A tale of two Penny Arcade Expos, on my first time to the show
Why I Hate the Word “Gamer” and You Should Too
I’ve been in Washington state for 11 years now, and I write about games for a living. Usually, that means I’m out of town or on deadline during late August, so I don’t have time to check out the Penny Arcade Expo, which has been one of the primary events on the Seattle nerd calendar since 2004, for video game fans and otherwise.
This year was my first time at the show. I didn’t have a typical attendee’s experience, as I got in on a media badge and had appointments to keep. I didn’t have full control of my time at the show until the last day, so I saw most of PAX as a blur, flitting back and forth between booth shows and hands-on demos.
That being said, I do go to E3 almost every year, and at least on the fourth floor of PAX, the similarities are striking. In fact, I found myself thinking of an old “Penny Arcade” strip from 2005, a year after PAX was created, which adequately and ironically summarized the fourth-floor PAX experience better than I could hope to.
To be fair, this strip is never that far from my mind. Writing about games, at any level, means you spend a lot of time with people who are explicitly trying to hustle you. “An elaborate scheme to suppress rational thought” ought to be in the dictionary entry for “marketing.”
The point I’m circling around, however, is that the fourth floor of PAX West is essentially just that. From the moment you walk in, you’re getting bombarded from all sides by carefully-crafted schemes by multinational corporations, attempting to build your hype levels for their next products. You’re encouraged to buy shirts and hats with a company’s logos on them from that company (because why do your own advertising when you can try to get people to pay you $50 to do it for you), compete for “swag,” and wait in endless lines to play a carefully-curated ten-minute sample of a game that will be virtually omnipresent at some point in the next six months. It’s rampant consumerism repackaged as a weekend activity, and that’s even before the whole pin-trading thing gets involved.
Part of this isn’t PAX’s fault. Because of the way video games suddenly exploded in the ’00s, as soon as the hobby finds a way to grow in any direction, there are dozens of people waiting to turn it into a new commodity. I’ve grown tired of the word “gamer” in the last couple of years, because it’s gone from a useful term to describe a particular hobbyist to an artificial identity, specifically so people could use that word and identity to sell you more things. In retrospect, it probably hit its nadir with Mountain Dew Game Fuel in 2007, and it’s just been getting more obnoxious ever since. Somebody was trying to sell specific eyewear for gamers at PAX, some set of glasses that was supposed to improve your gaming experience in some minute but measurable way, and I didn’t investigate because I was worried my own eyes would roll back in my skull and get stuck that way… at which point, no doubt, I would be offered some kind of GAMEZ-RULE-brand shoehorn with which I could pry them back out.
By opening the doors to that kind of vendor, PAX has become a vector for the same kind of over-the-top nonsense that the comic strip used to ruthlessly parody. It began as an attempt to throw a “big ass party,” as Tim pointed out yesterday, but now it’s basically a trade show, and such a successful one that E3 is trying to steal its thunder.
The Better Part of the Show (AKA Thomas Displays His Hipster Tendencies)
I had my cynic hat on for most of the weekend, because a lot of PAX made me feel like I was at E3 with more actual stores. Eventually, I had to go exploring.
What I got out of it was that a lot of PAX, and arguably the better part of it, is basically hidden. The way the show is organized right now, you’re funneled into the fourth floor and its marketing fusillade just by walking in. The sixth floor is basically treated like it’s a secret level, with access points that can be tricky to find, and a lot of the panels are located off-site, in neighboring hotels. I had lunch on day one of PAX with a PR guy who was a little frantic, because he was supposed to attend a panel an hour from then and had absolutely no idea where it was being held.
Those hidden areas, though, are where you can find the love. The booths on the sixth floor are as mercantile as the fourth, but they’re for smaller games and companies, often hosted by the designers, with few if any marketing people anywhere on site. I tend to have a lot of sympathy for the indies anyway, since they’re usually trying to do more interesting work, and PAX is a great show for independent game designers. I met a lot of great people at this year’s show, local and otherwise, and played some games I might otherwise have ignored.
I didn’t get to see all the panels I was interested in, but there was a lot going on. The one I’ve been telling people about for a few days, “Am I Playing a Role,” about identity exploration and therapy in the form of tabletop roleplaying games, has been high on my mind ever since it ended. I also got a chance to catch “Designing Narrative Games in the Age of the Streamer,” about the difficulties to making a story-centric game that, if it’s at all popular, will end up making some streamer or Let’s Player money off your back. That’s only going to be a bigger problem going forward, and it’s one that’s going to end up in the courts at some point if we don’t hit on a solution.
There are a lot of valuable resources for designers and interested players in PAX’s various panels, and I feel like the organizers do the con a disservice by essentially de-emphasizing them. The various game tournaments and the various market stalls may be what pay the bills at PAX, but there’s a lot going on just under the surface and it’s crazy how hard it is to find.
The Part Where I Solve Everything
What I’d really like, in a crazy dream world, is to see the con reexamine its priorities. Right now, it does achieve some of the party goals with which it was founded, but everything takes a back seat to the big companies’ marketing blitz, to the point where it feels like it’s crowding activities out of the Washington State Convention Center. Why do I have to go five blocks away for some of the features of the convention? Why am I skipping panels I wanted to see because I have no friggin’ idea where the Hydra Theater is, except that it’s not in this building?
What would be nice is, put simply, parity in booth sizes. Let’s let everyone come to PAX, the same way they do now, with whatever double-barreled publicity blitz they’re willing to fund.
Everybody gets the same floor space as they did in the Indie Megabooth this year. All the way from Microsoft and Sony to indie developers working solo, if you’re at PAX, you get four demo stations, a folding table, and a canvas banner. That’s it.
This is supposed to be a party, not an ersatz trade show. Let’s keep the convention tables to a dull roar and focus on the actual reasons you’d want to show up in person to a con.