Last Friday, geek figurehead Wil Wheaton delivered the keynote address at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. Wheaton won over the crowd early, by skewering opportunistic lawyers and politicians, dredging up bucketfuls of gaming nostalgia and generally peppering his remarks with constant gaming references and overused memes.
Wheaton was preaching to the choir, playing to the crowd, and I was ready to dismiss his remarks as blatant pandering until he embarked on a heartfelt commentary on the social aspects of gaming. When he described how games became the pillars of his relationships with family and friends, I couldn't help but share his enthusiasm. As he lamented the downfall of the 1980s arcades - "gaming Shangri-Las," he called them - I couldn't help but feel the same wistfulness. And I was as pleased as the rest of the audience when he called out gamers for their occasionally antisocial online antics.
Wheaton received a standing ovation, but his remarks quickly faded from my thoughts as I tackled PAX 2007. Called a convention by gamers for gamers by Penny Arcade's Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, the weekend-long expo had grown tenfold since its 2003 debut and expected to bring in 30,000 attendees. It was my first time at PAX, and I was eager to see what all of the fuss was about.
In a spacious exhibit hall on the uppermost floor, a few dozen exhibitors showed off their most recent offerings. It amounted to a refreshingly low-volume, small-scale version of old E3 without the booth models or massive displays, where the spectacles were the games themselves.
On the same floor, opposite the exhibition hall, was a spacious room lit only by the glow of a few hundred LCDs. Half the room, the PC free-play area, featured row upon row of identical machines pre-loaded with Battlefield 2, Unreal Tournament 2004, Counter-Strike: Source and other PC favorites. The other half hosted mostly home-built rigs whose neon innards illuminated the energy drinks, cords and other LAN party-esque detritus in the area.
On the next floor down, players clumped together in console free-play rooms, each home to more than a dozen stations where attendees could load up their choice of games. Guitar Hero and Wii Sports were clear favorites, but I saw groups engaged in everything from Combat on the Atari 2600 to BioShock on the Xbox 360.
The bedrock of the expo was one floor beneath, where hundreds gathered to eschew electronic gaming and delve into tabletop games. Rows of tables bore stacks of RPG rulebooks, painstakingly positioned miniatures and careful arrangements of cards and tiles. One room had tables piled high with literally hundreds of tabletop games, all available for play, many defying categorization.
All of this play occurred in the midst of a near-continuous lineup of tournaments, exhibitions and panels that rotated through conference rooms large and small. Any given hour might host a panel by game industry legends taking place across the hall from a Mario Kart tournament and just around the corner from a developer-led preview.
Most of the panels and conferences wound down before dinnertime, but the gaming continued non-stop until the wee hours of the morning, complimented by well-attended and well-produced evening concerts by the likes of Optimus Rhyme, Freezepop, MC Frontalot, the Minibosses and Jonathon Coulton. Attendees could even screen geek-themed films like The Last Starfighter and The Wizard.
I was a bit taken aback to see, at every turn, my peers. And I say this as a 34-year-old, married parent who, as a gamer, often feels out of place on Xbox Live, at the local GameStop and in most gaming forums. By my estimate the PAX demographic was somewhere in its late 20s, mostly male, but with solid representation by female gamers. And everyone seemed to be enjoying himself.
I had a blast. I loved the panels, I loved the games and I loved the concerts and events. But what really affected me was the overall atmosphere. It felt like a gathering of friends.
Wil Wheaton's keynote remarks came back to me late Saturday evening, as I meandered from one gaming room to another, watching acquaintances and strangers engaged in activities they loved. I could hardly think of more perfect examples of the camaraderie Wheaton championed in his speech. Here was exactly what he adored about games and what he missed from his youthful days at the arcades. Here was the love of gaming that drew such a heartfelt response from his audience. If PAX isn't a gaming Shangri-La, I don't know what is.