Last weekend marked the inaugural Australian Penny Arcade Expo (PAX), a gaming and gaming culture convention that has been running in the US since 2004.

Now, I don’t self-identify as a gamer because, uhhm, I’m afraid I’ll be called a fake geek girl.  THERE, I SAID IT.  I loved Portal and Portal 2, I’m onto my second play-through of Mass Effect and I have the next two ME games queued up and waiting, and I have a copy of Dragon Age around here somewhere.  And I’m great at Bejewelled.

But for the longest time I didn’t play games at all, because I grew up in a house without consoles (or handheld devices, or even, until I was 16, a PC), and by the time I reached adulthood I was quite convinced that games were hard, and I was bad at them, and therefore gaming would not be a fun way to spend my time.  Also, gaming culture looks pretty toxic from the outside.

What I’ve discovered in the last couple of years is that difficulty settings can be adjusted, I’m not inherently bad at games, and gaming culture is in fact pretty toxic.

A lot of that toxicity seems to be both reflected and perpetuated by Penny Arcade.  I first heard of them when the Dickwolves issue erupted.  This Tumblr post documents general Penny Arcade issues in detail, with a timeline that goes up to 2013.  A lot of the problems seem to stem from the fact that PA has evolved from a fannish outlet to something more professional, without a corresponding development of professional behaviour.  This seems to happen a lot in nerddom, and understandably so — it’s really hard to step back and go, “Hey, my hobby has turned into something bigger and suddenly I’m speaking for a community.”

Problems started to develop around PAX Australia when a panel was announced with the following blurb:

Any titillation gets called out as sexist or misogynistic, and involve any antagonist race aside from Anglo-Saxon and you’re called a racist. It’s gone too far and when will it all end?

That came out just a couple of weeks after I programmed Continuum, and I was deeply impressed at how it represented everything I had tried to avoid.

Panellists and companies started pulling out in protest, including the Fullbright Company (whose upcoming game, Gone Home, by the way, sounds amazing and I am going to play it so hard).  

Mere days after the program was released, a senior Penny Arcade spokesman made a series of transphobic comments, some of which came under the banner of “some of my best friends are trans”.

Ben McKenzie blogs eloquently here about the issues he had with PAX and the reasons he and Pop Up Playground pulled out of the con.

A bunch of my friends and acquaintances made it to PAX Australia, though, and Steph and I put out a call for a con report that we could share on No Award.  The excellent Nicole Juliette Canal (blog is a work in progress) responded, and I think she gives an interesting and useful review of PAX Australia.

Pax Australia 2013 – A Girl Friendly Perspective

Nicole Juliette Canal

Penny Arcade Expo, usually referred to as PAX, is an annual American gaming expo from the creators of the Penny Arcade comic.  PAX attracts a very loyal fan base, because of its focus on community.  They do have a expo hall where the various companies show off their games, but they also have an extensive board game library, an impressive collection of vintage consoles, and a whole swarm of PCs and modern consoles set up for people to play.  This makes it different from both standard fan-run and commercial conventions, but if you go with people you know, or can overcome any social reticence, it can be a pretty rewarding experience.

The first PAX Australia drew two main criticisms that I heard about.  The first critique was the queues for the major panels.  Personally, I didn’t even try and attend any panels because I expect the queues to be ridiculous.  However since many Australian fans may not have even heard about things like San Diego Comic Con this might come as a bit of a shock.  

[Liz here!  Even those of us who have heard of SDCC might have trouble getting our heads around the queuing involved there.  I presume no one at PAX was starting to queue at 1 in the morning to ensure a place in a panel, as a couple of friends of mine did at SDCC.  Australian media cons in general don't have a huge panel culture, and a lot of people might have been taken by surprise by the demand.]

In general, the lines were handled very well.  They had a specific room for people to queue in, they had a specific twitter account set up to warn people when queues were nearing capacity, and they mostly told people when they wouldn’t make it into a panel because a queue was too long.  I think the fact that there were times where people waited in queues for over an hour and then didn’t get into panels is pretty unfortunate.  

When confronted with the issue in a Q & A, Mike and Jerry’s answer was that they chose Melbourne because it had larger venues to expand into, that their first con in every city had been small, and that they thought it would be less of an issue next year.   

The second issue was the booth babes, models that are hired to stand around not wearing much and enticing male gamers to visit their stands.  I attended PAX with a pretty naive male friend, and even he was insulted by this concept when I explained it to him.  The salt in the wound of the booth babes’ presence was that this is something that PAX have been trying to combat, and that gamers were assured PAX Australia would not feature booth babes.  Yet the Sennheiser booth had fake cops and a booth where you could take photos with them, and the World of Tanks booths had women in short army uniforms over leggings.  

When asked about this Mike and Jerry said that it’s something the large exhibitors just do by default.  When told not to, they think it’s a joke and when the models turn up and are asked to put some clothes on they are surprised.  

I think what happened in this particular situation is that the exhibitors listened to the letter not the spirit of the request.  Technically, neither set of girls were wearing revealing clothing.  The World of Tanks at least gets some points for having their girls in uniforms that matched the theme of their game, but the Sennheiser girls were pretty offensive not just for the concept that had nothing to do with games, but for actively approaching male gamers and encouraging them to take pictures.  It was all extremely icky, and I think that most people felt that way, so I’m hoping it generated enough bad press for Sennheiser that they learn their lesson.  

[An interjection from Liz: we use Sennheiser headphones in my office, and I've been side-eyeing my own desk ever since I read this!]

Apart from that, there wasn’t anything that made me feel uncomfortable as a girl.  There were plenty of other girls around everywhere, not a majority, but enough that I didn’t feel out of place.  There were plenty of female cosplayers, some in revealing outfits, and I didn’t hear stories about any of them having problems.  I really hope this is because it didn’t happen, rather than because they didn’t talk about it, but I guess you can never really know.  

I didn’t notice a lot of people from non-Caucasian backgrounds, and while there were a few wheelchair users present, the number of displays that featured computers on standing desks meant the expo hall part of the convention, at least, wasn’t actually accessible.  

The games being displayed were fairly gender neutral.  I didn’t see anything being branded as boy games or girl games except for some sort of comment about ‘manning up’ during the Xbox panel.  I think Riot deserve a mention for featuring both a boy character and a girl character on each of the five designs of promotional lanyards they gave away, because small details like that are what make me really happy.  

[Another interjection from Liz: my new hobby is bemoaning the absence of fem!Shep from any Mass Effect marketing material, so that is quite pleasing.]

There were two games that I noticed as having memorable female characters (apologies if there were other that don’t come to mind right now).  The first is Ninja Pizza Girl by Disparity games.  Somewhat inspired by Mirror’s Edge (without the frustrating bits), it’s a game with a kick-arse female protagonist who runs and jumps her way across buildings to hand deliver pizza.  With witty dialogue, and a message of ‘It’s okay to speak up when someone is making you uncomfortable’ I think it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

The other game is Freedom Fall by Stirfire Studios, where the antagonist is a princess who hates princessey things and instead loves dragons and designing diabolical traps.  A really interesting down-scrolling platform game with the story told through messages left on the walls.  It’s a pretty tough game, but nice to see girls that don’t have to be girlie all the time, and don’t completely reject their feminine side either.

*

Massive thanks to Nicole for her write-up!  I have to admit that I’m glad to hear that the actual event itself was better than the build-up promised.  I hope that future PAX events aren’t accompanied by pre-con fail, because Penny Arcade is effectively a cultural leader in gaming, and a more inclusive, less *ist and *phobic community is something gaming badly needs.