Ubiquitous webcomic Penny Arcade's taken some rather poor stances on diversity in the past, leading some people (myself included) to avoid PAX altogether for the time being. However, PA is at least attempting to clean up its act, starting with a "Diversity Lounge" that debuted at PAX East. But did it help? Or did it only pay lip service to a much larger issue?
The Diversity Lounge itself was placed just outside PAX's well-trafficked "Badger" theater and near the convention's front lobby. It wasn't really staffed by many video game developers, but its 14 tables brimmed with members of inclusive groups like Toronto Gaymers, Bent Con, Queer Geek, PressXY, disability-centric group and charity AbleGamers, card game Advent Saga, webcomic Capitol Hillbillies, and roving Magic The Gathering cabal The Lady Planeswalkers Society. There were also beanbag chairs for the con-exhausted masses who just wanted to get off their feet for a little while and hang out.
Reactions coming out of the show have been mixed. The Diversity Lounge itself, many I've spoken to claimed, was a safe, inviting space full of helpful, passionate people. However, it wasn't particularly well-publicized, which left some feeling like the lounge had been tossed out in the cold, forced to fend for itself.
"I want to start off by saying that I went in to the Diversity Lounge not knowing what to expect because of all of the negative backlash on the internet when it was announced," author and cosplayer Ger Tysk told me. "I was more than pleasantly surprised the whole weekend. The lounge was, contrary to what a lot of people were saying, not a place where people were pushed into a corner and held up to be 'different' than other people. The lounge really felt like just another facet of the convention."
"The PAX Enforcers at the door were extremely personable, and not only watched the room, but actively participated in the educational process of the visitors with smiles and hugs," added Trans Against Insanity panelist and member of trans-centric gaming group PressXY Lexi Richardson. "Honestly, it was a great time. I personally witnessed cisgender men and women come into the lounge with questions, and they got answers. A few people actually told me that the room and panel had changed their minds and taught them that trans people aren’t all that strange after all. It was immensely personally rewarding to explain something about life as a transsexual woman, and have them excitedly shake my hand and thank me."
"Not only that, but the general feeling of the room was that of safety. Diversity is about everyone. White, black, Cis, Trans, Male, Female, Gender Queer, and everything in between. If somebody was feeling overwhelmed by the immense crowds on the show floor, then they could come to the Diversity Lounge and relax on a bean bag, or talk with the exhibitors. It was a safe space."
Unfortunately there weren't really scheduled events to draw people to the lounge, but Penny Arcade artist Mike "Gabe" Krahulik stopped by for a couple hours to demo his tabletop game, Thornwatch, and interact with attendees. While not the biggest possible helping hand from on high, this moment was especially significant given Krahulik's previous wars of words with openly trans individuals. One might read that as a half-baked attempt at making amends, but Diversity Lounge attendees came away pretty pleased.
"Mike carried himself perfectly," opined Interplay (Wasteland, Bard's Tale III) co-founder, former PlayStation engineer, and current Olde Skuul CEO Rebecca Heineman. "He wasn't there to 'make a showing.' He was there to try out his game and gather feedback, and where else better to enlist a gender inclusive group to join together and battle against the monsters on the play field? We were there to play a game, and play we did. He listened to all of our feedback and was taking notes like a madman, including comments about adding female characters to his game and minor rule changes since we did break his game by unorthodox play."
Others were less effusive in their praise, but it sounds like Krahulik hosted a solid session overall. "Both [PA writer] Jerry Holkins and Mike made appearances in the Diversity Lounge," said AbleGamers editor-in-chief Steve Spohn. "Given how much they are in demand around the entire conference, I think they did well appearing when they could."
Although only a few video game developers presented at the Diversity Lounge, a handful apparently came through to ask questions and seek valuable consultation for their games. "I had a few devs drop by with ethics-related questions," said De Montfort University computer ethics academic Catherine Flick. "It was really good to see them. Many more boardgame writers than video game writers, but hey, I'm not picky. Some Microsoft people dropped by as well, along with people from 2K. Lots of indie writers too."
The Diversity Lounge's first run, however, was less of a silver bullet for Penny Arcade's recent troubles and more of a late-firing starting gun. It was an important first effort, but it still has a long way to go.
The first big issue? Advertising and publicity. While the Diversity Lounge was decently located all things considered, it was still off the beaten path, removed from the hustle and bustle of the Expo Floor, and—most damningly—not given prominent placement on PAX's website or promo materials, nor were there any sponsors from major gaming companies. It was more of a pleasant surprise, nestled away from the general populace unless they put in the legwork to seek it out. There were official "Roll for Diversity" lanyards and panel schedules (panels were separate from the lounge itself) for those who wanted them, but it's like I always say: if you want to hide your deepest, darkest secrets where nobody will ever find them, put them on a convention lanyard.
"There's no mention of the lounge on PAX's website," said Toronto-based indie developer and Queer Geek booth volunteer Royel Edwards. "What's the point of announcing a safe initiative only to brush it to the side online and in the convention? I want to see people learning more about diversity and it felt like PAX itself wasn't pushing its own product enough to let people know that it's a thing you can be a part of."
"If PAX wants a Diversity Lounge, attendees HAVE to know about it. The lounge had no presence on the show floor, and chances are people only found the lounge because they didn't know what was happening in the room and just wanted to check it out."
