Saturday, September 12, 2015

PAX 2015

I'm walking down the street in an unfamiliar city. I've been to Seattle once before, as a visitor and a sightseer, but I'm in Seattle for something very specific this time. I came here chasing down a convention I've been trying to attend for three years: the Penny Arcade Expo. And now the convention is almost over, and there's just one thing left to do.

I'm following half-remembered directions to restaurant where a concert is happening... I think. Some guy from some line mentioned it. I like everything to be planned out explicitly, so walking eight blocks toward something I think might be happening is a little unusual for me. But, after four days of roaming the convention, I'm willing to take a little risk to see something cool.

In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I made that whole weekend.

***

I often ask myself why the idea of gaming is so compelling for me, when at the same time it carries such a cultural stigma. It's hard to reconcile, but the word "gaming" to me is actually kind of distasteful when written out. I want some other word to describe this hobby.  Somehow, “Gaming” brings out a feeling of judgment in my head, judgment from of the uninitiated.  Perhaps it's just too vague of a word. It doesn't really mean anything – it doesn't even describe play adequately. It sounds like running, walking, or breathing. Activities, not states of interaction.

Still, I think much of the social confusion around the word has infiltrated my own perspective. It's with this in mind that I decided to attend what is one of the largest gaming conventions in the world, founded by two people who are personally some of the most influential in my thinking about games and about what the word “gaming” means, Gabe and Tycho from the Penny Arcade comic, which I have been reading for most of my adult life. I was reading the comic when Diablo 2 came out, for Christ's sake. Am I really that old?

Anyway, I wanted to see what it was like when thousands upon thousands of people who shared the interest in this pastime gathered together. Would the stigma evaporate? Or would I just find a better word for it?

***

I walk into the restaurant. It's Monday, the last day of PAX, after the end of the last official event, but you can still see lanyards around peoples' necks – the easiest way to spot fellow attendees. I also spot some folks wearing shirts with geeky videogame lore and other science-fiction or fantasy cultural icons. So I think I'm in the right place.

It was one of the many people I met standing in line at PAX who I happened to strike up a conversation with that told me about the concert. Over the previous three days, I had spent so much time running all over downtown Seattle going to all the various panels, unreleased game demos, and other random rooms and nooks and crannies at PAX, that I had never felt up for going to any type of after-hours event. So this was my last chance.

I ordered a burger and a beer and sat down and waited. I was pretty good at waiting by that point.

***

The insane Magic the Gathering set piece
PAX started with a line. It continued with many more lines. For the most popular events, it's not uncommon to try and show up two or three hours early just to ensure that you get a spot (as a general rule, I would say that if you see a long line at PAX and it's not capped, you should probably stand in it, because it is probably something awesome). The first people I met in line, Bree and Laney from Monterey, weren't even there for the panel I was in line in – the two opening panels of PAX, Storytime (with Kim Swift this year) and a Q&A with Gabe and Tycho – they were there for the third panel, two panels away, a guy named rooster teeth. Apparently, he's pretty popular on the YouTubes. And they wanted the best spots in line.

From the beginning, I wanted to talk to people. And it seemed like the other people of PAX want to talk as well. Every time I started up a conversation, it flowed naturally from various topics in common, and others nearby would join in randomly. Topics ranged quickly from gaming to culture, to the best things to do at the convention, and always back to gaming; what were people playing, what was new, etc. And, in my favorite line-based diversion, people would occasionally just sit down in the middle of the line and play something. If the line wasn't moving, you could usually get in a game of Magic or two in before you had to stand up again.

So I talked. I talked to Russ on the plane from Santa Barbara (there were four other people attending PAX on that plane). He had recently broken his foot and was going to the convention on the little knee-scooter. He was big into first-person shooters and another Rooster Teeth fan. It felt strange, realizing we had little in common in our gaming habits (I'm not a big FPS player), and yet it felt like we had so much in common in attending the convention. There was an urge to converse there that was new to me. I'm not a person who normally gets chatty with strangers, but this was special. Someone else has made the choice of expending time and money to go to this crazy thing that I'm also going to, because they love games, had even built a social circle around them – his Halo clan attended PAX regularly to meet up.

I talked to Zach, Chris, and Alex – about World of Warcraft and all that's changed since I played, about Magic the Gathering (we also played a quick game in line), and about the celebrities at the convention. The three of them were all “Enforcers”, a class of attendee who actually volunteer for most of the convention to help it operate; they manage lines, they move merchandise and gear, and they help people have fun while waiting in line by giving out goodies, organizing random little talent shows or other events, and just generally making you feel like there was a warm presence around you at all times, which you could query if you were lost or confused and get answers. Enforces are awesome, and I told them as much.

