Welcome to PAX: Lessons and Scenes from Seven Years in Arcadia
I haven't even finished setting up our computers before my girlfriend, Wendy, gets my attention.
“Let's go into the expo hall.”
Shuffling out from under a folding table covered in computer errata, I look across the sky bridge. The pathway is barren, empty except for a handful of people in pink or black badges. We had passed a long line stretching out of the convention center just earlier, as we hauled our machines to the fourth floor. Wasn't that the line for the expo hall? The lawful part of me can't help but speak up.
“Are you sure? I don't think it's open.”
“It's fine, come on.” She walks with purpose towards the entrance. Dutifully, I follow. An Enforcer eyes our sets of red and orange badges, and (in error, I would later learn) waves us inside with a smile.
“Welcome to PAX.”
For its first four years, the Penny Arcade expo was, as far as I was concerned, an impossible dream.
From its announcement in 2004, it certainly seemed like my kind of event. A convention focused on games, run by and for those who play them -- what could be more grand? But living in the landlocked center of Alaska (where traveling to the lower 48 can cost more than $1000 round-trip) PAX would have to remain appealing, but distant.
By 2007, I was making plans to move to Seattle. I usually say that “it seemed like the thing to do at the time” when inquired about my reasons, but I'd be lying if I claimed PAX didn't factor into the decision. It felt important to me -- I wanted to live near this hub of nerdery, this festival for my culture.
I wanted to be near Arcadia.
I've attended every PAX Prime since 2008, and each year I learned a little more about how to handle an event that, for its duration, out-populates my hometown. Because my current plans involve self-imposed exile back to that same hometown for an unknown duration, I figured I'd pass along some things I've learned that may help make your PAX visit a great experience.
This advice comes with a few disclaimers and disclosures. First is that, yes, I am aware of the problematic history of PAX and of its creators. I acknowledge this, and believe that recent changes -- such as the Diversity Lounge, panels on topics of inclusiveness, diversity in games and more -- are signs of a commitment to change a mixed past. It's a touch late for my tastes, but at least it's movement in the right direction.
Second, I have only ever attended PAX Prime in Seattle. I've never left the country (excluding Canada, which hardly counts), so PAX Australia is out. And the last time I visited Boston was, I'm fairly sure, in the late 1990s. While my advice should apply to any event of similar scale, it was gleaned from experiences at PAX Prime and may contain idiosyncrasies specific to the location.
Finally, I have only ever attended PAX as a fan until this year, when I worked at a booth. That being said, I know a number of Enforcers and ex-Enforcers, and their practice of referring to one another by handle -- similar to the habits of my old LAN scene -- rubbed-off on me. Names are replaced with handles where applicable.
Got it? Let's begin.
Partway through a sip of my “cheap date,” I marvel at the interior painting of the bar. The Unicorn sits uphill from the Convention Center on Pike Street, and is somewhat notorious for its menu, decorum, and appearance in a music video. In this section, the walls are stripes of cyan, magenta, black, white -- like the CGA games I played as a kid. These walls even look and smell of the same lacquer that adorned my childhood scrap-wood bunk bed.
“Here they come.”
The words prompt me to watch the stairs, as a steady stream of black-robed, blue-scarved people make their way down to our area of the bar. Sitting next to me, the mouth of Jakob -- a first-time attendee -- falls open.
“Damn,” I say aloud, as it's gotten too loud to mutter. “Which houses are in this wave, Ravenclaw and who?”
Cakiea glances at her phone. “Ravenclaw Order versus Ravenclaw Death Eaters.”
“All of Ravenclaw,” I muse. Across the table, Dingo snaps his fingers to get my attention. “What?”
“Email. Send me that email.”
“Shit, right.” I pull out my phone, only halfway through unlocking it before someone catches my eye. I set my phone down and yell through the now-crowded space. “Null! NULL! Over here!”
“Jesus CHRIST, Oz,” bellows Beta, to my left. “Send him the damn email!”
“Okay, okay.” I quickly tap out a brief message on my phone, hit Send, and set it aside, waiting for the message to make its way through so much interference.
Jakob leans over to me. “What exactly is going on here?” He's still staring at the waves of would-be wizards.
With a quiet chuckle, I respond. “This is the Triwizard Drinking Tournament, its final year. Only about a quarter of the bar crawl is here -- there are three other houses, each divided into two camps.”
"Ah," Jakob replies with obvious confusion, as he shuffles out from his seat. “Then I should get in line for another drink now.”
