Feb 032011

Note: this blog entry references a significant (at least online) debate right now that deals with issues of rape culture and related elements. I want to make mention now, ahead of time, that I am a man, and that I have never been the victim of any form of sexual assault, and never committed nor been accused of committing the same. As such, I am neither qualified nor do I have any desire to tell anyone involved in the issue how to feel about what has happened. If at any point it seems like I’m doing so, I apologize in advance and welcome notification of that.

Astute readers of my blog may have noticed a trend: I like video games. For those of you to whom this is news, I’ll let it sink in for a moment. Ready to go on? Good. Now, as a gamer, I’ve also enjoyed going to PAX – the Penny Arcade Expo – for the past two years. You can find a blog post detailing some of our exploits here. In the past, PAX has been aptly named: by providing an environment where gamers of all sorts are welcome and every person you meet is a potential friend, the con embodied the Pax Arcadia, if you will.

All that appears set to change, thanks to the issue that goes by many names but which I’ll call the “Dickwolves Debacle.” Those who want more information on that will want to look up Nikki’s summary (with opinions) here. It provides a lot of insight (from someone who, like me, is not directly involved on either side) about how this started and how we’ve arrived to here. I’m going to focus only on the elements that relate directly to PAX as I see them.

The sanctity of PAX as an area where people can congregate under one banner of the love of gaming has been significantly impacted by these events. For the many who don’t follow the behind-the-scenes happenings of PA, things may very well stay the same; but for those who are aware of what’s going on, from the initial strip to Gabe’s [Mike’s] reactions, it’s difficult to view the paradise that was a con for all the same way. Let’s consider these events and facts.

After the posting of the initial strip which offended a nominal number of people, and the follow-up strip which offended quite a few more people (as would seem to be its intention), the Dickwolves shirt was added to PA merchandise. This is really the source of the current PAX issues: taken on their own, even together the strips would be unlikely to cause a convention problem. It’s certainly not the first time the PA strip has lightly used rape humor. The addition of a shirt, however, put a tangible, portable face on what some people found objectionable in the strip. It allowed people to bring a discouraging element to PAX, where it didn’t previously exist. I don’t believe that this was the intention of the shirt’s introduction at all. That was probably as simple as thinking “The dickwolves sound like a funny sports team. Oh, and this could make lots of money.”

While I disagree with releasing a piece of merchandise based around a strip which so clearly was an issue with readers, even at that point I don’t think the folks at PA had done anything which was permanently damaging. Insensitive, sure, but it could still be explained away as an instance where they were supporting a popular strip (as it was with many people — I admit I found the original funny) with merchandise.

Fast-forward three months to a blog post by a woman who was going to speak at PAX, but decided not to, based on the existence of this shirt. She cites reasons which, to an outsider of her experiences, seem reasonable. Based on, it seems, civil feedback received, the folks at PA pull the shirt from the store. All seems well at this point, but under the surface, terrible things are brewing, like the inexorable shift of tectonic plates which precedes an earthquake or volcanic eruption. When asked why the shirt was pulled, Gabe responds with a blog post and, while I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt that he simply uses poor choices of words and phrases (Tycho is lead writer on the strip, after all), it seems clear to me that he resents the situation, as do others. Although his post makes it sound like he was persuaded by reasoning, he indicated elsewhere  that they were “pressured” to remove the shirt.

This is where things start to go wrong. If one is so inclined, they can immediately start picking that blog post apart for dishonesty since the tone of the message conveyed there seems inconsistent with receiving “pressure” to do something, and certainly being coerced into doing something you don’t agree with is going to chafe a lot more than seeing someone’s point and accepting it. But even here, the shirt has been removed and an explanation has been tendered which at least mollifies some of those who have issues; it probably would have mollified more of them without questionable statements such as, “I’ll even put you on a list so that if, in a moment of weakness you try to by a ticket we can cancel the order.”

So, what’s done is done, the shirt was available for three months and in Gabe’s post he acknowledges that it has been removed as part of an effort to help people not feel “uncomfortable at PAX”  and would “make them feel better about attending the show.” This is a noble gesture and I’m not sure I would have even gone that far in his shoes. I probably would have tendered a lengthy explanation about the purpose of the shirt, that (I presume) it wasn’t promoting rape and (again I presume) they were just capitalizing on a funny, popular strip.

With clear admission that the shirt is a source of grief for some and a potential reason for people to feel uncomfortable about PAX, Gabe then goes on to make this Twitter exchange:

Cozmic Caztaway @cwgabriel If people already have the shirt and wear it to PAX, then what?
cwgabriel @Cozmicaztaway I’ll be wearing mine to PAX.

At this point, the well with a big sign reading “Benefit of the Doubt” has run dry. There’s no positive spin to put on this. When someone makes a declaration themselves that they have taken down merchandise because they believe it could cause an unhealthy environment for some attendees at PAX, and then responds by saying they themselves will be wearing that same item, there can be no good intent. The shirt is a symbol of possibly the most divisive issue PA has ever faced, and one of PAX’s originators and a chief organizer is going to wear it there? There can be no unity at a con where one half of Penny Arcade fosters an “us versus them” attitude. That’s fact, plain and simple. You’re welcome to argue it with me if you wish, but there’s a hard road ahead of you there.

There have been other incidents afterwards which could be mere coincidence, such as questionable choices of music which may very well have been completely random coming up during some broadcasted show, but those are anecdotal and, at worst, just adding fuel to the fire. Gabe’s mere statement here tells us what we need to know about his mindset. Some have said that we should “wait and see” and that he may not actually wear the shirt at all, but that’s really beside the point. Indicating he would is indicating that he thinks it’s okay to do so. Whether he’s convinced or pressured to do otherwise prior to the event, the fact remains that this, to him, seems like a good idea now and that, to me, takes the entire concept of PAX and taints it.

Yes, you can attend the con and you’ll probably have a great time and it’s extremely unlikely you’re going to get sexually assaulted, regardless of who wears what shirt. But there is no more “everyone” – now there’s an “us” and a “them,” which is not what PAX is about. If I want “us” and “them” I can go to any number of other gaming conventions where, despite playing video games for 30 years, I’m a second-class citizen for not being a member of the press or industry.

As someone who’s said plenty of things I regret in the past, I know how it is to do things when you’re angry that you don’t really mean, to make statements while in a fit. But I don’t have a twice-a-year con that pulls in tens of thousands of people and a multi-million dollar charity to think about. Further, although Gabe posted an apology tweet today to no one in general, there hasn’t been anything to indicate that he feels any different about dickwolves, the shirt, or wearing it to PAX. It’s been five days. We can be assured that we’ve seen how he feels about the issue. Tycho? I’m not sure, but he hasn’t said anything to contradict Gabe’s statements, so I don’t know what to make of it.

At this point, it seems unlikely we’ll be heading back to PAX this year. That’s a shame because we’ve always had a blast there, but part of the reason for that was the feeling PAX embodied and I think that feeling would be an illusion this year. As much a part of my life that video games are, I can find better things to spend a few hundred dollars on an atmosphere where I can expect to grind my teeth when I see people cheering each other on for wearing a t-shirt that spits in the face of what PAX is supposed to be about. I want to go and play games and grab free swag and attend cool panels, not hear about how some people triumphed in their pursuit of free speech over feminists who tried to rob them of the right to wear a shirt that many of them didn’t even want until it was taken down. Nor do I want to hear about how people are offended and uncomfortable because others are wearing a shirt–I understand that’s how they feel and they have good reason to, but that shouldn’t be what PAX is about.

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