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PAX Ludorum

It is Friday, March 26th, and I have just taken the overnight flight from LAX to Boston’s Logan International. With five hours of half-sleep to my name and a lingering case of jet lag from a trip to Tokyo just four days past, I am doing my body and mind no great favors. Still, I have accepted these strains smilingly. I am in Boston, my home town, for a reason.

I am here for the first east coast edition of the Penny Arcade Exposition.

I am not going to miss even a day of it.

Abbreviated ‘PAX,’ the Penny Arcade Exposition is a weekend-long event that has been held annually for the past seven years, each year drawing more and more attendees. It caters to gamers of all stripes: console gamers, PC gamers, card gamers, tabletop gamers, etc. With in-show concerts by such community favorites as geek-folk singer Jonathan Coulton and nerd core rapper MC Frontalot, as well as dozens of panels manned by game developers, inventors and magnates, not to mention prominent web comic artists and internet journalists, PAX has become an annual Mecca for gamers in all their manifestations. Traditionally Seattle hosts the original PAX, now designated PAX Prime. This year is the first for PAX East. More expositions, in more locations, are planned.

These events are the creation of Michael ‘Gabe’ Krahulik and Jerry ‘Tycho’ Holkins, the (respective) artist and writer of the gamer-centric webcomic Penny Arcade, who’ve shepherded the exposition to an attendance of over sixty thousand and who founded the multi-million dollar community charity Child’s Play. The success of PAX is one of their great achievements – and one with a certain guiding intention in mind. In reference to PAX, Holkins explained in a recent blog that “the basis for our work is the idea that the experiences that games create form the basis of a coherent culture – that the bank of shared experiences, simulated but no less real, coalesce into a collective memory.”

What, then, is the substance of gamer culture?

I might not have definitive answers, but I can report from the front lines.

Photos by the reviewer

On Day One of PAX East, Hynes Convention Center has lines out the door. The queue winds its way into the building, past coat checks, under escalators, into a great looping space on the first floor. I am with my spouse, and my tickets for the event are a birthday present from her. She had no idea it would be this crowded. I did, but had no idea what it would actually look like. Dozens of red-shirted Enforcers, volunteer staff shouldering enormous organizational burdens, direct the influx of people into loose lines. I’m already registered, already have my badge, and so can skip the worst of the wait.

I wanted to catch the keynote speech, given by Wil Wheaton (best known in his role as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation), but the main theater is filled and the doors closed by the time I get there. I also wanted to attend a panel titled ‘Storytelling in the World of Interactive Fiction’, which sounded right up my alley, but it was full up an hour before the panel even began. The more popular panels have lines forming hours ahead of time. I check out the Expo hall, where the game developers hawk their wares and build hype for the latest games. It takes me a full hour in line to get ten minutes with Starcraft II. The Hynes Center is taxed to its capacity, yet the most I hear are faint grumbles of disappointment. For a class of persons with purportedly atrophied attention spans, the attendees here have the patience of saints. Most of them are just happy to be here.

I camp out for an hour and a half to get into a panel on independent games and the small (average of five person) companies that produce them. The panel is manned by a trio of developers. They’re all friends, with sitcom-esque clashing personalities. One well-dressed, confident man speaks with ease and self assurance. The bespectacled guy to his right self-consciously admits that, before his independent projects, he worked for industry giant Bungie Entertainment. To his left is a balding, sandy-haired fellow who insists on the necessity of back breaking labor to success, and looks like he practices what he preaches. They all agree on two things: that they do what they do because they want their own space of creative control, and because they respect the gamer community whose good graces they rely on in a way multi-million dollar developers do not. This weird mix of total independence and community seems to motion towards a theme at PAX East. All these people, so few of them fitting into wider society, set apart by the trajectory of their desire, all converging to create a common culture.

When the panel is over, I reunite with my wife, who attended the panel ‘Girls and Games: The Growing Role of Women in the Game Industry.’ She’d been looking forward to it, but she left early in disgust. “I guess what I learned is that women should exploit themselves,” she says, wry feminist as always. During her brief stay she heard about a plan, enthusiastically greeted by a panelist and an audience member, to charge male gamers eight dollars to play against a female opponent. The implications of this notion are too blatant to need explication; she didn’t stick around to hear much more. More depressing, she finds, are a number of the women attendees dressed up as video game characters, often scantily clad, posing for pictures with the men who approach them. This is not the case for the majority of the women here, but it does say something sad about the way women are often interpolated into video games and video game culture. Identification with a character is, very often, identification with a sexualized and even objectified figure. What upsets my wife is not that these women dress to imitate improbable cleavage and cartoonish sex appeal; it’s that they do so hoping to be gazed upon, to be recorded, to be viewed as objects of male desire.

We meet some friends in the Rock Band lounge where quartets of players perform on stage with instruments/game controllers and play classic songs in karaoke style, with buttons instead of frets. Some of the performers are excellent, tapping out the correct rhythms on their controllers with blinding speed and summoning up the right chords, really looking like they’re rocking out up there. Some are really bad, including a vocalist who sounds like a cat being boiled. In both cases the performers are applauded and cheered on with equal enthusiasm by the crowd. Signups for playing close before my friends and I can get a spot; we were going to play ‘Here Comes Your Man’ by the Pixies (with me on vocals!). Maybe tomorrow.

