PAX, The Penny Arcade Expo
September 3-5, 2010
It’s Friday morning in Seattle and Warren Spector is on a roll. The legendary game designer has spent the past 15 minutes presenting his impressive resume, a personal history that in many ways mirrors the history of gaming itself. This fact is not lost on the sold-out crowd filling Benaroya Hall—from Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPGs to classic videogames like Ultima, Deus Ex and Thief, each of his past projects elicits a cheer more enthusiastic than the one before it. They are cheering for him and his accomplishments, but they are also cheering for themselves and for their love of gaming.
Mr. Spector is giving the opening keynote at the seventh annual Penny Arcade Expo, a three-day gaming convention known by everyone with even a faint interest in geek culture simply as “PAX.” Founded in 2004 by the authors of the popular webcomic Penny Arcade, PAX is currently tied with Los Angeles’s Electronic Entertainment Expo as the largest gaming convention in North America.
Final attendance has yet to be reported, but most estimates put it somewhere around 70,000—significantly more than any previous year. Considering that that number is in addition to the 50,000 who attended this year’s first-ever “PAX East” in Boston, it seems safe to say that the gaming tribe has never been stronger.
After a pause for dramatic effect, the screen behind Spector lights up with the title screen from Wing Commander, another of his classic titles. The game’s theme music crashes down at rock-concert velocity and the already boisterous crowd absolutely loses it. Amid the din, I find myself wondering when Benaroya Hall, a venue normally dedicated to the Seattle Symphony, was last rocked this hard by a guy in a sweater vest.
Just as the audience is really riding the vibe, Spector changes tack. “We are so confident here, among our people,” he says, “but when we leave this hall, we become insecure.” Sensing his shift in tone, the crowd settles down. Spector observes that for a very long time, gamers have sought approval and acceptance from mainstream society. Now that we are finally getting it, “we seem strangely unhappy about it.”
He points out that even as we crave validation from the masses, gamers routinely mock those who attempt to understand them or join their ranks. He mentions the sidelong glances we cast at casual games like Bejeweled and Farmville, the latter’s mention actually eliciting a smattering of boos from the crowd. After the hisses have died down, Spector suggests that each audience member ask him- or herself: do non-gamers really diminish us?
“We are at risk," he continues. "Every single artistic medium before videogames, be it literature, theatre, cinema or music, has reached a point at which it either enters the mainstream or it dies. “We have to embrace the fact that the world is catching up to us, catching on to us. We have to get past not wanting to let more people in the club."