Posts Tagged boston
I was sitting on the Red Line of Boston’s T, going from South Station to Park Street with a friend I’d known for exactly twenty-four hours to crash on his dorm room floor because I didn’t want to deal with the sudden drama my friends had fallen into, nor did I want to take the long trek back down the agonizingly slow B line to get to my apartment near Harvard Avenue. While there, we spotted some people wearing bright red badges, just as the train ground to a halt.
Stuck. Again. But that’s Boston for you.
“Hey,” I said to the guys with red badges. “Kart DS?”
“Nah, we don’t have it,” one said.
“You don’t need it, but it’d be too laggy without,” I replied. “Pictochat, then?”
At once, the ten of us all whipped out our various iterations of the Nintendo DS and began furiously scribbling pictures at each other. A few more people further down joined in, saying hello from the back of the train.
This was the Penny Arcade Expo East, or PAXEast, the greatest videogame convention in the world.
Actually, PAXEast is my favorite of the conventions I’ve been to. I don’t say that lightly, either. It’s easy to fall into the trap of shouting BEST. CONVENTION. EVER! The second you get back from wherever you are – the giddy high of spending the weekend with excited people who share your interests tends to have that effect on you. Indeed, I’ve done it before. But with PAXEast, I’ve sat back. I’ve looked at the convention objectively, thought about how it was organized, what it does, the people I met outside my main group of friends. I can’t deny it.
I admit, I’m biased. In terms of my nerd-dom, I think of myself as a gamer, first and foremost. This is peculiar, I admit – you’d think that as a writer, I might think of myself as an SF fan; or you’d look at my deep addiction to webcomics and think ah yes, a comic book fan. I only own two consoles, and while my computer is powerful, I bought it for my graphic design work.
But I love games. I love gamer culture. I love talking about games, I love playing games, I love writing about games. Tabletop, console, RPGs, shooters, puzzle games and casual games, I love ‘em all.
Which means I’m biased. PAX caters to me in a specific way; unlike, say, an anime con (I only like a few very specific anime and don’t consider myself an anime fan) or even an SF con (I love SF; but the fan-culture isn’t really my thing), this is a con for me. Even back when all I knew about were anime cons, I always went for the gaming room (in Otakon’s case, I also went for the LARP). And PAX is nothing but games! Everything in it is stuff I am interested in!
But even taking out my bias, stepping back and going okay, if I was more detached from gaming in general, how would I feel about it… it’s still an amazing con.
I think I’ll qualify this by saying that PAX is the best large con I’ve been to. Large cons are different animals than small cons – the sheer number of people means you have different logistical problems, a different feel, different demographics and different scheduling. It’s like comparing grapefruits to clementines – they’re both citrus fruits that you have to peel, but you eat them for entirely different reasons and in different circumstances.
So what is it about PAX that makes me say that it’s my favorite (besides the gaming thing)?
The biggest thing is that despite being a large con in every way, PAX still feels like a small con. What I love about small cons is the intimacy, the feeling that you can really talk to the guest speakers, and the friendly camaraderie you get with the other attendees. At most large cons, you go with a small group of your friends and try desperately not to get overwhelmed. At PAX, it’s ridiculously easy to make new friends, no matter what you’re doing. I talked to journalists, I chatted with game designers, I played pick up games of just about everything you can imagine. In lines I could shout HEY, MARIO KART TIME!? And people would instantly open their handhelds to play with me, no questions, no “who are you???”
Part of this is, again, due to what fandom we’re talking about. Gaming culture, despite the stereotypes, is focused around interactivity. Tabletop games need people to play together; handheld games are designed to be taken out and played with friends; multiplayer games are by their nature interactive; and even single-player games invite discussion (“Dude, SHODAN in System Shock 2 is STILL the best villain; but oh my god those monkeys kill me every time!”)
But the rest I think just has something to do with the way PAX is run. For instance, there’s a lounge in one corner of the convention center filled with beanbag chairs for attendees to just take a rest. It’s ostensibly the handheld gaming area, but it’s really the naptime zone, and to be honest this is a brilliant idea. Conventions are exhausting, and a little quiet place to chill out and recharge keeps everyone happy, and if you’re not sleeping you can chat up the person next to you.
