PAX East, Day One: Penny Arcade Q&A + the "Girls & Games" Panel

The Penny Arcade Expo, aka PAX East, finally has arrived. 60,000 gamers hit up Boston to celebrate their hobby/obsession, check out sweet new releases, and meet the convention's hosts, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the webcomic author/artist duo of popular gaming webcomic Penny Arcade.

As soon as I reached the con's vicinity, I began to scout out for fellow geeks. However, unlike at Anime Boston, they weren't all wearing brightly-colored identification; PAX is plenty geeky, but there's not much cosplay to be found there. I began to notice a trend among those wearing PAX badges -- or I should say, I began to notice a lack of a trend. Gamers these days are non-stereotypable. They are a veritable rainbow of races, ages, heights, shapes, sizes, and even styles of dress, from punk to goth to prep -- even occasional kilts. A lot of the gamers packing the Hynes' halls just looked like normal people, not hyper-violent 13-year-old white hetero males hopped up on Red Bull. I know by now how misguided that gamer cliche is, but it was refreshing to see the real gamer demographic in the flesh by the thousands: solid proof of how "normal" geekery is becoming.

After a long line, I managed to cram into the packed Penny Arcade Q&A panel in the Main Events hall. Jerry and Mike shot the shit onstage while pre-selected questioners lined up to ask them about their comic, their blog, and their thoughts on the games industry. Usually these "questions" were just fanboy/girlish moments of "oh god I love your comic I can't believe I'm actually talking to you HOLY SHIT," but somehow Jerry and Mike managed to keep the awkwardness to a minimum with graceful thank-yous interspersed with the same brand of bawdy humor that their webcomic offers. Many gamers at the Q&A repeatedly hailed the PAX community as "finally feeling like home" -- the clique they never had in high school. But as gamer culture grows, I like to think that being a nerd and playing video-games aren't the social slams they once were. (I'm told that this panel, along with every other, will be up on the Penny Arcade website ... hopefully softening my next blow, which is that the guys at the sound board would not allow me to plug in and record it. I'll end talk of this panel here, lest I ruin any of Jerry and Mike's hilarious quips in advance.)

After dinner, I went over to check out the room for the next panel I planned to attend: "Girls & Games: The Growing Role of Women in the Games Industry." I was shocked to find that a line had already formed an hour in advance, and quickly joined the ranks. Here's a word of warning to anyone planning to attend this con in future: bring a Nintendo DS with you, or some other handheld console. There are lines for everything, and if you really want to see something, you've got to get there early if you hope to get in at all (or, god forbid, you'll be relegated to the "overflow line," which means that if anyone leaves the panel midway you'll get to snatch their seat). Don't be afraid to plunk down on the floor while waiting, either -- unlike Anime Boston, the con staff won't come by and yell at you to stay standing. Much appreciated!

Once I finally got inside the "Girls & Games" panel, I was happy to see the range of genders, ages and races on display once again. Both male and female volunteers questioned five games industry women (though some weren't as directly involved in the industry as others). Unfortunately, I didn't feel satisfied with the panel. Not only did I feel that the panelists brushed off the hard questions, I also noticed that the same questions were asked over and over yet still remained unanswered.

Here are a few repeated questions (all three of which are verrrryyyy similar):

1.) How do women break into the games industry? (Often asked by a woman wanting to do this very thing.)
2.) How do men (or other women) encourage women to get interested in games and/or the games industry?
3.) Sexism in the games industry overall: when is it actually going to get better, and what can we do to make it end faster?

Obviously those present in the room were already feminist allies, but the confusing part for me was that the questioners (both male and female) seemed much more open-minded than the panelists. The five ladies wrote off GameCrush.Com as something we should "expect" of gamer culture and ignore -- and most of the other problems facing women got the same treatment.

One female questioner asked about how to help others distinguish between women who actually work in the games industry, and models who work in performance-based advertising jobs (e.g. booth babes). Male gamers have been faced with booth babes and female characters objectified in games for so long that when a Real Live Woman actually wants to be taken seriously in the games industry, she might end up facing the insane sexual harrassment that Assassin's Creed producer Jade Raymond faced. Another audience member actually cited Jade as a role model later in the panel, but no one once brought up the harrassment she suffered simply for being an attractive woman who dared to work in the games industry (and the fact that no male execs ever seem to undergo similar abuse).

How can we ignore Jade's experiences? And how do we prevent that from happening in the future? How can individual women and men who want equality in gaming face the issue head-on? None of the panelists seemed interested in tackling these difficult questions, and instead gave us platitudes like "we should help women follow their dreams" (well, that's non-specific) and "people should tell whatever stories they want to tell in their games" (even when they're totally sexist?).

These confident female panelists may be able to ignore the voices of misogynist dissenters and rise to the top, but not all women are capable of this -- heck, even a couple of the women on the panel admitted that they were having trouble getting as far in the industry as they'd hoped. The few female role models that we have who work in gaming need to acknowledge these problems and not act like everything is peachy.

When women are repeatedly told: "women don't play games," "women don't major in computer science," and "women don't work in the games industry," or even when women just see that these things are true without needing to be told, it all has an effect. The current game culture treats hardcore gaming like a boys' club, similar to a Thursday poker night with no housewives allowed. The women who are in the games industry (some of whom were on that panel) need to be aware of that boys club atmosphere, step out of their sexism-free bubble, and realize that these problems are real for other women. Painful things have happened to women like Jade and ordinary female gamers every day who just want to engage in their hobby and be treated normally. If being treated normally means trash talk, that's fine -- but sexual harrassment and/or gender-based insults? No, thank you.

The more women game, the better things will get -- women will no longer be particularly special or different, so they won't be seen as minorities and acceptable targets of harrassment. But how do we get more women to realize that gaming is okay, when the culture can be so hostile?

And why are video-game advertisements still clearly geared towards male gamers? Do they really think women don't want to play Uncharted 2 when Nathan Drake is universally considered one of the hottest male video-game characters ever created?? (I jest ... but still, I think I've made my point.)

As for the other topics that the panel covered (female characters in games, bias against women in the workplace, women who work in games journalism specifically, and so on) -- well, guess you'll have to read my future blog posts to hear me rant on the rest.


Unfortunately, I was so exhausted after the Girls & Games panel (I'm getting over a cold just in time for this con) that I went home instead of staying for the Mega64 panel. In honor of them -- and in honor of Strong Female Characters who aren't afraid to be feminine! -- I'll link you all to this Bayonetta spoof they made. Check out the rest on their channel. Great humor for those who love games ... and absurdity.

Tomorrow: more PAX! I'll be attending more panels and hopefully playing some of the games in the test room. Blog posts to follow, so stay tuned.

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