Winning is Everything

Several years ago, some friends of mine were involved with running the school’s annual Relay For Life, which raises money for the American Cancer Society through pledges and donations. I looked forward to the event each year, though not for any particularly altruistic reasons; I just enjoyed the feel of the gymnasium, the camaraderie of the wee hours of the morning when most people were sleeping and we were still going strong in our circles. I enjoyed the sunrise I would otherwise never see. In the back of my mind I figured I also enjoyed feeling like I’d done something unselfish, but that wasn’t entirely true.

This particular year, my friends were also selling t-shirts, and one design caught my eye. In large letters, the thing most people see first, it said “WINNING ISN’T EVERYTHING.” But above and below were more words, and the complete phrase on the shirt was actually “Whoever says “winning isn’t everything” obviously isn’t fighting cancer.”

At the time, cancer had touched my life but vaguely. I’d seen it, but not in a way which had ever caused me to stop and think about it. I just thought it was a clever shirt, and I ordered one, and later on I wore it and felt clever, but that was the extent of things.

When I came home from college, our church was in the process of beginning a thing called “Life Groups,” which was a new way of doing something so old that it is part of my earliest memories of home life: small church-driven Bible studies in folks’ homes, which facilitated both a deeper area understanding and a more personal, lasting relationship-building outlet for members and their families.

For the better part of a year, I attended a Life Group at the home of a family friend. It was a fairly small group, rarely exceeding eight members, but it was cozy and affirming and a great way to spend an evening each week. I’ve always been terrible with names and faces, and it took me a while to make sure I hadn’t accidentally mixed people up, but one person whose name I immediately remembered, whose charisma and quiet intelligence struck me from the first time he contributed to our discussion, was Chris Ryff.

It wasn’t long after having met Chris that I found out what everyone else in the room (and most people in the church, who hadn’t just returned from school) already knew: Chris was suffering from a particularly nasty form of cancer, and was already in the final battles of that particular war. It shocked me a little to hear, because although (as I said) he was quiet, there was a daunting life force behind his eyes. Yet I was told this man was dying.

I don’t think think I believed it then. I still don’t really believe it now. Chris’ pain — physical, emotional, psychological — would have crippled most people, but in all the time I’ve known him I never saw a hint of that. In time, it would manifest itself in a sort of unspoken sadness, but never anger, never resentment, never pity.

There was a break between Life Group sessions and last year, when sessions resumed, Chris was notably absent. At the church picnic I almost asked him where he’d been, wanted to tell him we’d missed him, but for reasons I cannot remember I procrastinated that conversation, got distracted, and it never happened. I never saw Chris at Life Group again, and my own attendance floundered and then failed, so I don’t know if he ever went back. I don’t think even now I can properly grapple with that thought, that a year ago Chris left “life group.” Perhaps had it been called something different…

What I do know is that life got harder, and that Chris’s was the sort of cancer where they throw things at the wall to see what sticks; the sort where all the proven methods have failed and they try the experimental ones, hoping for a breakthrough that will advance their understanding of the disease and save your life in the process. Despite its extraordinary potential to advance the medical field, such treatment is actually quite expensive to undergo, and the financial burden became more immediately apparent. Our church, Chris’s friends, and many who knew him rallied to raise the money that would make trying to save Chris’s life not come at the expense of Chris having a future livelihood.

We attended a benefit banquet near the tail end of that fundraising push, where lifelong friends, coworkers, bosses, and relatives spoke to Chris’s character and confirmed what anyone who met him immediately, wordlessly understood: he was an exception. And through this all he had carried the inexplicable burden of dying for no good reason with a humility and grace which few of us manifest in the face of far lesser trials. With wife and child by his side, he thanked everyone, and in that moment, even though he was standing there and even though we were all praying that he might be the breakthrough patient, there was still an uncanny sense that we had just attended a funeral. As joyous a funeral as one could have — after all, most of the folks in the room believed in heaven, and Chris was about as saintly as one could hope to be, quite clearly having put his fate in Christ’s hands long ago. But a funeral nonetheless.

After that, to my great regret, I have not seen Chris very much. He frequently was said to be undergoing treatment in a variety of places, and through the grapevine all I heard was that his condition was deteriorating. When I heard, while living in Massachusetts, that two other members of our congregation had recently lost their battles with cancer, my thoughts turned to Chris, and I wondered whether his story would be different.