Then there’s also the volunteer staff. You can already tell by the name that they’re something special. Where most cons have “gophers” or “volunteers,” PAX has Enforcers. Wait, let me say that in a more fitting way: ENFORCERS! The very name commands respect. It makes the attendees see these people as persons Of Authority (Capital Letters); and it makes the people doing the enforcing feel important and perhaps even cool. This really does work – every Enforcer I talked to practically gushed with enthusiasm and pride. Which isn’t to say that the volunteers at other cons don’t feel this way: it’s just that Enforcer culture is something different. They’re a community year-round, not just at the con, they have their own private message board where they keep in touch, they have meetings throughout the year, their own way of talking to each other and their own sort of dress code (Men wear kilts. So many. It’s awesome.)
This in turn means that they’re kind and courteous; they’re enthusiastic and they’re fans too. This is so different than some other cons I’ve been to, where volunteers could be outright rude. They were willing to take weird suggestions and roll with some of the craziest stuff. On Saturday night, for instance, a few friends of mine wanted to start an impromptu dance party (as we called it, “Shut Up And Dance”). We couldn’t quite find the numbers of people we wanted though, so we wandered down the hall, and found another group with their own dance party, called /Dance after the command used in most MMORPGs to cause characters to start dancing. Then one of the Enforcers got a portable table with a laptop and some big speakers and DJ’d for us, at the same time making sure we didn’t clog the halls and keeping us safe. At any other con I’ve ever been to, the volunteer or gopher would have broken up the party and told us to take it outside or to a hotel. At PAX? We got to thirty people and danced for four hours.
I was so impressed by the Enforcers that I’m absolutely going to volunteer next year, and if I can I’m going to try to hit the West Coast version of PAX, PAX Prime. I’m hoping my assessment of “best con ever” holds true.
Overall something about the experience felt special. I got the same intimate fuzzy feelings of friendship that I did out of small cons, but with the feeling of being right there at the heart of the industry, of seeing the magic happen that I do at big cons. I can’t wait for next year.
Boskone was my first experience with a sci-fi con, and as these things go I had a pretty good time – always my yardstick for how I feel about an individual convention. I’m local to Boston, so I decided to go ahead and volunteer, which I think only improved my experience.
The whole affair started out at the NESFA headquarters up in Cambridge the Sunday before Boskone 48, a chilly day in February. I was on duty to help sort badges for registration. Unfortunately, I have a horrible sense of direction coupled with terrible luck with public transportation, so it took me almost two hours of meandering before I ended up hitchhiking with a very nice young couple to the place… which turned out to have only been two blocks from where I was standing anyway.
NESFA itself is a series of small rooms with what I can only describe as “that used-bookstore smell.” If you’ve ever been in a used bookstore – I forgive you if you haven’t, they’re a dying breed – you know what I’m talking about. It’s the smell of yellowed paper and dust; of plywood shelves and poor insulation, and it’s a smell that instantly makes you feel at home.
What struck me first about the place was that I was the youngest person there. This was novel to me – at every other convention I’ve been to, I’ve been in the middle-group at best, and kind of an old guy at worst (the latter tends to happen at anime cons). To be honest? I thought this was totally cool. It’s not often that I meet people over the age of forty who are in fandom, and it gives me hope to see that this is something that stays with people. Different fandom, maybe, different flavor, but still part of the community.
The day was then spent sorting out badges and shooting the breeze with sci-fi fans. We mostly talked about fandom history, and I mostly failed to take notes and get email addresses (a poor habit of mine). Everyone was charming and fascinating. Later I was gifted Worldcon and Arisia program guides, as well as hard-boiled eggs (apparently a NESFA tradition). I paused, a bit shocked, as I noticed that I had just sorted through badges with the names “Neil Gaiman” and “Orson Scott Card,” only to be told that they weren’t coming, they just had lifetime memberships because they’d attended in the past. Still! I got to touch a badge with Neil Gaiman’s name on it!
