It was that imagination and desire for immersiveness that led him to choose the sit-down versions of games like Spy Hunter or Pole Position at his local arcade. His kids, he continued, didn't have to let their imagination do quite so much heavy lifting thanks to the power of consoles like the Xbox 360, more powerful than every gaming device he owned back then all put together. "Their immersive gaming is the Space Shuttle to my Paper Airplane." And while a little part of him died when his 17-year-old son hadn't been impressed by old Infocom games, he admitted, "I can't blame him for not understanding why the Lurking Horror scared me as much as anything in Silent Hill or Dead Space."
These days, says Wheaton, with games being able to realize locations like Liberty City or Rapture, his imagination "could focus on bringing the story to life since the world is already there. [My son] can take it for granted because I was there before him."
Games have come a long way from Pitfall to Portal, said Wheaton, and he'd had a "front row seat." He talked about the beloved Valve FPS as an example. Even though the only voices the player ever hears belong to GLaDOS and the turrets, and even though the only object we ever interact with is the Companion Cube (he poured out a libation in memoriam), "we know that there is a world outside. We know there is something going on outside Aperture Science because our imagination does what it must - because it can."
"When you play a game - any game - you are using your imagination to bring a world to life," emphasized Wheaton. "All destruction is the same, but when you create something it is different every time. When you create something together, you are building bonds with fellow gamers that could last entire lives. These worlds exist because we choose to visit them. We make them real."
Games like Rock Band can let him and his friends create a world where they're the rock stars they could never be in real life in front of an arena of thousands of screaming people. To the haters, he said, "We get it, we know, we're having too much fun to care." Wheaton referred to the story where an NFL player had run parallel to the goal line to run out time - a move pioneered in Madden. "You can divide the world into people who didn't know what the f*ck was going on, and gamers who were standing up screaming about it!" That player was just one of countless people who were inspired by video games.
Though he is an actor who was inspired by films and television, and who adores The Lord of the Rings, Wheaton said that he'd used a precious 12-hour stretch at home to himself not to rewatch the Peter Jackson trilogy but to play Dragon Age - because he wanted to know what happened next. "When faced with a choice between watching a fantasy epic unfold with an ending I already knew, and affecting how one unfolded with an ending still shrouded in mystery, where I could focus how the story went? That's not a choice at all."
He mentioned a (rather spoiler-y) situation near the end of Dragon Age where his choices caused a party member to leave his group for good. Even though it was a game, "I felt tremendously, physically sad, the time I felt the first time Gandalf fell off the bridge of Khazad-Dum. I wasn't just a spectator, I had a direct hand in the events unfolding."
When he'd been a kid, Wheaton had wanted to be an actor because of movies, he said. But now as a storyteller, he found inspiration more and more in games, and hoped from the bottom of his heart that someone else in the room would do the same. "I hope, I really hope, that someone in this room who hears [this speech] will find inspiration in a game. And that person will get excited and make something. You could be the next Gary Gygax. You could be the next Miyamoto. You could have an incredible, positive, enduring difference in someone's life because you play games together."
Conventions were the original social media before Facebook and Twitter, said Wheaton, when fans of science fiction gathered in hotel ballrooms to talk about their shared obsessions. That gave way to wargaming together, which birthed playing tabletop RPGs together, and then computer games - and then conventions like PAX.
"All of the things that make us weird and strange in the 'real world,' that people tease us for loving... these things make us who we are, and at PAX we don't have to hide or explain or justify them to anyone. We have come here this weekend, and we will go to Seattle in five months and come back here in a year and the year after that and the year after that because playing games isn't as fun as playing them together surrounded by thousands of people who love them as much as you do."
Giving some advice to convention-goers (wash your hands, take showers), he exhorted everyone listening to take the time and appreciate everyone else at PAX, and then repeated his original opening. For all the Nintendo fanboys, Sony fanboys, Microsoft fanboys, liberals and conservatives, religious believers of all kinds and atheists, Alliance and Horde - we were all gamers there. "Welcome home."