For the last several weeks I’ve seen updates from Chris on Facebook, keeping us updated with his treatment, when he’d be in which hospital, for how long, when people might visit. He wanted people there with him. He routinely expressed this, and I can only hope that people went. For several weeks, I saw it, but there was always some hollow excuse not to go. The hollowest, the one which sticks in my mind now, was that I didn’t really know Chris; that our paths hadn’t crossed for terribly long, and I wasn’t the sort of person he hoped to see.

I realize now that that’s a chicken and egg scenario of the worst kind, because while I tried to judge my tendency to visit on the strength of my relationship, the strength of my relationship would have been increased with a visit; the only reason I wasn’t the right kind of visitor was because I wasn’t a visitor.

Yesterday, my mother told me that she hoped we, as a family, might visit him this weekend, before he went home in care of hospice. I didn’t really know how to internalize that, because despite the frequent hospital updates I still, in my head, believed that Chris was going to pull through. Hospice is such an innocuous word, it doesn’t really convey what it is, and if you don’t (as I didn’t) really think about it, you don’t have to deal with what it means.

And yet, last night, there it was: hospice.
Chris will be going home this weekend.

This morning, my mother knocked on my door to inform me that Chris had died.
Chris is home.

My mind reeled a bit, and as I pondered the various ways I wanted to react, it occurred to me that they were all a form of denial, coping mechanisms, a desire to channel the unthinkable into something I could control, something I had power over. But wearing a t-shirt, donating to a charity, heck, writing a blog about it — none of those things actually do anything. They do not explain cancer. They do not change Chris’s fate. They do not make it easier to rationalize how the outwardly smiling young man I saw a few weeks ago in passing, whose Facebook posts I read and “liked,” and went on with my life after “liking,” was hanging by a thread internally. They do not help me understand how I will never see that man again.

Those things don’t help, but we do them, I do them anyway. Today I am writing because writing is what I do, writing is how I cope. I am wearing my Relay for Life shirt today because it reminds me of a truth I never properly grasped, except in a flimsy and abstract way, but have been proclaiming with my clothing for years. I don’t feel clever. I feel empty. But I also feel a glimmer of something else: resolve. Because today I feel, I know, something I didn’t when I woke up. I know how it feels to lose.

That when it comes to cancer…

Winning is everything.

Chris, you have been loved by many, and now, after years of pain I cannot comprehend, your suffering is over. And your long-suffering, your dignity, your strength, and the compassion I saw every time I looked in your eyes, live on, to be remembered, to be celebrated, to inspire.

requiescat in pace

~

2013 PAX East Highlights

Early on Friday morning...
Early on Friday morning…

As I mentioned in my more personal blog, this year’s PAX was rather low-key, a fact I attribute to its position at the dying edge of this console generation and exacerbated slightly by my own lack of a Windows or Linux personal computer. None of that, however, precluded my enjoyment of the weekend, and I thought I’d share my personal convention highlights: the few games, panels, and standout moments which comprised the non-friend-driven highlights of this year’s PAX East.

Panels

Panels are always a bit of a gamble at PAX. Often it’s a high risk, high reward system whereby you sink an hour or two into line-squatting and hope that the hour-long panel pays off. Some people decide up front to skip out on panels altogether, but I like to go for at least one a day.

Of course, you can’t always get into all the panels that look interesting, particularly if they’re anywhere near the same time. I’d have loved a chance to sit in on Cliff Bleszinski’s storytime session but by the time I got onto the show floor on Friday I realized I should have been waiting upstairs in the main theater line from the very beginning rather than the expo line. So after a cursory stumble through the expo hall, I headed upstairs to the next panel I’d wanted to hit, Square-Enix’s Recreating an Icon: The Talent Behind the New Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER.

But seriously. Go get this game. Now.
But seriously. Go get this game. Now.

It’s a sign of the times, I suppose, that a panel devoted to a franchise once known for trademark misogynist character animation was comprised entirely of women, from the community management side to animation to lighting to localization. Between the panel and a video featuring author Rhianna Pratchett, a wide scope of topics was touched upon, not least of which being the sexual assault fiasco that erupted prior to the game’s release, the difficulty of the puzzles versus their more organic/accessible (rather than arbitrary/gamey) design, and why the Shanty Town is so darn hard to navigate (it used to be impossible). While hardly the most riveting moment of the weekend, it was a friendly and invigorating start to my PAX, and a good segue back into the gaming world coming off the tail of last week’s marathon rush to 100% campaign completion.