I also talked to people constantly about their early gaming memories. Nostalgia is one of the greatest bonding agents. When strangers say SNES like it's an actual word, and not an acronym, my heart melts a little bit.

***

More people are appearing now. I am starting to wonder about this band. All I know is that they're called 7bit Heros. I assume they play video game inspired music, but I didn't even ask the person who told me about the concert why they wanted to see this band. I can see they're setting up merchandise for sale in the little side booth, but I'm not exactly sure where the band is playing. There doesn't seem to be a space in the narrow restaurant/bar area for a band to stand.

Tickets for the band are about to go on sale. Two girls walking to the bar and hover near my table, so I strike up another conversation. It seems these two are big fans of the band, and mentioned something about there being an app you can install while you're listening to the concert. Interesting.

***

Enough about waiting. Let's talk about the Expo Hall, that massive space of darkness and light.

The Expo Hall is open from 10 AM to 6 PM. This year, it spanned two floors of the convention center. It is full of games which have not yet been released, and you can stand in line to play any of them, oftentimes earning some free swag for your trouble such as T-shirts, lanyards, beta access codes, etc.

When I first arrived in the Expo Hall, I was a little overwhelmed. Too many choices. Then, looking through the paper schedule that Bree and Laney had given me (they'd had an extra), I saw a gigantic spaceship.

I like spaceships. I pledged too much money to Star Citizen. And these spaceships were even bigger!

The game was Dreadnought. It's a game that I had seen Rock Paper Shotgun do a story on a while ago and had been enamored with. The game pits gigantic lumbering spacecraft against each other in team combat, over broken landscapes. It looked amazing and had the kind of graceful slow-paced combat of Mechwarrior, akin to naval warfare in its carefully planned maneuvers and slowly shifting front lines.

The Dreadnought booth
I made a beeline for the Greybox booth, saw they had a huge number of stations set up, and got in line. I was not disappointed. The fact that the game is set up as a five versus five means that some of the people you're standing in line with will invariably be your teammates, or your enemies. This makes for great conversation about the various roles and strategies – there are tankish ships, artillery ships, support/healing ships, etc. Each team also gets a set of wired headsets and microphones to help coordinate. The game was a huge blast. For beta access, you can sign up to the closed beta on their website.

I also fooled around with a few other games in the Expo Hall, mainly the VR rigs Oculus Rift and Morpheus, which were interesting but nothing mind blowing. It was really just fun to walk around and see all of the games being played, the gigantic inflated Pikachu hovering over the Pokémon booth, the grunts, grows, and impacts of the Street Fighter V booth, the sheer spectacle and newness of everything.

***

We go up and get our wrists stamped and head into the tiny venue, which I didn't even realize was part of the building. How they are going to fit 100 people in this room, I have no idea, but the girls who had been hanging around my table and I are there early enough to actually get a seat near the back. After a little longer, someone who I assume is the band manager begins walking around asking people if they've installed the app, explaining how to log in, etc. Talking to my booth mates, I'm told the app doesn't work very well on android, which is unfortunate for me.

The band has also brought their own Wi-Fi access point. Apparently there will be some sort of coordinated interaction through the app if you connect to the Wi-Fi.

The band gets set up on stage and people fill the little room. A projector displays an image behind the band. A little blocky-headed avatar appears along with the bubble-text “I'm the tutorial!”

***

The Expo floor is amazing, but that's not the coolest thing about the convention. The coolest thing is all of the other little bits and bobs, hidden rooms, and random events that you can stumble into while you're wondering around.

At the top of my list of random side-attractions is the Smash Brothers and Console Freeplay rooms (plural). Arguably the most wonderful experience I had at PAX was stumbling into a room with rows and rows of tables and displays running the newest Smash Brothers – which I had never played – and immediately sitting down and battling it out with a bunch of strangers. I had forgotten how much I loved this game. It's just so satisfying, even when you aren't doing very well, to land a great attack and clobber someone. Combined with that nostalgia bonding agent that comes with the game populated by Nintendo characters, you make instant friends.

