This last weekend, I went to the semi-annual gathering of about 70,000 people in Boston for a convention known as PAXEast — The Penny Arcade Expo, East Coast. It's a three day convention that attracts gamers of all types, showcases new and unreleased games, and has panels by some of the notable people in the industry on all sorts of topics in gaming. But that little blurb doesn't do it justice — it's a bit like describing Woodstock as a gathering of people that like music, when it's so much more than that.
One of my friends didn't know that this was the third time that I had attended (and first time enforcing, but more on that later) and only learned that I had gone. He texted me this: "What was your favorite event/booth, did you meet mike and jerry [the guys behind Penny Arcade], would you go to pax west, and recite a detailed anecdote of the moment you realized holy shit."
The last part really starts to capture a bit of the essence that makes PAX so special. There is (at least, for everyone I've asked) a point over the weekend where everyone has that moment, though when and where it happens varies depending on the flavor of the gamer. For some, it's getting that exclusive access in trying some of the newest unreleased games from huge publishers and talking to them; for others, it's talking to indie game developers and learning what the journey is like to go from gamer to creator; and for others still, it's joining a tabletop session and spending four hours with complete strangers that are welcome friends by the end.
My response to my friend who texted me was that it wasn't my first year, which essentially allowed me to dodge most of the questions. But after thinking about it some more, I realized there's actually been a 'holy shit' moment all three times that I've gone, and that these moments build on one another to why PAX is something truly unique.
When I was young, being a geek/nerd wasn't cool. It may be cool to be nerdy now, but back then, it was literally something that neatly placed you neatly into the category of 'loser'. The prevailing atmosphere was that gamers were antisocial, icky misanthropes that should be shunned. We weren't often prom kings and class presidents, and saying, "Oh, I spent the weekend playing Chrono Trigger, which is amazing," was usually met with a confused look, at best. My parents forbade me from gaming and took pretty much every opportunity to tell me it was a terrible waste of time and that I was throwing my life away; in order to play anything, I had to sneak it in before they got home, and occasionally after they went to sleep.
I didn't have many friends up through high school, until by chance I overheard two classmates having a argument about Starcraft. I don't remember what it was about specifically, but I remember butting in rather vehemently (and possibly obnoxiously) to rebut one of them, which somehow led to an invitation to a LAN party to prove my position. That led to regular LAN parties (and the internal moniker for our group of friends as the 'LAN clan') and finding, after incredibly lonely and depressing elementary and middle school years, a group of people that I could genuinely call my friends. Gaming made the difference between four more years that I would have spent alone and some of the closest friends I have today.
That was a crystallizing moment for me — I had finally found people who I could freely talk about my interests with, even if the rest of the school (and my parents) actively thought that I liked stupid things. After the LAN clan, I realized what the internet could be, and since then, I've steadily connected with people through various online games (including World of Warcraft), leading to having friends in cities across the country and world, all because I wanted — or needed — to find more people who were like me.
But even with friends made online, we were still hundreds of miles away from each other. PAX changed that, and gave us an opportunity to bring online gaming groups together, as well as play games with complete strangers that soon became new friends that I would keep in contact with.
My first 'holy shit' moment at PAX was when I got into the expo hall for the first time. I think I actually stopped dead in the middle of an intersection, which might not have been the smartest idea, though I wasn't the only one standing there in slack-jawed wonder. There was a continuous human stream of people flowing around me, flashing monitors all around showcasing the latest and greatest games, and snatches of conversation ranging from playful arguments on the age-old question of which game was better, friends telling each other they should go check a specific booth, and every once in a while, just a simple 'wow'.
But the most notable thing I remembered was this: everyone had a smile on their faces, the same 'I can't believe this is real' smile. And my 'holy shit' moment was realizing one simple fact:Everyone here shares my interests.
And that realization was was immediately followed by this one:I can be myself.
A few weeks before the convention, Robert Khoo (the business vizier of Penny Arcade) asked on twitter whether or not there was interest in him doing a question and answer session, something that has never happened. Apparently the demand was high enough, so he announced that he would be having one: midnight, where it would be competing with the concert and the general fatigue of most people having been at the convention for over twelve hours at that point. I don't know how many people he expected would show up.
At midnight, eight hundred
people filed into the theatre, and for two hours, Khoo answered everyone's questions, with a standing ovation at both the beginning and the end. He covered the apocryphal story of how he started working for Penny Arcade, how new ideas are implemented, and general advice on how to succeed.
