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PAX East 2011: Diversifying Beyond The 'Gamer' Stereotype
PAX East 2011: Diversifying Beyond The 'Gamer' Stereotype
March 13, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche

March 13, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche
More: Console/PC

On August 11, 2010, writer Jerry Holkins and illustrator Mike Krahulik, creators of the Penny Arcade webcomic published a strip whose punchline, a rape joke, incensed the feminist community and led to a public back and forth argument that exemplified a dark side to the gaming community.

As a response to the fallout, the International Game Developers Association Dev Center hosted a panel at PAX East 2011 this weekend, examining the presence of hate speech in the gaming community, how online communities can create safe spaces, and how to introduce diversity to a wider audience of gamers and developers.

Regina Buenaobra, community manager at Guild Wars developer ArenaNet and co-founder of The Border House, a blog for "marginalized" gamers, urged developers and gamers alike to not only tolerate diversity, but welcome it.

She defined diversity as the "concept that underscores that there is no single perspective or background or point of view to consuming or creating media."

Alexandra Raymond, also a writer at The Border House, agreed with Buenaobra that diversity was especially important to consider as gamers.

"It's important because [diversity] is just a fact of the world we live in," she said. "We need to deal with the increasingly diverse video game community."

Ablegamers Foundation founder and CEO Mark Barlet called for community involvement and volunteering as ways to combat gamer stereotypes and encourage outreach. "We tell a lot of awesome stories of how gamers help people's lives," he said, "but we also get told games are evil. We need to find good things to do with gamers."

David Edison of said the path to diversity is established with "relentless persistence and small victories." He asked for gamers in marginalized communities to make themselves visible and their voices heard. For Edison, their mere presence is a positive influence both in the communities of gamers and the games they play.

At the same time, the panelists agreed that visibility alone is not enough. Raymond called for stronger leadership, saying influential people within the community have the power to tolerate intolerance or condemn it. Not taking a stance leads to a sense of validation for intolerant gamers.

While Raymond and many of the other panelists spoke eloquently of the power peer pressure has to promote tolerance, she felt that strong leadership was where it started. Big communities that can't employ moderators can try user moderation, but in her experience community members will actually uprate sexism, homophobia, and racism if they think their views are validated. The tone of a blog, article, or video game will draw a community. Beyond moderations, authors can help by acting in a way that promotes tolerance.

Language itself was the most important issue at stake for the panelists. Buenaobra discussed how intolerant language in gamer communities leaves some would-be community members disenfranchised.

"We want to be included but we don't want to deal with the shit that is thrown at us," she said. In her perspective, these communities, especially within game spaces like MMORPGs or Xbox Live, exclude gamers unwilling to endure hate speech.

But Buenaobra also discussed how language promoting tolerance needed to be chosen carefully as well. "Working in the game industry, you can't always be fighting all the time," she said. "It alienates people if you're always criticizing their language, so you have to prioritize your battles." This issue spoke to the larger problem, which was a general lack of understanding in the games industry of these marginalized groups and their members.

Buenaobra pointed out that people who belong to marginalized groups have a set of language to describe their situation that people with privilege do not have and do not understand. "When I'm trying to articulate these things to my coworkers in the games industry i have to take a step back and ask how they'll be able to relate with what I'm saying," she said.

Edison emphasized how important diplomacy was to diversification and tolerance, calling again and again for discussion rather than argumentation, despite his own personal feelings of anger and frustration. He saw his role as establishing a connection with the industry, to show up to developers and remind them of marginalized groups. "The point is that we try to be there at every step of the industry," he said.

When an audience member asked for the panelists to address the Penny Arcade debacle directly, Buenaobra responded with something she had said to game consultant N'Gai Croal at GDC the previous week: "I think that certain people in the game industry aren't aware of how influential they are and how what they create here at PAX creates and perpetuates culture, and the influence it has."

Edison described the webcomic controversy as "a potentially wonderful teachable moment that lacked a teacher."

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I love that strip rofl.

