When we left off last time, I was heading to a Massachusetts studio to sell my games. There I was, game pitches in hand when—
…for a SURPRISE SPECIAL PAX EAST EDITION of my dev diary. Yep, that’s right. I want to talk about the expo while it’s fresh in my mind.
It was my first time attending PAX East. I’ve been to PAX Prime many times—mostly because it took place a fifteen-minute stroll from where I was living in Seattle, so why not? I’ve attended as an exhibitor, a panelist, a special guest, and a regular fan. Surprisingly, I had the most fun being part of the unwashed masses.
So I thought I knew what to expect when I attended as a panelist this year. But, of course, I was wrong. PAX East is its own beast. For the first time, I came away from the expo feeling troubled about the games community. And you're hearing that from a woman who gushed to Giant Bomb about how inclusive PAX felt that year, while just across the expo floor Mike Krahulik was saying how much he regretted pulling the Dickwolves shirts. Yeah. Not a proud moment for either of us.
But let’s rewind to the beginning. I participated in two panels this year:
Both panels discussed important topics, but the discussion of censorship is near and dear to my heart. If you watch the video of our panel, I explain in detail why it matters to me and what makes it particularly relevant now (GamerGate). When Hatred came out, Twitter exploded with cries of “censorship,” yet not one example I saw involved genuine censorship. Not a surprise considering that some people at our PAX panel believe censorship means deleting a post you disagree with from your Facebook wall . I often hear that Anita Sarkeesian is censoring creative freedom in games by…well, I’m not exactly sure how. Asking for better female characters, I guess. Apparently, developers are so afraid to offend “SJWs” that they censor themselves and that’s killing their creative freedom. Or something.
I won’t go into it here because we discuss it at length in the panel video, but there are limits to creative expression for all game devs. Only they aren’t what everyone seems to think. Some are natural constraints of huge group projects. Marketing often plays a role. Decisions can be politically motivated, for sure. But the people screaming "censorship!" the loudest don't care when people like me are creatively stifled.
Oh, do I sound bitter?
The irony of our censorship panel became more apparent as we planned the discussion topic around the limits of our respective NDAs. And the irony deepened to lethal levels when Brianna Wu was forced to pull her booth from the expo because of death threats. There’s more than one way to prevent creative expression.
This was also the first time that I was wary of the other attendees as potential threats. And I recognize that my previous freedom from that fear is a luxury many never get, sadly. Many people have felt unsafe at PAX in years before this one. And rightfully so. Now, the atmosphere can feel hostile if you're a gamer and not a Gamer. I've always known the schism was there, but this year the rift seemed unbridgeable.
My sense of danger worsened when we had to ask for extra panel security because of death threats. And then we learned that the people who were supposed to be protecting us posed a threat. I will never think of PAX as a safe place again. Even the illusion of security is gone.
Safety concerns aside, the panel went off with only one hitch: Mike Bithell’s flight from GDC was delayed and he was unable to speak. It's a shame because he had strong feelings on the subject. Despite his absence, many people told me it was their favorite panel at the expo. Some of them were even telling the truth.
With all that drama, perhaps it's not surprising that I felt disconnected from the experience. But I couldn’t help comparing PAX to GDC. Obviously, PAX is for players and GDC for devs, but PAX used to be a place where devs played, too. I saw less of that this year. It felt to me like devs were putting on a pleasant mask for the public and only felt comfortable being their real selves behind closed doors. That’s always been true to a certain extent, but I’ve never felt such…wariness behind it before. Everyone had their guard up.
And again, my take on the expo was influenced by an unusual level of ambient menace. I would have dismissed it as result of personal stress if I hadn’t read this article by Maddy Myers.
What I felt was nowhere near as extreme as what Maddy did. And I felt detached for different reasons. While I do agree that PA’s bad behavior in the past has cast a long shadow over the expo, my problem wasn’t with PAX itself. I'm more concerned about the growing divide I feel between devs and gamers.
Compare Maddy's piece to this article by Carolyn Petit. Carolyn's experience aligns with what I heard from so many devs: GDC was a wonderland of acceptance and affirmation this year. After a year spent circling the wagons, it felt good to lock the gates against the wilderness and be with your own people. It felt good to freely make sockpuppet jokes and wear Cuties Killing Video Games t-shirts without fear of backlash. I get the imprtance of having that space. But I think it's troubling that we need it so much now.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope my dissociation from the expo was because (unbeknownst to me at the time) I was already infected with the shiny new 2015 version of the PAX Plague.
Anyway, this is getting far too serious for me.
I don’t want to diminish the good stuff that happened at PAX. I caught up with many old friends and made some new ones. I got to put faces to Twitter handles. The Empathy Games panel was wonderful. I'm excited by where empathy games are leading us, especially as the possibilities of VR open up.
I'll leave you with my short list of Good Stuff from PAX
- The Magic Circle (You're a dev trying to fix a game in real time as it's about to ship)
- Lovely Planet (The game that dares to ask: What if Katamari Damacy was an FPS?)
- The Science of Online Bullying (Your brain doesn't know it's "not real.")
- The Diversity Lounge was bustling ever time I saw it.
I also had what was truly one of the worst meals of my life at a place I know I'll see again in Hell.
But it was an adventure. And during that moment I was reminded of what PAX can be: something new and strange that you share with people like you.
However weird they are.