“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.

Any Other Way

The dream of our reunion makes me crazy just to think, how so very far away you are; my heart begins to sink. Today’s the day you’re leaving and tomorrow you’ll be gone. You’re in my heart and on my mind; I will bring you along. Everything sucks when you’re gone. ~MxPx


Online Becomes IRL

To those who’ve never really met me outside of the context of me already being with friends, it may come as a surprise that I am really bad at the whole interacting with people thing. Too nervous to kick off my PAX weekend with introductions, I ironically opted for a panel about “Online Communities and ‘Real Life’ Relationships,” wondering about the online/IRL relationship divide: how do people feel about it? Does crossing it tend to enrich relationships or make them really weird? Is physically meeting online friends and acquaintances generally a positive experience?

It’s not so much that I didn’t know the answers; after all, my fondness for the 2005 Seattle trip has never really waned. But my experience two years ago had maybe muddied the waters a bit, and I needed to be reminded why it was I had been looking forward to this weekend so much for so long. Some people come to Boston for games. Some come for swag. I had come for friendship.

Of course, I’m still — as Scott Pilgrim was once described — chronically enfeebled around people I don’t know well. It wasn’t until Ashlee came over and asked if I wanted to try out Trials Evolution that I managed some half-baked liaison into a greeting. She laughed and asked why I didn’t just say so — I guess that’s a question you could ask me a lot. Too nervous to initiate most conversations, I try to play off my awkwardness under guise of intentionality. When Michelle had given me the same Trials spiel and I introduced myself, she too wondered why I hadn’t cut her off  earlier and I just said it was good practice for her. It might not have been completely true, but at least it was good for a laugh.

A few hours later Dave — thankfully less enfeebled than I — introduced himself. We talked for a bit and then I ended up following him around for the better part of the afternoon. We discussed the community and our history over an extraordinarily overpriced lunch, then met up with two of his H2O friends. It would be with these three people that I’d bump into Amber who, after excitedly showing us the Twitch booth she’d designed immediately demanded to know if we were all hooked up properly for the weekend’s parties. Moments later I was inside the Twitch back area giving my contact information and receiving VIP access to Saturday night’s Estate bash.

And I guess that moment right there came to epitomize what was so wonderful about the weekend for me. In the relationships panel the games industry was jokingly referred to as incestuous, but it proved to be absolutely true. Even if you didn’t directly know someone, chances are you shared a good mutual friend. Suddenly the weekend’s course didn’t depend on what one or two buds had in mind but whatever the overarching collective of people you were in touch with wanted to be doing. And if I wasn’t interested in checking out this panel or that game? No big deal. We’d end up back together before long.

It also helped to have the Ubisoft booth as a center of gravity. No matter where I ran off to, I always found myself coming back, circling closer each time as I met more people and had lengthier conversations. The order of introductions gets hazy, but in addition to Ashlee, Michelle, and Dave I ended up spending my weekend at the booth getting to know Tunesha, Anne-Marie and her husband, Krystal, Jimmy, Melonie, Marcus, Chase, Andrien, Edelita, and Kim.

A Splash of Activism

Saturday was spent panel-hopping. In the morning I attended Irrational’s “Making a Monster,” where I received an awesome Bioshock Infinite poster while learning a bit more — especially regarding sound — about the game I’ve been most looking forward to since its unveiling. The free cupcake — in celebration of the company’s fifteenth anniversary — served as a quick lunch as I ran off to what would prove to be the best panel of the weekend.

Over the past several months the community member I’ve probably had the most interaction with is Ashlee, likely because she’s one of few who actually plays Gears. She, Grace, Jen, and Jon run Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, a website dedicated to comically handling the overwhelming harassment that women experience when playing video games online. This was the base purpose of “N00dz or GTFO,” a panel comprised of Grace, Jenny (from Not in the Kitchen Anymore — a similar site which uses her audio clips instead of text submissions), Elisa (the academic angle), and Morgan (founder, among other things, of the Fragdolls).

The panel itself was as entertaining as it was eye-opening. As people were seated, a slideshow displayed a variety of messages the panelists have received. It was intriguing for me, as one familiar with the sites, to see and hear the reactions of people for whom this was the first real exposure. Most posts welcomed laughter due to being misspelled, malformed, and generally pathetic. But some — notably one inviting its recipient to die of breast cancer — sent momentary silence and chills through the room.

“N00dz or GTFO” touched on a variety of issues, but its overarching message was pretty straightforward: sexual (and other) harassment is a huge problem that pervades gaming communities. As gamers we should demand the tools to combat it. As humans we should demand a community that actually uses those tools. It’s all well and good to laugh off random penis jokes, but when girls are afraid to even use a headset because it’ll open the door to death threats it’s time to stop laughing and take a stand. I encourage you to check out both FUoS and NitKA (and I’ll link to the video as soon as it’s online so you can watch the best panel of PAX for yourself).

