This year, Penny Arcade Expomade its first appearance on the east coast, and that I meant I didn't have to pony up $600 to fly out to Seattle. Hooray! Gaming: it was on.
I was a little nervous before I actually got to the convention – my only other real con experience has been Games Day in Baltimore, the corporate self-celebratory world of Games Workshop, and the Civil Liberties and Public Policy conference out at Hampshire college. Neither of these cons was anything like PAX in terms of size or population: Games Day attracts a couple of women, but by and large the hobby is so male-centric that it was hard to notice they are even present. Meanwhile, CLPP is the most open, tolerant, explicitly feminist and gender-just space I've ever been in, and I felt a little bit like I was oppressing my fellow conference goers by having facial hair. But again, CLPP has probably a thousand or so participants over the weekend, and Games Day has maybe five or six thousand. PAX saw somewhere around 50,000 people in three days, and they were all going to be celebrating video games and the geek culture.
I wanted that. I've been a gamer my whole life, and I intend to be a gamer until crazy old age makes it hard for me to mash circle on my Playstation 12 controller. I will get buried with my Street Fighter t-shirt and Fallout 3 bobblehead. I've had the same shared experiences as the other con attendees who can lustily sing the Metroid, Contra, and Mario themes. That was my childhood, too. I have that background. I was looking for opportunities to bond with people, to meet new folks that I didn't know personally, but knew shared a lot of my humor and worldview. And I found that, and it was awesome.
But I was also a little on edge - I know that geek culture has an often justified reputation for being weird about gender issues. It's got a not-so-great track record of attracting sad, lonely men and excluding women. Our most mainstream TV show is pretty much a half hour of gender-based essentialism. Even the good men of Penny Arcade have occasionally dipped into this confusion that women are some other, strange species of humanity, although they are much, much better about it than most. Geek and gaming culture, while still slightly different than the mainstream, still provides a lot of the same messages to men about what women are, and what they are for. Alex Raymond's take on these messages is pretty solid.
We talk a lot on this blog about rape culture, and what that means practically to those of us who are fighting for a better, more just world. At the extreme end of rape culture is actual sexual violence, but in all the space between rape and, say, irritating and stupid jokes about what "real" men or women are or do, there's a lot of room for less severe but still hurtful, traumatic, and stupid actions. The geek culture is not blameless here - depictions of men and women in a lot of video games and comic books are less than ideal, and especially for male, straight gamers and geeks, the messages we get about what women are can be problematic at best. Also, there's the nasty Nice Guy(TM) strain that runs particularly strongly in the geek community.
So here was my conundrum: I'm a gamer, and a pretty hardcore one at that (I bought Gorkamorka! No one bought that!), but I'm also a feminist and passionate about gender justice - was I going to have my guard raised all day, running from room to room trying either not to see sexism, or to constantly intervene in appropriate ways to keep socially awkward nerds from annoying women?
And the answer, very refreshingly, was no. I invited a female friend of mine to the con who has a lot of con experience, and she said it didn't feel hostile. I didn't have to jump in front of anyone, yell at anyone, project anxious masculinity at anyone - it was just awesome. PAX was much more gender-balanced than I thought it would be. While it was not 50/50, it was probably not too far off.
There were a couple of attendees in costume at PAX, both men and women, and I saw a lot of those folks getting complimented on how accurate and cool their get-ups were. A couple of the women were dressed as game characters, who are not generally known for their modest dress, but I didn't see anyone getting gropey or overstepping boundaries, which was nice!
What I did see were some awesome acts of community - the types of things that clever, intelligent people do when they care about greater ideas than their own self-interest. Penny Arcade created Child's Play a few years ago to help spread the joy and therapeutic power of video games to kids in hospitals, and it's had a tremendous effect in the geek world. Good people have powerful things to say about Child's Play, and I saw them say it, in person, to Gabe and Tycho this weekend. It would be hard to witness a more powerful public proclamation than that. I saw a guy who had just won an intel cell processor (worth probably a couple thousand dollars) give it right back to child's play, because that's what you do in this community.
I don't know if PAX is an aberration in the world of major geek cons - it might be. They had a couple of panels on women and gaming, and geek culture in general that had female panelists, so it may be that PAX got good feedback in the past about how to make the con more approachable to female gamers. I'd like to think that's the case, and that the geek community might be getting a little bit better with regards to women and gender non-conforming folks because it decided to do so. The folks I saw donating things to child's play during the con certainly got smiles, and sometimes applause, but the donations themselves were not crazy or unusual, and that's why I liked them so much - because they showed that part of being a member of this community in the first place was understanding charity, altruism, and giving.
That's the kicker, right there - if we're ever going to beat rape culture, if we're ever going make sexual assault completely intolerable in all of our communities, then basic things like respecting other people's boundaries have to become just a part of what we do. And that doesn't mean that people can't have fun with their sexuality, or play with it, or even show it off if they so choose. It doesn't mean that other folks can't appreciate the people who want to show it off, either. It does mean that respecting boundaries becomes the baseline norm. When that's the case, more people feel free to dress up, play around in costumes, join together in big herds and celebrate their shared experiences and donate to child's play, and that's awesome. That's what PAX was for me this weekend, and I can't wait for it next year.