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PAX East: A Primer, Part the Last

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Tuesday, Apr 30, 2013
I don’t know if there is a more complex, divisive part of fan culture than cosplay. The fact that it is an artform that trades on the use of people’s bodies’ means that it’s treading into murky political waters by its very definition.

A recap of part one and part two: the Expo Hall is an over-crowded high stress environment with little reward, whereas the Tabletop area is a calm arena of interest and wonder. The panels are hit or miss, but either way, you have to show up early to get in. And being a game journalist at one of these events isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, except when it is. Oh, and there are lines for everything.


That last one doesn’t go away as we reach the end of this little guided journey through PAX East. In fact, I think it stands as probably the single common denominator for all PAX experiences. I got to experience much at PAX East, as I generally try to see everything I can at least once, but it isn’t possible. Going in you have to know what you are at the convention for and must be steadfast in what you want to do there. Wavering costs you time, which in turn leads to waiting in lines even longer. A dreadful fate indeed.
  
This final part is going to be a little different as I briefly touch on everything else that PAX East has to offer or at least what I remember of it. But, first, a big part of this convention and any fan convention really—cosplay.


Cosplay


I don’t know if there is a more complex, divisive part of fan culture than cosplay. The fact that it is an artform that trades on the use of people’s bodies’ means that it’s treading into murky political waters by its very definition. The dividing lines between appreciation of the form, its execution, and merely “appreciating” the body within is thin indeed. This is not helped by the fact that the designs of many of the characters claimed as a part of geek culture are what they are. It’s pretty destructive as a whole when a creator calling you an “attention whore” to your face is both a dream-shattering insult and high praise for your craftsmanship because you made it look exactly like he drew it.


The first two years that I went to PAX East I took copious photos of people cosplaying, emphasizing the hard work they put in to do so. Most of them were characters from Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age. I didn’t bother this year, despite seeing a far more varied collection of characters and invention. I could say that it was out of some high-minded stance against objectifying people but that would be disingenuous to their work, and also it would be a lie because it’s really that I’m terrible at taking pictures in low light. I think that the first PAX East, which was held at a different location, had better lighting because the photos that year came out so much better.


Back on topic. You will be doing double takes a lot at PAX East because these aren’t simple costumes. People work on these for months in advance in order to get all the details just right. They want to be looked at. They want to be appreciated. They do not want to be ogled. Hence, the fine line. If you are going to take pictures of someone, ask. I can almost guarantee he or she will say yes if you politely ask first. Second, if you see something interesting, but only get a glance because you are in a crowd or because they are at a distance, don’t stalk. There are so many people in costume that I wondered halfway through the first day if they shouldn’t have handed out bingo cards in the swag bag. Of course, given the sexist culture that pervades the show and that the hobby in general must contend with, the costume that made me do the biggest double take was that of Carmen Sandiego. Surprise factor supersedes all. Of course, in the seconds right before and right after spotting Carmen, I saw a Shredder, a Sailor Mars, and a Spider-Man, so it was basically my childhood Saturday morning concentrated in a single 10 second drive by. That happens a lot at PAX.


However, if you really want a huge dose of cosplay—and this leads nicely into my talk of the miscellany—go to the Bioware room.


Bioware Base


Bioware had their own room for meeting voice actors, talking with the devs, and on Saturday, they held a cosplay competition where all the participants, again, waited in line to one-by-one present themselves before a panel and the audience. They were then prompted by those behind the table about who they were supposed to be and what game their costume came from. Didn’t matter if they knew or not, craftsmanship speaks for itself.


The room also includes at the back where you can take your picture with the actress—in full make up and costume—that the character Samara is based on. They also had prop Mass Effect guns on hand. I was only there for about 20 minutes, so I don’t know what else they did the rest of the weekend. This will be a repeated motif for this part of my discussion.


Handheld Lounge


I don’t know if this is called the handheld lounge or the Pokemon lounge. The terms were pretty interchangeable. It is exactly what it sounds like. It is a lounge, tons of beanbags litter the floor, and people play their handhelds. Okay, let’s be serious. They played with their DSes or 3DSes. A Pokemon served as the main attraction. People signed up ahead of time to be gym leaders and would wait around to be challenged for badges.


I had two friends who were gym leaders. I met up with them during that rare time when I didn’t have to be somewhere, yet didn’t have long enough to actually do something. Hanging around people you know in a beanbag chair while everyone participates in Pokemon battles is a nice way to pass some time. I also got to unload a ton of swag that I had accumulated on one of them. We have a deal. He gets all of it, and I get to keep my lower back in alignment. I swear my bag became three pounds lighter. They just shove the stuff in your hand. Some of it, I swear, just appears there.


