Why I won’t be going to PAX any time soon (and why that makes me really, really sad)

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while but haven’t because I don’t want to be That Feminist Who Only Writes About Rape Culture. I’ve been wrestling with the fear that if I talk about rape culture too much that people will stop listening to me because I’ll be seen as an embodiment of every strawfeminist stereotype out there. “Yeah, yeah, wundergeek. We get that you’re obsessed with rape. So, like, can you please just shut up already?” Ultimately, though, I feel like this is important enough for me to “risk” not being taken seriously.

So as I’ve mentioned before, I had a pretty serious experience with sexual harassment at last year’s GenCon. As such, the issue of convention harassment is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. Like many other events in male-dominated nerd subcultures, harassment is a real problem at gaming conventions. Unfortunately, while other male-dominated nerd subcultures (ie tech, skepticism/secular activism) have started to engage with the issue of harassment at conventions/conferences and to implement anti-harassment policies, the attitude toward this problem by gaming event organizers is, shall we say, less than helpful. For the most part, event organizers would rather bury their head in the sand than take this on a serious issue.

And sure, I get it. Harassment is absolutely a shitty thing to have to deal with, and it sucks having to make plans for how to deal with it. But hand-waving and saying “it’s not your responsibility” or “it’s not a real issue” just isn’t an adequate response. The lack of harassment policies at major gaming conventions is something that is harming real people, and organizers need to get over their discomfort and start implementing serious policies to deal with the problem.

The notable exception to all of this is PAX (Penny Arcade Expo). PAX Prime and PAX East not only have harassment policies, they also have Enforcers on the show floor available to enforce the policy as incidents occur. Even more encouraging is their (sometimes controversial) ban on booth babes, something I’d love to see at GenCon but frankly don’t expect to see ever.

Recently among the indie tabletop tribe, attendance has been shifting away from GenCon due to a number of factors mostly related to the ever-increasing cost of being an exhibitor on the show floor, and PAX has been picking up a lot of that slack. While not originally a convention that included tabletop gaming as part of its focus, there has been a growing interest by attendees in tabletop gaming and a lot of independent designers and smaller game companies have been quite happy to take advantage of that interest. So between their progressive stance on booth babes, their serious anti-harassment policy, and environment that doesn’t price indie creators out of the show economy, PAX should be a convention that I would be happy to support, right?


Were PAX not affiliated with Penny Arcade, I would be delighted to go, or to tell other people to go. Unfortunately, the creators of Penny Arcade have repeatedly proven that when it comes to rape culture, they Just Don’t Get It. All of these efforts to make PAX a welcoming and safe place for female attendees aren’t because Gabe and Tycho care about whether women feel welcome and safe. It’s about business and not alienating a very large potential customer base. Gabe and Tycho themselves have an, unfortunately, long and checkered past with being openly supportive of rape culture.

Most notably there was the whole, long, sordid dickwolves fiasco, which I mentioned in a previous post here on GaW:

There’s a Really, really long summary here, but in a nutshell they made a comic that joked about rape, then made fun of the rape survivors who complained about the comic, then SOLD SHIRTS based on the rape-joke comic, then stopped selling the shirts when it started hurting attendance at PAX but never really properly apologized. Or rather they did, but it was a “we’re sorry you were offended” sort of apology, which actually isn’t a real apology at all.

 (For the record, I was in the camp that thought the original comic was funny but that their subsequent response to objections was completely unacceptable and Not Okay.)

 Anyhow. The point they were making with the original comic was a good one. Did they need to make that point with rape? Nope. Not at all.

If that was the only instance of this kind of bullshit, I might still have been inclined to roll my eyes and look past their misdeeds and their faux apology. Unfortunately, more recent events have proven that the Penny Arcade creators haven’t really learned much of anything from their experiences with the backlash against the dickwolves comic and t-shirts. Last month, there was a Kickstarter for an awful tentacle rape card game called Tentacle Bento that got pulled due to violations of Kickstarter’s TOS. And then Gabe then came out as being against the pulling of the Kickstarter, because, you know, freeeeedom.

There’s a detailed breakdown here, but basically Gabe went from saying that Tentacle Bento’s Kickstarter shouldn’t have been pulled because, you know, censorship, to questioning the mental health of his critics and finally dismissing the issue all together. Because that’s totally a great, PR-minded response from a business person who professes to want to make women welcome at PAX because it’s good for business. Nope. I can’t see how having one of the creators of Penny Arcade, who has already gotten in trouble in the past for making jokes trivializing the existence of rape culture, make jokes and belittle the concerns of people concerned about rape culture in the gaming would possibly make women thinking about attending PAX feel less safe. Nope. Not at all.

That would be bad enough, but I guess Tycho felt like he had to get in on the supporting rape culture action too. Not very long after Tentacle Bento, the new trailer for the upcoming Hitman: Absolution was released, which pretty much shows Agent 47 beating the crap out of scantily clad, overly sexualized assassin-nuns.  Unsurprisingly, this drew a fair amount of criticism, especially as the Hitman games don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to producing women-friendly promotional material. So what did Tycho have to say about people criticizing the new trailer?

Well, he called their complaints “infantalizing chivalry”, for one. He also said that “the swooning and fainting and so forth about this stuff, the fever, is comical in its preening intensity”. And naturally he set up strawmen that completely mis-characterized the criticism against the Hitman: Absolution trailer before knocking down said strawmen as being “a crock of fucking shit”. (You can read the entirety of his post here.)

Wow. I feel really confident that Gabe and Tycho understand my concerns about rape culture in gaming and that they care about wanting to help me avoid repeats of last year’s harassment by marking PAX as a space where rape culture is not welcome! Oh wait, no, scratch that. What I feel really confident about is that Gabe and Tycho care about wanting to make money by increasing female attendance at PAX conventions and that they plan to do that by taking some common sense measures to make sure that women want to go by making sure they won’t get harassed and stuff.

So here’s the part where I feel conflicted. On the one hand, the PAX harassment policy is what I have been advocating to see at other large gaming conventions. There’s anecdotal evidence out there to suggest that harassment is taken seriously and that violators are removed swiftly from the convention. And that’s great! One of the things that I am most sad about with regard to my inevitable return to GenCon next year (pregnancy is going to keep me from attending this year) is the knowledge that I will be constantly monitoring situations for the potential to become unsafe, because GenCon has done nothing as of yet to enact serious anti-harassment policies. So you think I’d be more enthusiastic about a convention that is designed to safeguard the safety of its female attendees, right?

Unfortunately, I can’t get past the continued support that Penny Arcade’s creators have given to rape culture, nor can I get past the persistent scorn and ridicule that they have heaped on those who speak out against rape culture in gaming. Wanting to address the culture that gave my attacker tacit permission to violate my boundaries and know that he could expect not to face serious repercussions is not “infantalizing chivalry”. It’s looking out for my own damn safety. The anger  I feel about the incident I suffered isn’t “comical in its preening intensity” – it’s righteous fucking anger that the trauma that I suffered, and that other women like me have suffered, in a convention space continues to be dismissed as not a real issue, as nothing more than “swooning and fainting and so forth” by us poor hysterical womenfolk.

Gabe and Tycho have a huge audience. They have the potential to use that audience for good, or at least not to use their audience for evil. But instead they take every opportunity they can to mock people who speak out against rape culture and belittle their concerns, and their audience is paying attention. And that makes me sad, because PAX is a good convention that I would like to be able to support, and there are good people going to PAX who I would also like to support. But I can’t countenance giving money to people who think rape is funny and that rape culture just isn’t a thing.