PAX East, Day 2: MIT's Hate Speech project, Portal 2, Powerglove and Video Game Orchestra

Go check out my recaps of PAX East so far: Part 1, and Part 2.

My second day at PAX East began in the expo hall with an intense, emotional video. The Gambit Game Lab of MIT gathered some data about hate speech in gaming communities, and then they recorded actors performing the collected comments out loud. The video doesn't analyze the data collected or attempt to argue with the hate speech in any way, and the presenters at the booth told me they considered it to be more of an art project to increase awareness rather than an official study. The project was inspired by the Dickwolves Debacle, and you can read more about the project and watch the video yourself at their website. Even though I think of myself as having become desensitized to most of the gaming community's hate speech, I found watching the video to be a sobering and disturbing experience.

After that, I tried in vain to go to the Females on Female Characters panel, but I was turned away due to lack of space. Even though I showed up half an hour early for the panel, that wasn't even close to early enough to get in. When I arrived, the line already stretched down several halls, and people were still determinedly lining up despite that staffers were telling everyone the line had been cut off. As I waited, I grew irritated by the shock of several male PAX staffers who kept repeating they couldn't believe so many people were interested that panel's topic; many of them were laughing out loud that so many men were hoping to attend. Is that really such a surprise? Would it be weird to see white people at a panel about racism in games? When is giving a shit about women in gaming going to stop being a controversial, surprising and/or hilarious point of view?

I didn't manage to get into the panel, so I went back to the expo hall and, fittingly, began to wait in line for one of the best possible examples of a video game franchise with excellent female characters: Portal. The second game is in the pipeline, and although the gameplay videos on display at the booth had me clapping my hands in childish delight, I was disappointed at the videos I saw when I finally got to the end of the line. Many of us believed, in error, that we were waiting in line to actually play some Portal 2, but no -- we were waiting to hear a marketing guy talk to us and show us some video clips of the game's two new characters. (We did also get free Aperture Science t-shirts, though, which made the two hour wait feel more worthwhile.)

I was already surprised a few weeks back when I learned that in Portal 2, the game's protagonist Chell would be unbuttoning her bland, sexless orange jumpsuit and revealing a sexy white tank top underneath. Chell's ambiguous-but-definitely-not-white race and her utilitarian outfit made Portal one of the most progressive non-indie games ever made, especially since every single character in Portal is female (even the little white sniper robots have high-pitched, feminine voices, and I don't need to tell you about GLaDOS). You'd think, given how toxic the gaming community is, that gamers wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole; after all, games marketers keep telling us that no one will buy a game if it has a female protagonist, so you'd think a game with no men in it at all would tank. On the contary, Portal is extremely popular, and the line around Portal 2's booth was probably the longest at the entire expo hall.

So, I couldn't help but be a little disappointed to learn that the two new characters in Portal 2 are male. The first is a little white robot voiced by a British guy. The second new voice in the game is J.K. Simmons playing the CEO of Aperture Science; he'll be doing the GLaDOS-esque voiceover while you solve puzzles. GLaDOS will still be guiding the two robots in the two-player section of the game, as far as I can tell from the trailers, but in the single-player section with tank-top-makeover Chell, you'll be accompanied only by the voices of the British robot and Simmons's CEO voice. Is it just me, or does it feel like somebody looked at Portal and said, "Not enough sex appeal! Not enough white guys!" I'm still excited to play the game, but I feel sad that I won't be able to use Portal 2 as an example of a game selling well without the presence of sexy tank topped women and authoritative white dudes.

After escaping the crowded Portal 2 booth with my free t-shirt and high expectations for the game's new mechanics (slippery orange goo! blue goo that acts like a trampoline!), I decided I had enough time to play one more game before attempting to get into another panel. I checked out the BattleBlock Theater booth, and I'm definitely going to buy this game once it's out. The booth had stand-up arcade machines, so I'm not sure how the controls will translate to a controller, but they're not complicated. The game is by The Behemoth, the same people who made Castle Crashers, and it's not dissimilar in art style. First, you design your own character; I created a cycloptian, triangle-headed purple person. You also get to choose your weapon, but I didn't get to try them all; I chose a cylinder that could act as a platform or a projectile, and my partner chose a boomerang. The game is a co-operative platformer: you and your partner work together to cross obstacles and fight against sunglasses-wearing cats who have kidnapped and imprisoned you in a gladiatorial maze while other evil cats look on from the audience (hence the "Theater" part of the title). The concept is pretty dark, considering the game's goofy art style. It felt darkest at the end of the demo, since we didn't actually escape the cats' theater and instead our characters were strapped into racks and tortured. But don't worry -- it was adorable, cartoony torture.