Saturday’s doorbusting didn’t go quite as planned, due to a later-than-it-should-have-been start and having to park in the frigid and tempestuous overflow jetty lot (I instagrammed a picture of the lengthy line waiting behind me for the not-frequent-enough shuttles to bring us warmth). Thankfully the main blip on my radar was an early afternoon panel called Behind the Music of Blockbuster Video Games, which featured a surprisingly robust list of participants (though sadly not all of the ones listed in the app were present; most notably Garry Schyman). Having purchased Jason Graves’ Tomb Raider soundtrack on the drive up to Boston, I was pleased to see he was not one of the dropouts. The discussion itself was pretty varied: each composer’s background, games worked on and their relative success or failure, favorite scenes scored, reactions from non-gamers when they explain what it is they write music for. I’ll be honest: I don’t know a lot about music, and I haven’t played a lot of the games these gentlemen have scored, but hearing the thoughts behind people with the thankless job of making the music of Call of Duty memorable was actually really cool, and means I’ll be opening my ears a little more next time I go down to play something I assume is a little shallow.

Yet it was Sunday’s Gearbox panel which will take the prize for most entertaining (and, crass as it may be, rewarding) panel. While the Tomb Raider line received temporary tattoos which could be worn and flashed in return for a copy of the hardback The Beginning comic that came only with the Best Buy preorder version of the game, and while several lucky attendees of the music panel received a free CD, Gearbox participants were showered with prizes, including a myriad of pins on the way into the theatre, a chocolate coin wrapped in a gold SHiFT Key foil, and colored cards for a chance to win what would later turn out to be a lottery for overstocked Loot Chest swag.

Though anyone up on their gaming news likely already knows that was announced at the panel, the fact that Gearbox chose a fan event to unveil so many new things is strikingly refreshing. A new level cap, new weapon tier, and new playthrough were announced as a forthcoming DLC which would be grandfathered into the already value-packed Season Pass or sold for the reasonable price of $5. The fourth campaign DLC got a sneak peek trailer complete with 100% more Tiny Tina and great Vault Hunter cameos. And a new character, who looks insanely (no pun intended) fun to play, was unveiled, demonstrated in the most hilarious of fashions, followed up with by an even more insane demo reel, and then, just as we were about done with all that, we were told that Gearbox was giving everyone in the room that character for free (so…that’s $10 more saved just for being in the right place at the right time).

Wolf Blitzer. Blitzkrieg. Krieg. Not even kidding.
Wolf Blitzer. Blitzkrieg. Krieg. Not even kidding.

On top of all the swag, however, the real perk was just how enjoyable the Gearbox crew is. They demonstrate a sincere love for what they do, and even candidly played off the heavily negative response that their recent Aliens: Colonial Marines has received while trying to discuss their ongoing support for it in as succinct and damage-controlling a way as possible. When the panel’s start was delayed due to the need to fill the room, Mikey Neumann ad libbed his way through random audience participation and Randy Pitchford came out to perform a couple card tricks in front of the camera. Maybe there were more enjoyable panels in this weekend’s lineup? But consider me a skeptic.

Games

I’ll be honest. There weren’t too many games that got me excited this year at PAX East. I saw a lot of decent stuff but very few things made me feel like I needed to sit down and try them out. But there were a few that did make me pause (sometimes for excessive periods of time).

The first of these was the impossible-to-miss upcoming MMO from Carbine Studios called Wildstar. I don’t play MMO’s. I don’t have a PC. But after standing there gazing like an idiot up at the screen for ten or fifteen minutes’ worth of trailers (they had a handful, and I watched them all), I was about ready to go build one. It’s not that the game looks ground-breaking (maybe it is? but i wouldn’t know). It’s not that I was blown away by the graphics or the gameplay possibilities or anything of the sort. It’s just that it looked really fun. It had a great personality. The two ever-battling sides were immediately recognizable and relatable. The various species and specializations distinct and engaging. And yeah, the art, I liked it. It’s not for everyone, it’s a bit exaggerated, but it was perfect for me. I watched a lot of Wildstar and at the end of the day I can honestly say that if I had a PC, I’d definitely be looking to give it a try.

Potentially my favorite game of the show was one I’d seen a blurb about in some magazine a month or so ago and had actually created a note on my phone specifically to remind me to go find out more about it: the gorgeous and inspired Contrast from Montréal-based indie developer Compulsion Games. Part Portal, part Braid, part Bioshock, and bursting with whimsy, the game is easier seen and felt than described. It focuses on a little girl and her mysterious magical friend — whom you control — who possess the ability to transfer at will between her physical form and her shadow — adding a new dimension of depth to devious platforming puzzles as you navigate both obstacles and the shadows they cast. It looks great, it feels great, and, with a completely original score ripe with jazz, it sounds great. After speaking at length with several of the developers I confidently told one that he couldn’t get it on Mac or a console quickly enough. If Contrast were available today I would already have purchased it. Seriously. Go check it out.