Console Freeplay


You can sign out consoles and games from a large collection that gets donated for the weekend or, I assume, what the convention has on hand just for PAX. Haven’t played that super popular game everyone else seems to have? Spend your day playing it at a convention! Or, try it out as a free unrestricted demo before buying when you get home. Or, get in some rounds with a fighting game against those you haven’t played before. Or, join one of the many tournaments for a variety of games and show what you’re made of.


Also, they have Steel Battalion. This was sort of a big deal in previous PAX East years, so much so that they gave the game its own advertised room. Steel Battalion is the game with the hugely complicated controller that simulates being in the cockpit of a real mech. It has two joysticks and a couple of dozen buttons. For the sheer novelty factor, checking it out is worth it. I think they may have merged it with the regular console room this year.


And having just double-checked the map, it is in fact two separate rooms. One is for modern console play and the other for tournaments and classic console play.


Arcade


The arcade is dead, as so many commentators are so willing to remind us all too often. Well, for three days, the world’s greatest arcade lives on in Boston. All the classics and plenty of games whose names haven’t weathered the streams of time very well are there. If you want to experience what the golden age was like in those dark, low-lit dens of hooliganism (I’m not the one who made that up), then there is no better place to see what it was like for yourself.


I usually tour around when I go. I couldn’t get close to the door this time around. Though how much that was the crowd and how much that was me giving up at the slightest resistance to go do something else, I don’t know. Onwards.


Stages


You will pass by them no matter where you are going. They are in the middle of large open areas on the sides of the first floor of the convention center. They are stages for people to perform video games. The games in question are Rock Band and Just Dance. There are lines to play in front of a crowd. Of course, there are lines. And there is an audience, almost perpetually, all day. Sometimes it is made up of dozens of people, sometimes just a handful, and, of course, the passersby will stop by to see what is happening.


We ascribe so many different ideas to what games are and how people use them or play with them. It seems like whatever it is is all contained within this single show. And here we see their performative aspects of gaming, whether others pay attention or even see us, it is the ultimate culmination of the fantasy that these games offer.


Concert


Okay, I know these exist. I’ve seen the footage of them. I roomed with the people who were the videographers for the music acts one year. I’ve seen them on a TV late at night, playing as a form of background ambiance as I played Cards Against Humanity. But I have never seem them. Nerd music isn’t my cup of tea.


The Rest


I’m rushing through these now. I actually didn’t know these were things that existed at PAX East until I checked the map again: Kickstarter lounge, Art Gallery, Red 5 Studios, Chiptune, Tabletop Theater. I am just listing them because I have honestly no idea what they are.


I said last time that I would tackle what was probably the most important thing about PAX East or a show like it. I want to end on that note because it—more than anything else—makes going to PAX East worth it. It makes the lines, the crowds, the sitting on a New York City sidewalk for two hours (long story) all worth it.


The People


It may sound sappy, but it is the truth. In the digital age, most of the people I know are scattered around not just the country, but the world. The people that I talk to every day through social media and other “lesser forms” of communication, I only get to see face-to-face once a year. It’s at a convention like this. If you have the chance to check out that hot new game or meet someone who you know best via their twitter pic, meet the person. That was a real choice I was offered over and over throughout the weekend. I always stopped. I always took whatever opportunity I had to chat. Through these three articles I have mentioned them in passing. They are a part of everything that happened this weekend. Different people, met in different places. From the Expo Hall, to the D&D table, to the handheld lounge, to the panel participants, to press room, to random wanderings in the hallways.


I was busier this weekend than at previous shows, so I had less time than I wanted to meet everyone that I could. But those few minutes aren’t just great for connecting in real life with those that you know from their digital selves, instead, it’s an important grounding. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd. The anxiety can build up and PAX can be a truly lonely place. However, at the right time, a connection to a real person can make all the difference in the world. It doesn’t even have to be anyone you know. See that person next to you in line? Start talking. We nerds, we geeks, we gamers tend to be an introverted lot statistically. We build our reserves for this weekend. We are among like-minded people at PAX. Yes, there are as many types of gamers as there are attendees of the show with just as many experiences, but if they are in line with you, there’s a very good chance that you have something you can talk about.


But honestly, the best advice I can give for attending PAX East or any other fan show is this: go to the show with a friend or meet one there. Tackle it together.

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