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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

PAX Comments Expose Rape Culture In Game Industry

Will Federman |
September 7, 2013 | 10:18 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Mike Krahulik pictured at PAX Prime 2013 (William Pio/Flickr)
Mike Krahulik pictured at PAX Prime 2013 (William Pio/Flickr)

When conference doors closed to the ninth annual PAX convention in Seattle, the discussion on gender inequality and rape culture swung wide open after inflammatory remarks were made by one of the show’s co-founders.

PAX (short for Penny Arcade eXpo) is the brainchild of Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, co-founders of the incredibly successful online comic strip, Penny Arcade. The enormously popular convention is now the largest venue of its kind in North America for an industry that generates over $20 billion a year. The Seattle event has spawned three other similar conventions as Holkins and Krahulik have built up their web-based empire.

The Seattle-based event began life as an alternative to E3 and other corporate venues, but has quickly grown into a commercial enterprise that annually draws crowds of over 70,000.

At a Q&A panel over Labor Day weekend, a male-dominated crowd applauded when Kraulik admitted that he regretted pulling merchandise designed to incense readers offended by an online comic strip joking about rape.

Krahulik’s outburst is just a few months removed from the infamous rape joke at Microsoft’s E3 press conference. Women are now mobilizing against an industry that they see as actively promoting misogyny at best and condoning rape culture at worst.

Christine Love, an award-winning game developer and beloved industry personality, attended PAX last weekend to promote her latest work, Hate Plus, at the Indie MEGABOOTH. Initially overjoyed to attend the gaming convention, she soured the moment Krahulik resurrected a three-year-old controversy centered on his ill-fated attempt to monetize off readers' disgust with the incendiary comic strip. 

In an open letter to Jerry Holkins, Love stated her discomfort with not only the fact that Krahulik’s comments were incredibly insensitive, but also “when they said those things on a public stage, an entire auditorium full of men cheered loudly.”

“Like, literally an entire giant auditorium of men got excited at the idea of making rape survivors feel uncomfortable,” Love wrote on her site for Love Conquers All Games.

Love's open letter was joined by a chorus of other professionals who voiced similar concerns about the poisonous environment at PAX.

Wired's Rachel Edidin vowed to no longer attend the event.

Krahulik has developed a history of insensitive comments, most recently culminating in a widely disseminated Twitter spat that critics cited as transphobic. The cartoonist's impetuous behavior became so toxic that The Fullbright Company pulled its highly-anticipated game, Gone Home, out of PAX entirely - months before Krahulik's latest outburst.

Co-founder Steve Gaynor wrote back in June that, “We believe that agreeing to pay the organizers of PAX over $1,000 for booth space, and to present our game on their showfloor for four days, provides explicit support for and tacit approval of their publicly demonstrated positions on these subjects.”

When asked about the decision to pull the video game Gone Home from PAX in light of Krahulik's latest comments, Gaynor told Neon Tommy via email that "... if anything it reinforces our position."

"We didn't pull out of PAX because of an isolated incident," Gaynor responded, "but because there was a well established pattern that clearly wasn't going to change."

Gone Home has been met with widespread critical acclaim since its launch last month. Gaynor acknowledges that "there haven't been negative consequences for [The Fullbright Company]" and "we don't regret our decision."

The Fullbright Company, however, was the beneficiary of incredible press after the four-person team made its stand against PAX. Love does not have the same luxury; the Canadian-based developer relies on events like PAX for media exposure, despite the hostile atmosphere.

It is a source of contention that 24-year-old Lauren Lewis, an Interactive Media and Games MFA major in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, recognizes is a distinct reality for women in the industry.

"Particularly for indie developers, showing at PAX can make or break their chance of success, both critical and financial. Though it may seem like hyperbole, I do believe that for some developers the choice whether to show at PAX can come down to the choice between standing up for your convictions and putting food on the table."

Lewis told Neon Tommy, "I have never attended PAX and I will never attend PAX, specifically because of issues I have with its owners," but that decision carries real consequences.

"Deciding never to attend PAX is a decision I fully expect to have professional repercussions," she added.

By mid-week, industry chatter reached a boiling point and the outcry over Krahulik's behavior pointed to a larger issue of an industry beset with an image problem.

Krahulik did not respond to requests from Neon Tommy for comment.

In an email to Neon Tommy, Lewis recalled a job offer sheet in which a “fellow professional … patronizingly warned me to be careful not to ‘distract’ their all-male workplace.”

Her story is not an isolated incident for female professionals, especially in an industry where leaders like Krahulik are able to flourish.

Dimitri Williams is an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, one who has published compelling research on online video game communities and gender stereotypes. Despite the ever growing presence of women in the industry, Williams said that the fact is the video game industry is still struggling with a very male-oriented perspective.

“The game industry has made big strides in bringing more women into positions of consequence, but it's still heavily male,” said Williams, “Creatives make products that they enjoy, so males make games for males, and they often forget the female perspective. The result on the business side is missed opportunity, which many lately are catching on to - witness phenomena like Candy Crush or Farmville. The result on the social side ranges from ignorance to misogyny.”

For his part, Krahulik finally addressed the growing furor with a tepid public apology on Thursday. Critics of Krahulik's behavior largely dismissed his remorse as empty.

"I think it's a good apology,” Love said. “And frankly, given that he writes sincere-sounding apologies every month, I'd sure hope he's good at it by now. I'm sure next month's sincere-sounding apology will sound good, too."

Love contends the issue at hand is a lack of accountability. "The problem is, he keeps apologizing, but then does nothing to indicate he's actually learned anything."

It's a sentiment that Lewis echoes in her own critique of Krahulik's apology. 

"He doesn't take a lot of personal responsibility," Lewis replied, "He plays the victim, and he places the decision to make the strip, escalate the conflict from the strip, and the only decision made to attempt to ameliorate the harm caused by the strip, as morally equivalent. This is absurd on its face." 

Gaynor, co-founder of The Fullbright Company, had a far stronger rebuke of Krahulik's statement: "I've read his last couple apologies, so I skipped this one. We haven't shown at PAX in the past, and aren't planning to do so in the future."

As Love moves past the incident, the acclaimed writer said reactions to her open letter have “been mostly positive,” although Love disclosed that she has received her “first rape threat as a result of posting it.”

Neither Holkins nor Krahulik have contacted her. 

Despite such animosity, for the first time, Love feels understood. “I've heard from people that they now understand why I feel uncomfortable at PAX when they didn't understand before,” Love remarked, “which I'm really happy about.”

Love is hopeful that the more people are aware of how marginalized women are within the industry, the more people are apt to change and the less socially acceptable Krahulik’s comments will become. It’s an attitude that Lewis is still somewhat skeptical about.

“Even if the industry is starting to acknowledge the problem, it's incredibly far from being solved,” wrote Lewis via email.

Williams acknowledges the struggle women face even as there are “more female voices joining the conversation via blogs and social media.” The astute researcher doesn’t reject the obvious:

“They have an uphill climb.”

Yet, Williams is optimistic. He can also see a future in which men in the video game industry will have to be accountable to the women in their personal lives.

“Having said that,” Williams declared, “the game industry is largely populated by very good people, and unlike the earliest days, their leaders are also husbands with wives and fathers of daughters, not just some young guys in a dorm.”

Reach reporter Will Federman here or tweet him at @wfederman.




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