Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Getting Warm and Fuzzy at PAX East

pax1 Revelers on Boston’s Boylston Avenue last week may have seen something unusual about the bar crowds: some were wearing Pikachu hats. Others were wearing kilts. And they all looked like 5-year-olds on Christmas Eve, jacked up on the promise of something infinitely, indescribably cool.
They were there for PAX East, a convention started by a squat bald man and a tall, skinny man with anxiety problems and a noticeable lisp. They are gods to the hundreds who gathered at the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center to test-drive new games, play Dungeons and Dragons, and hear panels on how to build a role-playing game in an hour.

I was different from most of the PAX crowd on Sunday, March 29 in that I wasn’t playing the new Pokemon on my Nintendo DS. Nor did I self-identify as a nerd. But I did leave with a big, stupid smile on my face.

PAX (Penny Arcade eXpo) began as an offshoot of ur-webcomic Penny Arcade. If you’re reading this, and you haven’t heard about Penny Arcade, congratulations – you’re that crescent sliver of our Venn diagram who hasn’t heard about what is the most prolific, and certainly best, webcomic on the internet. Commenced in 1998, Penny Arcade is a madcap stage for the antics of Gabe and Tycho, cartoon alter-egos of real-life artist Mike Krahulik (tall, anxious) and writer Jerry Holkins (squat), respectively.

While Krahulik’s art has evolved exponentially over the past decade – really, it’s a school unto itself – Holkins’ acid wit and florid prose probably did more initially to earn Penny Arcade its rabidly loyal following. Penny Arcade ripped apart videogames, tech-culture and geekdom with gleeful abandon. It provided a commentary much-needed in the early Aughts.

They held PAX in Bellevue, Washington in 2004, drawing a crowd 3,300. At PAX 2009, the total attendance was 60,750. Krahulik and Holkins decided to point their scepter eastward. PAX East, held Friday, March 26 through Sunday, March 29, was a mob scene. Official numbers have yet to be released, but given population densities, I feel safe saying it was the biggest PAX yet.

So what do nerds do on the weekend, anyway?

pax2 My friend Shawn picked me up outside the Hynes on Sunday. We ate at the food court in the neighboring mall, where two slices of pizza were decidedly less expensive. He briefed me on my day: the videogames journalism panel I wanted to attend wasn’t until 2:30, giving me three hours to tool around the convention and see what I wanted. There was one game in particular he wanted me to see, Split Second: Velocity, which he described as Mario Kart as directed by Michael Bay.

Ascending the escalator into PAX proper, my ears picked up on snippets of nerd conversation around me, shop-talk for the indoor crowd. Words like aliasing, dev, clipping error, waggle gimmick, or names of exotic Pokemon buzzed in my ear. It was like a Twitter fog of hash-tags, each reading #NERD.

For a blinking-lights addict like me, the main floor was a playground. High-definition flatscreens were set up in groves according to the game they played; when I first entered, I saw a crop of kids playing cooperative missions from Splinter Cell: Conviciton.

pax3 Shawn parked himself in front of Split Second and waited for his turn, explaining the game’s fundamentals: you can charge up event meters, unleashing environment-based catastrophes upon other racers, etc. I was too busy looking at the people around me to properly pay attention. Behind me, a cluster of people on couches were test-driving Crackdown 2. A few feet away, people were playing Just Cause 2 while wearing 3D glasses. A man clad in authentic-looking commando-wear was explaining Atomic Games’ upcoming shooter Breach.

Over at the Ubisoft demo stage, an announcer was revealing the Splinter Cell’s “Deniable Ops” mode for the first time. The player, a pretty girl named Brooke, had ninja’d behind a bad guy undetected.

“How would you like to kill him, guys?” she asked the crowd (which was, yes, predominantly male). “How would you like Brooke to kill him?”

They chose to kill him silently, with Brooke’s proxy-hands. Later, I heard them shouting “SPLINTER CELL!” from across the room.

It was more than flashing lights and glitzy demos. Before the journalism seminar, I crept into the last few minutes of a Q&A with Krahulik and Holkins. As I entered the theater, a girl was at the mic. Her voice was even at first, telling the webcomic gurus how much their charity, Child’s Play, meant to her; how bored, depressed, bedridden children were essentially saved by the simple gift of a gaming console. She started to tear up. As the audience quietly awww’d, Krahulik quietly hopped off stage, walked down the center isle and hugged her.

“This is precisely why we do it,” Holkins said, firmly validating why many claim the word “nerd” as a badge of honor.