PAX Prime: The Fullbright Controversy

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Earlier in the year The Fullbright Company made public their decision to pull out of PAX Prime. The four-person indie dev team behind Gone Home, presented a list of issues which culminated in tweets made by co-owner Mike Krahulik. These, they claim, were ignorant and dismissive towards transgender individuals.

Penny Arcade is no stranger to controversy. In 2010 the pair were seen to be making light of rape with their Dickwolves strip, to which they responded by printing Dickwolves T-Shirts. In 2012 they were criticised for a Kickstarter Campaign that offered a fan the opportunity to intern at Penny Arcade for a day, if they pledged $7,500. This year, Penny Arcade’s other half, Jerry Holkins, commented on the developers of Dragon’s Crown, whose over-the-top depiction of female characters caused a serious backlash among gamers. Jerry leaned in favour of Dragon’s Crown but, controversially, referred to views that differed from his own as censorship.

Fullbright claims that these incidents made them feel uncomfortable with Penny Arcade, but it was PAX Australia that pushed them over the edge. The initial description for the discussion panel “Why So Serious” partially included the following:

“Any titillation gets called out as sexist or misogynistic, and involve any antagonist race aside from Anglo-Saxon and you’re called a racist. It’s gone too far and when will it all end?”

go home screenshot PAX Prime: The Fullbright Controversy

Fullbright’s main reason for pulling out of Prime? PAX Australia’s Why So Serious panel description.

It was quickly changed, but the summary was enough to set off alarm bells in Fullbright’s collective heads. They weren’t the only ones, and when Mike got wind of the response, he jumped on Twitter:

“I don’t think it’s a mistake though. I seriously believe women have vaginas. I think you can call a person with a vagina a woman.”

“If thinking that all women have a vagina makes me a monster then yes I am a monster.”

The conversations surrounding these controversies continued, but nevertheless, Mike’s comments were the final straw for Fullbright, who unanimously decided that they would withdraw from PAX Prime.

The issue was raised during the PAX Australia media only Q&A panel, and while Mike stumbled over his initial response Jerry Holkins, the other half of Penny Arcade, delivered a much more rounded response.

“I know that they decided not to come that’s absolutely their prerogative, maybe they’ll come again, I don’t know, that’s up to them,” said Mike. “I certainly don’t think that PAX is diminished by it.”

After taking a moment to consider the question, Jerry responded;

“The show sold out, right, so it was already at max capacity, so what we lost by them not coming was their perspective and their voice. I think that the attendees could have been well served by their perspective, and generally speaking I think that if there is something that’s being said that you don’t approve of, strategically, I think that you should add your voice to the conversation and not remove it. I think that communication is actually the answer, that’s how I feel about that. I think that it’s unfortunate, and I hope that they’ll come back and put themselves in the mix.

Given the accusations that were hurled at Penny Arcade and Mike in particular, it was an interesting way for the pair to approach the situation. Neither expressed any form of regret, which was expected given that the Penny Arcade comic strip is a hub of controversial content, but Jerry raised an interesting point. If Fullbright were prepared to pull out of PAX and stand behind their moral convictions, why didn’t they take the next step? Fullbright had the opportunity to express their support for homosexual and transgender individuals in an environment that would have allowed it to occur. But they chose not to. Fullbright willingly pulled their voice out of the mix.

The company did not necessarily need to build a “we hate Mike” stand, but they left him in a position where he was free to have the final word on an issue that they clearly felt passionate about. To see them on the floor, openly supporting these minority groups and using the video game medium to spread their message would have been a much more powerful statement than withdrawing from the convention via an online press release. While their moral stance is admirable, their actions were short sighted.

Similar questions followed, but Mike made it pretty clear that he wants people to enjoy PAX independent of what they think of the people behind it. “I can tell you on our end, we try very hard to make it inclusive to everybody. When you see the sign that says ‘Welcome Home’ we really mean it, we want everybody to feel welcome when they come here, regardless of what you think about Penny Arcade, the comic strips that we make or anything like that, PAX is separate, PAX is a place where any gamer should be able to come and feel welcome.”

It’s fair to say that when you’re the “mascot” (in their words) of an event, your actions will reflect on how the event is perceive, and for Mike to suggest that people should ignore him and focus on PAX is difficult to understand. Nevertheless, the evidence is there. PAX is not the “Mike and Jerry Video Games Extravaganza.” Their social, religious and moral perspectives in no way impact on how exhibitors chose to display their products, save for their well known stance on booth babes. Mike said those things, but he did not declare that they would become the rules of PAX.

They were the ill-considered comments of one man who is involved in PAX, but does not represent the “Welcome Home,” message at the entrance. “Welcome Home” manifests itself in the attitudes of the gaming community who attended the event, and by all accounts, they were friendly, open minded people who embodied the positive community spirit that PAX attendees around the world are renowned for. With this in mind, it seems unlikely that anyone would have gone out of their way to criticise exhibitors for their stance on gay and transgender rights.

Again, Fullbright may argue that they did not feel comfortable supporting/appearing at an event that’s run by a man they find discriminatory. Mike is a single voice in the community who, despite being in an arguably powerful position, does not direct the discourse. If people continue to use their moral compass as a reason to distance themselves from individuals they find offensive, progress will not occur and the discourse will remain unchanged.

Ultimately, Mike was right, PAX wasn’t diminished by their actions. While they may have felt comfortable knowing that what they did was morally correct, without a visual presence, these feelings couldn’t be transferred to the bulk of attendees. It’s disappointing, because there could have been real progress on this issue at PAX Prime, and the response from Mike and Jerry shows that they would not have made any attempts to silence the voices of Fullbright. Unforunately, Fullbright chose to silence themselves.

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