Lesson 1: Keep It Together
From the moment in early 2008 when I arrived in Seattle, I was giddy with anticipation. I jumped headfirst into the PAX community, followed the forums and IRC, and met up with other attendees-in-waiting. And then, when it was finally upon us, when the expo had finally arrived...
Paralysis set in.
Overwhelmed by choice and electrified by the atmosphere, in my first trip to PAX I managed to do literally nothing, with the noted exception of demoing a couple games in the expo hall and playing a few rounds of Team Fortress 2 in BYOC.
At your first PAX, especially if you attend with friends, it may seem difficult to stay in one place. And, trust me, it absolutely is. Even now, my friends joke that I “vanish” for the duration of PAX, only reappearing at the very end, ragged as hell, carrying assorted swag.
The best thing you can do -- be you overwhelmed by the convention experience or simply as easily distracted as I am -- is to focus on one thing at a time, or you'll end up hovering between things, never quite committing. Once you've chosen an activity, or ended up at a panel, or decided to make a trip through the expo hall, just stick with it. Give that activity your full attention -- at least, for more than a fleeting moment.
Not a half hour ago I had been lively, excited, as I got into line with my friends John and Sandra to try out the upcoming RPG/shooter Borderlands. But now I'm lying on the floor of the expo hall, face pressed to the concrete, desperate to feel cool and not nauseous. The outbreak of swine flu was moving quite swiftly at the convention, and it seemed I was its latest victim.
John nudges me with his foot. “Hey, are you okay? We're up next.”
“I'm...yeah I'm fine...I'll just…” I stagger to my feet, and am rushed into the booth.
The demo is a total blur, as are the next several minutes. I can hardly stand upright, much less communicate normally. As we go to leave the expo hall and head home, I manage to remember something. Earlier in the weekend, thanks to a promotional gimmick, I had won an ATX case. Not something I needed, but it was nice to win a prize. Or so I had thought, before the flu hit me.
“We have…to go...to Nvidia booth….”
“Won...case...need to get….”
John and Sandra drag me back into the expo hall, where an Nvidia rep hands me a large, heavy box. Then they drag me and the box down to the car, and take us back to the apartment. The case is left on the dining room table, while I'm laid face-down on my bed, to writhe and sweat through the worst of the fever.
The next day I awaken, sheets and clothes in disarray, but feeling less horrible than before. Stumbling out into the living room, I find Mike, our last remaining out-of-town PAX guest.
“Feeling better?” he asks, as I walk over and begin opening my prize.
“Yeah, a lot. Give me a hand with this?”
Mike helps me flip the now-opened box over, and pull it free of the styrofoam protecting the case itself. “This looks pretty nice, heavy though. Are you going to keep it?”
“Nah, I just thought I'd have a look before I sold it-” I halt, mid-thought, looking at the back of the case. There's ports all over the back. Power. Ethernet. USB. HDMI.
I unthread the thumbscrews holding the side panel on, and pop off the covering. Inside sits everything you'd expect: motherboard, memory, videocard, processor, hard drive, optical drive, power supply.
“Oh.” I look over at Mike. “Well, shit.”
Lesson 2: Make Plans
Perhaps the reason why I had so much trouble focusing at PAX, at least to start, was because of a failure to plan. With a multitude of scheduled panels, lounges, and places to simply play, I was fixated on the cavernous-yet-claustrophobic expo hall, spending all my time wandering around while refusing to stand in a line to actually try anything.
It helps to have some plan for your day at PAX -- this can be as elaborate as a list of panels and get-togethers you want to attend, or as simple as a solid idea of what you want to accomplish that day. I tend to select a few panels, pick out the two or three games I'm willing to wait in line to try in the expo, and then fill the rest of the time with meetups and playing games. That way, I feel like I've gotten something done, even if the day takes a sudden left turn.
Like so many things that come flying out of my mouth, I've barely thought out exactly what I'm saying before it hits the ears of the spectators.
“LEAVE ME ALONE! I'M OLD AND I'M BAD AT VIDEO GAMES!”
This is met with a gale of laughter, as I keep careening around the screen in a round of Smash Bros. Melee. My opponent, who is playing Sheik, is several years my junior but considerably more skilled than myself. He's stayed quiet all round, but I can detect a note of irritation in his expression. Somehow, I -- an extremely casual player, who selected the notoriously bad character Pichu -- have managed to outlast everyone else, and am still in the game.
Each of us are down to one life, but we both know this round should have been over a while ago.