The only other developer I made such a bold declaration to was the guy who put me in front of a camera after my twenty-minute (and well-earned, might I add, considering the 2+ hour wait) demo of Supergiant’s newly-announced project, Transistor. Shocked that such a fun experience still had another year of development to go before its projected released, I flat-out told the man “if this were released tomorrow, I would buy it.” Once more inspired by jazz, but of a different bent, Transistor switches up Bastion‘s signature narration by adding a second character but keeping the omnipresent voice. Players control a woman I know only as “Red,” the lovely singer whose voice opened the demo over top a written exposition I was loathe to advance out of fear that advancing it too quickly would make the incredible music end prematurely (seriously, I sat there when the music ended waiting just to make sure it was over). She wanders over to a massive sword-like weapon sticking out of the corpse of a man — led there by the voice that seems to come from within the weapon itself. It seems she has tragically lost her voice — and he, his body.

Transistor looks to be an intriguing blend of action and turn-based RPG, with abilities requiring time to charge and then an attack-mapping system which allows you to freeze the action and carefully plan out your various attacks and even get behind cover, triggering increasingly-impressive combos before the enemies can properly react (but then it’s back to running for cover as you wait for your power to recharge). Supergiant teases a rich world filled with mystery and revelation, and our gruff narrator’s voice screams noir against a tragic cyberpunk world. It’s hard to explain how less than twenty minutes of a nascent game can justify waiting hours on one’s tired feet, but suffice to say, Transistor did just that. Bastion won the company all kinds of respect, and I firmly believe Transistor will outdo its predecessor. Too bad we’ll have to wait a year to find out.

Riot Games

IMG_0296

It’s funny how I always seem to be behind the times when it comes to trends. Everyone has been playing League of Legends for seemingly forever, but not me. I tried it very briefly but that was a mostly failed experiment in dual-booting. Once more a victim of the not-having-a-PC affliction, I turned a blind eye to Riot’s sensational hit and assumed that was that; until of course they announced an open Mac beta and I immediately downloaded it and got a new character too. For those so-inclined, my name is WORDSLING3R, and I have Ashe, Annie, and Twisted Fate. My wallet is terrified of what might happen if I let myself truly embrace this game.

Anyhow, no matter how you feel about MOBA’s, one thing is very clear about League: they have incredible artwork. And it was just my luck that as Friday afternoon began to take its toll on me and I no longer had any clear idea why I was still on the expo floor, I happened upon the tail end of a cosplay show and paused as I was told that three major employees of the company — artists and animators — would be doing a Q&A session while simultaneously designing a new player skin from scratch. I imagine a few others stuck around when that skin turned out to be a beach-themed Leona.

What unfolded before my eyes over the course of three days — because coming back to watch their progress each day became a necessity — was nothing short of magic to my I-can’t-even-draw-stick-figures-properly non-artist eyes. What began as a completely blank .PSD gradually evolved into smudges, rough lines, clear shapes, a woman, and then a colorful, shaded, and shadowed piece of art. And while all this happened on the large screen above the stage, the three presenters — Michael Maurino, Katie Desousa, and Mike Laygo — took turns juggling questions from the audience which leapfrogged all over the place: League lore, design, art, skins, animation, office habits, and working in the gaming industry in general. You got a real sense of passion on both sides of the microphone: people who loved working on this game, and people who loved playing it. And those groups weren’t even slightly mutually exclusive. You hear often of game devs who want nothing to do with the game they work on, but Riot’s employees come across as genuinely enthused, people who can’t wait to actually use the new skins and champions they spend their weeks putting together. It’s a contagious passion: it kept me coming back throughout PAX, and it has me quite ready to really put that open beta to the test. And if they ever release a collector’s artbook of some sort, may God have mercy on my budget.

