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.

Dec 272010

It’s that time of year again–or at least it was two days ago: time to give gifts, receive gifts and eat lots of food. The food is (mostly) done and, since this is my blog, I’m not going to bother discussing the stuff I gave to other people. For some of that, you can read here.

As for me, I got off exceptionally well this year. There can be no doubt that the limited budgets of friends and family were spent very wisely. In the realm of games, I got four awesome titles. Fallout: New Vegas was probably the game I was most looking forward to this year, considering a) my love of RPGs; b) my love of the post-apocalyptic milieu; and c) that I just spent 120 hours on my second playthrough of Fallout 3 (and still haven’t touched The Pitt or Broken Steel.) Dead Rising 2 was the other game this year that I really had my eye on, since I played through the first game at least three times. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a welcome addition. I never finished the first game and haven’t touched the second, but I’m looking forward to this. Finally, Alan Wake rounds out the game list, promising to provide a very different experience than the others. Dead Rising 2 and Alan Wake came in collector’s edition packages, which included goodies like an artbook, DVD, and soundtrack.

Speaking of soundtracks, I got one of those, too. Although the budget for this year hasn’t allowed me to add them to my collection willy-nilly, game soundtracks are still an important thing to me, and I got an awesome one. Nikki managed to pick up an unopened copy of the X-Men: Children of the Atom. This was a pretty awesome game we used to play back in the day on our Saturn. An unopened soundtrack from 1994 that goes to a popular game is a pretty big deal, so I’m pretty psyched about adding this to my collection. :)

While not a total standalone game per se, Nikki grabbed two copies of the City of Heroes Going Rogue expansion, which comes with everything needed to turn our City of Heroes gaming experience on its head, as well as a month of pre-paid gameplay. So, when we desire we can return to the game, take our would-be comic hero experiences to new levels and do so for a month without having to worry about that whole “paying” thing.

For those times when my hands get tired of playing (sacrilege!), I acquired things to watch: seven DVDs of Rifftrax (six of various shorts, and one of the live riffing of Plan 9 from Outer Space); the Blu-Ray of Fight Club, a movie that everyone should see at least once in their life; and, unbelievably, a DVD with selected episodes of Starcade, a game show that I used to watch all the time in the very early 80s when it was on the air. Will nostalgia win out over the show’s assured cheesiness? I’m not sure, but I’m excited to find out. The Starcade DVD also came with two shirts, which I will wear to work and astound my coworkers with.

Lastly, although one gets plenty of experience reading in video games, doing it the old-fashioned way is good for you too. From Amy and Scott, I got both a very nice insect guide (more modern than the other ones I have, which were printed between the years of ’52 and ’80) and a classy, embossed hardback book containing seven of the most famous novels from H.G. Wells (none of which I’ve actually read before.) As a fan of sci-fi, this will be quite a treat. Nikki also got me the Advanced Player’s Guide for Pathfinder, that game whose 576-page main rulebook I read cover-to-cover recently. I will read this as well and be even more prepared for our eventual game sessions.

Not a proper book, but a game in book format, my parents got me (in addition to the usual Swiss Colony joy) a Marvel comics quizbook-style game that Nikki and I can use to reaffirm our geekdom. Since together we have more years of reading comics than Jamie and Adam do of special effects experience, it should be fun.

And that about wraps up my loot. There are other things, such as stocking stuffers, the aforementioned Christmas dinner, a week off from work, but those are stories for another time…

Aug 312010

Microsoft recently announced an increase in the cost of XBox Live. The change amounts to somewhere between a 20% and 25% increase, depending on what method you buy your subscription in. Expectedly, reaction has been very unfavorable, despite the statement from Microsoft that the price has held steady since 2002. In droves, people seem to ask, “What do I get for my additional $10?” (as most are assumed to be buying in the most efficient manner, the year’s subscription.)

The response those people actually deserve is, “nothing.” Microsoft’s answer in this respect doesn’t really matter, due to one simple thing that people don’t seem to even consider: inflation. I’ve only been a Live member for three years, so I can’t say what the price was back in 2002, but I’ll take their word for it. There are any number of sites online, such as this one, this one or this one which show that, during the time period from 2002 to 2010, inflation has increased approximately 22%. Microsoft’s adjustment of the Live pricing is completely in-line with normal inflation to keep the price:cost ratio as-is. The addition of any new features or components is gravy. Indeed, one has to assume that with the vastly increased prominence of online gaming since 2002 when the Dreamcast was still fresh in peoples’ minds, Microsoft’s expenses for setting up and maintaining a robust online system would be marginally increased even above the break-even point.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as upset as anyone else about 1 vs. 100 being canceled, but like other things that go away, it was first added to the service with no increase in cost; removing features that have been added for free is not stealing as some would have you think; the removal of items that you weren’t charged extra for when they were added does not mean the price of a service should go down nor should it stop increasing as everything else does. When the cost of bread invariably goes up a quarter, do people ask the baker if that increase in price will come with a commensurate increase in sesame seeds on the loaf? I really hope that answer is no.

What’s more, for the past 7 years, inflation has been creeping up and the service waited this long for a price increase. There would have been justification for a $7.50 price increase in 2007, 5 years after the launch of the service, but Microsoft held for another three years. When you consider the inflationary increases alone, anyone who has been a member since 2002 basically could have paid an extra $51–the cost of an entire year’s service–over that time if things were adjusted.

This sort of reaction isn’t new. Gamers have, without consideration of economics or past history, balked at each generation’s increase in game prices, even when that increase isn’t really an increase at all. The $50 cost for Playstation and Saturn games was called a rip-off by many, only abating somewhat when that price point held into the Dreamcast/PS2/XBox generation. The rallying cry was raised again when the general price for PS3 and 360 games became $60. People forget that back in the days of the Atari 2600, higher profile games fetched $30, new NES games often listed for $35-40 and during the days of the SNES they could range from $50-60 with some (i.e., Chrono Trigger) brushing up against $70. But it’s easy to just decry the industry as soulless money-grubbers because they raise prices — as if they were extorting people into buying lifesaving medicines instead of offering them a luxury hobby. (Mind you, some companies probably are just that, but this isn’t the place for name-calling.)

By the way, those still with an axe to grind about price increases may want to dust off that time machine and go back to yell at the 8- and 16-bit eras. Those prices for the Atari 2600 ($30) from 1981 (the year Space Invaders came out), NES ($40) from 1988 (Super Mario Bros. 3) and SNES ($50) from 1994 (Super Metroid), adjusted for today’s inflation, come out to $71, $73 and $73, respectively, all at least $10 more than the price of current blockbusters like Dragon Age, Call of Duty, Rock Band or God of War, games that have mip-mapping, light-shading , corticular scaling (okay, I made that one up) and often provide dozens of hours of gameplay. Those games from way-back-when were fantastic and worth the money (which is why I own them all and hundreds of others), but they were more expensive, comparatively, than games are now. Keep that in mind when, inevitably, prices for games on the PS4 and XBox 720 (for lack of more original names) come out at $69.99.