As for our industry, there is always going to be the traditional ("hardcore") gamer, and then others. Others can be casual, not so casual (but not traditional or hardcore).

At the end of the day, they're just words. Albeit, convenient ones.

Christina Gonzalez
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No, not at all. To believe that is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The point is, those of us who are gamers are just that. Yes, the words are convenient, but the aim is to reach beyond that and to assume that there will be one type of gamer and "others" is to doom that aim to failure.

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They're convenient ones in the sense of determining demographics and the like.

Notice the last line? "At the end of the day, they're just words."

Even gamer is just a word. Who says we are gamers? Now, you and I consider us, being on this website, caring about games, especially working in the industry, as gamers.

But....what if our views were different?

Gamer, just like other words used to describe that, can be thrown out. However, as you pointed out in your third sentence, it's just too convenient of a word.

Robert Bevill
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The people who call themselves "gamers", and the groups that like to swear at each other over Xbox Live are two separate groups. People who take gaming seriously, as both a hobby or an art form, are much more self-aware in such situations.

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Tim Braslavsky
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I would say that beyond intolerance lies also a problem that is inherent to competition where people who have an intense desire for winning tend to want to put down thier competition as well as thier team or or is doing poorly. This attitute is quite common umongst competitive people even beyond gaming. What makes it more previlent in games especialy online games is the impersonal nature or such communication.

John Tynes
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"I think that certain people in the game industry aren't aware of how influential they are and how what they create here at PAX creates and perpetuates culture, and the influence it has."

This is a laughable criticism. The Penny Arcade team has written at length about the important role PAX plays in gaming culture; their ban on "booth babes" and even refusing booth space to vendors whose products offer only sexism and negativity speaks pretty loudly to this point.

I found the controversy appalling. The comic strip, however, was hilarious.

Regina Buenaobra
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Given that information you provided in your comment, perhaps I should rephrase my observation and noted that if they are truly aware of how much much influence they have over gamer culture, perhaps they no longer care about their effects on it, or perhaps they want to shift this influence in a different direction. The fact that many booth babes were present at PAX East 2011 may signal a change in their attitude towards how they choose to shape and influence the culture at PAX.

Secondly, the controversy had less to do with the comic and more with their responses to it.

Alan Au
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I do not believe that there have been any changes to the Penny Arcade booth babe policy. For reference, here are the specifics:

If you disagree with the policy, you should let Penny Arcade know--they're not very good at reading your mind.

Brett Williams
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I personally believe the majority of this is related to internet culture. While gaming is a subsection of that because it is social and multiplayer the majority of the interaction is widespread around the internet. It exists even among those who do not play games but frequently use the internet for their social interaction.

I believe by focusing on this as an issue with the gaming community it is almost like trying to take an arduous task and break it into bite sized chunks. I don't disagree with all of the statements said, but I believe the majority of the message could be applied to any number of social groups and practically humanity as a whole.

I appreciate that this group wants to take on this task, but I don't believe they need to restrict themselves to a single demographic to do so.

Game Diversity
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While I did not attend PAX, I did attend the GDC and was surprised at how certain special interest groups, Blacks in Gaming, Women in Gaming, etc. self-segregated themselves from some of the main events of the conference. I am sure this self-segregation is the results of both a feeling of exclusion and a need to bond as a group within the industry in order to survive.

As in any organization, or industry, John's comments are correct - leaders and executives within the industry probably to do not really appreciate how powerfully their behaviors create a culture and includes and excludes certain people within the industry.

Regina Buenaobra
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Actually, John disagreed strongly with my comment that leaders in the industry are not aware how much their actions help create and shape culture to the exclusion of people in gaming culture; he called this idea "laughable."

Game Diversity
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You are right, I had to re-read your exchange. Unfortunately, what he is missing is that culture is creating by behavior particularly by those is a majority or supervisory role. If the vast majority of those in a supervisory role are basically a homogeneous group - male, heterosexual and White - they most definitely have the unconscious ability to create a culture that excludes others.