Cosplay & Conclusion

Somehow, somewhere along the way, some people with extremely misplaced and inflated egos called cosplayers “lame.” But in recent years I’ve been blown away by how ridiculously untrue that is. The talent and dedication that these artists — let’s call a spade a spade — put into their craft is humbling. Sure, there are the few who “didn’t even try,” whose ensemble is more fittingly called homage than cosplay. And yes, there’s the occasional cosplayer (typically, though not always, female) whose outfit seems to have been designed with the specific intent of wearing as little clothing as humanly possible. But aside from the few bad apples, cosplayers are a diverse and talented crowd, and I saw some magnificent displays over the course of my three days. Silly old me decided this year it’d be worth not hauling around my DSLR, so my iPad was made to suffice. It worked well enough, a few blurry or missed shots notwithstanding. For the most part, cosplayers were the only thing I felt worthy of photographing this year. Below is a small gallery consisting of most of the ones I managed to capture.

A handful of fulfilling panels, a smattering of great games, and charming folks to photograph in between. These things are the PAX experience I chose to embrace, and in retrospect I have no regrets. I may not have pulled the largest swag bag, played the most games, or gotten professional grade shots of every cosplayer I wish I’d photographed, but all in all I’d say I did alright. As I said in my earlier blog, PAX is so much more than a gaming convention. But for a gaming convention, it sure was awesome.

Oh, and speaking of swag, my modest haul:

First four people to ask me can have the four Might & Magic: Duel of Champions Bonus Pack codes ^_^
First four people to ask me can have the four Might & Magic: Duel of Champions Bonus Pack codes ^_^

“So, how was PAX?”

You talk to someone on their way into the Penny Arcade Expo, and they’re bound to ask what you’re looking forward to, what you’re expecting, what you’re hoping for. It’s speculative. It’s optimistic. And it’s naive.

A day or two into the convention and the questions change. What have you seen? What are you still trying to get into? Which panels did you attend? How did that go? And at some point, depending how kindred in spirit you are, the question becomes So how would you rate this PAX? Have you felt a little…disappointed? Lonely? There’s nothing really t– exactly!

When I tell people I’m going to PAX and they ask me what that is, my response is “the Penny Arcade Expo.” I may explain a little about the webcomic I don’t even usually read, but typically I let it stand at “it’s a video game convention.” The implication being that you go to PAX because you love games, because you want to play and see and maybe even buy or win some games. And that’s true. But I realized this year that if that were the only thing PAX had going for it, I would probably never go to a PAX again.

PAX is freaking lonely.

I’m not going to beat around that bush. It just is. You go to a convention center packed with 80,000+ people by yourself, and spend a lot of time walking past groups of friends and a ton of adorable couples and even a lot of attractive singles, and depending on how distracted you are the subject of how you’re not with anyone else will pass your mind rather frequently. You drive through the city, unpack your trunk in a parking garage and trek two blocks with your suitcase to the hotel where you check into your room alone and lay down in a large bed alone and stare at the ceiling alone and at some point you ask yourself why you paid several hundred dollars to be reminded of that fact.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I had a couple friend groups I had a chance to meet up with, maybe even spend the day with. But these were pre-existing groups. They were people who had already sort of planned to be together. I was welcome to join them, but I hadn’t been part of the agenda setting. Third wheel or fifth, I was still an accessory. Welcome, for sure, but hardly a make-or-break aspect of a group. And it bears noting that what we wanted from the convention differed enough that had I chosen to be with them, I’d have traded the loneliness in exchange for missing out on the majority of the things I actually was interested in seeing.

As I said earlier, it depends on how distracted you are. And PAX can be sensory overload, full of things to divert your attention from real life for a few days. That’s what it is supposed to be, I think: a carnival which is so new and refreshing and exciting that you don’t have time to reflect on it until after the fact. But this year was a little low on the thrill factor, and based on my discussions with people throughout the weekend I don’t seem to be alone in feeling that. My official explanation can be summed up in two characters: E3. More specifically, this E3.

PAX suffers from an odd calendar hazard, as it falls a mere month or two prior to the largest media video game event of the year. Many huge games are announced at E3 and because of that, they do not appear at shows prior. While some announcements have been, and increasingly are made at PAX, the industry as a whole usually leaves the big news for May. Which is fine, it’s nothing new to PAX East, but consider what 2013’s Electronic Entertainment Expo promises: the unveiling of the Playstation 4 and, most likely, of the next Microsoft console. If both of those come out for the holidays, then the games are already well under way. Typically holiday games might have a showing at PAX East (many did last year, for example). But when the games coming out later this year are on a console that has not officially been announced or shown, those games are going to be missing from the show floor. And so the show floor lacked a certain pizazz it usually musters, and will undoubtedly return to mustering in future years. That’s not PAX’s fault. But it’s a reality nonetheless. There were few killer apps in the expo hall this year.

