Note: This post was originally published on the now defunct Loaded Dice Cast Blog in 2013. However, with PAX East 2015 coming up this week, and with all of the divisions the gaming community has faced over the past year, it rings just as true. I have included a Coda, or Post Script to this piece which, more or less, brings it up to date.
On the last cast I told the story of Matty G taking me to my first PAX East, it ending with my scratching my neck like a crackhead, driving away from Boston, trying to get in a game of Magic Cards on the center console with his brother Stacks.
This was back in 2010, and I haven’t looked back since.
For those of you not in the know, PAX stands for Penny Arcade Expo, which started, as an offshoot of the wonderful web comic Penny Arcade, back in 2004 and has grown into a tri-annual [now, roughly, quarterly as of PAX South 2014-ed.], 3 [or 4-ed.] day gaming festival attended by tens of thousands. You may be asking yourself how a gigantic gaming expo can grow out of a web comic, even one related specifically to gaming. Without giving away the answer, which inevitably will end up succumbing to the mundane nature of details, you should merely take in the broad strokes: This is something special.
PAX East is the Eastern wing of PAX (how shockingly well appellated) which started in Washington State and has spread as far as Australia. The first installment of East was in 2010, which I was lucky enough to attend, and it has grown exponentially since.
On a personal note, PAX East ignited not only a fire in me, but a larger understanding of myself. Although that is a personal journey that likely has little interest to you, dear reader, the result of that personal journey has put me in such a place that I am able to convey to you what makes PAX East, and really, being a nerd, so special. Or at least try.
The thing to know about PAX is that in a way that is incredibly authentic, and more or less singularly unique in my experience, it is a convention truly for the average neckbeard, nerd, dork, geek or whatever your preferred nomenclature might be. Compare this with the celebrated E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) and you’ll see a stark contrast. E3 is generated by the industry to sell things to you. The industry is present at PAX, and they are very interested in selling things to you, but this is far from the focus. The “Expo Floor” of PAX takes up approximately 1/16th of the total space (number pulled out of my ass). In comparison, the area to play tabletop games, for FREE is possibly twice as large.
To put things succinctly: While attending PAX, you are a gamer. You are not a consumer, a customer or a target demographic. Not only does this transmogrification allow you to enjoy our mutual hobby without the shackles of that creeping feeling of gleefully pre-order a video game due to the sweet pre-order bonus (knowing that you’re being suckered, manipulated or marketed to, willingly or not), but even more remarkably it allows you to experience something that our mutual hobby, due to its roots in isolationist behavior, social ostricisation and Player 1/Player 2 gameplay, is sometimes lacking: Community.
The internet helps, sure. We’re less distant from each other than we were when everyone was sitting at their own Super Nintendo, plugged into their own TV. But even now, it’s part of whatever makes us nerds to organize communities around specific sub-genres. There is the “StarCraft Community.” There is the “Magic Community.” There is the “Warhammer 30k Community.” I don’t want to disparage this practice. It is pretty natural for folks like us, and it has some great uses. But it leads to a distraction: It is natural for there to be an element of what I shall refer to as “King Fucking Wizard Syndrome.” As nerds we love to specialize, and to specialize we often want to be the best, or the most knowledgeable, or the most hardcore, or whatever it is. In the Magic Community, everyone wants to be “King Fucking Wizard.”
Can you go to PAX and be King Fucking Wizard? Sure. But you’d be missing the point, both of being King Fucking Wizard (no one really gives a shit at PAX..there’s too much else going on) and of PAX. PAX gives you the opportunity to exist in an ecosystem and environment where for 3 days, everyone “gets” what you’re about. Not at a specific level, not that you’re a powerful wizard, but in a general, and more satisfying way, where they understand that you’re passionate, and you love games, and you love nerdy shit, and hey let’s go discover this together. Everyone is excited. The atmosphere is electric. Everyone has a passion to share with you. And it feels like your next great passion, arguably the reason we are all nerds, is right around the corner, waiting for you to discover it. You get to float in this wonderful gelatinous goop for an entire weekend and emerge feeling like you could pull the ears off a gundark.
At PAX you go from playing Atari 2600 in the classic console freeplay room, to learning a new RPG system in tabletop freeplay, to attending a panel on worldbuilding, to going to an MC Frontalot concert. The next day you challenge your buddies to play a ridiculous Xbox game you’ve never heard of, and then maybe you got to try Steel Battalion, which, wow, you always wanted to do but never did. This whole time you’ve maybe been sitting in lines observing cosplayers, or the guy next to you asking if you want to try Zombie Dice and you having a kick ass time learning a new game and making a new friend. This is the magic of PAX.
Community is good for us nerds. It breaks us of our biggest flaws, and channels our best strengths. It has the potential to harness us for good, but also, more personally, merely affirm that we are who we are, there are other people out there like us, and that is a pretty sweet thing.
I write this article with a sense of futility. Nothing I’m capable of writing can really express how special and important PAX is, and if anyone else has come close, Wil Wheaton did it way back in 2010 in his PAX East keynote that will likely never be topped (Fair warning, it is long, and may kick you in the feels).
My comments are really just an echo of that important moment. But I’m hoping that maybe it will inspire you to go yourself, take this pilgrimage with me. Enjoy yourself. That is, being yourself. Bask in the bacta tank for 3 days, and come out ready to take on the whole empire yourself. I’ll see you there.
2015 Coda and Update:
The Nerd Community needs PAX more than ever. 2014 was the year that saw the rise of GamerGate, which, in spite of all of our well intentioned self contratulatory celebration of what it means to be a Gamer, showed us that gamers, gaming and nerd culture has an ugly side. A mean spirited, petty, amoral underbelly that, objectively, and tragically, must be counted amongst our culture’s contribution and members (however unwanted by the majority.)
But, in a very real sense, that makes PAX more important than it has ever been. If the spirit of PAX, the community, cameraderie, gaming as a value, nerdery as a means of self improvement, joy and self actualization, is not the whole truth, it is at least our aspirational Truth. And that may be even more important. It is the coalesence of our greatest wishes. A small, perfect bubble of Utopia. It is the window to the future we may peer into, and glimpse the things that may be. It can inspire us to get to that place, and live there, in our every day lives. We can work, together, as a community, to make the ‘T’ lower case.
So Cheers to PAX, to the future, to gamers and nerds everywhere. May we always aspire to be our best selves.