Start-up puts their principles over publicity and pulls out of major video game conference

An Australian start-up has pulled out of the upcoming PAX Australia gaming conference over concerns about how sexism and racism in gaming culture were being addressed in the program.


Pop Up Playground has followed American video game developer The Fullbright Company and pulled out because of concerns about the event’s programming and the approach by the conference coordinator, Penny Arcade, to gender, racial and transgender issues.


Penny Arcade sparked controversy in 2010 over a comic that mentioned rape and, more recently, one of the people behind it, Mike Krahulik (pictured above), caused a storm with comments on Twitter relating to gender.


Pop Up Playground is a recently incorporated company that runs live games, also known as pervasive games and street sport. It has cancelled the panel it was set to take part in called No Controller, No Board at PAX Australia, a three-day conference with hundreds of presenters and thousands of attendees.


Pop Up Playground games mechanic Ben McKenzie, who was managing the company’s involvement at PAX, says the team decided to pull out on principle.


“We place our values above any kind of publicity we could get,” McKenzie says.


“We had a discussion about doing the panel in the light of the social media controversy. Some of the panel members weren’t as deeply steeped in video game culture as I am, and they weren’t as aware of Penny Arcade’s history. But when they knew about it, they decided they didn’t really want to be involved with that,” McKenzie told StartupSmart.


McKenzie says some of the more controversial panels such as the gender-focused Why So Serious, and an underwhelming response by Penny Arcade’s local team to complaints, had motivated their decision.


“Our issue isn’t so much with the local team, but the panel’s inclusion and how it’s been apologised for shows us that they haven’t distanced themselves very far from long-standing issues Penny Arcade have, including transphobia, rejecting the idea of rape culture and not being responsible with triggering ideas.”


McKenzie says PAX Australia’s panels and approach are at odds with Pop Up Playground’s brand principles and vision.


“The only way they want to engage with sexism and racism is to say why are we getting picked on?” McKenzie says.


“We don’t feel we want to associate with the culture around the event. One of our key ideas is about making a new games movement that is very inclusive. We want everyone to feel really comfortable coming to our events. And the local organisers at PAX are keen on that too, but they don’t understand how problematic some of the panels are,” McKenzie says.


McKenzie said they were encouraged by The Fullbright Company’s decision to pull out a few weeks ago.


“It’s fair to say it’s not a big deal for Popup Playground to pull out of PAX. It was a big PR opportunity, but perhaps the PAX attendees aren’t our core target market. It was a huge opportunity for Fullbright, but as a diverse person team with two women, they didn’t feel they could do it personally.”


McKenzie says the response from the Pop Up Playground community has been overwhelmingly positive.


Guy Blomberg from PAX Australia issued a short statement to StartupSmart saying the team at PAX truly believe the event is for all gamers.


“All of our decision-making and policies are meant to keep the show as open and welcoming as possible, and like our other US events, we have sessions and content that promotes healthy and safe discussions specifically about embracing people from all backgrounds,” Blomberg says.


Krahulik says in a blog post last month he has never hated anyone for their sexual orientation or their gender situation, and doesn’t want to be the reason people don’t go to PAX.


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