And I had been there for over twelve hours at this point too, so the details are a little bit fuzzy (though I hope to God someone recorded it) but I remember him answering a question on how he decides what to do and why more or less like this:
"There's a core demographic of twenty four to thirty five year olds who identify as gamers as a large part of their identity, and with everything we do, we want to add value to this group, this core demographic. Everything from Child's Play to PAX to the PA Report is done to provide more value to them."
And that mention of Child's Play brought to mind my second "holy shit" moment. Specifically, this video here
, from PAX East 2010. I don't think you can hear the sniffling over the standing ovation, but I'm pretty sure you had to be dead not to have tears in your eyes at the end.
This question really gave me a brief glimpse of the future that Penny Arcade was creating, where gaming isn't stigmatized but accepted as simply another form of media, one that has the capacity for critical discourse as much as any other art form. Child's Play is only part of the long game here, as is the PA Report, but the fact that part of what Penny Arcade is doing is actively creating a better tomorrow for gamers — that was an incredible moment.
The final moment was less of a specific moment and more something that occurred through the weekend. You see, this year I worked as an enforcer, one of the volunteer staff that does just about everything that needs to be done at the show, including line manangement, entertainment, security, setup and teardown, and more.
I volunteered because PRD posted a call for enforcers on twitter, and it sounded interesting. I figured I was going anyway, and I thought that it was time that I gave back for some of what PAX had given to me.
What I got was one of the best experiences of my life.
Khoo calls enforcers the spine of the show, or, to quote, "without enforcers the show would just be a steaming turd." All I know is that it was an absolute blast in just about every way imaginable. I was working one of the theaters (Arachnid, for those curious), and got to see amazing talks (including the Ben Kuchera on PA Report), take lots of pictures, and drink applesauce through a squirt-tube. Less facetiously, I was able to direct people to where they wanted to be, keep everything safe and fun, and generally give people the same experience that I had as an attendee.
I also got to run a 64-player Starcraft II tournament that went off without a hitch (and was won by a SCII semi-pro player, which was quite cool).
It's hard to describe exactly what makes it so awesome — much like the atmosphere at PAX is something that needs to be felt, so is the camaderie of the enforcers. We were everywhere, and even if we didn't know each other or hadn't met, there was nothing that we wouldn't do for each other. I remember one of the other enforcers dropping by with food on a supply run Saturday afternoon after we had just started areally busy panel and me blurting out 'I love you' to him by instinct — and getting one in return! I remember someone coming into enforcerland (where we got to rest) after the show had closed Sunday and saying that expo hall needed more help tearing down. Most of us had been on our feet for over twelve hours every day and were as tired as hell, and yet there wasn't any real reluctance — it was just the right thing to do, so we did it, and we did it together.
Simply put, I had faith that anytime someone asked for help, they needed it; anytime someone wasn't busy and could help, they would come; and everyone was doing everything they could. I didn't get to see every panel I wanted to, nor did I get to see all the new games that I might have liked. But I wouldn't trade the experience I did have — talking to Mike and Ben briefly, getting a quiet thank you from the attendees, and trading satisfied but tired nods with the other enforcers — for anything.
And next time, I know to schedule in an extra day on either side for the set up and the afterparty.
Wil Wheaton's 'Don't Be A Dick' is the first rule of PAX, and I think it goes a long way in explaining the magic. People aren't dicks here and those who are aren't tolerated. People who harass others are warned (and kicked out if they continue), exhibitors that aren't kind are asked not to return, and overall, it never feels like a corporate event to sell more games. It simply feels like a gathering of friends and family.
This was my sixteen year old brother's first time; my parents okayed his going mainly so he could spend some more time with me, they said. Instead, I don't think we saw each other outside of the hotel for more then 30 minutes throughout all three days; I was busy enforcing and he turned into a tabletop gamer right before my eyes, learning magic and competing with miniatures. I asked him, on the drive home, whether it was the best time of his life, and he didn't hesitate at all before saying yes.
One of my other friends stayed in the expo hall pretty much the entire time, with a few detours to the Dance Central freeplay stage, and I know a few more that simply panel-hopped without ever going down to PC or console freeplay. PAX is a lot of different things to a lot of people, but unlike elsewhere, our differences do not divide us.
Outside of the convention center, there was the giant sign proclaiming that PAX East was being held. And the subtitle neatly encompassed everything PAX meant.
It said, "Welcome home."