The effects of this were especially pronounced on PAX East's first day, when someone made the mystifying decision to keep the lounge's doors closed by default, resulting in less-than-encouraging numbers. Once things opened up on Saturday, however, significantly more people began to wander in.
Others argued that while some sort of show floor presence is definitely needed, the Diversity Lounge's main base of operations should remain away from the ever-churning pit of (very loud) madness that is the Expo Floor. Such a cacophonous, crowded location, they explained, simply isn't conducive to discussion and explanation, the Diversity Lounge's key goals.
"I personally am glad we were in a big room off a main arterial hallway, and not in the middle of the Expo Floor," said a PressXY member who wished to remain anonymous. "If we were we'd be swallowed up by the masses. The expo hall is huge, full of people who might be antagonistic, and it reeks of Axe body spray and desperation. Being in a big open room off of a main hallway, people who didn't like us could avoid us and the people who wanted to be there could be. I think it worked well."
Another problem was the Diversity Lounge's relative lack of, er, diversity. It certainly provided a safe space for members of the gaming community who are often pushed to the outer margins, but it was somewhat narrowly focused in terms of representation. Advertising focused mainly on LGBTQ imagery, and activist groups made up the bulk of its booths.
"The space felt open and comfortable, but I think that it could grow to be more diverse," explained ex-Ensemble (Age of Empires) and CCP (EVE Online, World of Darkness) designer/current Olde Skuul CEO Jennell Jaquays. "[The lounge's organizers] definitely need to reach out as early as possible to local diversity groups involved in gaming—not just activist groups. Our group, PressXY is essentially a national organization, but we were also the only group actively representing transgender issues. What was missing were groups dealing with gamers of other ethnicities and special groups focused on women gamers, regardless of gender or sexual orientation."
The biggest hurdle Penny Arcade's diversity initiative still needs to overcome, however, is what it represents. PAX East's Diversity Lounge ended up being a good, safe space, but it carried with it a sticky mess of potentially problematic implications.
"It's tough to say whether the lounge is on the right track or not," lamented Edwards. "Especially since in a perfect world they wouldn't need it in the first place. But for those who care enough to inquire about what the booths have to offer, it serves its purpose—getting the word out about community and acceptance for all people."
"I don't want them to think that using the lounge as a band-aid is going to help make PAX a better place."
"I felt like the lounge was a double-edged sword. Yes, people can be excited for the fact that PAX is pushing for diversity, but on the other hand we have people asking why [PAX and the notion of diversity] seem to be two different things when they should be one in the same. [Penny Arcade] has said hurtful things. Things that made both attendees and developers not even bat an eye at PAX. I don't want them to think that using the lounge as a band-aid is going to help make PAX a better place."
Lines in the sand—whether drawn intentionally or not—exclude. And when the whole point of an initiative is equality and inclusivity, that perception is a big problem. The Diversity Lounge was meant to be open to all, but not everyone understood that. Some assumed it was a space only for underrepresented groups. A place where straight white men weren't welcome. Others were afraid to approach or admit that they didn't fully understand.
"One guy talked to me and he was really interested in the PAX Prime Pink Party, and he asked me if he was allowed to come because he was straight," exclaimed Edwards. "I wanted to hug him forever. That proves that people think that just because they see the word 'queer' or 'trans' or 'gay' or whatever, they feel like it's exclusive to those sort of people when it's not."
It's a tough perception to avoid when separation is the default state of things, but overcoming it is not impossible. The next step, then, is to make the Diversity Lounge's open armed stance even more, er, open.
"A space for 'other' inevitably becomes a default safe space for 'other' instead of an education space for the 'not other,'" explained a PressXY member who wished to remain anonymous. "Our value proposition should not be 'come and learn who we are!' but rather, 'what can you gain by learning who we are?'"
Even then, it's a particularly precarious tightrope to walk. If you push too hard, you only end up pushing people who are on the fence right off it. Pushing them away. The lounge, many I spoke to agreed, should be a safe space not only for those it represents, but also for learning. And if people don't want to learn? Well, that's on them, and trying to forcefully convince them otherwise harms more than it helps.
"One can never know how many people scoffed at the idea of diversity nor how many people were turned off by the idea," noted AbleGamers editor-in-chief Steve Spohn. "I'm sure there were 'dudebros' who had no interest in seeing anything other than the latest videogame on display at the show floor, but that's fine."
"I'm sure there were 'dudebros' who had no interest in seeing anything other than the latest videogame on display at the show floor, but that's fine."
"The idea of diversity is to make people aware of minorities, raise the behavior levels when dealing with said minorities, and to elicit support for those minorities when necessary or appropriate. It is not the purpose of these kind of situations to force anyone to 'deal with' minorities. It's uncomfortable, and I daresay it's not even right, but some people will never be comfortable or wish to be around those that are different from themselves. So whether it's someone from the LGBT community, the disability community, or any other minority, some people will just not be comfortable. And that's okay. The diversity lounge was available for those who wished to learn."
PAX East's Diversity Lounge, then, was a learning experience for all involved. It was in many ways a positive first step, but there's tremendous room for improvement both in and around it. Lounges, as it turns out, take hard work to run. Here's hoping everyone is ready to roll up their sleeves.
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry. And I do mean everything, thus the name. It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.