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'Diversity Lounge'? PAX has a lot of work to do

With its "Diversity Lounge and Hub," PAX is finally trying to address some of its community problems. So why is everybody laughing? Leigh Alexander explores what it would really take to start healing.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

December 19, 2013

11 Min Read

With its "Diversity Lounge and Hub," PAX is finally trying to address some of its community problems. So why is everybody laughing? Leigh Alexander explores what it would really take to start healing. The Penny Arcade brand, and by extension its multivalent PAX events, have suffered massively in recent years from community management problems. Ever since cofounders Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins first alienated audiences with their "Dickwolves" comic -- and moreso with Krahulik's troubled response to the ensuing controversy -- things just seem to be getting tougher for the team. The fact PA runs the Child's Play charity, which gives video games to facilities for sick kids, hasn't been able to ameliorate the sting of stubbornly-transphobic public comments and an attitude that still reads to too many people like unrepentance and an unwillingness to engage. Whether or not to attend PAX has become a personal and political issue for fans and developers alike -- including the Fullbright Company, which earlier this year stated it wouldn't show its critically-acclaimed Gone Home at an event with such problematic public views. The game industry has begun to address how inviable it's becoming to tolerate a product culture strictly oriented around a traditional straight white male demographic. Earlier this year Electronic Arts held an LGBTQ event for developers and media to discuss diversity, and talks on how to welcome more women and minorities into the games space are increasingly prevalent at events, including this year's GDC. We can only hope initiatives toward an equitable, respectful game industry continue. Prominent examples of bigotry in the player community are ongoing -- like the recent abuse and harassment campaign fielded by Depression Quest creator Zoe Quinn when she placed her game on Steam Greenlight. Or, in the same week, the "fan backlash" at the appointment of Mighty No. 9's Dina Abou Karam, for committing the sin of being publicly interested in social issues (and having insufficiently-hardcore "gamer cred," apparently). Although the tide often feels like it's slowly shifting, the industry is still slow to regard marginalized audiences as important. Perhaps creating a medium and culture where everyone feels welcome to participate and enjoy isn't an exciting-enough objective for some. Yet these are business and cultural problems that should concern everyone working in games even in a mercenary way: Sometimes these troubling hatred spikes are the only time the rest of the world hears about what we do. I've had outreach in recent weeks from multiple national news marquees who are putting together stories prompted by how they've heard video games are an unsalvageable hellhole of abuse and bigotry. That's no good, especially for an industry that continues to migrate into online spaces where it relies on long-term engagement and multiplayer dollars. The conversation needs to change, and there are people who can help who are waiting urgently for their turn, waiting to feel listened-to.

"What marginalized people want from games events is not necessarily to have special zones just for them, but to feel welcome"

In that light, the recent announcement that PAX would incorporate a 'Diversity Lounge and Hub' into future events should theoretically be a welcome step; the tone-deaf giant is finally acknowledging it's alienating a significant part of its community (or, cynically, its money). But the news was met with raucous scorn from social media spaces, gleeful punning, and even a hashtag called #DiversityLoungeDrinks, joking about what sort of cocktails might be served in a "specialty" space of that nature. One can assume that any small initiative from an organization plagued with the issues PAX faces will (and arguably must) be met with skepticism. But the "Diversity Hub and Lounge" is vaguely insulting as a concept: What marginalized people want from games events is not necessarily to have special zones just for them, but to feel welcome, wanted and safe at the entire event, period. And given that the Penny Arcade community has in the past taken to deriding and threatening rape survivors in what they must believe is a defense of the brand's value, designated social pods for marginalized people aren't going to make anyone feel like their needs are being highlighted -- they may even make some people feel as if they're signing up to have a spotlight shined in their face, a target painted on their back. Robert Khoo has said the company's intention was to "celebrate...diversity-driven content," but this token-oriented conception of diversity is more afterschool special than real-world. Many people just want a ticket to have fun, play and show games at PAX alongside every other attendee, while feeling their identity will be respected and their needs will be heard -- in other words, the same experience of PAX the gamer demographic has taken for granted that it can expect from events for years. Why does Penny Arcade's pro-geek, anti-bullying stance protect only some people and not all? But as much as PA has become the subject of public discomfort at best, disgust at worst, for its chronic mishandling of its community, heaps of dismissive snark do not help (even if they help us feel better -- full disclosure, I participated in the social media mudslinging with aplomb). If PAX truly wants to repair its mistakes and mend bridges, though, it should acknowledge the lessons of other events that have focused on safety and inclusivity. PA's Khoo says the company brought on Benjamin Williams, co-founder of the LGBTQ-friendly GaymerX event, to collaborate on initiatives that might raise awareness in the historically-insular fanbase. But Toni Rocca, president and acting community director of GaymerX, says Williams has not been involved with her event since April of 2013, when he helped organize the involvment of stars like Ellen McLain and John Patrick Lowrie. "GaymerX was not involved in the making of the PAX Diversity Hub and Lounge," Rocca tells me. "I was contacted about it earlier in December, and the biggest part of why we didn't just say 'yes' was that the trip wasn't really within our budget. For a flight, room and food, that kind of stuff can add up, and right now we're trying to keep all the GaymerX funds on GaymerX itself." Rocca also says GaymerX was not involved ("nor did we want to be") with any aspect of the Diversity Lounge leak and ensuing media conversation. "It isn't that I don't think people should be held accountable for their actions, but I know that people make mistakes," she says. "Robert Khoo has since made his intentions known and while of course as many of us marginalized folks know 'Intent Is Not Magic,' at least we do know now what they were trying to do." "I don't really think there's anything wrong with having a center where resources for marginalized people can be easily found," Rocca adds. "I feel like a lot of this media frenzy has essentially just come from poor wording." Rocca does suggest it might have been better for the proposed hub to be inside the Expo Hall, and that it might have been helpful for PA to clarify the reasoning behind the announced "no promotion of products or services" clause. "Heck, it would be nice if they could offer people hotel rooms or fly them out like No Show, Different Games, IndieCade and some other conventions do," she notes, "especially since most marginalized people and organizations are statistically far poorer than their white-cis-het-ablebodied-etc counterparts." Rocca says it's important to note that thus far the "Diversity Lounge" is only a concept in progress. "This is why I feel like the best thing to do is not to simply poke fun of the mistakes that were made, but perhaps instead suggest where the project can be improved," she says. "I think it's great that PAX is trying to work more with marginalized people and I hope that they use this opportunity to come up with a better, more effective and productive program."

