PAX East Day One

Note: I have no intention of blogging every night this weekend after a full day of PAX East, but I have to get this story out of my head even though it is 12:44 a.m. and I am exhausted. I also have to wait until a load of laundry is done before I can pop it into the dryer and go to sleep, so I happen to have the time. Or the excuse, I guess.

Prior to this evening, I didn’t really get Wil Wheaton.

When I first started blogging, my wife recommended that I read Wil Wheaton’s blog, as an example of a blog which was honest and well-written. I knew who Wil Wheaton was the way most kids who liked sci-fi in the late ’80’s knew him: he was Wesley Crusher, and he was in Stand By Me before that. I hadn’t known that he was a successful blogger and writer.

The first post of Wil’s I ever read was about creating a Magic: The Gathering deck. My wife had told me that Wil was an ambassador of all things geek, or “geek prime;” and I really, really dislike Magic: The Gathering. It rubs me the wrong way on some deep level…and so I read this in Wil’s blog and I thought “This doesn’t sound like someone who represents me. I’m not nerdy like this.”

Prior to this evening, I didn’t really get conventions.

I had no idea what to expect from PAX East. I’ve never been to any kind of geek or nerd convention, or gaming convention. What I discovered was that being at PAX East for the first time was kind of like being at Disneyworld for the first time. There are lots of things to do and potential places to go, and always long lines to get into any of them, and you really have no idea which lines are worth standing in and which aren’t and consequently you spend a lot of time stumbling around aimlessly and getting your bearings.

The first event I wanted to attend was a panel called “Journalists versus Developers,” the struggle between people who spent three years developing a game and the journalists who could tear it down in 15 minutes with a review. I wanted to ask some questions about a game journalist’s responsibility not to unnecessarily tear down a game for the sake of producing a juicy piece of writing, and the responsibilities of developers not to throw a fit when and if they get a bad review they really deserve.

Instead, I attended Wil Wheaton’s keynote lecture. My wife specifically wanted to attend PAX East on Friday for the keynote, and in my experience when a woman who loves you wants to share something with you, unless you have some sort of ethical opposition to the experience (if she asks you to attend a skinhead rally, for example), you show appreciation for that woman and you go.

My wife and I barely made it into the main lecture hall, that looked like it sat around 6,000 people. We had to choose seats on the left balcony, way, way over to the side, such that our seats were physically behind the monitors which ran behind the stage; but I got us an angle where we could see the podium so that she could watch Wil as he delivered the keynote. As I said there, I twittered the following:

“I hope this speech doesn’t require seeing those screens. I blew off Klepek vs Developers for this. Make it good, Wil!” Klepek is the last name of a G4 games journalist on the panel I had wanted to attend.

Looking back on that tweet, now, which I thought sounded clever at the time, I wonder if I wasn’t breaking Wil Wheaton’s prime commandment, “Don’t be a dick.” Snark is so prevalent in gaming blog culture. Kotaku.com is rife with it. It’s so easy to be “clever,” to be snarky, to be mean just enough to be mean without also being a total douche.

Wil’s speech was worth skipping any panel for. I hesitate to call it transformative, because nothing really changed in me as a result of listening to it…but it did speak to me in a very deep way. I don’t remember all of it verbatim, and I may get parts of this wrong, but I feel it’s important to retell the basics the way I remember them, because the parts that stuck show how the keynote spoke to me, specifically.

The first thing Wil said was “Welcome home.”

He began by taking issue with the idea that gamers were anti-social deviants, an idea which used to be widely held, but which has gone out of vogue. “We,” gamers, had withstood all those charges, those old beliefs, and now it no longer made Wil sad when he heard those old charges coming out of someone’s mouth, he would just answer those people with “We disagree.”

He talked about being a kid, and receiving the Dungeons and Dragons red box set for a holiday from his Aunt. The “red box” came with six dice, a crayon to color in the numbers with, and some books. His cousins had received a Simon game, and a Mattel Electronics game, and Wil got a box that said it was a game but which looked like books.

He was disappointed, but then he started reading those books. They said that he could be a fighter, or an elf, or a cleric, or a mage, or a thief…that he could create these characters, and it was his imagination that powered them. Wil eventually found other people to play those games with, and then he broke into his recollection to say something which I twittered verbatim just to make sure I could access it later:

“Gaming is the basis for the greatest friendships I have ever had, and the mortar that holds those friendships together.”

I thought about this. Very hard.

Wil continued to talk about growing up in arcades when he was a kid, just like I did, and how it was his imagination that really drove those gaming sessions, pretending he was driving a spy car in Spy Hunter for example. Arcade games and Dungeons and Dragons were how he escaped from the real world for a little while.

Wil proffered the argument that gaming is becoming a more engaging form of entertainment than movies, or television, or music, and punctuated this with a tale of having 12 uninterrupted hours with his home entertainment system due to the wife and kids going somewhere, and rather than watching The Lord of The Rings on DVD back-to-back-to-back he chose to play Dragon Age because, unlike The Lord of The Rings, Wil didn’t know how the story ended in Dragon Age. He had become attached to the characters. He was “invested.” His imagination was involved in making that world alive, just like when he played Dungeons and Dragons, or played those arcade games.

He said that everyone who was in that audience, we were all there because we all used our imaginations to bring worlds to life in the same way. Male, female, black, white, Jewish, Christian, whatever – we were all gamers. PAX was our time. For 72 hours we would all be gamers together. He concluded with how he began: “Welcome home.”

At the end of the speech I said to myself, I get Wil Wheaton now.

He’s me, and I’m him. He is us, and we are him. Just like Gabe and Tycho said when explained why they chose Wil to be the keynote speaker for the very first PAX East.

Almost immediately after Wil Wheaton’s speech was finished, Gabe and Tycho took to the stage for the first Penny Arcade Q&A session. My wife had to leave the Main Theater to use the ladies room, and she couldn’t get back in, so I was on my own. Two microphones were set up on the ground floor, and two in the balcony, one on either side.

After a few questions had been asked, I stood up and got in line at one of the balcony mics. What I had to say came to me, fully-formed, almost instantly; and then I had to get up and speak because I learned some time ago that if you think of something nice to say you should always say it, no matter what, because if the moment passes and you didn’t speak you will regret it.

I waited my turn, formulating how I might change the precise wording of the sentiment I had to share. Not in a nervous sense, because speaking before crowds doesn’t bother me. The person in front of me asked his question, and tried to add something in the middle of Gabe and Tycho’s answer. The mic didn’t pick up his comment, however. He turned to the Enforcer, what they call the PAX volunteers who serve as guides, security, and crowd control all at once, as if to ask a question about the mic not working, but then said under his breath “I guess I’m done,” and stepped back.

I watched as Gabe and Tycho made their way around the other three mics, and then Tycho pointed up at me. I began to speak into the mic.

Nothing. No sound. He and Gabe looked up at me, and the Enforcer fiddled with the mic a bit. Someone nearby said, “Give it up.” I tapped on the mic, tried talking into it again, still nothing. I made a cutting motion above my head to indicate that the mic was dead, and I heard him say “The mic is dead,” ostensibly to get the sound guys to fix it.

Finally, I heard someone say to me, “Just yell it out.” I looked down and Tycho said “Go ahead,” and waved at me as if to accept the incoming question. So I stepped up to the railing, with maybe five rows of people between me and the edge of the balcony below, and gripped the railing with my hands.

Note: I used to play trombone. I have very, very well-developed lungs. I am excellent at projecting my voice without loss of inflection or tone. Understand that everything I shouted, appropriately designated in all caps below, was perfectly understandable to everyone in that theater of 6,000 people other than those directly underneath the balcony on the ground floor.

“I CAN’T BELIEVE I AM ABOUT TO SHOUT THIS AT YOU. I WAS RAISED IN A PRETTY STRICT FAMILY WHEN IT CAME TO POLITENESS,” I shouted, which got a laugh from the audience. I might have grinned, I’m not sure, but Tycho made a motion as if to quiet everyone down and it actually worked immediately.

“CALLING EITHER OF YOU BY FIRST NAME SEEMS RUDE TO ME BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW EITHER OF YOU, SO MAY I JUST CALL YOU GABE AND TYCHO?” They assented, I guess, because I went on.

“TO REFLECT ON SOMETHING FROM WIL’S SPEECH, I REMEMBER THAT RED DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS BOX, WITH THE DICE AND THE CRAYON. I HAD THAT – BUT I HAD NO ONE TO PLAY IT WITH. THAT’S JUST HOW IT WAS. SO I GREW UP, AND IT WASN’T UNTIL I JOINED A TABLETOP WARGAMING GROUP HERE IN BOSTON A FEW YEARS AGO THAT I LOOKED AROUND ME, AND SAID “HOLY SHIT! THESE ARE MY FUCKING PEOPLE! I’M HOME.”

I took a breath at this point, probably. I can shout a lot without needing a breath. Like I said, good lungs.

“MY QUESTION IS: DO YOU TWO REALIZE JUST HOW IMPORTANT IT IS THAT YOU HAVE EVENTS LIKE THIS WHERE A GUY LIKE ME CAN SHOW UP, LOOK AROUND HIM, AND SAY “HOLY SHIT! THESE ARE MY FUCKING PEOPLE! I’M HOME!”

At that moment, I saw Tycho take a few steps back, lower head, and nod. I wasn’t trying to “get to him,” but I think I did. I think he understood without our having to say anything else. Gabe did answer something along the lines of “Yeah, that was the idea behind having PAX in the first place,” but I didn’t get to hear all of it because the sound tech guy had finally shown up to fix the damned microphone.

So as Gabe finished up, I leaned into the mic and said, “…and now I have a microphone.” The audience burst into laughter. “Now when I feel like passing out from all that yelling. Thank you, Gabe and Tycho, for this.”

And Tycho said, “Wasn’t it so much cooler that he shouted that?”

Later, I was telling my friend Henry about the experience, and he said to me “Wait – that was YOU yelling? I wondered who that was.” That’s how I found out that the people beneath me couldn’t hear, because he had been standing directly underneath me on the ground floor.

My friends Sam and Carroll were working a Warhammer Fantasy tournament and said that someone came in talking about the guy who shouted something at the Q&A that was cool. They couldn’t remember what it was, but it was cool. LOL!

I get PAX East, now. I get conventions. I get Wil Wheaton. PAX is about being with your own. It’s about being with gamers, and nerds, and geeks, and looking around you and seeing that these are just normal people to you. It’s not noticing anything out of the ordinary, save perhaps the occasional cosplayer who apparently is in the minority at this sort of thing versus an anime-con. The crowd IS normal to you.

The crowd is home.

PAX is just a bunch of gamers hanging out and having fun. A lot of fun – and apparently the contracts have already been signed for 2011 and 2012, and there are talks about 2013. PAX East might be here to stay. Bully for me. 🙂

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