Video games that feature queer characters, on any part of the LGBTIQA+ spectrum, are few and far between. Even rarer: games that explicitly explore queer issues, such as Gone Home. Rarest of all are games that represent transgendered people, which can be counted on one hand.
The thing is, no-one likes to be told they don’t exist. That’s why comments made by Mike Krahulik, co-creator of one of the biggest video-game community events in the world, caused such a stir earlier this year.
‘Love the death threats,’ Krahulik wrote on Twitter in response to the rising flame wars. ‘I think that women have vaginas. I think that you call someone with a vagina woman. More death threats please.’ What started as a simple discussion about a game on female masturbation had spiralled into an angry exchange about transgender issues. ‘If you use the word “cis” don’t bother tweeting me,’ Krahulik wrote. The conversations aren’t fun to read.
For some people, biological sex and gender identity are two very different things, and through his comments Krahulik had (perhaps unintentionally) overlooked the existence of transgender people. He later admitted that he’d been angry and should have simply walked away; he also said he should not be labelled transphobic.
Krahulik’s festival, the Penny Arcade Expo or PAX, is a video-games festival with events in Seattle, Boston and, as of this year, Melbourne, and represents almost every kind of gaming imaginable: tabletop, old-school consoles, laser tag, card games, board games. Following the comments, some gamers wondered whether they were even welcome to attend, and two game companies, Full Bright and Pop Up Playground, made their objections known when they each publicly announced their decision to cancel their appearance at their local PAX event. ‘I agonised about the decision, personally,’ said Ben McKenzie of Pop Up Playground. ‘But a large part of the motivation behind it was really we wanted to send a very clear message … that we want people to feel welcome [at our events] and we don’t want to associate with any group or event that might make people feel unwelcome or unsafe.’
Disapproval continued, despite Krahulik having already issued a public apology and donating $20 000 of his own money to the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and intervention organisation working with queer youth. During Mike Krahulik and fellow creator Jerry Holkins’s Q&A session at PAX Australia, one reporter raised the issue of the games companies pulling out of PAX.
‘I think it is,’ replied Krahulik when asked if he felt that PAX was a queer-friendly and welcoming place for any gamer. ‘I mean we try very hard to make it that way. I mean I couldn’t tell you; I’m not coming into PAX from that perspective. I can tell you on our end we try very hard to make it inclusive to everybody. There’s this sign when you come [into PAX] that says “welcome home” – we really mean it. PAX is a place that any gamer can come and should feel welcome.’
But Ben McKenzie believes that the issue is more difficult to resolve: ‘I know that the organisers, particularly the organisers of PAX Australia, really do want the event to be inclusive. But I think they don’t understand that it’s not enough to put a big sign up saying “welcome home” and tell people everyone is allowed to come. You have to actually make that happen.’
There’s a deeper question here, though: what does it even mean to be a queer friendly event and why does that matter? ‘For organisers and corporations it’s just really good for business,’ said Dorian Ellis, a queer-rights advocate who identifies both as an avid gamer and as a transgendered person. ‘It shows you’re ethically reputable and that’s a progressive cultural impact. It’s also just more professional and mature.’
‘For queer people themselves,’ Dorian continued, ‘they can feel like they can go to an event and be treated with the same respect anybody else would get. When people who aren’t educated on the matter say insensitive things it can be really hurtful and dehumanising. When you get down to it really queer rights are human rights.’
While no-one I spoke to argued against inclusivity, there were differences of opinion when it came to how inclusivity happens and whose responsibility it is.
Jerry Holkins, the other co-founder of Penny Arcade, weighed in during the press event: ‘The show sold out, so what we lost by them not coming was their perspective and their voice.’ He continued, after a thoughtful pause, ‘I think that if there’s something being said that you don’t approve of, strategically, I think you should add your voice to the conversation and not remove it. I think that communication is actually the answer.’
So did Pop Up Playground do the right thing by withdrawing from the event rather than participating and voicing their concerns? ‘I got a lot of criticism from different people who disagreed with our decision,’ McKenzie explained. ‘That was always their catchcry: “what are you adding by not being here? Why aren’t you here talking about it?”’ McKenzie countered that they didn’t go quietly. Posts that he and Pop Up Playground wrote about their decision were picked up by various gaming news sites and blogs. Moreover, he pointed out, Pop Up Playground’s panel wasn’t about issues of gender or sex, so they worried they’d end up shoehorning the issues, and do everybody a disservice in the process.
So whose responsibility is it to foster an inclusive culture? ‘We’re certainly not role models,’ Krahulik said during the press event. ‘We’re not even especially nice people most of the time, but … with great power comes great responsibility,’ he said, quoting Spider Man sagely. Though they didn’t set out to wield this influence, they’ve been able to use their powers for good, most notably with the Child’s Play charity they founded in 2003. Since then, the Child’s Play has raised over $5 million and distributed toys and games to children’s hospitals worldwide.
Positive work aside, McKenzie argues that you can’t be the co-creator of a massive community festival and make strong comments on transgender issues without having an impact on the event itself.
So I thought it vital to canvas the audience and see what that impact was.
While PAX was still on, I had tuned into the Technogaze program on Joy 94.9, Melbourne’s own queer radio station. ‘I wouldn’t class myself as a full-time gamer,’ said Avi, reporting live from PAX, ‘but it still felt like coming home to me because these people get what I do and I relax.’ Fellow reporter Raena added, ‘It really is delightful. I have seen quite a few hand-in-hand same-sex couples.’
After the festival, I put out a call for attendees who identified on any part of the queer spectrum. One of the attendees who’d held hands with their same-sex partner was Steve Wright of Stevivor.com. ‘I didn’t feel excluded; I felt quite loved,’ said Steve, whose boyfriend came for the parties. ‘Not a single element of PAX Australia made me feel unwelcome in relation to my gender or orientation. In fact, not a single element of PAX Australia made me feel unwelcome at all.’
On Twitter, another attendee, who identified as a 38-year-old gay male, was more neutral: ‘My being queer at PAX was ignored. I was not catered to, but I was also not made unwelcome.’
Technogaze reported that staff members had shown excellent awareness towards attendees with disabilities, while Canned Geek described how one of the key organisers took time out to assist a teenage boy in a wheelchair. But I was unable to contact any people with disabilities to personally verify if they felt PAX Australia was as accessible as it appeared.
Now, all of this sounds very positive, but remember that these are just a handful of accounts across a crowd of some thirty-thousand attendees over three days. ‘We absolutely need the full spectrum of those experiences,’ said co-founder Jerry Holkins with sincerity. ‘And we get them by people attending and communicating. That’s the goal.’
Remember also that these issues are bigger than PAX and they don’t exist in a vacuum. Regardless of how well PAX might deal with them, issues like inclusivity and representation for queer people and other minorities are still developing within the gaming industry and communities.
Ben McKenzie intends to return to PAX Australia in 2014 and run a panel exploring these issues. ‘These are not problems that are endemic to games,’ he emphasised, ‘they’re problems that are often exacerbated and seem more “pointy” in games. But they are a reflection of broader society and I would love for a really truly inclusive PAX to not just be a safe space, but to have those cultural discussions as well.’