The Penny Arcade Expo East came to Boston last weekend to a warm welcome from over 69,000 people. Fans of the Penny Arcade webcomic, tabletop games, and digital games made it to the convention to celebrate three days of gaming goodness. A number of exciting panels, concerts, game tournaments, and a stunning exhibit hall all contributed to the fun of the show. An atmosphere of gaming community was prevalent throughout the weekend; gamers showed their support for the Child’s Play charity and were generally warm to one another.
PAX East 2011 is the biggest expo Penny Arcade creators Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins have ever produced. Developers from across the gaming industry attended the expo, showcasing new games and demos for fans to enjoy. As for past PAXs, people traveled from across the nation to attend the show. I spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at PAX East observing and partaking in the biggest gaming conference this side of the Mississippi.
I was just one of 69,500 people who flocked to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center this past weekend for PAX East — the Penny Arcade Expo — an enormous gaming convention put on by the creators of the webcomic of the same name. This was the second year that PAX came to the East Coast — the original expo (now known as PAX Prime) takes place in Seattle in late summer.
With over 170,000 square feet of space, the exhibit hall this year dwarfed last year’s display in the much smaller Hynes Memorial Convention Center. Enormous booths from Ubisoft and Nvidia dominated the landscape while Portal 2, a huge Pikachu, Battlefield 3, Duke Nukem Forever, Alienware, and many other companies stood out thanks to their sizeable ceiling banners.
Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken, delivered the opening keynote of PAX, which I missed, sadly, because of class. Convention panels highlighted numerous aspects of gaming, from the music (folks from Ocremix.org gave a talk about remixing game music) to parenting (guests from Geekdad.com) to making your own game, breaking into the industry, illustrating a comic, and, of course, the gamers’ charity, Child’s Play.
As is tradition, concerts — which were included in admission — were held on both Friday and Saturday night. All of the artists from last year except Anamanaguchi returned to play this year: MC Frontalot, Metroid Metal, the Video Game Orchestra, the Protomen, Paul and Storm, and Jonathan Coulton (who wrote the Portal hit “Still Alive”). Most artists were available during the day for autographs; unsurprisingly, Coulton’s booth was the most popular.
The exhibit hall, located on the first floor of the gargantuan convention center, was full of demos and videos from developers around the industry. Nintendo debuted their 3DS, which looked cool, but lost the 3D effect if held incorrectly. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time remake for the system was available to demo, which had the longest line at their booth. Ubisoft displayed most prominently its Child of Eden, a motion-controlled Kinect game where you help clean up a futuristic internet by shooting viruses. Though the gameplay idea was very simple, I was awed by the colorful and vibrant style of its art. I sat in on the Battlefield 3 presentation, which was just 25 minutes of watching an exhibitor play the game in real time — the graphics are stunning. Alienware, Nvidia, Newegg, and a number of other product developers and merchants offered swag to passerby and held mini-games (such as spinning a wheel) with merchandise giveaways as prizes.
As a long-time Portal fan, my favorite booth was easily the Portal 2 display. An enormous box with new characters painted on the sides housed a small screening area where patient fans could watch the opening cutscene of the new game and get introduced to the cast, including Cave Johnson — founder of Aperture Science — who is voiced by J.K. Simmons of Spiderman fame. The 10 minute video was witty, entertaining and is now available on Youtube (search “portal 2 PAX East 2011”). The new Portal will be 2.5 to 3 times the length of the first game and will feature an extensive cooperative mode. It will be released on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC on April 19.
Attendees at the conference were often spotted with the standard G4-themed swag bag, a giant Dragon Nest (a new anime-styled MMO from Japan in which you fight dragons to save a damsel) goodie bag, Nvidia buttons (if you found someone with the same number button you could win a prize … or a kiss), as well as numerous types of merchandise.
I ended up blowing $40 on an Amaterasu (the wolf character of Okami) plushie Capcom was selling as a promotion for their new DS game Okami Den, sequel to the critically acclaimed PS2/Wii game Okami. Within a few minutes arriving at PAX, I saw someone with the toy and had to have one. The plushies sold out the first day and are now on eBay for hundreds of dollars (no, I’m not selling mine). The DS game shares the same beautiful calligraphy art style of its predecessor and uses the stylus as a brush to draw symbols that represent attacks. If you haven’t picked up the original Okami yet, I highly suggest you do so — it’s excellent.
Besides the incredible exhibit hall, there was plenty to do at the convention. Console, tabletop, and handheld gaming each had free play and tournaments all weekend. Omegathon, a team tournament with an eclectic assortment of games and an integral part of PAX, returned this year. Since I didn’t attend any of the Omegathon events (lame, I know, I couldn’t sit still for most of the convention and thus didn’t attend very many panels), I don’t know what the final round was, but the main games were Katamari Damacy, Bananagrams, Jenga, and Operation.
The highlight of the show for me was the same as it was last year: the Q&A with Penny Arcade creators Mike Krahulik (Gabe) and Jerry Holkins (Tycho) on Sunday (I missed Friday’s Q&A). Introduced with Cassidy’s “I’m a Hustla” blasting with deafening bass, the two stars simply walked on the stage clad in plain clothes — a stark contrast to the dramatic background music.
A number of the initial questions from the audience for the two were actually fans offering donations — raised through local fundraisers and tournaments — for Child’s Play. Child’s Play is a charity Krahulik and Holkins created in 2003 that donates toys and video games to children’s hospitals to improve the lives of sick children. Each donation was greeted with warm applause and cheers from the audience. Holkins described the homegrown tournaments as “the moonshine of charity.”
