Friday, September 6, 2013

How PAX Broke My Heart

At this point, I have written and rewritten this piece many times in my head. There are so many things I want to say and so many things I'm afraid to say, so many things that have already been said and much more clearly and eloquently than I could ever express. But this community (the gaming community) is my community too, both as a gamer and a creator, and I feel like the community and I need to have a talk. Because, you see, a significant subset of the community has been trying to tell me for most of my life that this isn't  my community, that this community isn't for me or people like me and others (women, LGBTQ, people of color, etc - basically anyone who isn't a straight, white, cis man).

What defines our community? From my perspective, it's our shared love of games and other geeky things, our passion for things that for a long time were out of the mainstream (the last decade or so has seen that shift a bit), our sense of exclusion by 'normal' people because of our interests and hobbies. And so that is why I say this is my community too. From the time I was a little girl and my uncle took me to the bowling alley, not to bowl, but to play Star Wars and Ms Pac-Man at the arcade there; from the first time I picked up a controller to play Super Mario Brothers on the NES (or before that, a joystick to play Space Invaders on my dad's cousin's Atari); from the time I watched the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon and learned that it was (very loosely) inspired by the tabletop game (a game that I wanted to play from the moment I learned of its existence). Games have been my constant solace through the many upheavals and changes in my life; they were there for me when almost no one else was. All I had to do was pick up a controller, launch a game, pick up some dice or read a gaming book to be transported to a world where I could be anything, where I was the hero of the story, surrounded by friends imaginary and real (especially when I later started playing MMOs), saving the universe, solving mysteries and fighting evil. Whether video games, tabletop RPGs, miniatures (WH40K and Necromunda still hold a dear place in my heart, though I haven't had time to play or space to paint in many years), card games, board games or LARPing, I've long said if it's a game, I'll play it. I don't love them all, not to the same extent, but as long as they are reasonably well crafted, I appreciate them and the care that goes into making them. And there are many that I do love, passionately and perhaps beyond reason. So much so that I have found myself driven to find my own role in crafting those experiences for others.

This is despite the fact that when I first wanted to get into tabletop games, the guys I knew who played (at the time I didn't know any women who were playing D&D or games of that ilk) told me it was a "guy thing" and wouldn't let me play. I basically badgered and harassed each one of them until I found one who relented and let me join their group, and I was overjoyed to finally be able to partake in the magic (I still remember that first elven street samurai in Shadowrun and that first trollslayer in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay with great fondness, and I'm pretty sure I have those character sheets tucked away somewhere for when I'm feeling like indulging some gaming nostalgia). Every time I walked into a game store, conversation would stop and they would stare like I was an invader. The first convention I went to (Origins, in the mid-90s), was 95% male attendees. When I started playing MMOs, I made the mistake of selecting female character models (but I always choose female characters when given the choice, partly because so much of the time I feel forced to play male ones) and so I was often harassed or mocked by the other players. I walked away from my computer while playing my City of Heroes empathy defender (a small Native American girl embarrassingly named Healing Moon) only to come back finding that someone was taking advantage of the afk position (character kneeling) and was molesting her via motion, emotes and text. One of the first conversations I saw in general chat when I started playing World of Warcraft was from someone asserting that women weren't playing the game and any that were played because of their boyfriends. At the time my partner was playing, but it was at my instigation, not the other way around - a common trend in my life, while I date people who share my interests, few have been as passionate about them as I am, a fact that has never stopped nearly everyone we meet or talk to who doesn't know me to assume that I am the 'casual' and my male partners are the 'real gamers.' I have been stalked, groped, harassed, threatened with mock rape/sexual assault in games and at conventions and other gaming events, my cred questioned, and my passion discounted as if no 'mere girl' could be passionate about or good at games. And if I do prove to be good, especially if I happen to successfully come out ahead in a competitive setting, then those I compete against (if male) are mocked for losing to a girl, as if that is a worse humiliation than losing to anyone else.

Every one of these things communicates that I do not belong. That this is not my community. That my passion is faked or forced (at least one person even insinuated that the only reason I played tabletop was to get a boyfriend... lolwut). That there is no possible way that someone like me could be a part of this community.

Things have gotten better. I haven't been able to find statistics on percentages of women attendees at events like PAX and Gen Con, but it's been obvious just looking around that it's far better than the 5% average I saw when I first started attending these kinds of events. (And women represent approximately 45% of gamers, although only 12% of developers.) And I think that possibly the hostility has decreased, or at least I hope so.

But my experience is not unusual. Nearly every woman who participates in geekdom has similar stories (and worse). And this is the context in which Mike Krahulik's words and actions must be considered, a context in which the women in this community are already under fire and struggling for acceptance and a sense of safety that straight white cis men who game can generally take for granted as a given.

I attended PAX Prime for the first time this year, although I did not attend the Q&A panel. I enjoyed it a lot, though in retrospect I realized that I was very circumspect about what panels I attended and what events and activities I participated in while I was there, mostly in order to avoid the harassment and so on that has been so typical of my past con experiences (at this I succeeded, this is one of the first cons I have been to where I was not groped by strangers or otherwise harassed). I was very glad that there were a number of panels on gender, inclusiveness and community building and between that and the Enforcer presence throughout, I felt mostly a sense of safety and belonging, though I never lost my awareness and caution about interacting with others there.

All of that was swept away when I watched the video of the Q&A, when I heard a vocal subset of the audience cheering Krahulik's assertion that pulling the dickwolf merchandise was a mistake. It was a loud and painful reminder of the message that some portion of the community is still trying to convey: I do not belong. I am not welcome. As long as I am there, I will not be allowed to feel safe and accepted. I can never forget, never let my guard down, never trust that we, as a community, have grown enough to accept all of our members and respect their passion and involvement as if it were our own.

I've read his clarification (let's not call it an apology; he doesn't and it isn't one). It doesn't reassure me, in large part because it doesn't address that moment. That chilling, heartbreaking moment of hearing the audience cheer and knowing that they value their freedom to express whatever they like over my sense of safety.

Will I return to PAX? I don't know. I'm not sure what good a boycott will do, but I feel like there has got to be something we can do. I don't want to believe that we are powerless to change things and become the inclusive community most of us aspire to be. I do know that I won't be able to forget the sound of that audience cheering, that audible reminder of all that I have fought against over the years.


This post (Gamers Against Bigotry, Moving Forward with PAX: A How-To) pretty much answers the question I've been struggling with. I highly recommend it.

Further reading: