Last weekend, about 40,000 gamers descended upon downtown Seattle for the fifth annual Penny Arcade Expo, held at the four-story Washington State Convention and Trade Center. They waited by the thousands in long, snaking lines for events like the finale of the Omegathon, PAX’s gladiatorial gaming tournament. They packed into tiny conference rooms to hear media and industry panelists debate. And they swarmed the expo’s exhibit hall in search of swag and hands-on time with upcoming games.
Despite the Center’s 200,000 square feet of space, for late Friday and much of Saturday it barely seemed to contain the masses. This was despite the fact that, unlike last year, the Expo’s sizable tabletop component was relegated to the three-story annex across the street. Even with more space, more events, and more activities, PAX was often a very busy place.
PAX’s attendees were a diverse bunch. Though the average PAXgoer was probably male and in his 20s, gamers of both genders and all ages were well-represented. Whether due to Seattle’s cool weather, the expo center’s air circulation, or the overall hygiene practices of the attendees, the legendary “gamer funk” odor that reportedly accompanies festivals like GenCon was practically nonexistent. PAX also featured less cosplay than you’d expect for a gaming convention. Though I did see a couple of Pac-Mans, a Pikachu, and a Darth Vader with a pair of Stormtroopers in tow, most of the costumed attendees were paid folks decked out at the exhibit hall booths.
I couldn’t help noticing, in the midst of PAX’s lines and crowds, how incredibly chilled-out and good-natured everyone was. You wouldn’t suspect it from hanging out on Xbox Live, or from the long-held stereotype of gamers as maladjusted loners, but gamers are remarkably patient and laid-back among their own kind. PAX has to be the least unruly social event I’ve ever attended.
Maybe it’s because PAX is truly social. It’s not just a massive gathering of like-minded individuals. It’s a chance for gamers to get together and play. Though the show floor, panels, and exhibitions were huge draws, they were in many cases ancillary to good-old-fashioned gaming.
Much of the expo’s meeting room space was occupied by console freeplay rooms, where attendees gathered around LCD screens to play their choice of hundreds of games, from 8-bit era classics to the current generation’s titles. They draped themselves across dozens of beanbag chairs in the handheld lounge, cradling their portable devices. Makeshift Rock Band stages appeared in hallways and lobbies. On the uppermost floor, a massive sea of monitors filled the PC freeplay and tournament rooms.
In the tabletop portion of PAX, gamers huddled over tables strewn with miniatures, cards, and RPG character sheets. They played Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Risk, Clue, and just about any other game you could imagine. I even saw a particularly uproarious group engaged in a cutthroat game of Apples to Apples. The game checkout room in the tabletop section was a wonder to behold: games of every make and type, from backgammon to esoteric German board games, piled atop tables for attendees’ use.
Gamers looking for more passive diversions had more than enough to keep them occupied. Concerts by geek favorites like Jonathan Coulton, MC Frontalot, The OneUps, Freezepop, and the Minibosses ran late into the evening. Theaters rotated through gaming-themed cult classic films like The Wizard or Wargames and showed private screenings of shows like The Guild and Robot Chicken. Sunday morning featured a PAX crowd favorite: a gaming-themed version of Family Feud. PAX’s annual Omegathon tournament offered even more evidence of the expo’s diverse focus, with its 20 “Omeganauts” battling their way through such games as Peggle, Geometry Wars 2, Pictionary, and even Jenga.
You couldn’t go anywhere at PAX without running into one of the black-clad, ridiculously helpful Enforcers. In every room, at every event, and at every line you’d find an Enforcer (or three) managing lines, checking out games, or cheerfully helping maintain order. I don’t know what sort of indoctrination these Enforcers undergo, but they’re clearly an especially close-knit group, absolutely dedicated to the service of the expo. Many wore aviator goggles atop their heads, for reasons that remain unclear. And male enforcers, I noticed, have a penchant for wearing black kilts. At any rate, they’re an unavoidable PAX feature, and they were far more polite and helpful in the face of PAX’s madness than anyone had a right to expect them to be.
PAX began in 2004 as a modest, two-day gathering in Bellevue, Washington that drew just over 3,000 participants. Now, only four years later, it’s a massive event. Yet it still somehow still feels casual and inviting. At its best moments, PAX feels like a big, friendly party, no more intimidating than an evening of gaming with friends. And you could hardly ask for more than that.
Adam LaMosca is still recovering from a grueling PAX weekend, where long lines, huge crowds, and a case of fish burrito-induced food poisoning still didn’t ruin his fun.