Video Games For All: Does PAX EAST Need a Separate Diversity Lounge?

Elisa Melendez

Inclusion, representation and diversity are hot-button issues in all facets of the gaming industry. That includes the games, the people who make them and the community that consumes them and the spaces they inhabit.

But many are trying to broaden that scope–something evident at this past weekend’s Penny Arcade Expo East, or PAX EAST, in Boston. The event’s Roll for Diversity Hub and Lounge meant to provide a safe space for members of diversity communities, as well as a place where those searching for more information on these issues could find it.

This didn’t come without some drama, though. When organizers first announced their plan to host a separate space for diversity-related information, the gaming community met the news with reactions that ranged from cautious skepticism to enthusiasm to outright disgust.

The initial worries were not unfounded: Why does it have to be a separate space? Would this turn into some sort of diversity zoo? Is it too little, too late for a convention whose figurehead has such a history of offending a section of a community he purports to support that he incites boycotts from consumers and developers alike? (The past concerns regarding Penny Arcade’s treatment of diversity are outlined pretty thoroughly in this piece from Polygon.)

I visited the lounge this weekend to see its final form. Let’s be real, I was looking for a cluster–and I started off a bit dismayed at its location, adjacent to the conference’s panel rooms, off to the side, rather than on the show floor or in the main lobby. Would a lack of relative visibility (compared to, say, an energy drink sponsor that occupied said lobby) would hinder attendance?

But that dismay turned to pleasant surprise when, over all three days of the conference, I saw more people than I expected enjoying the lounge’s comfy bean bags, grabbing pamphlets on the convention’s various panels on diversity, and playing games. However, there was a sense of missed opportunity, echoed by a lounge worker named Royel: “The room deserved to be on a larger scale and in an area with more traffic. Even some sort of visibility on the show floor telling people that the room exists would have been beneficial.”

Benjamin Williams, the self-professed “instigator” of the lounge, pointed to a chest in the room filled with attendee suggestions and said, “The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.” In fact, if there was any negative feedback at all, it was about wishing the lounge was bigger, or more visible. Williams also got some outside feedback from show organizers themselves, claiming that initial detractors of the lounge went out of their way to apologize for rushing to judgment initially.

I asked Williams if there were any concerns about merely preaching to the choir versus getting the word out to people that needed a little education. He noted that most of the people in attendance were, in fact, minorities, but he was quick to correct me on the implication that there was nothing left to learn for members who already found themselves in the minority.

“Even from the diversity community, we can learn from other people within the community,” Williams said, pointing to the inclusion of Able Gamers, an organization that focuses on providing resources and support for disabled gamers, a subsection of gamers frequently left out of diversity conversations.

The diversity lounge did enjoy success and positive feedback (with some room for improvement), but all was not well outside the lounge doors. Controversy erupted when a number of women’s restrooms around the convention center were converted into men’s rooms at the request of the City of Boston. PAX organizers tried to compromise by making them gender-neutral restrooms, but the city would not budge.

Female attendees felt the pinch, sometimes finding a nearby restroom only to be greeted by dual men’s room signs and having to walk halfway across the convention center to find the next nearest restroom. These issues are precisely the reason the diversity lounge needs to continue on—-to effect change both within the convention floor and outside of it, and further combat stereotypes about gamer demographics in an industry that boasts a 47-percent female player base.

As a member of that 47 percent and a proud feminist, I can feel the continued tension this lounge and the wider convention causes not only within the wider gamer community, but also in feminist groups fighting for purportedly the same cause. For me, entering PAX and my participation in panels throughout the years feels like a necessary work towards increased visibility. But it can also feel like I’m betraying respected colleagues who have boycotted the convention entirely.

Knowing that, without my inclusion, some of those panels (some on cultural diversity, no less) would have been completely made up of white men, I feel like I’m doing some small part towards making the convention a place with different voices, rather than just a pale, machista echo chamber. I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity lounge and look forward to its continued growth. I want it to be bigger. I want it to be louder. I want it to not be needed anymore at all.

Elisa Meléndez is a writer, geek, and Ph.D candidate in sociology studying gender and video games. Her work can be found in Slate, Miami New Times, and the UbiBlog. When she’s not hanging out in a virtual environment, she fronts Miami rock band Crimson. For more on her and pictures of her gorgeous cat, visit elisamelendez.com and follow her on Twitter: @elisarockdoc.