The Rising Cost of Attending PAX

Photo by  William Pio

Photo by William Pio

I’m stuck in the throes of post-PAX depression, so maybe I’m just looking for a good reason to feel bummed out, but I’ve been seeing a lot of negative sentiment around what it means to go to this expo and how that reflects on its organizers. I wanted to share what I’m reading, where I’m coming from, and what I think the best steps forward are.

In short, the narrative I’m seeing is that going to PAX is inextricable from giving financial support to Penny Arcade and its figureheads. In a position outlined by game designer Elizabeth Sampat and echoed by Leigh Alexander, there’s no distinction between attending PAX and endorsing the positions of Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins (not to mention the rest of their company). I think, in absolute moral terms, this is true. Sampat also highlights a bunch of horrible stuff that sprang out of the Penny Arcade community, such as an alleged sexual assault by a PAX Enforcer (the volunteer army that keeps PAX running) that was kept largely under wraps — a decision Krahulik supports.

Based on my limited experience with Penny Arcade’s fans, I think they’re just like any other large group of people who feel marginalized by society: passionate, eager to do what’s right, and always ready to jump to to the defensive when they feel one of their own is threatened. I’m guessing most PA forum-goers think rape is immoral and victims deserve to be heard and recognized when they feel threatened or disrespected by public figures they otherwise support. But what’s distressing is how almost uniformly Krahulik has sidestepped any opportunity to acknowledge that his views are harmful and bigoted.

Penny Arcade is a touchy subject for just about anyone involved in the games industry. The morality of endorsing (through word of mouth, purchase, or otherwise) their brand is something I’d wrestled with on the site a couple years ago during one of Penny Arcade’s misguided campaigns to defend its own defiantly inconsiderate sentiment, but in the intervening years I haven’t spent much time worrying about what they do. I was a big fan of their comic as a teenager — I mean, I even owned a few books and had practically set their site as my homepage — but after the dickwolves fiasco I haven’t read a strip ever since. I’m not avoiding their work out of spite or in order to make a statement; I just don’t care about what they do any more. In other words, I’m not angry — I’m just done. But I’ve kept going to PAX. Why?

We’ve argued over the ethics of spending money on products that are made by talented and gifted creators who also happen to be bigoted assholes in the past as well. Again, it’s a matter of personal conviction: is it more important that I play and critique Shadow Complex, a landmark game that came together through the hard work of dozens of people, or am I better serving my own conscience and my audience by taking a stand against the author of its source material?

Honestly, I don’t know how this all shakes out. I gave Penny Arcade $120 to attend their four-day expo, and I spent time interacting with fans, developers and other participants. My activity there is, in a very real way, an endorsement of the event. And while I've always felt safe and welcome at PAX (although, granted, I feel safe and welcome most places) I keep learning of new stories of people being belittled, othered and — in some cases — assaulted by a community member and then disregarded by a crowd of fans. And given Krahulik's recent comments at the end of this year's expo where he expressed regret at pulling the Dickwolves t-shirt from their store — a sentiment echoed by Robert Khoo — it's clear they either haven't learned anything about their critics or they simply don't care.

Anyone who knows me or reads my writing knows I don’t support anyone who targets or marginalizes people whose views and experiences are different from their own. I hope I do a reasonable job of supporting minority perspectives in gaming, even though I know it’s something I can always get better at. And I’m trying to increase my awareness of the position of privilege I’m writing from as a cisgender white male with a college degree who has been lucky enough to work for an empowering and challenging company that values its people. I rolled 20s on my way into this world, but not everyone was so lucky, and those voices are integral to the broader conversation.

I don’t know if I’ll go back to PAX. In spite of the hubris of its parent company, it’s still my favorite expo, large or small. But having to grapple with the perceived impact of giving money to them and advocating for its existence by attending are things I’ve been struggling with for a long time without really putting words to it. Maybe it’s time I got my thoughts in order.