I’m at an odd impasse with video games culture right now. The last year has been a nonstop bombardment of outright harassment of women, misrepresentation of games in mainstream media, and an overall sense of shame to be part of what should be our most unifying interactive medium. Friends of mine online have since turned against each other ideologically, tweets are being submitted to local authorities, and death threats come to so many voices in gaming like the morning weather. It’s a really awful, sobering time to care so much about games.
We have the potential to fix this though. The negative voices are still a vocal minority, despite how incredibly vocal they are. Friendships are formed online every day, and it is in times like this that I feel the most empathy and camaraderie with the misrepresented voices screaming to be heard. Women, people of color, transgendered individuals, disabled individuals; they all deserve better online and in gaming. Strides are being made in the altgames genre, a specific, very personal type of game that directly and intimately reflects the creator’s beliefs and feelings. These are the games that need attention, because clearly the AAA titles being released in the last few years aren’t pushing many boundaries.
With all this in mind, I went to PAX East 2015 this year utterly afraid; Afraid that I would see the worst of the Internet in human form, afraid that my fears would be confirmed that “gamers” are all anti-social and vitriolic. And, in some ways, I wasn’t wrong. After demoing a fascinating little multiplayer game called Capsule Force with a friend and two strangers, one of the other men decided it would be appropriate to list out point by point what the woman demoing the game (clearly the developer in some capacity) should “Tell the actual maker of the game…” to “fix” and “tweak”. It left me so soured, I had to just outright leave before saying thank you and getting a business card from the devs.
If that sounds gross and unappealing to you, it’s because it is. The PAX show floor is this fascinating, diverse blend of personal conversations with independent developers full of insight and meaning, followed by the worst of the worst rubbing elbows with each other to critique, berate, and consume. Why then, do I love PAX? Is it because online games culture is constantly full of bickering and disagreeing, and so seeing it come to light is weirdly cathartic? Or is it the self-parody, deconstructive nature of what exactly we’re all doing here that makes PAX worth going to at least once? The moment where I decided it was the latter was approximately 9:00 PM on Friday. As a friend and I prepared to play some games in the classic arcade area, we walked by several Princess Peach cosplayers at once. This is standard fare at a convention like this, so I thought nothing of it. But I looked closer, and saw everything that is gaming layed out in front of me: One was a slender woman, hiking up her stockings on a bench as a clearly intoxicated man who she seemed to be with leaned on her, one was a hefty adult male opening a carton of cigarettes while furiously scratching himself, and one was an adorable little girl, holding her mother’s hand as they prepared to go home to a safer place.
That’s most of PAX in a nutshell. It’s dirty, it’s raw, and it is, above all else, starkly real. It represents everything that gaming is right this second. All ages, all groups, all types of beautiful and terrible people flock to this convention center for a weekend, and they all highlight where we’re at. A few hours before that encounter, I spent a few minutes in the “Roll For Diversity” lounge, which is a safe space specifically designed to make everyone feel comfortable and relaxed between trips to the show floor. It was there that I hung out on a beanbag next to a nice person, and we talked about games, the refreshing nature of sleep, and things that just make us happy. And after that, while lining up for a panel, a kind fellow struck up a conversation with me about where we were from and why we were at the show. These are the moments that make it all worth it, too.
Before I conclude, I just want to mention New York City. All my life, it was shown to be this beautiful utopia of art and culture coming together to form a meaningful experience for anyone who visits. I finally went to NYC for the first time in August 2014 for an afternoon with my family. Five minutes in Times Square will shatter this illusion for you. Between poor workers begging you for money in torn Spider-Man costumes, and a nude women with the American flag painted on her being groped by someone’s dad, you really get to see what the grimiest of New York really is. These two experiences echoed each other almost perfectly, and it shows just how much PAX echoes real life social dynamics.
So all of that is why PAX is important to me. Too many people approach it in a way that minimizes this experience though, and I implore you to heed my word if you’re reading this: don’t go just for your favorite website’s panels and meetups, don’t go just for free stuff, and for the love of God, don’t go just to watch livestreams on a big TV or to meet YouTube stars. Go to play Mortal Kombat on an arcade machine with a European man in a trench coat who beats you without hesitation and then thanks you for challenging him. Hell, go just to meet Internet friends and explore the city. Go to take our pulse as a community. We are united by our desire to change as people and grow, and that’s what we’ll be doing forever. This is the human condition. This is PAX.