Not everyone had a traditional question. One fan boasted of getting “a Catholic priest to play [Dungeons and Dragons] … he was a paladin.” Another rapped about how awesome PAX is. Several audience members asked for hugs from the creators or to have their entrance badges signed. After several such requests, Holkins declared they would not sign anything else — until the next “question” was a man proposing to his wife and then asking them to sign his wedding guest book. He proposed retroactively — he had suffered from severe “social anxiety” the year before and could not manage “a public proposal,” he said to laughs.
Many comments from the audience simply thanked the creators for the wonderful convention. A man in a wheelchair asked them to bless his new prosthetic leg — hold it like Simba in the Lion King, he requested — which Holkins did to wild cheers.
“It’s the best convention in the world,” Holkins said to all the thanks. He and Krahulik don’t think of PAX as something they put on anymore. “It just occurs, it’s like a season, an organic event.”
When asked what could potentially end Penny Arcade, Krahulik replied, “a bullet.”
In response to a question about the possibility of an animated Penny Arcade cartoon, Krahulik replied that it was something they have been interested in for a while, but that they were “not willing to give up rights” to the characters.
Answering a question about tips to lead a Dungeons and Dragons game, Krahulik replied “One, steal ideas. Two, they are not your friends. Give them an adventure, make them scared. Don’t let your friendship get in the way of murdering them.”
“Don’t actually murder them,” Holkins added. “That can be a problem.”
The two men also dispensed advice on parenting. “You’re going to see some shit, man,” Holkins said. “You have to suffer,” he added, pointing out that adults cannot play violent video games in front of their kids and must wait until they are asleep.
Plans for the future include helping with a game for the Minecraft creators, continuing regular comics and PAX, and Krahulik’s new project, Sketch Buddies, which is still under wraps (check Penny Arcade for more details in the coming weeks).
Though cosplay — wearing character costumes — is not as common at PAX as it is as some other conventions like Comic-Con or Anime Boston, there were still a number of people in costume. I saw a few Pikachus (including a couple with the boy as Ash Ketchum and the girl a somewhat scantily clad Pikachu), a Yuna, several Samus Arans (both with and without armor), and quite a few Marios and Luigis.
I was most struck by one girl who stood behind me in line wearing a homemade, spandex Zero Suit. Samus’s Zero Suit, for those of you who don’t know, is a skin-tight blue body suit the heroine wears beneath her famous orange armor. The girl was pretty and looked great in her costume — but seemed incredibly uncomfortable from the number of men constantly asking her for pictures. In the five minutes I stood in line with her (waiting to take a picture inside of a mechanical exoskeleton advertisement for Red Faction: Armageddon), at least six guys asked for a photo with her. Some just stood next to her, while a few others put their arm around her and pulled her closer. She seemed jittery when spoken to by strangers, looked unhappy, and only gave me a terse “thanks” when I told her that her costume was great. It’s possible she was in a bad mood for some unknown reason, but her attitude really threw the sexism of the entire show into my face.
Sexism in video games and gaming culture is no surprise to anyone, but it still managed to catch me off guard. Maybe it’s because I’m a girl and I’ve played games for so long that I hadn’t noticed this particular role of girls in games, but I’m currently in 9.75 (Psychology of Gender and Race), and once I starting thinking about it, it was difficult to stop. Don’t get me wrong — I didn’t feel persecuted or uncomfortable during PAX, and I had a great time, but I began to wonder about the role girls play.
Did the girl behind me expect that amount of attention? Many would say she would be stupid not to, but maybe she just wanted to show off her favorite character and carefully crafted costume. What about the number of “booth babes” at the show? Women in skintight, short yellow dresses attracted people to the Sprint stand, and a megaphone regularly announced it was “time to talk to the ladies!” and gave tips about picking up girls (look them in the eye, speak coherently, etc.). Like a number of other booths, Duke Nukem Forever had a few women in very skimpy school girl outfits that visitors could take pictures with. I saw one “babe” on her break hastily leave the booth, her tiny top covered by a large black T-shirt.
I even received a few e-mails from developers that told me to visit them because “they might have a few pretty girls to look at!” At one of the panels I attended, audience members communicated with panelists via PictoChat (the chat room built into the Nintendo DS), and the panelist mentioned that someone complained that there “weren’t enough naked girls.” (For context, this comment came after a slide of a shirtless man.)
The Samus Aran I saw chose to wear her outfit, as did a number of other female attendees with revealing costumes. This didn’t necessarily make PAX “sexist,” but the “female objectification” aspect is interesting. This trend is enormously common in games themselves (hence the costumes), and the number of strong female protagonists is also low — Samus is one of the only very famous ones. Why is this? It is true that the consumer base for video games is largely male, but the female base is rapidly growing. PAX East is certainly not at fault for the amount of sexism in games, but definitely served as a reminder.
Besides sexism in games, there is also the issue of racism. The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab had a strong showing at PAX. Their large booth showcased a number of games created by summer interns from 2009. The games are each created around a particular research question and are aimed at eventually improving machine intelligence. One of their most striking exhibits was their “Hate Speech” video. The experiment was simple: create a gaming handle such as “PROUD_2B_MUSLIM” and play an online game like Halo: Reich or Call of Duty. Dialogue between players was recorded and read aloud in the video. The result was an outpouring of unprovoked hate speech towards the player, just centered around the handle. The video can be viewed online at http://gambit.mit.edu/projects/hatespeech.php.
Despite a couple of the negative aspects of gaming culture that were evident at the convention, PAX East was a wonderful time. The sense of gaming community and the number of fun things to do kept the weekend very entertaining (if not exhausting!). PAX stopped for the closing ceremonies at 5:30 p.m. Sunday evening, but it will be back next year. The creators have booked the Boston Convention Center through 2013 and plan to make the expo a regular occurrence that Bostonians can look forward to every year.