On the one hand, this is great, because it frees you of the typical exasperation of not being able to choose which mammoth three-hour lines you’re willing to forgo a meal for in the name of seeing or playing a must-have unreleased title. Most of this year’s biggest games were already announced or even already released; even potentially thrilling booths like Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs had material similar enough to what was already available via other press events that it was hard to come by a solid “you have got to wait on that line” recommendation (and keep in mind that may be the most exciting title for the next generation that we know about right now).

Added to this famine you have my unique problem of not owning a PC, which disqualified something like half the show floor from my radar — not because the games didn’t look good, but because you can only commit so much time to salivating over games you will need to drop a thousand dollars or so to even consider being able to play them. I also don’t play tabletop games, partly because I’ve never been the biggest fan of non-digital gaming, and partly because I live in the middle of nowhere, my job is remote contract work, and my church has no real ministry for young adults so I pretty much have no in-person social circles I could set up a D&D night with even if I wanted to.

So…yeah, I had a lot of time to wander around and just think, and it got lonely. A little depressing.

And then boom! someone I know walks around the corner. And my face lights up. And my pity party is disbanded. And the next ten or fifteen minutes are a glorious reminder that the reason you spend several hundred dollars to get lost in a sea of one-way convoluted streets in a city that hates your home state is because you love these people that you’ve only seen once or twice or maybe never in person, and here they are, and you’re hugging them and shaking their hand and they’re also really happy to see you.

Was I getting depressing? Well sorry. That’s just the way it works. You feel a weight that seems like it’s going to carry on the whole weekend but then in an instant it is gone because good grief, PAX is awesome and there’s no other convention like it. And you never know who you’re going to see, or when.

I’m following a friend to check out this one booth he heard was worth looking at (Supergiant, btw, and yes it was definitely worth it, but that’s a different blog) and a girl tries to hand me a promo card and I recognize her and say Tracie? and then there’s a laugh and a hug and a “maybe I’ll catch you later” and then off we go.

I’m wandering around the Ubisoft booth looking for a Fragdoll who actually knows who I am and instead I find Cliff Bleszinski and his lovely wife Lauren just standing there chatting with random fans because hey, they’re gamers, and this is a gaming convention. (Cliff had nice thoughts, btw)

I am looking at the behemoth poster of the new Marvel MMO and someone almost walks directly into me. Oh hey Jimmy, I’d heard you were here somewhere!

I’ve just hung up talking to my future roommate about apartments in Ohio and I look over my tumblr dash at the coat check line and oh hey, did Amelia just walk by? And I send out a tweet and a few minutes later we’re talking about how funny it is that we just happened to have crossed paths on the one day she’s there.

At a booth. At a party. Here’s my friend! Here’s my girlfriend! Wait, I follow you on Twitter! Hey, haven’t we liked each other’s Instagram photos? Do you remember when we played Ghost Recon all those years back? Oh, so that’s what you look like!

Or maybe it’s the people you didn’t know at all. I lost track of which side of the convention center the food was on and accidentally went one floor, two halls, and a bridge in the opposite direction — just in time to cross paths with two lovely Borderlands 2 cosplayers of whom I was lucky enough to snag a couple blurry pictures before they escaped into the madness of the expo hall. While waiting to order food I uploaded the pictures to tumblr and commented on how I wished I’d had a chance to speak to them…less than 24 hours later we’ve exchanged messages on two social media platforms and I know their names and where they’re from and we’re hoping to actually say hi at a future convention.

So people ask what’s PAX, and I say it’s a gaming convention, but it’s not, at least, that’s not what makes it matter, not for an introvert like me whose solidarity with a fanbase isn’t enough to make him strike up a conversation with the stranger behind him in line no matter how lonely he may be feeling. I don’t do PAX because I want to meet people who love the same things I love. I do PAX because there are people I love hanging out with and even though we only get to do it for a little bit of time once or twice a year at most, at least we do get to hang out. And sometimes that list of people expands. Sometimes it contracts. This year I missed a lot of folks who made last year special, but a few people made this year special who played no role in PAX’s prior.

So did you have a good time in Boston?

Half the time, no. Half the time I was extraordinarily lonely and wondering why I’d spent so much money to feel alone.

But the other half of the time I was blissful, grinning and laughing like an idiot.

And the latter outweighs the former. It’s the part I’ll remember, the part that will have me cursing under my breath when my academic schedule inevitably precludes far more PAX’s than it permits, the part that will shout “shut up and take my money” the moment an opportunity arises for me to go again, and see the people who bring a light to this wallflower’s life that he tends to miss for the rest of the year.

