“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.

April Showers

I’ve been pretty (digitally) quiet for the last month or so. After haphazardly launching God in the Game and a little bit of chatter here my writing fell silent. One wonders why, how a person with so much motivation could accomplish so little with it — but really it comes down to focus, and I didn’t have any. It’s May, and now I do; but presently I want to focus on the rain that led to the flowers beginning to bud.

There’s a fine line — perhaps not as fine as I’d like to think, but fine nonetheless — between optimism and delusion. For years I avoided that line like the plague, treading so-called “realism” and coming across predominately as a pessimist. That line is terrifying, because it calls for bright-eyed dreaming with an understanding of the practical, and I’ve always struggled with letting go of the nasty “what-ifs” and a dire need to know exactly how and what I’m going to do before I can start. I like to have a plan, a blueprint, an outline.

Lacking those, I flounder. Where others might see a world filled with limitless potential, I’ve tended to see a world filled with limitless potential for failure; as Mae sings, “I can do anything, but I can do anything wrong.” Every cost/benefit analysis seems to end with risk seeming insurmountable, so I’ve failed to take action on just about everything. Articles I couldn’t see the end of never got written. Jobs I couldn’t guarantee working out were not applied to. Diets never started. Messages never sent.

But the rain began to fall.

Boston did a great many things for me, but perhaps most useful was the clearing of my tunnel vision. For some time now the impending end of cash-flow has led to a narrowing of scope and a deadening of ambition that I realize now was simply unhealthy. I could see — if not with perfect understanding — the dire need to make ends meet, and could understand my parents’ growing concern that when they really needed the money I’d have nothing to show but an empty wallet.

But that fixation resulted in a sort of desperate Catch-22. I needed to live at home because I didn’t have money. But I couldn’t get money because home is nowhere near any reasonably good jobs. Prior to Boston I couldn’t get past the first half of that equation, which means I spent a great deal of time not even considering opportunities beyond the 35-40 minute scope of reasonable automotive commuting.

Yet being with friends from all over the country (and then some) and considering the many times they had relocated in pursuit of work made something click. I might not be able to afford living away from home right now, but staying at home is a one-way ticket to poverty (not to mention the loss of soul along the way). It’s time to broaden my horizons.

Well, the seeds were planted, anyway, and that was a start. And seeing these friends (most for the first time) encouraged me to be more intentional about maintaining those relationships — not for something as base as networking (though that too), but for the simple fact that getting to know other people is as much a nourishment as food or drink, and for the past several months I’d been allowing myself to starve.

Boston was great, but only this past weekend did I experience the downpour necessary to truly revive what had been dormant long before winter struck.

Looking back, my trip to Grove City is merely a highlight reel of life-affirming moments. It began with a car ride in which two great friends demanded the truth about my life status and encouraged practical steps towards changing it. I chuckle now as I recall how Ryan unknowingly echoed Ken Levine in Boston, who said that ideas suck — that “there is no good idea without execution.” Protest as I might, no amount of wishing will make a career fall into my lap. Ryan and Jordan wanted to know what steps I was taking to ensure the next year didn’t look like the previous one; when answers were lacking, they made suggestions, ones I’ll be damned if I don’t follow.

Friday evening was when I finally hit rock bottom. Not emotionally — to be sure, I was having a great time — but when I earnestly answered Tom’s inquiry (what are you doing with your life?) with “squandering it,” no amount of laughter could take away reality’s sting. His response, impressively candid, was “Well, that’s a start. At least you know.”

Welcome to Deadbeats Anonymous. Step One is Admitting You Have a Problem.

I suppose “squandering” has a silver lining; one can’t do it if one has nothing to squander. Time and money, sure, but when I said it I was thinking more about how many times people (and most recently, Ryan and Jordan) have told me I’m a nearly unparalleled writer. I was thinking about how I hadn’t written anything in a month. I was thinking about a passage from The Dark Tower:

“For now the writer was fine, happily frittering away his time and valuable imagination on some meaningless project while the world he’d been born to imagine continued to gather dust in his head.”

It was all a setup for Saturday’s One Acts, which (while all enjoyable) all pointed like a massive neon arrow to Johnny Sikma’s “The Snoozist,” that turned out to be one of those pieces of drama that makes you wonder whether you’re secretly (a la “The Truman Show”) being watched. Johnny has since assured me that his play is autobiographical, but I can’t stop thinking about just how well he managed to portray, well, me.

“The Snoozist” is the story of a guy who tends to sleep in, “bartering” away everything from his morning joe to a shower to attending class. A few heart-to-hearts with a philosophical suitemate, an attractive but maddening peer, and a crazy (but in a wise way) English professor, and our good friend the writer learns to stop wasting away his potential and actually, you know, write. There’s other stuff in there too — commentaries on romance, parallels between life and literature, etc. — but for me, it was a deadbeat writer who never writes anything because he’s too busy wasting away his life. “The Snoozist” was a mirror and, ironically, a wakeup call.

The remainder of the weekend simply reaffirmed and defined the lesson I’d begun to learn in Boston: that these relationships with people I rarely get to see face-to-face are really, really important to me, and that I need to (and want to) make a much better effort to keep them alive. More than that, to help them grow.

I’ve talked so many times about how “this time things will be different” and “i’m going to change” and “i swear, you guys, there’s a wolf out there” and I’m happy to see that this time things already are changing. I applied for a job last week…the first time in months. I’m writing again. I’m reading again.

It’s May, and the flowers have begun to grow.