On the last weekend of August 2007, tens of thousands of gamers descended upon downtown Seattle to attend the annual Penny Arcade Exposition (PAX), simultaneously making it one of the most influential consumer-facing game conventions in the world. Running PAX is a daunting task, reserved for a handful of full – time Penny Arcade (PA) staffers and supported by 300 high-powered volunteers. Sporting long-sleeved black shirts with “Enforcer” emblazoned prominently on the back, they are the lifeblood that makes the PAX machine function. They are visible and invisible, simultaneously omnipresent and scrambling behind the scenes to make sure everything runs according to schedule.
Enforcers come from all over the world. Some live in downtown Seattle just blocks from the Washington State Convention and Trade Center (WSCTC); others come from California, Canada or even Australia. “We have people who work in the medical field, lawyers, programmers, graphic and game designers, photographers, retail managers, people in the armed forces, writers, musicians, scientists, and a very awesome masseuse,” says one Enforcer, “Chiparoo.” (Everyone goes by his online handle; it makes thing less confusing over walkie-talkie.) “There are lots of different shapes, sizes, styles, opinions and backgrounds, but we’re all connected simply because we are all some level of nerd.”
They’re a hardworking crew. Even back in 2004, when PAX was a round-the-clock affair, the Enforcers kept things organized. “I was one of the first five people on the scene [in] ’04, worked 22 hours straight, slept for two hours with my head under a table, and then I returned to my regularly scheduled shift,” says “Heels,” an original Enforcer.
In 2004, “Princess RedDot” (better known as PRD), the PAX Chief of Staff, asked Penny Arcade fans for assistance and ended up with an initial group of 40 volunteers. “There was never a doubt that we would need volunteers. We had some pretty ambitious ideas for how many things we wanted to stage in one weekend, and it was going to take a lot more people than we had in the office.” Since then, the Enforcer ranks have grown steadily. In recent years, the number of applicants has skyrocketed.
For almost half of the current Enforcers, 2007 is their first PAX as part of “the Black.” For them, life as an Enforcer actually starts sometime in late January when the call goes out for volunteers. Some of them have prior experience staffing other conventions, but becoming part of an established community can be overwhelming for newcomers. Being accepted as an Enforcer includes access to the private Enforcer forum and IRC channel. “Once you sign up, you find you have about a hundred good friends you just don’t know yet,” says “MomGamer.”
The first official PAX activity takes place almost two weeks before the doors open to the public. Preparation takes time, and over 100 volunteers show up to SAX, the pre-conference bag-stuffing session. Volunteers slowly trickle into the building through a non-descript side entrance. They are cheerfully greeted by “mygiantrobot,” who ushers them into an otherwise empty convention hall where volunteers are busy assembling over 20,000 gift bags.
For the Enforcers who can’t make it to SAX, the PAX experience begins the Thursday before the doors officially open. “I remember unloading Sumo [beanbags] was the first order of the morning, which I did until I met up with ‘kelp,’ and we started managing Expo Hall setup” says “petfish.” “I don’t think I left until after midnight. I’m not sure anymore, really. … All I remember is we crashed out on the carpet at one of the booths and talked about how great the carpet felt and how scared and excited we were about doors opening the next day. We already had people waiting to get in.”
PAX opens its doors on a Friday afternoon, and the Enforcers are there. Many arrive early to pick up their distinctive black shirts, which they typically only wear when they’re on duty. Some people choose to wear the Enforcer shirts during the entire convention. As “Ironmaus” puts it, “I’d have to say that the Enforcer crew is divided into two groups: those who simply volunteer and those dedicate their lives to PAX.”
“Kethenn” is one of the dedicated Enforcers. For volunteers like him, PAX duties extend far beyond the normal shift assignments and responsibilities. “Bruce (the WSCTC liaison) came by with a lady who’d misplaced her son and his friends. She didn’t know what area they were in at the moment, but she was pretty sure they’d at least passed through Console Freeplay at some point. … A quick check later, we led the mother to where her son and co. were rocking the [Gears of War]. Hug from Mom, high five from Bruce.”
Enforcers harness the power of numbers and boundless enthusiasm to create a prefect storm of volunteer energy. “They’re the backbone to PAX, in my opinion,” says Robert Khoo, Penny Arcade’s Director of Business Development. “We’re talking about a self-sustaining community that happens to have the common ground of this annual event, PAX. There was no way to ‘plan’ that sense of community, but it’s a group of people that take an unbelievable amount of pride in their work, and when you’ve got that common passion for something, I suppose it makes sense.”
The real secret of PAX is it serves as a crucible to bring together the entire gaming community. “We have created not only a community of friends, but a great network of support and connections,” says Chiparoo. “If a fellow Enforcer is in need, the group as a whole reaches out to them in some way. I’ve seen emergency plane tickets bought, homes open for extended stays, rides to and from airports, as well as the odd collaboration on birthday gifts.”
PAX doesn’t officially end for the Enforcers until the evening after the doors close. The teardown process comes with its own set of unique challenges, but after three days of high-energy volunteer work, it’s also a chance to unwind, maybe grab a quick nap atop a giant pile of beanbags, and change into some fresh clothes before the after-party. “Nobody wants to spend another goddamn day wearing that black, long-sleeve T-shirt,” says “ndruo.” “This thing drains you, but after you’ve gotten over the trauma you can look back on it fondly, or at least without crying.”
Most volunteers experience their first PAX as a regular attendee, but once they become Enforcers, PAX is forever a changed event. “I’ve been around in some form every year to date, but now I’m in the Black, no way in hell I’m going back to civilian life,” says “Shrike.” Once an Enforcer, always an Enforcer.
Alan Au is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.