Our PLAN for PAX

Ohohoho! We are about to head off on the road to PAX, through the whistling winds and sleeting rains of New Hampshire! Like migratory birds, we shall seek warmer (ha, ha) climes in Boston, which is a lovely city. I spent a spring living there, Kent spent a summer living there, and we can tell you: Boston is grand. Its chief virtue is that everyone there is ten times nicer than the average New Yorker. Its chief vice is that its streets are only navigable by expert mutant starship navigators who are high on Spice.

But never fear! We shall survive. You may even see us there. I will be wearing my notorious Hat:

Indeed, I wear this hat so often that people here at Dartmouth sometimes refer to me as “Hat Girl.” Kent, on the other hand, will not be wearing a hat. Instead, he will be making the unpleasant face that you can see in the background of my hat photograph. You will know him by this.


Keynoted, Captain

Kent and I are going to PAX East. Last year, I attended without really knowing what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised by the experience—PAX is a very well-run con. This year, we’re going again, and so that I can enjoy the experience, I’m deliberately ignoring everything asinine that the PA guys have done over the past six months. This isn’t the first time that the jolly old internet has pardoned its own for offensive ignorance, and it won’t be the last.

What I’m most interested in, right now, is the choice of keynote speaker. Last year’s was Wil Wheaton, and although I didn’t see him give his speech live (Kent and I were busy camping out in line for a panel), I did see it later that week, thanks to a Youtube video. Please, if you haven’t seen his speech, watch it.

That speech has always made me a little sick.

Actually, scratch that. It makes me want to vomit all over my shoes. It’s unintentionally ironic and communicates an awful message to game enthusiasts and game developers all over the planet.

Wheaton is a great speaker. It bothers me deeply, however, when he uses his speech-making magic to summon up the utopian illusion of the unified gamer community and parade it around like it’s a real thing—or even a thing that most game-playing individuals experience. “We gamers”? “Our culture”? Bah! I remember sitting in the hallway right outside the door to the theater where Wheaton was giving his speech, hearing the audience’s muffled roars of approval, and thinking, “Hell, that’s an awful lot of eighteen-to-thirty-year-old males in there.” “Gamer” isn’t a problematic word for Wheaton, but it is for plenty of other people. ‘Gamers’ are not a unified tribe. The gaming community is not welcoming. It certainly isn’t polite to outsiders, but hell, it’s not welcoming to insiders, either, if those insiders are women, homosexuals, minorities, the elderly, or the disabled. Some of us feel this particularly sharply.

When Wheaton gives a speech suggesting that I should consider a room mostly full of men—a room in which I stick out like a sore thumb—“home,” it makes me wanna puke. Just sayin’. I admire the guy, but I think that speech is bullshit. Just take a look at the crowd-shots from last year’s PAX East photo galleries: fairly light on the ladies, right? Most of PAX East looked like Wil Wheaton. Which is to say: white, male, and a little smug.

This year, though, the PAX organizers are bringing in Jane McGonigal to give the keynote. It’s an exciting risk for them, and it’s the reason why I think that it’s better to attend PAX than sit at home and mope about the way they chose to behave this fall.

McGonigal is a polarizing figure to begin with: her language is generally studded with hyperbole, and the kinds of observations she makes—particularly, the ones in her notorious TED speech—are not always useful observations.  I find her a bit insufferable, but I appreciate that she’s out there, publishing books and producing games.

For a variety of other reasons, McGonigal won’t necessarily be a smooth pill for the PAX crowd to swallow. Although McGonigal is reeel ladygamerz, she doesn’t fit easily into the gamer stereotype promulgated by Wheaton, Tycho, Gabe, and their ilk. She doesn’t design games for a ‘gamer’ audience. Mostly, she does ARGs, and her ARGs are often deliberately aimed at the kind of people who would never call themselves gamers. Though she does use the kind of language gamers are supposed to understand—the phrase “epic win” is central to her TED talk—she doesn’t prop up the gaming status-quo in the way that Penny Arcade does.

Some people hate Jane McGonigal so much that they can’t keep away from the gender-specific insults—which bothers me a lot. Given the tone of the non-professional crowd I saw at PAX East last year, and given the kind of over-the-top thing McGonigal tends to say, I’m sure that there will be at least some negative feedback when she speaks this year.

But I’m glad that the PA people are risking it. Although Wheaton’s speech was rousing, it wasn’t challenging. Nobody in that audience went away unsure of themselves or excited about the ways in which this medium and its audiences are changing. Essentially, he got up on that stage and announced, to gamers and game developers alike, “Okay, guys, you’re doing a god job. Keep on keepin’ on.

From some perspectives, that’s a pretty awful message.

We’re back from PAX

…and it was absolutely exhausting. After rushing around on my feet for three days in a row, lugging a heavy sleeping bag around on my backpack and standing in lines for hours at a time, I felt like a hobo must feel after fleeing a natural disaster: dirty, tired, and psychologically destroyed by forced proximity to a vast, threatening, and uncontrollable natural force (in this case, seventy thousand gamers). Unlike a vagrant disaster survivor, however, I left with profoundly positive emotions. So. There’s that!

Kent and I spent most of the weekend attending panels and taking brief trips into the main Expo floor to play the indie games, mostly: there was the Boston Indie Showcase, as well as Joe Danger, Battleblock Theater, and, amusingly, a stand featuring some of the worst XBL Indie Games I have ever seen in my entire life (more on this later). At one point we stopped by Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online booth to play a unique, two-person form of the game: Kent operated the keyboard and I screwed around with the mouse until we fell in a moat. A Turbine rep showed up and asked us what we were doing, and we ended up getting into a long conversation about how tough QA is. It is very tough! We attended one panel about breaking into the games industry which the speakers really ought to have titled “QA: the ass end of the games industry.” They all seemed to agree that working QA for a company which promotes from within is an excellent way for complete non-coders and non-artists to maybe possibly obtain probable and vague games industry jobs at some point in their futures, a proposition which the fresh-faced audience accepted with nervous hesitation.

It was only then that I began to feel grateful that I aspire to merely write about games. If you can’t do, you write, and if you can’t write, you… teach physical education, or something like that? I think that’s how it goes.

At any rate, we played Joe Danger, Battleblock Theater, the new Prince of Persia, and a few other games that I cannot recall at the moment, as I have misplaced my journalistic Steno pad with all my notes on it. Writeups will come in the future! We also attended a number of panels. Because we are totally obsessed with games writing, we found the ones about games writing—there were two—to be the most interesting, and we each have personal responses that we’re working on writing up. We also attended the 1UP Retronauts podcast, where we were astonished by the panelists’ apparent disposable incomes—they spoke for an hour about the crazy amounts of money they gleefully pay for terrible old games. There is apparently an appeal to this which I personally cannot understand. We also attended a panel about the history of General Computer Corporation, the company of MIT dropouts who developed Ms. Pacman and a number of Atari products: another enjoyable hour spent in the lecture theater. All in all, I think I learned more about the history of gaming in these two panels than I have ever learned in my entire life. Very fortifying for the soul and the mind, yes.

All I can say is that I hope they relocate to the larger convention center near the airport next time, as fitting seventy thousand people into Hynes was an incredibly foolish idea. Though the other convention center isn’t as convenient, it is so large that the Silver Line goes through its basement. Yes.  It contains multitudes.

Stay tuned for GAEMS JORNALIZM