In 2014, I was no stranger to Penny Arcade. I had followed the strip on-and-off since I was a young teenager (who could forget Gabe’s take on the later Mario Party titles?), and I was familiar with the deck-building card game. When my friend mentioned he was going with a group of friends to PAX East, the Penny Arcade Expo, the conversation went something like this:
Him: “It’s a whole convention put on by the guys who do Penny Arcade”.
Me: “So… it’s a whole convention for that comic?”
Him: “No, it’s a giant show for all kinds of video games.”
Me: “A whole convention of just games? I don’t know if I’d be interested in that.”
Him: (Challenge accepted.)
4 years later, that friend is now my spouse, and I’ve got 4 PAX East shows under my belt. We’ll likely be going every year until the whole thing is either bought out by Facegooglazon or Boston is attacked by Mothra. Here, I impart unto you, fellow gamer, what I’ve figured out over the years.
1. PAX East is not Comic Con, Otakon, Dragon Con, or any of the other geek/fandom shows you’ve been to.
It was difficult for me to grasp before I attended for the first time myself, but PAX is a unique kind of geek experience. Unlike most anime and comic conventions, merchandise and cosplay take a backseat. There are certainly cosplayers, but there are no cosplay contests or parades. Most of the attendees are in street clothes. A few vendors have geeky shirts and costume pieces for sale, but they’re not the reason people come to the show. I expected to find hundreds of booths of vendors with vintage and hard-to-find games, and enough plush toys to fill a stadium. There’s no dearth of things to buy (some people love the collectible pins), but you may not walk out with full arms.
2. PAX East is for the fans, not the media frenzy.
While PAX East is certainly journalism-friendly, it’s not the star-studded event that San Diego Comic Con is. You won’t find hours-long queues of fans waiting to pay $80 for a signature and a selfie with Nathan Fillion. This keeps the focus on the real content- video games- rather than the personalities. In recent years, some of the biggest developers have reduced their booth size and presence, leaving more space for up-and-coming developers. Most of the booths are for demos of games currently for sale or pending release. There are plenty of streamers and writers documenting the experience, but you’re not going to see PAX East coverage on your local news. At least, not until the aforementioned Mothra does show up.
3. Do not underestimate the frigidity of a Boston spring.
I have to preface this by saying that I’m from the Northeastern US. I played in my backyard after the blizzard of ’96, and vacated my college campus when a blizzard knocked out the power in ’09. Winter is not my favorite season, but I’m familiar with it. Having said that, I have never been so cold as I was wandering around the city with my friends on the 2nd night of my first PAX. The wind whips down the Summer Street bridge to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, and the security lines to enter the convention every morning are long. The dates of PAX East vary, but even if the calendar says “April”, the Boston weather report may still say “snow”. Dress in layers (with hats and gloves) that you can put in coat check once you get inside.
4. Brown bag it, if you can, or leave the BCEC for food.
You are allowed to bring your own food and (non-alcoholic) beverages into the BCEC. The venue has a good court with a decent selection, as well as smaller stands with snacks, coffee, and soft drinks, but do you really want to pay $7 for a soft pretzel? I don’t, so our normal routine is to pack a light breakfast, and leave the convention for meals. There are plenty of options in the Seaport and South Boston area where you can get a complete meal for $7 (imagine that)! I highly recommend Freshii, by.Chloe, and Boloco.
5. Speaking of brown paper bags…
…Boston liquor stores around the BCEC close early, and most only sell beer and wine. There are plenty of cocktail bars, but since they’re geared toward business travelers, they are pricey. If you think you’ll want to have a drink at your hotel or AirBnB after your day at PAX, you may want to BYOB, or go shopping before you check in. Note that you are not allowed to bring alcohol or drugs into the BCEC (not that you’ll need it; there’s plenty going on to keep you entertained).
6. You can be an introvert or an extrovert and still have a great time.
If you’re like me and love meeting other nerds, you’ll love the areas of PAX East devoted to tournaments and free play of video and board/card games. You can indicate that you’re LFG with a big orange cone to get passers-by to join your game, or you can spectate. The crowd is generally friendly and happy to share. If the idea of talking to people you don’t know makes your skin crawl, you can relax in Yogibo furniture in the Nintendo DS lounge, or visit the Take This! AFK Lounge, which is a designated quiet space. I’ve spent hours roaming the convention center with friends and alone. There are plenty of things to do and see either way.
7. Most of the attendees are white dudes between 15 and 35, but that doesn’t mean others aren’t welcome!
I was surprised by the low percentage of female attendees the first year I went to PAX. I was a little cautious and thought that it was a possibility that the more toxic parts of nerd culture would be present, like casual racism and secret upskirt photos. Not to say that all white dudes behave poorly, but it does sometimes happen at conventions, especially anime conventions. I’m happy to say that PAX East has been, in my experience, a friendly environment. There are rules against sexual harassment and hate speech, and there are panels and meetup groups to address topics like mental health issues in the gamer population, sexism in female character design, and more. If you’re not into politics, it’s easy enough to avoid, but it’s nice to know that there’s concerted effort to make the show fun for everyone, not just the majority population.
PAX East is an experience I look forward to every year. At the end of the weekend, when my legs are sore from the 8+ miles we end up walking each day, my backpack is full of fliers and demo codes, and my eyelashes are frozen, I still think to myself, “See you next year, BCEC”. If you can make the trip, I highly recommend it.
Featured image of the 2018 PAX East Expo Hall photo credit: Dabe (via east.paxsite.com).