PAX Bostonia: Penny Arcade Expo and Hope for the Future of Gaming

by Kristin Bezio

This was not my first PAX – in fact, it was my third. I went to the first PAX East in Boston when it was at Hynes Convention Center… which was fun, but frustrating. The space was too small for the number of people, the panels were overcrowded, and I don’t even remember what the expo floor even looked like. I went again the first year it moved to the Boston Convention and Expo Center (BCEC), and it was better. The expo floor had enough space (mostly) for all the people, and we got in to some of the panels we wanted to see. Some of them.

This year (I couldn’t make it last year), they seem to have all that sorted out. Yes, the expo floor is still a crush of mostly-washed humanity, and the SOUND when you walk out on it is the constant low-pitched roar of a hive of really giant bees on holiday at the beach. It’s actually quite incredible. But they have the panels down to a science. Yes, there are lines, but you can join them 5-10 minutes before the panel starts, still get a seat, and not feel like your feet are about to fall off.

And they’ve started streaming it. Twitch had a constant livefeed running from different panels at the con, making it possible for people not there (or just sitting on the floor) to see what was going on, especially in some of the more popular panels, like the Mass Effect Trilogy discussion. They also realized that some industry houses and titles were so popular that they deserved their own mini-cons: both 2K and Bioware had their own areas (2K had a booth with constant speakers and Bioware had their own room and panel schedule). The Bioware panels we saw were catered specifically to fans, which was probably wise on their part, but lacked in the kind of critical analysis or thematic commentary (it was more about the mythology of the worlds of Mass Effect and Dragon Age) I was hoping for. That said, the Mass Effect Trilogy panel was highly social scientific, providing statistics about the major choices players were able to make within the series, the types of Shepard characters people tended to make and play, and the other “favorites” of players.

I went to a couple of different panels on gaming in education – next year I’m teaching a class on gaming, games, and leadership, and going to panels on this theme seemed like a good idea. I was half right. The first panel – which was, unfortunately, the first one I went to on Friday morning – was terrible. The panelist was a substitute, brought in, he said, at the last minute because the intended speaker was stuck in customs somewhere. The theme of the panel, insofar as I was able to tell, was that education sucks, school sucks, and that it would all be much better if we all played games instead of studying stupid things like, oh, facts.

The second panel – Friday late afternoon – more than made up for what its predecessor lacked. This panel was about the gamification of education, specifically, about how to turn assessment into a game system of achievements or “badges.” Since one of the most frustrating parts of education for both teachers and students is grading (and the student focus on having to achieve that “A”), being able to overhaul the system in such a way as to defy student expectations of assessment seems like a great way to revitalize and refocus education on the process of learning and on the educational achievements (skills) instead of the end-point assessment.

The panel on Terrible Apps meant to be funny and entertaining – which had nothing to do with education – was more like a car wreck than a comedy routine, since it mostly involved the audience watching (and drooling in boredom) while the panelists attempted to play and navigate horrific apps that probably never should have been made, including Monster High Romance and the creepiest baby game ever that mostly involves the player handing objects to an infant to keep it from screaming.

The panel on boardgame culture – and the future of boardgames – tried to be “cute” by structuring itself after a boardgame (using Prezi instead of Powerpoint), but did actually talk about the way in which boardgaming as a passtime was splitting itself into “hardcore” games with complex rulesets and “gateway” games like Settlers of Catan which appeal to a broader audience but nevertheless bridge the gap between simple games like Life and the complicated ones like Puerto Rico. The panelists suggested that games would continue to go in this direction, providing increasing complexity for the veterans with innovative mechanics, while “gateway” games would be developed to introduce those mechanics in simpler settings.

Which brings me to the fact that PAX isn’t just about videogaming. In fact, fully half the expo floor is devoted to tabletop gaming. Popular games on the floor this year included Cards Against Humanity (all the swag bags had a few sample cards), Power Grid, Level 7 Escape, and the new Star Trek edition of Settlers of Catan. I picked up a game called Sanctuary, which promises the offer of cooperative, competitive, or solo play options.

And then there’s the heart and soul of PAX – the videogaming floor. Half the floor is dominated by major developer houses, new games, and recent popular games. League of Legends had a huge booth that was a constant source of noise and live competition. Assassin’s Creed IV had a huge display set up for their new pirate-themed game, offering exclusive previews of their gameplay (which, according to one of the people I was there with, incorporated the best part of ACIII: the naval combat). The Last of Us (of box-art fame) had a set-up allowing people to play through a demo level, as did the new Resident Evil VI, which I will now forever think of as Resident Evil: Titanic edition. And those are just the ones I managed to spend some time with.

And then there’s the back of the floor, devoted to indie developers. Popcap had built a Plants-versus-Zombies themed mini-carnival; Bastion’s sequel (Transistor) had lines over three hours long; and steampunk seemed to be the theme of the day, including what I consider my “find” of PAX. Available in May on Steam, Contrast is a quasi-platformer designed around the concept of an imaginary friend (the player-character) who can actually become her own shadow (the game is 3D when in “person” and 2D when in “shadow”). The way in which you control the 3D space to create 2D shadow-platforms you can use to solve puzzles and overcome barriers. And it’s gorgeous.

Perhaps the best part about PAX, though, is the PAX community itself. Everyone wants to be there, everyone is happy, and everyone is there to play, which makes the atmosphere phenomenal. Cosplay is welcome, but not so common that those of us without sewing skills or the inclination to dress up feel out of place for wearing “normal” clothes. And some of the costumes are fantastic. And they’re all fan costumes – “booth babes” (scantily clad attractive women hired for the sole purpose of standing around next to developer booths to attract attention) are stricktly forbidden at PAX.

And that’s perhaps one of the best parts of PAX. As a female gamer, I never once felt out of place. It was really clear to me walking around PAX that the statistics that say 40% of gamers are women are true – there were almost as many women as men at PAX, and I was around the average age of participants (which is supposedly 37, although that seemed a little high for PAX attendees). There were panels on offer about gender, about cisgender, and about “trans-wizards.” In other words, PAX is about including all gamers – not about focusing on the 20-something-white-male demographic that publishers, the news, and society seem to believe comprises “gamers.”

The only real gender “problem” I encountered was the sad fact that most vendors had a dearth of women’s shirts for sale… especially the ones I was most interested in (aka, not the pink ones or the ones with cupcakes on them). But that aside, PAX has one of the most inclusive atmospheres for gamers of all types, shapes, sizes, genders, and identities. Sure, it isn’t perfect, but those three days in PAX were a lot more friendly and accepting than the average day I spend on the street in the American South. So the conclusion I take away from PAX East 2013 is that despite all that’s happened in the last year with Anita Sarkeesian, “The Number One Reason,” and news stories shocked that “now girls play games,” there is hope for an inclusive, diverse gaming industry. Indie games are going there first, but the major houses are starting to follow suit – Tomb Raider and The Last of Us are among the titles leading the way, with Bioshock Infinite and Resident Evil following closely behind. So while the industry still needs to keep moving forward in terms of its representations of ethnicity, sexuality, and gender, it has lifted the first foot out of the proverbial mire and is beginning to move toward solid ground.

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  1. [...] noticed that I was going to be in Boston anyway, you can bet your britches that I was going to go. And this was my experience. It was, in a word, awesome. Sure, there were a couple of minor downs, but overall, PAX was full of [...]

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