The news that a popular video game designer had withdrawn her company from the PAX East convention, the giant gathering that is scheduled to begin at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center on Friday, due to death threats made against her, and her fear of a lack of adequate security, was disturbing on a number of fronts. For one, death threats are a serious crime — the convention center says it has notified Boston Police. But the threats against the designer, Brianna Wu, of the Boston video game studio Giant Spacekat, are not isolated events. Rather, they are only the latest in a series of specific threats that have been made against women in the gaming community and reflect broader issues regarding diversity in a formerly small subculture of enthusiasts that has now become a broad mainstream phenomenon. As a major force in that culture, PAX East’s organizers need to do more to root out the misogyny that female fans and designers so often encounter.
Gaming is huge — a more than $90-billion industry on a par with TV and movies. PAX East is just one of a several conventions presented by the creators of Penny Arcade, a webcomic that has routinely logged 3.5 million views a day. The first PAX (for Penny Arcade Expo), held in Bellevue, Wash., drew 3,500 people. The events now take place all over the world and draw anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 participants. PAX East began at the Hynes Convention Center in 2010 before moving to the larger Seaport District venue in 2011. PAX was unique when it began, in that instead of being a trade convention exclusive to video game companies, designers, and the press, it was fan-centered. With attendees costumed as various video game characters, it took on a festival-like atmosphere that was welcoming and inclusive, and there were none of the scantily clad “booth babe” street teams of more mainstream commercial events. For a lot of gamers, as the Boston writer Maddy Myers put it in the Boston Phoenix, “No matter how far outside the norm you were, you could fit in here.” It was true of both the PAX, and the gaming community at large.
But that community has always included a sizable contingent of young men attracted by violent action and buxom female characters. As reported in the Globe by Callum Borchers and Dennis Keohane, gaming culture became a place where many of the male players preferred “a frat-house environment where women appear only as pixelated sex objects.” Writers also began to note that the game designers and developers were mostly white males.
That casual gender bias took an ugly turn in August 2014 amid accusations, later shown to be unfounded, that a game designer had been romantically involved with a journalist who had reviewed her game. The designer received threats of violence, and the incident became known online under the Twitter hashtag Gamergate. Originally presented as a forum for discussions of journalistic ethics, it soon devolved into hate-filled rants directed against female designers and writers, fuelling online threats of rape and murder, with the subject’s home addresses included. Wu was among those threatened, and at one point moved out of her house in fear for her life. Last October, the feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkessian, a frequent writer about gaming culture, cancelled a planned speech at Utah State University because of an e-mail she received that threatened mayhem: “This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history, and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.” In a painfully ironic twist for this moment in American history, as reported in The New York Times, campus police told Sarkessian that, under Utah law, they could not prevent people with guns from attending her talk.
Amid this turmoil, there are some signs that video game culture is changing. This year’s PAX East includes panel discussions on transgender characters and online bullying. And although Wu has withdrawn her company’s exhibit because of fear for the safety of her employees, she herself is appearing on a panel about censorship.
In a statement on her Web site, she said that the event’s staff and unpaid volunteers “are awesome.” And she also said that PAX East, despite the threats, and an incident last year in which one of her staff members was groped, is “a safe event in general for people.”
But she also enumerated scores of threats sent to her over the past five months via e-mail and social media, often targeting her by name: “The most frightening ones say who, what, where, and why I will be murdered.”
Penny Arcade and PAX East have an opportunity to take an important public stand against mistreatment of women in gaming. Thus far, their only public response to Wu’s concerns has been to assure fans that “the safety of our attendees, panelists, and exhibitors is the number one priority for PAX.” And yes, plainclothes and uniformed security will patrol PAX East. But more needs to be done. Video games are now a gargantuan industry with broad cultural influence, and Penny Arcade and PAX are at its epicenter. The organizers can change the tone of that culture and prevent it from being hijacked by a minority of post-adolescent extremists. They can issue a statement of zero tolerance for harassment and threats of any kind and post it online and at the event. The creators of Penny Arcade and organizers of PAX — writer Jerry Holkins and illustrator Mike Krahulik — have to take responsibility for the world they’ve helped create.