People want to know about the games, the swag, the panels. I’ll talk about those later because sure, why not. But first and foremost, PAX is people. And this year, PAX once more was great.

Straw Men & Fire

Matthew 3:11

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.”

Most people, if they’re being honest, are only familiar with these words because of 2005’s V for Vendetta, a movie they likely enjoyed, featuring a protagonist for whom they likely rooted. It is a very violent film, based on a very violent comic book, both of which have achieved great popularity in spite of the fact that, at base, V for Vendetta is a celebration of terrorism and anarchy; so much so that the Guy Fawkes mask worn by the story’s lead has become the symbol of international cyber-terrorists “Anonymous.”

Intriguingly, though most can quote the poem few seem to actually remember the reason for its inception; they remember November 5th, but they have forgotten why it mattered: a terrorist plot was ended, a person who would cast a nation into bloody chaos was prevented from doing so. Regardless of how you feel about the authorities against which Fawkes (or V, for that matter) rebelled, you’re a strange person if you are truly pleased by the idea of blowing up unarmed civilians. Somehow the victory of the real November 5th is trumped in this movie by its reversal: a terrorist plot successful, for which its audiences cheer, and for which the date is now remembered; fiction has usurped reality, and the message of the poem now serves an antithetical purpose to its creator’s intention.

The interesting thing about V for Vendetta, then, is how it glorified Guy Fawkes — traitor and anarchist — in a way which the world at large seems to have embraced. Today it is not uncommon to come across a person wearing a trademark mask of the man’s face, symbolically becoming him. But for years the only thing people wanted to do with Guy Fawkes was to burn him. And every year, on November 5th, remembering him, that’s just what they’d do: create a straw-filled effigy, and burn it, as if in some token way the burning of a straw man were the same as actually destroying perfidy and anarchy.

As a culture, we seem intent on repeating this act, not yearly but daily. We see violence and evil all around us, sometimes manifest in truly ghastly ways, and our reaction is not to root it out of our hearts and minds but to find a scapegoat somewhere and toss it on the pyre. For over a century, America’s pyre has been stoked with art. And as the flames climb, they don’t consume the true violence in the world; they merely illuminate its daunting, terrifying scope.

One of the greatest mysteries to me is how easily people conflate depictions of violence with condoning violence. I’ve met many a person (particularly in Christian circles) who seems to be of the mindset that watching a violent film or television show (nevermind playing a game) is inherently wrong, that exposure to the violence is akin to delighting in it. In the whitewashed fantasy world wherein these people would have all media reside, there is no violence, because violence can never breed any good.

I find the Christians the most entertaining, in that respect, because my immediate response is to question whether they’ve ever read the Bible. If a work of art is inherently sinful because it shows atrocities (and may, even, suggest that those atrocities are acceptable), then what of the Old Testament? What of the crucifixion? What of the fates of the apostles? Surely God knows that showing these things is an affront to God?

I don’t mean to equate Yahweh with Ares, but I think it’s rather laughable to suggest that violence is inherently useless in the telling of stories. It is, and always has been, a part of life, and the question ought not be “is it violent” but “what does its use of violence communicate?” In the case of scripture, the violence merely illustrates the consequences of man’s disobedience, and affords a contrast to the paradise Christ will usher in in the end of days. It illustrates the suffering undergone by a scapegoat so that the true perpetrators may avoid the fate they deserve — and, of course, hopefully repent. If there were no violence, there would be no power in reconciliation — without war, the value of peace is unfelt.

We understand when we read the Gospel, or when we watch The Passion of the Christ, that the violence was necessary to facilitate a greater good. But what of travesties? What of events like those in Aurora, in Newtown? Is there anyone so jaded as to say children needed to die? That they deserved it? I suppose there probably are such jaded people, but then there are Guy Fawkeses in every culture. The rest of us, those with compassion and reason, shake our heads in disbelief.

To some extent, the year’s violence continues to illustrate the same thing as did the blood-soaked wars of the Old Testament: the wages of sin, the constant consequence of rebellion, the result of generations pushing God out of their lives, hearts, and minds. That is not to say that tragedy is revenge: God is not reactionary, He does not say “oh yeah? well how do you like this?” like some petty schoolboy. It is rather more like we have removed the guard rails along a narrow mountain road, kicked God out of the driver’s seat, and then wondered why the un-steered car was not miraculously kept from flying off a cliff. Bad things happen when God is kicked out of our lives — not because he sits there on the side of the road with a remote control and veers us into hazards, but because of the inevitability of driving blind. It is culture in general that is to blame for what has happened — innocent lives are the collateral damage of the bad decisions made by generations past and present.