That Thursday, my adventure continued with convention setup. I helped out mostly with setting up the food table in the convention suite. I’m not certain if this is unique to Boskone, but it’s certainly something you can only do at a small convention – Boskone has a whole table of free food, all three days. This is fantastic. This is, dare I say it, completely amazing. Anyone who has been to a con knows that food is one of the biggest problems. Convention centers are often far away from amenities and you’re usually forced to eat at overpriced and frankly terrible places within the convention. Here? People brought in home-made dishes; and bags of stuff from Trader Joes just kept appearing, as if out of thin air. I cut and sliced meat, arranged plates of sandwiches and grape leaf wraps, and… admittedly ate a lot of what was being offered (but as a volunteer I was well within my rights to do so). I also helped to set up the printers for the convention operations staff.
Later on I shot the breeze with some of the other volunteers and organizers. Again, names escape me, not because of the people (they were all marvelously charming) but simply because of my faulty memory. Still, one thing sticks out in my mind: I ended up talking to one gentleman about the MIT Science Fiction Society, and he mentioned having been a member back in the day. I said that was fascinating, I’d love to hear more; he regailed me with a story about how there was this one obnoxious jerk who came to all the meetings. Total flirt, kind of rude. I nodded and said yes, well, there’s one in every fan circle.
“Yeah, that Issac Asimov. What a jerk,” he said.
I spent the next ten minutes trying to figure out where my lower jaw had wandered off to.
On Friday, I got up bright and early and mostly worked registration. Once again, I was surprised to see the general age range of the con. There were certainly a few people closer to my age, but for the most part I was dealing with people over the age of thirty. This was in many ways a nice change – everyone was, for the most part, quite well-behaved.
After that, I got to the meat of the con – panels. Panels are always my favorite part of any convention, and this was no exception. Some of the panels I attended included one about how to write graphic novels, one on domestic robots, a Steampunk discussion group, a talk about what monsters are underused in modern fiction, and a truly fascinating panel on teleportation and the nature of consciousness. What struck me about the panels was just how literary and erudite they were – the discussions were well-spoken, philosophical, and fascinating, with the audience often providing insights just as intelligent as those of the panelists. Indeed, the panel on teleportation got into some very dark philosophical territory, and in my opinion was one of the best panels at the con.
Boskone does have a dealer’s room, called a Huckster’s room, but it’s quite a bit different than those at most cons I’ve been to, as it sold primarily used books. This was great, as I am a ravenous devourer of musty tomes. I’m wondering if all sci-fi cons are like this, or if others are more likely to have the standard fare of handmade hats, plushies, cheap swords, and T-shirts.
The Art Gallery was one of the finest I’ve seen at a con, with showings from many professional SF artists. There were a large number of gorgeous oil paintings, and everything was far beyond my price range. Still, beautiful to look at.
I also got to attend a book launch by NESFA’s publishing arm, NESFA Press. They were releasing a new edition of Charles Stross’ Scratch Monkey (a work which I believe has been previously published under a Creative Commons license. I could be wrong about this, however). The launch was quite informal and mostly involved a lot of standing around, drinking tea, eating poppyseed cake, and a bunch of us talking to Mr. Stross about what a shame it was that Americans still don’t know much about tea, even if they are getting better at it, followed by abject horror at the presence of a box of Lipton (GASP!)
Other unique features of Boskone include Kaffeklatsches and Literary Beers: small, 8 to 10 person discussion groups with authors, illustrators, editors, and other industry professionals. They require signup in advance due to their small size. They allow fans to really get to know the people behind the material they love, and to ask questions they might not be able to get out during the larger panels. Kaffeklatsches involve coffee (the word is a German word essentially meaning “sitting around and talking over coffee), while Literary Beers involve, well, beer. I attended one with Beth Meacham, one of the editors at Tor Books. Strangely, I was one of only two people attending (which was a bit upsetting), and we had an excellent conversation about the job of editing in general, as well as my own project.
Overall, Boskone had a very comfortable, intimate feel, combined with an intellectual air that I very much enjoyed. It was a bit more sedate than most cons I’ve been to, which to tell the truth was a nice change from the frenetic pace of something like, say PAX or Otakon. There’s a closeness to it, a feeling of sort of sitting around the kitchen table chatting about books. It’s a great small con with a rich history for the literary-minded scifi fan.