I hit my opponent with a couple bolts of lightning, but that leaves me immobile for a split-second too long. He finally catches me with a smash attack, and I bellow “Ow my diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick” as I soar off the screen and out of the match.
I clap the now-relieved expert on the shoulder, thank him for the rounds, and turn to my crew -- Ravenger, Snifit, and Jakob -- who had been watching.
“Alright, what now?”
Ravenger shrugs. "There's that Ubisoft party at the Hard Rock Cafe. Free drinks and poutine, apparently."
I look to the rest of the party. Jakob seems a bit shellshocked, as he has since the Unicorn. Snifit, being still-underaged, fixes me with a scowl. I reflexively smirk, and shoulder my backpack.
"Let's check it out."
Lesson 3: Go With the Flow
Now that you've made plans, be willing to drop them. Sure, perhaps you wanted to wait in line for Murderfield 4: Modern Killing to try it a few precious days before your friends back home, but frankly, you were going to buy it anyway, and there will always be another AAA shooter to try next year.
By contrast, you may not have another opportunity to see MC Frontalot or Bit Brigade live in front of crowd packed with nerds, or to play Settlers of Catan with people from around the country or around the world, or to attend an over-the-top industry party, complete with swag and drinks.
Don't feel bad about abandoning the lines and doing something else. Be as fluid as you can, because as an attendee, it's all your time. The expo hall itself is something I struggle to remember from year to year -- but you can believe that I'll never forget the night I wandered out of the Hawken launch party, belly full of free vodka, to spend the rest of the night drunkenly playing 007 Goldeneye with friends and strangers.
“It's rough, you know?”
My beer is almost empty but I take another sip, and quietly ponder the view. Beneath me, an empty University Street slopes down into Puget Sound. Meanwhile, Nick continues his thought.
“I've been working on Silicon Sasquatch for four years, and all I'm sure of is that I don't want to be another Kotaku or Gamespot.”
I turn back to face the hotel room. Nick is sitting in an armchair, the kind designed to look, rather than feel, comfortable. He swishes the contents of his bottle around, fixing it with a look of resignation. “There's just no clear way forward.”
“It'd be great if I could offer some advice,” I say, sitting down on the edge of the bed opposite the chair, “but you kind of summed up my entire life in that last sentence.”
Where I expect a chuckle followed by a polite dismissal, Nick simply replies, “I know how you feel.” He checks his phone. “It's getting late. Don't you have work tomorrow?”
“I do, I do.” My hand pushes my glasses to my forehead, as I press the bridge between my eyes. “I'll get out of your hair. Think I'll go walk through the convention center. Let me know if there's anything going on after my shift.”
I hear Nick say “goodnight” as I walk out the door, and half-heartedly raise a hand in reply.
Down at street level, the depression hits me. I wander the mostly-empty convention center trying to find someone, anyone.
Finally, feeling morose and drained, I go home. The next day, I'm not to be found at work -- nor at the expo.
Lesson 4: Manageable Bites
With any such large event, it's easy to overwork yourself -- and why not? There's only so many hours in those shiny, expensive passes that you bought, and you're eager to make the most of them. So it's important to take care of yourself, and that means biting off only as much as you can hope to chew. Otherwise, it's easy to get sick, weary, or even emotionally drained -- trust me on this, I'm an expert on all three conditions.
Stop for food. Bring snacks if you're so inclined. Use the bathroom (there's a lot of them, more than you'd think). Drink lots of water. No, more than that. Take vitamin C supplements if you're so inclined (they're a pseudoscience by which I swear). Shower every morning or night, depending on your preference. Take a nap, or at least some time off your feet, several times during each day of the show.
Simply put, in indulging yourself so thoroughly, make sure you meet your basic needs. At prior shows I've been blown out by everything from hunger, to illness, to emotional collapse. Don't make the same mistakes I did.
Amid the cacophony of screens and loudspeakers, the swarms of people on all sides of us, my friend Nora speaks close to my ear so I can hear.
Suddenly I feel her hand grip my arm, and before I know it she's cutting a path through the sea of humanity, pulling me along in her wake. We arrive moments later, at a somewhat-less-packed spot by the wall.
Blinking a few times in bewilderment, I get my bearings. “Usually I just try to dart through the crowd. But I guess that works.”
She gives a quick laugh. “So what were you saying?”
“Oh, yeah. It just seems like the industry is obsessed with re-creating four walls, a ceiling and a floor.”
“Right. If it's a medium that can create literally anything we can imagine, why only re-create what we already know?.”
