attempt to change the culture from the inside, or back off and make your statement by disengaging? Either way, something is lost.

It’s a fair bet there will be a lot of eyes on that panel this weekend, and a lot of interest in precisely how equality issues are enacted this time round, at this particular event. Thanks to a panel description and some extremely unwise comments from a founder in a different country, PAX Australia has become a flash point for the broader issues at play here. Whatever happens, whether it passes without incident or implodes in a mess, it’ll be held up as emblematic.

But misogyny, transphobia, racism, homophobia in gamer cultures: they are not one incident, one big emblematic moment. They are a series of small decisions, individual moments that taken in isolation are small. It’s climate, not weather. It’s not one massive fish, but an ocean teeming with small ones. The problem with PAX is not just the problem with PAX: it’s also all the smaller problems it subsumes by being so visible. It’s not only the events themselves but also the standard set.

So here’s hoping for a positive PAX that solves some problems, turns some of those near misses into hits, and sets a higher standard. And much respect to Ben, for setting a very high bar.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

2 thoughts on “The PAX problem”

  1. While I appreciate the discomfort people feel about the very real issues in the gaming community, I am confused by the apparent disconnect between the armchair/internet objectors and the proposed panels at PAX.

    If these problems are major issues affecting many people (as seems to be the case given the large-scale outcry against “misogyny, transphobia, racism, [and] homophobia in gamer cultures”), then surely we should see people proposing panels at PAX to discuss this problem? Have such panels been proposed and rejected? Or is everyone who stands against this sort of thing happier to complain on the internet or withdraw their panel rather than host a panel to discuss the problems?

    What I would love to see is everyone who has withdrawn their panels (or thought about withdrawing) banding together and holding a panel talking about these problems, why they are relevant to all gamers, and what the effect is on greater society.

    Making a negative statement by withdrawing a panel is only a half-step in the direction of making gaming a more inclusive culture – much better, and more constructive, would be engaging the issues head-on.

    1. I don’t know what the PAX Australia selection process was, but from my own experience elsewhere I can absolutely understand why they may not have had many submissions from people with skin in the game here. After problems with similar panels in the US, and the PA reputation, I can understand why those who live through discriminatory experiences every day might not want to get up on stage and live them in public for the benefit of other people. I don’t think that makes people “armchair objectors”; there is a fine balance here between fighting so that change can happen and self-preservation, and if few panels on this subject were proposed I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that balance may be part of the equation.

      I respect the people who’ve chosen to withdraw for not wanting to speak on behalf of the people whose voices aren’t there. Ben for one is certainly not failing to engage with the issues head on, in his other work – and his rationale for not putting forward another panel makes perfect sense to me. It’s not necessarily the path I would have chosen in his situation, but in this situation the only right answer is what feels right to you.

      Personally, I’d like to see an effort from PAX to reach out to those people who aren’t speaking, who feel excluded – not just those who’ve pulled out, but those who never felt welcome in the first place. To borrow Ben’s words again: “you can’t make a games event truly inclusive just by not excluding anyone. You have to take active steps to make the event inclusive and welcoming.” I’d like to see the onus on the people with the power, rather than the people struggling against it, to make a change.

What do you think?