Con Report – PAX East

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?”

“Sure!”

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.

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