Penny Arcade Expo Australia is going to be a big, exciting event, but not without a large dose of controversy.Penny Arcade Expo is a unique event for gamers, founded by Penny Arcade webcomic creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (also known as their fictional personas, Tycho Brahe and Jonathon “Gabe” Gabriel).
Most large video gaming events are either designed for press and trade, such as E3 in Los Angeles every June, or provide a mix of trade and public access, such as Gamescom in Cologne every August. PAX, as it is commonly known, is all about the gamers. Publishers and other exhibitors are invited to attend, and there is certainly substantial press interest, but these are events that are about regular people gathering together to share their love of the medium.
More than that, PAX is not strictly a video gaming event, but also places a strong emphasis on games played in the real world, such as board games, card games, miniature wargames, and traditional role-playing games.
Far more than the usual “have a look at the games we’ll we selling to you in six months’ time”, PAX encourages dialogue between game creators and game consumers. Independent developers are also encouraged to attend, so the video games on display are incredibly eclectic, ranging from huge-budget AAA titles through to tiny solo projects that will only be available online.
It is by all accounts an excellent event, and has been running several times a year in multiple US cities for almost a decade. For Australia to get the first PAX event held outside the USA, ahead of the UK, Europe, and even Canada, is a massive coup for local game fans.
So why, then are some people refusing to attend? Why has one independent developer, whose new game has been receiving rave reviews, publically stated that they will not be at PAX?
The problem is that Holkins and Krahulik court controversy. Their humour is at times very politically incorrect, and many people have taken offence at their comics, their online statements, their comments on Twitter, and also their public reactions when called out on their behaviour.
I am one of those who was personally hurt by the Penny Arcade boys, and their unwavering attitudes led me to stop reading their strip several years ago. That was over the series of events that came to be known as the “Dickwolves saga”.
In short, they posted a comic strip which included a line from a tortured soul in Hell, complaining that he is “raped to sleep by Dickwolves every night”. Several readers voiced their opinion that rape is not funny, and the joke was in poor taste.
While I thought the strip was relatively innocuous, I was appalled by the responses from Holkins and, in particular, Krahulik. They accused their detractors of censorship, and responded with anger and insensitivity. Rather than simply let it slide, they began to actively antagonise their detractors, making fun of online “trigger warnings” (warning at the start of an article to warn people of upsetting, or “triggering”, content).
The final straw for me came soon after, when they announced they had created a Dickwolves t-shirt, which would be available for sale on their website and at booths at PAX. This, to me, was nothing more than a slap in the face to people who have been affected by rape, and I decided that I would no longer read their strips.
In the years since, more controversies have erupted, including Krahulik (yes, again) infuriating transgender advocates by demanding that all men have penises and all women have vaginas. When it was explained that some (such as transgender and intersex people, who may make up as much as 2% of the population according to some studies) are born with genitalia that doesn’t match their gender, he responded with ridicule. He later apologised when a former employee of Penny Arcade, a trans woman who was born physically male, wrote in to explain how much his words had hurt her.
Krahulik concluded by saying, “My reaction when I feel backed into corner is to be an asshole. It’s essentially how I defend myself. It’s been that way since was in elementary school. I’m 36 now. Maybe it’s finally time to try and let some of that shit go.” It seemed a clear admission that he recognises turning to anger and sarcasm as a first resort is not constructive, and he is working on changing.
When PAX Australia popped up, I considered my long boycott of the Penny Arcade strip, and decided that the expo and the comic are very different things. While the strip is made by just two people, the massive expos are clearly the work of large groups; my hope was that the things that had driven me away from the comic would be filtered through too many people to be felt at the event.
Not so much, as it turns out. Last month, many people reading the PAX Australia programme were horrified to discover the listing for a panel titled “Why so serious? Has the industry forgotten that games are supposed to be fun?” While there’s nothing wrong with the title, the description read as follows:
“Why does the game industry garner such scrutiny from outside sources and within? Every point aberration gets called into question, reviewers are constantly criticised and developers and publishers professionally and personally attacked. Any titillation gets called out as sexist or misogynistic and involve any antagonist race other than Anglo-Saxons and you’re a racist. It’s gone too far and when will it all end? How can we get off the soapbox and work together to bring a new constructive age into fruition?”
This reads like nothing more than a straight, white, male gamer having a whine on the internet that he can’t “express himself” any more without killjoys calling him sexist or racist. The claims that “it’s gone too far” and that we need to “get off the soapbox” were particularly egregious.
The simple fact is that games do have major problems with their portrayals of female characters (if they include female characters at all, of course), the ways in which they deal with delicate issues of race, and LGBTI characters who are so rare they barely exist . To be told that demands that the industry clean up their act and stop pandering to only the young, straight, white, and male demographic “have gone too far” when they have barely even made a dent in the existing problem is simply insulting.
The panel description was rapidly edited, and now reads as follows:
“Does the games industry garner too much scrutiny from outside sources and within? With review score aberrations often called into question, writers are constantly criticised and developers and publishers professionally and personally attacked. Has it all gone too far? Can we just get along and we work together to bring a new constructive gaming age into fruition?”
So, where does this leave someone like me, a person who loves the video game medium but who is bisexual, a vocal feminist ally, and friends with several transgender people?
After a lot of indecision, I decided to go ahead and attend in my capacity as a games journalist, and also participating directly as a panellist during the Saturday night quiz show. It is not without a degree of trepidation, but I have decided to give the Penny Arcade boys and their entourage a chance to prove themselves.
They have done a lot right with this event, such as banning “booth babes” – female models whose only job is to stand near a booth in scanty clothes and attract attention to the product on show – not to mention the incredible Child’s Play charity, which annually raises enormous amounts of money and donations of video game hardware for childrens’ hospitals around the world. While their mistakes are disappointing, and their sometimes fierce and misguided defence of their mistakes are even more so, I feel it would be a mistake to bow out of PAX Australia without giving it a chance.
Even so, I have a lot of sympathy for those who have decided to boycott the event. I know several Australian video game journalists who have elected to stay home this weekend, and one high profile indie developer has explained on their blog that, as a four-person team including two women and a gay man, they simply couldn’t attend with a clear conscience.
My fervent hope is that Holkins and Krahulik will keep firmly in mind that they are no longer just two guys making an irreverent online comic about video games and popular culture. For better or for worse, by launching their own event they have set themselves up as community leaders, and they really need to remember to act like it.
How about you, readers? Are any of you in Melbourne this weekend to attend PAX? Have Gabe and Tycho’s antics put you off at all? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
– James “DexX” Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.