After that, I finally managed to get into a panel: "The Other Us: If We're All Gamers, Does Our Gender Matter?" (I wanted to stand up and shout, "No!" as soon as they announced the panel title.) The panel spent an unexpectedly long time focusing on Abbie Heppe's controversial review of Metroid: Other M; Heppe had called out the game for being sexist, and she was surprised when she got a bunch of hate mail for that. A lot of the questioners at the panel were either telling her they agreed with her review, or telling her they thought she was wrong. The panelists didn't get much time to talk because so many audience members wanted to share their feelings about Heppe's review or about their own experiences with sexism; usually these "questions" didn't even involve a real question at the end. Most of the questioners seemed to just want to say into a microphone that they were frustrated. Although I think it's productive to acknowledge sexism, I felt that the panel only glanced off the tip of the iceberg. I wished the panelists had talked more, and more than that I wished there had been more panels about this topic. The huge lines for this panel and the other panel about female characters indicate that people want to talk about this. The huge lines of people getting up just to say into the mic that they don't like sexism also indicate that people are desperate to be heard on this issue.

One of the best parts of the panel was when Alli Thresher of Harmonix talked about how the sudden presence of booth babes at the con this year was undermining her authority. While she was working at her booth, she answered a male attendee's question; when he didn't like her answer, he told her he would wait until one of the actual guys came back so he could ask one of them. Since Thresher is a conventionally attractive young blonde woman, he may have assumed she was a hired model, but she's not. It's hard to say whether that experience was just run-of-the-mill misogyny or whether it was directly exacerbated by the presence of booth babes at the con, but chances are, the booth babes sure don't help to prevent those types of interactions. This is probably the best argument against booth babes that I've ever heard.

I also thought it was interesting how everyone kept tip-toeing around the Dickwolves Debacle, as though we were all afraid to reference it directly; I can understand that, though, since it's been upsetting for so many of us. At the beginning of the panel, Thresher indirectly referred to "a recent situation" (or some similar vague phrase) that had affected this community, and I assumed that's what she meant. Later on, a questioner got up and referred to "certain wolves" and the audience tittered with recognition and discomfort. He then introduced himself as part of Team Respect, an organization that formed in response to the Dickwolves (their twitter handle, @Team_Respect, is likely a direct response to notorious Dickwolf defender, @teamrape). The questioner was passing out bright pink wrist bands, and while he stood at the mic explaining what Team Respect was (read more about them here), several audience members got up and walked over to him to get one.

Many people seemed certain, based on the panel attendance and overall sentiments expressed by questioners, that the majority of the games community isn't sexist, racist, homphobic, ableist, or biased against any particular marginalized group. Many people referred to trolls as "13 year old boys" with too much time on their hands. Unfortunately, I don't think that's true. The men who got up to argue with Heppe about her review -- and yes, it was only men who did that -- weren't 13 years old, and none of them were making particularly coherent points either (one of them griped that men could never be shown as being superior officers to female workers without feminists getting mad, and he seemed unable to grasp that this wasn't the part of Other M that Heppe had a problem with). Near the end of the panel, a woman in the back of the room started yelling that several of the attendees were mocking the panel, and security guards had to be called to remove them. Since I was near the front of the room, I'm not entirely sure what these "trolls" were doing, but the woman yelling sounded very upset, and as soon as we heard her yelling, many audience members began to stand up and look at each other in fear and alarm. That situation alone made it disturbingly clear that progressive messages aren't really welcome. I don't know whether the gaming community at large is really ready to grow up. I think certain parts of it are, and those are the parts I try to hang out in.

On my way to dinner, I overheard some uncharacteristically professional music coming out of the jam space, and I realized that there was actually an official concert going on in there. I headed inside and saw a ton of people moshing and jumping around to Powerglove, a metal nerdcore band. I put off dinner for the next 45 minutes and sang along to metal versions of themes for Sephiroth of FF7, Transformers, Pokemon, Power Rangers, Tetris, and more. There was more dancing and more excitement and happiness at this concert than I'd seen anywhere else at the convention, including the previous night's concert, and I couldn't help but wonder why Powerglove weren't playing at the mainstage that night. As they wrapped up their set with a Mario medley, I joined the rest of the audience in wildly shouting, "Mainstage next year! Mainstage next year!" It's not up to us, unfortunately, but I hope the PAX staffers realize that Powerglove needs to get an upgrade. Way, way better than the Protomen were last night.

After a quick dinner, I ran all the way up to the mainstage to see Video Game Orchestra perform an hour of video game covers. I saw them last year, and they played some of the same songs, along with a few new ones -- including the theme from Halo, complete with epic cello intro. Crowd favorites were the themes from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, as well as the Zelda medley. I wished they would play themes from Gears of War or Borderlands; I love both of those soundtracks. Guess I'll have to send a letter to Shoto Nakama about it?

At the end of the show, Nakama reminded us all about their upcoming show at Symphony Hall, which is going to inclue some fantastic special guests, including Alan Silverstri, Howard Shore, and a bunch of video games composers.

Tomorrow: the final day of PAX East 2011!

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