Friday, August 31, 2007

Why PAX matters: it's about the community

PAX this year reminded me of the power of a community with shared experiences. The only other gaming conference I've attended is PAX 2005, so I can't say from direct knowledge that other gaming conferences don't generate the same feelings within their respective attendees, but I was truly moved during this conference at the open displays of passion for gaming and the refusal of those expressing such passion to be ashamed of gaming and of being gamers.

I missed Wil Wheaton's keynote address on Friday, but I listened to it later (nice written summary in addition to audio - occasional profanity, so be careful at work) and was pleasantly surprised at how similar his gaming history is to mine and by how well the audience responded to him. I wasn't aware Wil was such a gamer and I wasn't sure what he was going to talk about. As others have stated, Wil's speech set the tone for the entire event -- no matter what different types of games we play, we share the same passion and we are all gamers. Wil also stated the desire of most gamers and another theme of the convention, to thunderous applause, that people not be d!@ks (some profanity in linked comic) when playing online, despite the fact that you're not face-to-face with the recipient of your verbal comments.

I missed the keynote for a good reason -- I was gaming. One of my friends who also traveled to Seattle for PAX brought his Nintendo Wii along with Wii Sports and we played Thursday night and most of the day Friday. I had not yet played anything on the Wii and it was so intuitive, so much fun, and so great with four people in the room, that we couldn't get enough of it. Eventually several of us, me included, had to stop because we were sore. The rest of the weekend my entire arm, from shoulder to hand, ached as if I hadn't played sports in ... oh, right, I haven't. I doubt I'm coining a new phrase here, coming so late as I am to the Wii party, but I considered myself temporarily on the "Wii-njured" reserve list after the Wii marathon.Discussion Panels

In addition to what one might expect at a gaming conference like console tournaments, PC tournaments and an exhibition hall, the variety of discussion panels was staggering this year. Topics ranged from storytelling in games, to women in gaming, to how public relations teams approach the hardcore community, to what to do as an adult when life cuts into your gaming time, to politics in gaming and music in gaming. And that's just some of the over 40 separate discussion panels that were available. All of the panel members were people from the industry or people who were experts in whatever topic was being discussed, making the interaction that much more interesting and relevant. In addition to the panels, the founders and creators of Penny Arcade, Gabe and Tycho, did three separate Q&A sessions over the course of the weekend, one of which also included them creating the artwork for an actual strip that was published on Monday.

Music and Movies

Friday and Saturday nights also included musical performances by gaming-oriented bands. I did not attend these, but they are always packed. Most of the bands either recreate videogame music or sing about gaming and its culture, but a couple of the artists, notably the band Freezepop and singer Jonathan Coulton were less directly gaming-themed, but still appealed to the audience. Freezepop made appearances in both Guitar Hero I and II with a bonus song on each, and Coulton sings mostly about coding and geek-related themes.

Classic gaming- and geek-related movies also played in the evenings if you weren't into the musical acts. True classics like "The Wizard!," "The Last Starfighter," and "Tron" were among the offerings.

Tournament and Free Play

Countless tournaments were available to meet just about anyone's interest, whether it be tabletop games, handheld games, card games, PC games or console games. Additionally, there were all manner of "free play" opportunities where you check out a game and controllers with your friends and just go play.

One cool thing for handheld players was the handheld lounge. This was a large area covered with beanbags where people could just hang out and play their DSes or PSPs or whatever. There was also a distributed tournament system for handhelds created just for PAX that let people compete against each other for prizes without the need of a formalized tournament structure. This is one of those "extra-awesome" things that takes PAX beyond just being a regular gaming conference.

Even More

There was so much going on that made PAX just feel right it's difficult to convey it in writing. The Washington State Convention and Trade Center was just the right size, as many areas were often crowded, but the way things were laid out and organized one never felt "stuck" anywhere. All of the events and the overall structure of the event were oriented toward encouraging a community experience.

There was some sort of matching game going on that I never quite figured out, where PAX3rs (intentionally left that typo -- seemed appropriate) carried, hung, pinned or otherwise displayed a series of numbers that I assume they were trying to match with someone else's numbers for some sort of game or exchange [ahh... found some info on it at Wired - other great PAX pics there too]. The Sony booth was running a contest where one had to accomplish certain tasks within the convention center in the morning to obtain keys which you could then use in the afternoon to try to open a treasure chest with prizes inside.

All Together Now

All of these things encouraged a community experience, but what all of us already shared was a love of gaming. I don't think anyone would've taken the trouble to travel or even take the bus downtown, let alone fly from across the country, and pay for an entry pass if they didn't.

The full community experience hit home for me during the Omegathon finals. Most of the people in that auditorium had likely never met each other, yet each side of the auditorium cheered in unison when the player whose point of view was projected on the large screen to each respective side of the stage picked up a particularly deadly-looking weapon or when that weapon was used to cause the spectacular death of the other Omeganaut. There's something about the swell of a cheering crowd in response to the recognition of a shared belief or experience that is very moving. It was similar to the experience of watching a popular cult movie like Star Wars in a theater crowded with fans on opening night.

The twist to the Omegathon competition is that no one knows what the final game will be that will determine that year's overall winner until it begins. In past years it has been Pong, Combat or Tetris, classic retro games that anyone is sure to have had an experience with but which likely no one has recently played or practiced. When the Minibosses exploded from behind the stage curtains playing an electrified and distorted version of the Halo theme, it was incredible, and I wasn't quite sure whether this was an intro to some official announcement or just a great song before the introduction of the final game.This year Bungie had a hand in providing the final game: Halo 3 multiplayer. Bungie had said in a weekly update just prior to PAX that there would be an announcement about the Forge portion of Halo 3, which will allow players to customize maps with the placement of weapons, items and vehicles. Turns out the "announcement" was more of an exhibition of this new customization feature, as Tycho stated on Penny Arcade the Monday after the event:
This year, when Frankie offered up Bungie's full support of the event, we realized fairly quickly that we had a startling opportunity here ... Neither MNC Dover or Accolon were especially familiar with Halo, another statistical impossibility, but this might have been for the best - they were doing battle on never seen before maps, each of them tuned in Forge to have piles of big guns jammed into every crevice. To quote Bungie's Lukems, this was Halo: Hyper Fighting Edition. Accolon eventually took it, but our competitors definitely delivered the required spectacle.
So we watched as these warriors, MNC Dover and Accolon, battled on two new multiplayer maps nobody had seen with some new weapons never before seen in action -- the flamethrower, some sort of napalm-ish fire grenades, and a blinding flash-bomb grenade that seemed to blind and throw an opponent away, were among them.

Now Carry it Forward

Everyone who was in that room has an additional shared experience that reinforces the gaming community. Our social nature as human beings seems to me most strongly reinforced with physical, face-to-face gatherings, so the longer PAX continues and the more people who attend, the stronger the community will become.

The more unified gamers feel and actually are, the stronger we will be as a community in relation to other other non-gamer communities, like say, senators and representatives. This year PAX reportedly gathered 40,000 gamers over the course of the 3-day weekend. An event of that size that is peaceful, promotes gaming in a positive way, and deals with real and serious issues about the effects of gaming on society begins to be something that can't be ignored. PAX's participants and supporters begin to be a group worth listening to with valid issues that are worthy of being addressed outside of gaming's inner circle.

So let's continue to reach out beyond our Xbox Live headsets and PC keyboards every once in awhile to meet face-to-face and see and reinforce our common passion of gaming.

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