Saturday night provided a new slew of introductions. I spent the evening worrying about whether I could dress well enough to get into the club, which translated into a long and awesome digital (later personal) reunion with Brooke. While waiting outside and hoping I was doing it right I actually got to say hi to and shake hands with Nikole Zivalich. Once inside I ended up meeting and talking with Grace, Jenny, Elisa, & Katy. For my first club/party experience, Saturday night was hugely rewarding.

Sunday morning I made a point of seeing the Assassin’s Creed III demo, and finally met Lanai after months of chilling in her Twitch channel. After a group lunch packed around a small table upstairs a handful of us wandered the show floor picking up swag and watching people play. Andrew recorded as Marcus, Rick, and I hopped up on the Rock Band stage and did a rendition of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.” Then most people went off to try their hand at indie games and I went to watch the AC3 demo one more time. The next hour and a half was spent back in familiar Ubi territory, challenging (and losing to) Tunesha and Ashlee in Trials and trying out the rest of the games for the first time. As the end quickly approached I had a few more chats and introductions and then left to watch from above as the expo was rapidly dismantled.


By Sunday night there weren’t too many more people to meet. I had yet, for whatever reason, to introduce myself to Ali, and I’d actually sent a tweet expressing as much. As Sunday afternoon became evening, and evening rushed towards night, I still had no idea what the night would hold and I was beginning to think it might hold nothing but a long drive back to Upton without dinner. I was texting back and forth with Dave and neither of us was sure whether the community members were doing anything as a group. All we knew for sure was that there was a PMS/H2O party at the Hard Rock Cafe that had been going on for over an hour, and we weren’t clear on who was there.

Eventually that didn’t matter. I met him at the Westin and we walked down to my car. One convoluted trip through South Boston later, and I was parallel parking for the first time in years as he went in to see if we were at the right Hard Rock.

The private room holding the party was half the size of the total dining space of the restaurant, or so it seemed, and it was densely packed with plenty of faces familiar and strange. Krystal directed me towards a seat that had a purse hanging off the back of it and told me not to worry about taking it because she was pretty sure “Ali’s done.”

God has a funny way of doing things, really. So many times this weekend I couldn’t help thinking about timing — how if I had or hadn’t been somewhere at such a time, something else wouldn’t have happened. If I hadn’t been so worked up over dinner and not getting into The Estate on Saturday, I’d have already been inside when Nikole and her friends showed up, and I probably wouldn’t have talked to Brooke as much. Had I split with Dave when he went searching for his H2O friends, I’d have never even gotten the VIP invite.

And had Dave and I showed up earlier or later on Sunday, I wouldn’t have had such a convenient, albeit awkward, conversation-starter with the one person I still wanted to say hello to. Ali finished a round of pool and came back. I awkwardly said hello and told her she was welcome to have it back, but she was happy to simply share the seat of the person sitting next to me.

After a couple minutes, I turned to her and said, “You know, when I thought of the first thing I would say to you, it was more like “Hey, I like your blog,” not “Hey, sorry I stole your seat.”” She laughed, leaned her head on my shoulder for a moment, and said “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

And that, that right there, sums up the whole of my weekend. Panic and stress and uncertainty led to me not doing some things or doing them later than I planned to, but the way it all turned out was so much better than I ever might have guessed or aimed for.

The night unfolded much according to the same principle. I’d planned on heading back to hang out with Ryan for the night but couldn’t get in touch with him, so instead I ended up just staying in Boston. Had I left, I’d not have been there for the Catfacts and general laughter as we overstayed our Hard Rock welcome. Had I worried more about getting towed I’d have left before the Omni Parker House interlude, the stroll to 7-11 and subsequent conversation with DJ Xyanyde and Vinx.

Most importantly, I’d never have made it to the library.

I’m firmly convinced that the two or three hours spent in that small book-lined annex of the Hilton lobby fundamentally changed my life. It certainly put a lot of things in my mind into place. It put ghosts to rest. More than anything, it solidified beyond doubt the fact that this random smattering of nerds from around the world is more than a community; it’s a family. Like any family we’ve had our black sheep (just look at me). We’ve had our infighting. We’ve lost siblings and adopted others. We have prodigals and stalwart faithfuls. But beyond all the love and the hate and the laughing and crying (and then the trolling that feeds off the crying, followed by more laughing) we have an intangible bond that ensures we’ll still be here in another seven years looking fondly back on our history.

It’s sad to think that it may be six months, a year, maybe longer until I can see all of these wonderful people again, but for now I have this weekend to cherish and the joyful prospect of what the future holds. And you know what?

I wouldn’t have it any other way.