We continue to chat, discussing Antichamber and The Stanley Parable, as we make our way around the edges of the convention hall, avoiding the chaos of the middle. As we near the booth Nora is working, where she is due back shortly, I smile sheepishly. “Of course, take all this ‘games are art' talk with a grain of salt, I'm the kind of guy who regularly plays stuff like Halo.”
Her mouth twists into an unexpected grin. “Yeah? I find that I really enjoy the violence.”
Lesson 5: Threes
I'm going to get oddly specific with this one: no more than three people to a party, especially if you're going to venture into the expo hall. This is rooted less on observation and anecdote than some of the other advice I've given; in this case, I've actually experimented with party size. One person has total mobility. Two people can stick to each other like glue. Three are able to roll with confidence -- like your party in Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic.
Add a fourth person, and you'll find that within a few minutes either someone will go missing, or the group will split into two groups of two. The same thing will happen even faster to larger groups. Given the density of people and sheer number of distractions at PAX, it just happens, and there's no way around it. This year I managed to keep a group of four together for an amazingly long time (about 20 minutes), but our walking pace was glacial. The trip became less about checking things out and more about maintaining group cohesion.
Just trust me on this one. No more than three when you're in motion.
It's late afternoon on Monday with only a handful of hours left in the show, and I sit at a cafe near the convention center. The show has been great for me, perhaps my best visit to Arcadia ever. I've stayed in good health, seen many of my friends, met a handful more, and sampled almost everything I cared to sample. After seven years, I can finally say that I had a truly successful PAX experience.
Sipping the last of my iced coffee, I look at the people on the street, heading to and from the convention center. Folks of all ages and genders, in costumes and casual attire, each bearing badges in a rainbow of colors. People united by a love they share for a medium. Though the term “gamer” makes me cringe, I nevertheless smile at the kinship I feel for these people. After all, we have more in common than we may realize (or even readily admit).
I order another cup of coffee (for Slicehawk, an Enforcer who's currently on-duty), and set out. I check the time.
Not long, now.
PAX and its ilk are certainly not for everyone.
Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that PAX isn't for most people. But it's easy to look at the constantly-swarmed expo hall, with its legions of journalists and exhibitors, and think that it's for the industry alone. While there has been a steady shift as PAX becomes more and more industry friendly, it remains the most community-oriented event of its kind. Within it, there are places to simply be with others to play and relax. Around it, there are layers and layers of community-run events -- everything from drunken wizardry, to open assassinations, to a satirical police force, to its very own Pokémon League. There's so much that it would be a fool's errand to try and individually catalog, much less to try and experience every bit.
I'm not telling you to go. I'm not even going to say you should go. But if you like games, and want to experience your hobby in a setting that's off the handle in the very best imaginable way, then PAX has no equal. As I type these words, thinking back on the most recent expo, I can easily point to a dozen things I would have liked to do, but missed out on. That's simply the nature of the event -- you will never quite do everything you want to, but you'll have a blast while you try.
It's sad to say, but PAX may be the closest to freewheeling, chaotic adventure that I've ever experienced. Compared to my few, nearby and careful travels, it's a mass of activity and fluid motion unlike anything I've ever experienced -- and all within walking distance of my own bed. Perhaps it stifled me somewhat. Perhaps it's the most adventure I was ever going to find. But I wouldn't trade my time at the show for anything.
PAX South is coming this January -- I have no fondness for Texas, but I feel a small pang that I'll be back home instead of, well, at home.
I step off the bus into the newly crisp fall air. Normal life is back in full swing -- I've just come from work in Redmond, looking to add money to my ORCA card. But as I walk south, I see the mammoth Washington State Convention Center, and absent-mindedly reach in my pocket to find my lanyard and PAX pass.
“Ah, right,” I mumble, finding the pocket empty. “Right.”
Ever since my first year, the center has had the air of emptiness outside of PAX, like a huge scaffolding around the absence of a building, or like a giant ribcage missing its organs. Missing its heart. The streets underneath are empty but for the normal, day-to-day traffic of people between places -- work and home, restaurant and bar. Nobody there to be there. The bustle, the chaos, the magic and energy of the thing vanish. Were it not for the banners, still hanging, still welcoming us to the home that no longer exists, it would be as if the entire weekend was a mere fever-dream.
From somewhere I can't identify, I catch the faintest whiff of woodsmoke. Lodged in the memories of my youth, it's the scent of a thing extinguished, concluded -- like the convention, like the summer. Ultimately, like my time in Seattle. All good things must come to an end, even if we're not ready for them to do so.
I'll be back someday, Arcadia. But not soon enough.