The PAX East convention in Boston is a three-day festival for video game fans dressed as their favorite bazooka-shooting, sword-wielding characters. Though the weapons are made of cardboard and Styrofoam, danger at the convention seems real this year to a local developer, whose commentary on women in gaming has made her a target of harassment and even brought threats of rape and death.
Brianna Wu, cofounder of the Boston video game studio Giant Spacekat, has pulled her company off the exhibition floor at next month’s event because of safety concerns for the five other women who work with her.
Last week, Wu said in a blog post that PAX organizers had ignored her repeated attempts over several weeks to discuss security measures.
“I just wanted visible security nearby, which is completely reasonable,” Wu added in an interview. “I haven’t backed down from these threats for two seconds, but if something happened to my team, God forbid, that would be on me.”
Other developers said the withdrawal of Giant Spacekat reinforces a cold reality of gaming culture: that many male players would prefer a frat- house environment where women appear only as pixelated sex objects. To some, PAX East feels like a celebration of this culture.
Executives at Penny Arcade, the group that stages the expo, declined to discuss their handling of Wu’s complaints, instead issuing a general statement stressing that “the safety of our attendees, panelists, and exhibitors is the number one priority for PAX.”
“They need to make a stronger statement,” said Nina Huntemann, a professor of media studies at Suffolk University and cofounder of Women in Games Boston, a professional network. “A weak statement suggests they’re still not taking seriously the concerns of women while preserving this male-dominated culture that they’ve allowed to fester.”
Penny Arcade notified Boston Convention & Exhibition Center officials of Wu’s qualms about safety only after she pulled the plug on her company’s display booth, said James Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. Rooney said that convention center officials conducted their own security assessment several months before PAX East, as they do before every event, but didn’t see any major red flags.
“We had seen this kind of noise on social media about gender bias, but not what [Wu] is saying about feeling threatened,” Rooney said.
After Giant Spacekat pulled out, Rooney’s team notified Boston police. Police were not contacted by Penny Arcade before Wu’s decision, said police spokesman Mike McCarthy.
Wu became a target in October when she used her Twitter account to mock members of GamerGate, a shadowy online movement known for harassing female developers. She and several other women in the industry who spoke out against such behavior prompted widespread media coverage of the video world, but that also drew continued attacks. In October, for example, Wu fled from her home after a barrage of hateful messages sent via e-mail and social media.
The threats did not mention PAX East specifically, and McCarthy said that police are confident the event, scheduled for March 6-8, will be safe. A combination of uniformed and plainclothes officers will patrol the convention center’s 2.1 million square feet, as they have in prior years, and the facility’s in-house guards and event volunteers will provide additional layers of security.
Huntemann, a PAX East regular, said female attendees have experienced some harassment in years past but that volunteer “enforcers” who patrol the exposition floor generally keep rude behavior in check.
PAX East is one of the largest and highest-profile exhibitions in gaming, drawing development studios from all over the world to promote their latest titles. Many of the roughly 70,000 attendees dress in elaborate costumes to mimic their favorite video games, fantasies, and science fiction characters.
The result can be a sense of chaos in the expo hall, as throngs of unidentifiable fans mix with the professionals who make the games the crowd members love — or hate.
Wu said that last year one of her employees dressed in costume was groped; this year the prospect of such a crowded setting made her female employees especially uncomfortable. Wu said she would attend the convention, honoring a commitment to appear on a discussion panel about censorship.
Wu said in an October interview with The Boston Globe that she would not allow intimidation tactics to stop her from making games like “Revolution 60,” which stars four female action heroes. But some women are bullied out of the field, to the dismay of male colleagues.
“It’s an extremely difficult time, and too many great developers are driven away — people who could actually advance the craft,” said Sean Baptiste, marketing director at Firehose Games, an incubator for indie developers in Cambridge.
Safety is not the only concern for women, however. On message boards and at meetings of women gamers, some continued to question whether Penny Arcade founders Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik are serious about gender equality after they posted a comic on their website in 2010 that appeared to make light of rape. The comic featured monsters that were serial rapists, and Holkins and Krahulik later began selling T-shirts based on the cartoon. They ultimately axed the shirts, but Krahulik said at a PAX event in Seattle in 2013 that pulling the merchandise “was a mistake.”
The crowd cheered, according to news reports at the time.