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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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