Saint Augustine speculated that evil is, like cold, not a thing but rather an absence, of God rather than of heat. It is not so much that we, as humans, are evil as it is we lack God, and therefore lack good. And while some people — as the Newtown shooter — lack the capacity to differentiate, plenty of other acts of violence are perpetrated by people who have no such lack but act anyway. Just as not all mentally ill people will do terrible things, not all terrible things are done by mentally ill people.

Whether you like it or not (and who would), “normal” humanity is Godless, and therefore prone to bad things. Anyone who disputes this is welcome to observe any young child, who must be trained over the course of years out of an inherent posture of disobedience and selfishness. The first word many children learn is “no,” because they’re constantly doing things they oughtn’t; once they’ve learned it they immediately turn it back on us, refusing to do things they ought.

I’m not unique in suggesting the ills of this nation (and by extension, the world) are due not to religion (as John Lennon banally chooses to “Imagine”) but rather to its lack. In his parting words as President, George Washington notes that

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

Washington’s aims were broader in scope than mine here — I’ll leave his suggestion that anti-religion and anti-American are synonymous to linger — but the salient point is that if our country or world seems to be coming apart at the seams, the first question we ought to ask is whether we’re being true to a system of living which believes that absolute good and evil exist and that there is a higher power to which we are accountable for upholding those absolutes.

For in a world of moral relativism, in which “what’s good for you may not be what’s good for me,” and where every person lives however he or she sees fit, there is no basis for denouncing another’s decisions, even if those decisions include slaughtering other people. Because true tolerance demands that no worldview, however abhorrent from our own, is condemnable, absent a metric for condemnation. The extent to which we feel compelled to cast judgment mirrors the extent to which relative morality is a sham. If you felt anger or resentment in the wake of the Newtown shootings, you don’t actually believe people should be able to live as they please. In which case I suggest you figure out who or what determines what’s absolutely right or wrong.

The existence of absolute truth (and thereby our culpability) is a tough pill to swallow. We are by nature arrogant, and though we will never come close to producing anything so grand as a planet or galaxy we still think ourselves incredibly awesome, and praise one another as such. When bad things happen we refuse to look within but point to external sources as the corrupting influences that tarnish our otherwise perfect Selves.

This is why, in the wake of Newtown, a new rallying cry seems to have gone out (not least of which — and this not lacking in irony — from the NRA) to cleanse ourselves of those filthy things called video games, whose depictions of violence are destroying our youth and leading to tragedies that could have been prevented.

Aye, games.

Just this morning I read an article about a movement in Connecticut to gather and, quite literally, incinerate violent video games. Despite explicit assurance that other media are equally viable for burning (books, the obvious analog, are not mentioned), and that this isn’t meant to suggest that games are actually related to the shooting, the implicit message of this and similar rallies is that the violence of our youth is due to entertainment; the unstated suggestion is that were there no games to corrupt the kids, schools would be peaceful.

You see, games are merely this generation’s Guy Fawkes effigy, burned at the altar where television, film, the novel, and the theatre have all taken their sacrificial place. Just last night I saw an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a community’s hysterical jingoism (and a death or two) were all instigated by one boy’s enthusiasm for a comic book. This story was written over fifty years ago; had the episode been made today, I have no doubt the boy would have been a fan of Call of Duty. Sadly, I also have little doubt that the true message of the episode — our frightening capacity to be carried away by a fear of the unknown Other — would have been lost behind the scapegoat’s specter.

Now, I have no qualms with people whose reaction to overt displays of real-life violence is a revolt against unnecessary exposure to violent entertainment. One can only stomach so much. And when it comes to what much violent media communicates via its violence, it’s undoubtedly true that many games, films, shows, etc. say nothing at all at best, and glorify violence at worst. Moreover, as most violent media (of the truly graphic variety) is made by, for, and marketed towards adults only, I’m fully behind any movement which removes that content from the hands and eyes of children.

But let us keep two key points in mind as we raise our pitchforks and cheer while the effigy burns.

First, depictions of violence can be used for valid, potentially redemptive purposes, and the inclusion of brutality does not always (or even often) correlate to acceptance or celebration thereof.

Second, a straw man is a straw man. Destroy all the violent media in the world and there will still be violence in the hearts of men, because they are spiritually cold. Doubtless the world’s problems can be solved by baptizing them in fire; all that remains is recognizing what kind of fire that is.