PAX East 2015: The Need For A New Space

No, You Don't Need To Go Back

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In the past five years, PAX East has become an unfamiliar space for me. I know, you’ve read this essay before—written by me, even—but it’s worth reiterating, one more time, that I don’t recognize myself when I’m there. I don’t see the other attendees as “my people,” and I don’t automatically assume that they are. I’m not sure I ever did, but at least I remember wanting to.

I skipped last year’s PAX East, which was a real delight, except for the part where half of my colleagues kept asking me why I wasn’t there. This year, the other half asked me why I was there. Why the division? Well, PAX’s two co-founders have made some pretty significant mistakes in the past, such as mocking rape victims in 2011 and mocking trans people in 2013. Most people aren’t over it, including me.

In what I believe was an attempt to amend these errors, all the locations of the Penny Arcade Expo now include a “Diversity Lounge” featuring booths that are devoted to educating attendees about the experiences of marginalized folks. From a corporate standpoint, the introduction of this lounge makes sense. Penny Arcade has been in bad need of better PR, and the lounge helps with that. Also, since 2010, the con itself has de-emphasized the original cult of personality surrounding its two co-founders; Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins have halved the number of Main Stage events that they host since the first PAX East in 2010. The first year of PAX East, the duo used the massive theatre to host two Q&A panels, a Make-A-Strip panel, and a screening of their documentary-style web series about their lives, which is no longer in production. This year, the pair hosted only one Q&A and the Make-A-Strip panel, placing both in morning slots as opposed to prime time positions like 4 PM.

It’s not that folks aren’t still star-struck by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, even though the gaming consciousness since the early aughts seems to have shifted away from webcomics and towards YouTube commentators and Twitch streamers. The legend is the same, though: you, too, could become rich and famous from your bedroom just by making stupid jokes about videogames. PAX seems to have done away with this “everyman” flavor entirely, though, relying instead upon a different lie: you, the gamers, are part of something large and important and magical.

I can see the dark side of both lies, though, so the whole thing doesn’t work for me anymore.

As I walked to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center early Friday morning, I said to myself, “Even though I don’t respect Penny Arcade as a company, I am going to be honest with myself and my readers if I end up having fun.” I went in with as open a mind as possible.

I couldn’t help disliking the convention’s hosts, though, nor could I help having had bad experiences at PAX in the past. Previously, I’ve compared PAX to theme park rides, “from the high ticket price, to the long walk from the packed reserve parking lot, to the overpriced food that won’t sustain anyone for long, to the time invested in long lines that may or may not have a fun pay-off at the end.”

Unfortunately, taking a year off from PAX appears to have hindered my opinion of the convention rather than revived it. I shivered my way through the outdoor bag inspection line—a new development, which I assume is courtesy of Gamergate, but who knows? [Bag checks apparently started at PAX East 2014.—Ed.] Once I got inside, I waited in line to pick up my pass, listening to the two guys behind me drooling with anticipation at the Guild Wars trailer cycling on loop on the huge billboard above our heads and elbowing each other over the cute cosplayers passing us by. One of them told his friend excitedly that he “felt like a kid again,” and his friend agreed. “PAX is the place where we get to be kids.”

I listened with a sense of sad desperation, trying to understand or remember how these guys felt. I remember attending my first convention as a teenager, the joy I felt about cosplaying Yuna and rifling through anime and pocky in the dealer’s room. Why had I felt so happy? It wasn’t because of videogame trailers or cheap imported sweets—it was because I had felt like I finally belonged somewhere, like I was finally going to be able to make some friends. It wasn’t wanting to “be a kid”—it was a desire to be loved for the weird adult that I was becoming, a desire to find other adults who felt the same.

When one of the guys quipped to his friends that he just saw a girl who was “wifey material,” I cringed, remembering the real difference was between me and those guys. For them, this was a place to go and be entertained. I wasn’t one of them—I was part of the “entertainment.”

It’s not just the gender thing, though. PAX is a deeply unfriendly space for many of the exact people it purports to embrace. As I descended the escalators to the dealer’s room, I could feel my social anxiety kicking in, and I made it across the hall for about ten minutes before taking a sharp left towards the restrooms. I sat on the floor behind a booth for several minutes, talking myself down. Throughout the weekend, I asked friends of mine how the show floor was treating them, and got reminded again and again how many of my friends are on the autism spectrum and/or have social anxiety and/or panic attacks. I overheard someone talking about seeing a fan vomit from panic while on the show floor. People who have these types of disabilities tend to gravitate towards virtual spaces because they make us feel safe and in control; the PAX show floor does the exact opposite. So why is this supposed to be a safe haven for videogame fandom, again?

