Over the years, the gaming phenomenon known as the Penny Arcade Expo–PAX–has become increasingly popular. Now, there are five PAXes: PAX Prime, PAX East, PAX South, PAX Dev, and PAX Aus. I have been to PAX East several times over the years, and it has become more and more crowded every year. I have not gone for the past two years, mostly because I now no longer live in the same city where it’s held, so getting there is more of a logistical nightmare (particularly because, as an academic, I can’t just take off for when it is). And now it looks like I am unlikely to ever go in the future because it’s become increasingly exclusive.
By that, I mean that it took all for four minutes–yes, four minutes–for PAX East to sell out its three-day passes. What this means is that there are a lot of people buying more than one pass, and presumably some of those people are then going to sell their passes. It also means that there are a LOT of people who really desperately want to go to PAX East and who will stalk the webpage for the second the tickets go on sale.
Normal people just don’t have the time for that crap. Sure, there will be some lucky folks who manage to grab their passes anyway, but most of us aren’t included in that number. I was teaching, for instance, and there’s no possible way I could snatch up a three-day pass (or a Saturday pass) because I have a job to do.
To some, this may seem like just whining (or whinging, if you’re English), but I’m not really that concerned about my inability to go. PAX livestreams many of its panels, and the prospect of standing in enormous lines to watch some gameplay footage (which is what I did a few years ago with Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag) is not high on my list of “fun” things. I always enjoyed the Indie area and the vendors, but the hours spent just to play a few minutes of The Next Big Game were never my reason for going.
But those lines and Next Big Games are–I have the feeling–what’s selling out the passes. People are buying them to see celebrities like Wil Wheaton and the Penny Arcade guys, not to visit Indie booths or hear a pseudo-academic discussion of gamification or gender representation (although a lot of people go to both… but they don’t have the lines stretching down the hallway for two hours in advance). PAX cons have become a badge of gamer honor, a sign that you are part of the Hardcore Elite and can afford to drop $100-$150 (on passes alone–then add in airfare and hotel) to spend three days standing or sitting on the floor in order to sit in the back of a 1000 person auditorium to watch Penny Arcade draw a comic and answer questions both interesting and inane.
I’ve sat in those sessions. I sat in the first Dickwolves session during which a Vaginawolf was drawn (and then immediately erased) at PAX East years ago in the Hynes Convention Center before PAX East moved to the BCEC (that was a good idea) after Dickwolves blew up. (Note: I was disgusted by the Dickwolves debacle, but I never actively protested PAX because of it.) I’ve been at other, much less controversial sessions, some I’ve waited in line for, and some I’ve just walked straight into.
I think PAX has a great potential, but I think that what it’s becoming (through no direct fault of the Penny Arcade guys themselves) is actually representative of something that goes against its original intention. PAX used to be about the fans who just love games. People who really just want to get together and spend three days doing nothing but play, talk, and celebrate games. And now it’s a status symbol, a mark of being Hardcore enough to stalk the registration site and drop a lot of money just to stand in line. It’s not about showing off fan pride so much as it is rushing the booth that gives away free swag at ten minutes after the hour, nevermind that you have no idea what game that swag is from (I have a stuffed alien that came from something PopCap made that someone threw at me the last time I went).
But I miss the old PAX. I miss the version that was a little sketchy, but not in an unsafe way, and a little grimy and a little less full of loudspeakers and attractive barkers (but never any booth babes). I miss the PAX that was about the love of gaming innovation and the celebration of play.
Will I ever go to PAX again? Maybe. But probably only if someone buys a pass for me.