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How PAX’s attempt at diversity majorly backfired
This play for diversity sounds nice in theory, but will it work?
Good news! One of the largest and most important conventions in the gaming world will now have “diversity,” for people who like that sort of thing.
That seems to be the message flabbergasted Twitter users got Tuesday night when Penny Arcade’s convention series, the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) announced it would host a “diversity lounge” at each of its Seattle, Boston, and Melbourne conferences—apart from the “regular” activities of the expo.
An anonymous Penny Arcade (PA) employee leaked internal documents to game review sites IndieStatik and Rock Paper Shotgun last night detailing the franchise’s plans to create a “Roll for Diversity” lounge at each conference site. The lounge would function partially as an info-booth area, a place where attendees could stop by and receive brochures and other kinds of information on inclusivity-related issues and subgroups.
That’s not the part that shocked the community, though. The document, which appears to be a draft of a press release, goes on:
The hub will also be a space for industry professionals and fans to interface in a setting focused on diversity, receive diversity training, learn more about diversity, and meet people from diverse communities.
Photo via Indiestatik
Next year the diversity lounge will feature a fence and security checkpoints for diverse people’s own safety.
— General Ironicus (@Gen_Ironicus) December 18, 2013
CAPABLE FEMALE PROTAGONIST DETECTED. YOUR GAME WILL BE RELOCATED TO THE DIVERSITY LOUNGE. NON-COMPLIANCE WILL RESULT IN INCINERATION.
— ◔ ⌣ ◔ (@ThatDispenser) December 18, 2013
The leaked document goes on to imply that “diversity lounge” visitors can receive other perks like “safe-zone training” and “nonjudgmental learning.”
Photo via Rock Paper Shotgun
In other words, it sounds as if conversations about diversity would literally be segregated from the rest of the conference. That’s a problem, because PAX and other gaming industry events are often criticized for looking like this:
Photo via Wikipedia
@TheWoundGod A “diversity lounge”? Man, if that isn’t missing the point then I don’t know what is
— Miles Morales (@Ljay90) December 18, 2013
It’s easy to understand why Penny Arcade, the notoriously PR-challenged webcomic turned gaming industry giant, would think this was a good idea. Founders Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins—particularly Krahulik—have a track record of doing and saying regressive things within the gaming community, most prominently their response to backlash over a 2010 rape joke in their popular webcomic.
That controversy resurfaced again this year in what is by now a typical pattern from Krahulik of saying tactless things, getting defensive and offending even more people in the process, then following-up with hasty apologies.
In many ways, 2013 seems to have been the year Penny Arcade attempted to address and end this cycle once and for all, but its attempts at solving the problem have only managed to alienate more fans.
The Diversity Lounge sounds like the exact thing a corporation would come up with after mandatory diversity training.
— Kip Casper (@baldpissman) December 18, 2013
— goats vom krampus (@sigilgoat) December 18, 2013
PA Business Manager Robert Khoo told Polygon Wednesday that the diversity lounges were intended to be part of a larger focus on diversity and training:
“Our goal was to highlight diverse groups (and organizations that represent diverse groups) in the industry that might not necessarily get exposure otherwise,” Khoo said. “We have a limited number of slots, and the booths are free. In addition, since all of our content is spread out at the show rather than ‘tracked,’ the hub will also be a resource for people to find the diverse sessions, events, and exhibitors.”
In other words, in an attempt to make its spaces more inclusive, PAX is hoping to invite minority exhibitors into the “diversity” center without forcing them to pay for an expensive booth on the show floor.
But as well-meaning as Penny Arcade’s attempt at encouraging diversity and being a “safe and welcoming space” undoubtedly is, the concept of a gaming convention designating an area where minorities can hang out seems like a bizarre parody of the ongoing problems and lack of representation that plague the industry.
The overwhelming consensus of the Internet, even after Khoo’s statement clarified the company’s intentions, seems to be that the best way to create a “safe space” for diversity is to focus on making the entire convention safe and welcoming, by including diverse content and panelists from a wide variety of backgrounds.
i would say good for pax, but shouldn’t this be ALL of PAX and not just a single area? http://t.co/XActxv2Nkp
— Darkstar/Corey (@DarkstarIV) December 18, 2013
Reddit agrees. “Why not just have a lounge for general professional gaming discussion, and foster diversity conversations within that larger group?” reads the most upvoted thread on the subject from gamer Mushroomer.
Meanwhile, #DiversityLoungeDrinks has turned into yet another wry Twitter PA backlash, as gamers and geeks joined in to collectively facepalm at the news.
Long Condescending Explanation Of Why Your Problems Don’t Matter Island Iced Tea #DiversityLoungeDrinks
— Todd Johnson (@_toddjohnson) December 18, 2013
My Best Friend Is Black Russian #diversityloungedrinks
— Holly Green (@winnersusedrugs) December 18, 2013
Given that Khoo’s response to Polygon was positive, it seems Penny Arcade plans to move forward with the idea, despite being inundated with disbelieving tweets from readers.
Let’s just hope that this is one theory that will actually prove better in practice than it sounds—for the gaming community’s sake, as well as Penny Arcade’s increasingly shaky reputation.
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.