The best part of the show floor is the opportunity to speak directly to game developers, especially indie devs who work their own booths (e.g. Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge, Videoball, Ladykiller In A Bind). I admit, I don’t like playing games while being jostled by an impatient crowd; I’d rather wait and play demos at home from the comfort of my computer chair and/or couch cushions, or better yet, wait for full games to come out. By Sunday, the game devs looked so exhausted that even speaking to them about their games felt like an imposition on their time. I guess I have too much sympathetic guilt to enjoy conventions properly.

I did manage to check out a couple of great titles, though, such as Highlands, a strategy game that takes place in a fantastical version of medieval Russia and which could end up rivaling my Civilization addiction someday. The line was short, but the wait was long, since the demo was very lengthy; demo-ing a complicated strategy game on a show floor is no small feat, but the team did their best.

I also played Sentris, a mind-blowing musical puzzle game that took me about twenty minutes to fully understand, but now that I get it, I want to use the free-play composition mode as a backing track for all of my future song-writing. Somehow, no one interrupted me while I was playing and told me to let somebody else have a turn, probably because I was totally killing it with my sick beats. More likely they were intimidated by how fiercely I was bobbing my head. For a moment, I forgot I was on the show floor, but as soon as I got out of my seat and re-entered the masses, I felt my panicked get-out-of-this-crowd hackles rising again.

Navigating the crowds was always easier with one friend in tow, but with two or more friends, the expo hall became much worse; we’d lose track of each other, desperately calling and texting every few minutes to regroup. It didn’t help that the PAX East 2015 map was organized by booth number rather than studio title, and all of the booth numbers had been erased from the floor labels by Saturday afternoon. Crowds, disorganization, confusing maps, and heat exhaustion. Does that sound fun?

I spent my final hour of the convention on Sunday at 4 PM attending the “No Escape From Virtual Reality” panel … and taking it to task via live-tweets. The panelists were all virtual reality game developers with tons of technical expertise, but they chose to devote their entire hour to listing off cool examples of virtual reality in media that they’d seen, as well as cool virtual reality games that exist now. Did you know that horror games are really scary when you use the Oculus Rift? Yeah, you probably did know that. Sigh.

Much like the rest of PAX East, this panel felt like a depressing missed opportunity to me. One panelist brought up PTSD for a moment, as well as the idea of “empathy games,” but no one seemed particularly interested in addressing the topic seriously. Everybody instead wanted to talk about how much they liked Lawnmower Man, Sword Art Online and Tron, and how much they wanted to recreate the nostalgic joys they’d felt as kids. More complex concerns were too beyond the reach of this fairly simple, fan-focused panel; this was about a presumed shared experience and passion that the entire audience was meant to understand. People didn’t, though. I saw several people get up and leave during the panel, probably just as bored as I was.

It’s too bad, because the idea of camaraderie in shared virtual spaces seems like a particularly vital topic for a place like PAX East. Most of the time, we do not exist in the same physical space; in rare moments, like at PAX and GaymerX and Different Games and so on, we might, but most of the time, we exist together in virtual spaces. We bump into each other and crowd one another in MMOs, on Twitter, in Twitch chats, in comment threads. We are always at a gaming convention, all the time, and we’ve done a pretty terrible job at making any of these spaces safe. Well … okay, they’re pretty safe for people who look and act a certain way. And, yes, occasionally we get a segregated “Diversity Lounge” or two. But overall, we haven’t figured out how to act around each other in gaming spaces, and it’s only going to become more and more of a problem going forward—not one that can be solved with better PR, but rather one that must be solved with more granular safety guidelines.

I’m not sure that PAX is ever going to be the right place to address concerns in the gaming community about safety, sexism, homophobia, racism, ableism and other issues of exclusivity. I think it’ll continue to be a clumsy, disorganized, unapologetically corporate space that remains unresponsive to its guests’ safety concerns. I don’t think we should nostalgically look to the past for ideas about our future. I think we need to create a completely new space.

Maddy Myers is Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric on the 5by5 Network.