The Joust crowds are another highlight. This aspect of the convention that doesn't come out until after dark, when strange circles of people form on the upper levels of the convention center around 9 or 10pm, with figures dancing in bizarre slow-and-fast motion in the center, holding little glowy orb stick things.

video


The first day I ran into the joust crowd, I played once and got instantly eliminated. I was a little disheartened. I'm not a person who usually likes physical contact sports, and this ran a little too close for my taste. The rules are that you have to keep your little motion sensor thing moving steadily to the pace of the music, and you can push and shove other players gently. But on the second day, I walked by again, and realized that I felt like I was missing out on something.

So I jumped in and played for around two hours, until the building shut down. Something about the game really allows people's personalities to shine through their play. You could play aggressively and move quickly, try to surprise people by sneaking up behind them and bumping their arm, even try and blend in with the crowd of spectators to avoid detection. This is a game that I think anyone who doesn't really consider themselves a gamer could get into.

On the panels, of all of the random panels I went to, the Dub Fight panel is probably my favorite. I didn't even know what it was until I was in line for it. The videos should eventually be up on their website, but you can see some of their older clips there.

***

We're sitting at the back of the venue, up on the backs of the booth seats to get a good view. The two girls whom I had just met turn out to be hugely into World of Warcraft.  One of them is GM for a guild on Malfurion, and the other is a member of that same guild. They had never met in person, but had known each other online for nine years. PAX was, for them and many others, an excuse to make that meeting face-to-face meeting happen. 
 
I have never been plopped into a group of 40,000 people with whom I have so many things in common.


***



Something that I've always taken for granted as a gamer since a young age is the language we learn – the icons, the instructions, the expectations – something entirely unique, and something that takes time to master and appreciate. You learn how deep and extensive this languages when you introduce someone who has never played a game to a system and they struggle with the basic concepts – like how to navigate, what a mini map is, how mouselook works.
Although I think a lot of us like to think games are intuitive, in truth they are filled with a hodgepodge of conventions and shortcuts, almost as arbitrary and self-centered a language as something like music notation. Why should the right stick control the camera and the left stick control movement? What happens when you run over the little power-up shaped like a rocket? Why does jumping on things kill them?

If you know the answer, you're part of the club. And for once, at this convention, that meant inclusion – not exclusion.

Yes, of course it's fun to be around people who think like you do and who share your interests. There's not much new about that. But building that shared interest around a medium that is based on interaction? I think that produces something unique.

***

"A space pyramid! Let's shoot face lasers at it to see if it's friendly!”

Eight random player avatars from the audience suddenly appear on the massive projection behind the band, and they all begin tapping away on their phones and tablets, firing lasers at a pyramid looking thing. The game the band has created to accompany their concerts is exceedingly simple – press the button the fastest, get the highest score – and yet it works perfectly. No real knowledge of how the game works is necessary. Only timing matters.

The pyramid explodes, melting under the concentrated firepower of tippity-taps. A large purple thing pops out.

Oh no! It's SPACE CAT!”

The large purple thing, which I recognize now as a legless purple flying cat (or space cat), flies off screen. The game's villain is established.

***

I often wonder how to describe the things that gaming contributes to culture. Gaming is a conversation between the player and the game, in a language that takes time to master. So, after the convention, after giving it some thought, here's what I think: gaming provides an avenue of interaction not only with fiction, with narratives and art, but with other people. It can be a social conduit and lubricant. It provides a space of thought where cooperation and competitive experiences can be explored with limited consequences. And, when enough people who value these things come together in one place, it can contribute something very meaningful: acceptance. That's what a crowd of strangers, what PAX, gave to me, and what thousands of hours on the internet could never really provide.

***

As the band plays, SPACE CAT swallows the players and now they're in the SPACE CAT intestines.  There are bees for some reason, and SPACE CAT throws them all up.   

video


Now the players tap to run away on SPACE CAT's really, really long tongue to avoid being eaten again. The players fall off the tongue, and in a brief dialogue, one falling player comments on the unfinished nature of the game.  This is apt, because the game wouldn't even run on my phone.  I didn't care.  Something weird was happening as I was watching – I had a feeling of rightness, a feeling of two things put together I had never seen before (public performance and interactive gaming), a feeling of the complete absurdity of what I was watching, and a feeling that I and everyone in the room was completely invested it.

The 7bit Heros game gives off a familiar vibe; you feel like it started with a pile of weird lyrics and goofy characters, and had a story written on top to give it meaning and connect it all together into something that made sense. Looking at the big picture, I think PAX is the haven of absurdity that gives this culture meaning.  It takes the idea of gamers, of having a passion for play, and, without trying to make it serious in an academic way, makes it feel worthy on a very personal level.

I will definitely be back.