"The entirety of PAX should be a safe space for all people"

Writer, designer and consultant Mattie Brice ran the recent Queerness and Games Conference at UC Berkeley, and is a regular speaker on advocacy issues. She also feels that in concept, a Diversity Lounge “isn’t bad, and should exist.” “What needs to be worked on is making sure it doesn't become a ghettoization of minorities into a particular space,” Brice explains. “For one, the entirety of PAX should be a safe space for all people, not just the Diversity Lounge. There should be resources for all people all over the con.” “Resources for diversity tracks and support should be included in every program, and not solely available in the lounge. All Enforcers in the convention should be safe-space trained be knowledgeable of how to deal with inclusivity issues, even if they aren't working the Diversity Lounge,” she adds. “If companies are both on the Expo floor and in the Diversity Lounge, they must have their diversity-related material on the Expo floor as well, not just in the lounge.” The “lounge” may be better conceived as a safe space for people who feel at risk, Brice suggests. Safe spaces require procedures for reporting problem behavior and ensuring the safety of the victim, with dialogue as a goal, Brice suggests, where the ultimate result should be healthy conversation, not necessarily banning or shaming. Brice wants PAX to publicly announce and share changes to its convention-wide policies that outline specific anti-harassment policies and a detailed inclusivity statement pledging to make the convention a safe space for all, with clear staff procedures to that end. All attendees should agree to such policies, she says. “All staff will then have to undergo safe space training, not just the ones involved with their Diversity Lounge and track talks,” she says. “They will need to establish clear signage and policies for accessible and gender neutral bathrooms. Panels will need to be vetted more closely, one, for making sure there aren't only white men on it.” Safety policies should cover not only the event, but any party associated with the event, with trained staff on hand and promotional partners closely vetted. Ultimately and importantly, PA’s figureheads, Krahulik and Holkins, need to personally and publicly address a commitment to inclusivity at the event and otherwise. But although she quipped on Twitter that PAX ought to hire her as a diversity consultant, Brice tells Gamasutra the organization has a lot of work to do before she’d consider working with it. “I don't think Penny Arcade has done enough to make up for its incredibly bad behavior, adding to the problems video games and geek culture overall already have,” she says. “Their past actions have left an incredibly bad taste in the mouth of the community, and there hasn't been any action to show that not only is there deep regret for what has happened, but it won't happen again in the future... they’ve done damage and they need to make it up.”

"Technically, it’s probably not productive to create an 'us' versus 'them' mentality"

This must start with the organization heads and extends to the values they expect of their community, and will take time. This isn’t something PAX can solve by cordoning off areas of its event (Khoo compared the role of the diversity lounge at PAX to that of the Indie Megabooth, which spotlights indie games against the ‘regular’ games) and deciding on the narrative for the people in those areas. “Some of the criticism I've been hearing is that [the diversity lounge concept] isolates these groups and tries to shine an uncomfortable spotlight on them,” Khoo wrote in his public statement. “Although I can see how some might see it that way, the goal is to actually drive awareness and even celebrate the groups and their goals.” That’s a sentence you could read as although we received criticism on our approach to this work which is new for us, we decided to keep pressing our own solution anyway. It’s a less than ideal place to start from, as is seeking credibility for diversity initiatives before accountability for past mistakes and future commitments have been clearly delineated. There are also a number of events, such as those Rocca listed, that have been working to provide safe, inclusive spaces for speakers and attendees that could serve as models, if only the PA team took the time to explore rather than to exclaim. And many of those events, despite being much less-funded than PAX, manage to provide travel help or speaking stipends for contributors, rather than expecting they pay their own way for the privilege of supporting PAX’s diversity education. Technically, it’s probably not productive to create an “us” versus “them” mentality toward the efforts of an organization that finally seems to be trying to begin the difficult work of addressing its community problems. But so far this Diversity Lounge thing’s probably not quite right -- and definitely not enough.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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