On Day Two, I arrive earlier, and things have leveled out considerably. My spouse has taken the day off to work on an important presentation, but I have buddies to cruise with. This time, we’re prepared: our plans of attack are coordinated, our panels of choice staked out well in advance. The benefits are immediate, and I have the luck to see Gabe and Tycho for the first time. One tall and gangling, with a slight lisp, the other short, bald and verbose. The fact that they once could never have imagined themselves bantering before thousands of laughing and applauding devotees only makes their grace and aplomb more impressive. I laugh so hard at times that it hurt.

How do they remain graceful in the face of internet superstardom? Because they can barely believe that they could have become what they are: beloved leaders of an ad hoc tight-knit community. Their lives before working phones or retail, haunt them as the unrealized but most realistic alternative to the adulation they receive now with confusion, joy and humility. To use Tycho’s words, what he calls ‘the other life’ is ‘immanent’. Gabe says he still has nightmares, actual nightmares, of returning to work at Circuit City. For all that they are the founders of PAX, they understand that it’s the culture that made them, not the other way around. It is deeply egalitarian in this way; they were chosen, and they responded to this choice by allowing something that already existed, in embryo, to flourish. “PAX,” Tycho/Holkins writes, “felt like this even in its first year, before it was a ‘thing,’ its shape was already present.”

Gamers form a unique sort of community, one that has coalesced at this event. My spouse commented on a phenomenon I myself quickly noticed: people talk to you. Total strangers will latch onto your conversation, while you’re on the escalator, while you’re waiting in line, and then pipe up with their two cents, ask you a question or make an observation. They may even hang around you, obviously nervous, obviously socially awkward, but never ashamed or afraid. These people are classic, archetypal nerds with bad skin, scraggily ponytails, and weedy beards, either too skinny or too plump, almost certainly social outcasts in their daily lives. Here, though, they have no hesitations. They feel free to engage with one another, and with you. There is an assumption of acceptance. I can’t imagine what that must feel like for many of them. I can barely imagine such a feeling myself.

This is not to neglect certain realities. Of the thousands of attendees, I noticed very few who were neither White nor Asian. Latinos were present, but hardly in force. There was one black man with a totally amazing costume, decked out in blood-stained, sci-fi soldier armor, but he was the one of few. Video games remain an expensive pastime, and so gaming culture reflects confines of a specific socioeconomic class, one dominated by certain racial majorities.

I head home early today. The jet lag has really hit me, and I need to be at the convention center early tomorrow. I’ve signed up to participate in a Halo 3 tournament, and I don’t want to let my friends and teammates down.

Before I go, I peek my head into the main theater to catch some of the concert. The Video Game Orchestra is playing a sweeping strings and winds arrangement of the theme song from Nintendo’s classic game Metroid. I don’t recognize it, never having played the game, but the rest of audience sure does. Applause rises from the ground level, mingling with that of the crowd gathered in the balcony seating. I don’t know much about classical technique, but even I can tell that the first violin is exquisite.

Day Three, the final day of PAX. I have misgivings about the tournament. It could take all day and, now that I think about it, there are panels I want to see. Most of all, I don’t want to miss the panel run by Tycho and Gabe themselves, where they take questions and comments. Both as an individual and as a gaming journalist, I feel that it’s something I should see; the sense of community is rarely as strong as when those two are present to invoke it.

It turns out I needn’t have worried. My friends and I are so badly out of practice that we are demolished in the very first round. We have just enough time to squeeze into the main theater. I find a seat next to my spouse, who had grabbed a place for herself early on. We listen to the two masters of ceremonies address the crowd – and be addressed in turn.

What happens during that hour is quite remarkable, something I cannot shake from my mind. Of the twenty or so attendees who rise from the crowd and step up to the microphones to give their comments and ask their questions, two break out in tears. In front of thousands of people, including the founders of the exposition themselves, a man and woman openly weep, not out of embarrassment or fright, but out of pure gratitude.

The woman’s story is of long spells at a hospital, with a second-hand Nintendo 64 console as her only distraction from a life of pain, detainment and uncertainty. She thanks Gabe and Tycho for the charity they began, which brings new games to children like herself, a gift she recognizes as incomparable. Gabe and Tycho say, as they always do, that it’s the community of donating gamers who really make Child’s Play work. The woman’s speech draws a standing ovation.

After her, a young man in a wide-brimmed hat tears up as he gives thanks for PAX itself. Here, as nowhere else, he feels at home. He feels accepted, respected and cared for. For three days, he can live in a world that is shared fully with him. Yet more cheers and yet more applause affirms his emotions.

During these moments I cast uneasy glances at my spouse. These sorts of displays always discomfit me. But while I feel free to scoff at a gushing actress accepting her Oscar, or a conservative pundit swelling with love for his vision of the nation, there is no way for me to defuse the anxiety these heartfelt outbursts produce in me. And it is now I realize that this is because, in maintaining the distance that allows me to approach gamer culture critically, I exclude myself from the community that culture makes possible, a community that would never itself choose to exclude me.

There are things that trouble me about gamer culture, underlying structures that reproduce the prejudices and inequalities depicted in so many games. The objectification of women, the deep influence of consumerism, the obliviousness of the exploitative economics that make the game industry possible – I can’t ignore any of it. But neither can I ignore the fact for this one weekend (and a few others like it), a legion of downtrodden misfits joined together in unembarrassed, mutual acceptance.

For this reason I celebrate gamer culture and, amidst the panem et ludem, I know a pax reigns.

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Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His extensive writing on video gaming can be found here.