I was pretty sure everyone in the geek community had heard of PAX, and then was proven wrong on more than one occasion. For the uninitiated, PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) is a convention dedicated solely to gaming in all of its forms. Created by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, four expos take place around the world each year: PAX Prime (Seattle), PAX South (Austin), PAX East (Boston), and PAX Australia (Melbourne). I’ve made PAX East a permanent event on my calendar, and for the fourth time, enjoyed myself immensely this year.
I’ve been slowly putting together a winning recipe for enjoying the convention. After twelve days (four PAXes, three days each) and a whirlwind of activity, here is a list of ways to get the most out of PAX. Most of this is applicable to any PAX, but some only to PAX East. Also, sorry for the potato quality of the pictures; I don’t feel like shelling out hundreds of dollars on a fancy camera (but would dump that money on a Halo 5 edition Xbox One) and just used my phone.
1. Everyone is Your Friend
More than ten thousand people are there for the same reason that you are: enjoying games. We’ve all been through the same crappy childhood with few friends and a lot of teasing. That shared crappiness has made us all extremely happy to meet other like-minded geeks, so feel free to strike up random conversations with people. Even if you don’t share the exact same love of that one video game that came out 15 years ago, chances are you’ll find something to talk about.
I had a twenty minute conversation with someone dressed as Jon Snow, covering our favorite parts of Game of Thrones and how the show differs from the books. Also, if you find your phone battery has died, don’t be afraid to ask someone to use their charging cord. You will probably find someone who went phoneless for a day last year for the same reason, and will be more than willing to help you out.
2. Bring a Water Bottle
I can’t stress the importance of this enough. Even if you’re willing to dump a ton of money on convention food, you may forget that you’re thirsty until you’re ready to pass out. Make sure to have a bottle handy, and remember to drink! Soda may be plentiful, but keep in mind that too much soda can make you sick. I personally can’t have more than half a bottle of Mountain Dew a day, so stick with plain old water.
3. Make Sure to Eat
In a strange twist of fate, PAX can be great if you’re on a diet, because you’ll forget to eat. Keep a snack bar handy, and make sure you get at least one meal in at the convention. The food isn’t too great right at the convention center, but it’s food and you need to eat it. Additionally, don’t worry about calories; if you’re like me and you hate to exercise, you’ll still end up walking a lot more than you’re used to and you’ll burn those calories with no problem.
4. Focus on Your Favorite Interests
Maybe I should have put these in order, because this is the most important way to enjoy your time. There are ten thousand people, not including vendors or showcasers or everyone working there. There’s a LOT to do, and there’s no way you can do it all. I tried to squeeze in as much as possible at my first PAX, and I made myself miserable. Find two or three things you’re really interested in, and focus on them.
Last year, Keythe Farley (voice of Thane Krios in Mass Effect 2 and 3) was part of a panel on cosplaying. I made sure to get in line for that panel well before it began, and spent the majority of my time involved in that whole scene, including spending way too much money on autographs and swag – and I had an amazing time. This year, I spent 95% of my time at the BioWare Base, geeking out with such amazing people as Billy Buskell, Patrick Weekes, Mike Laidlaw, and Melanie Fleming.
I may have missed out on a lot of what was going on in other places at the con, but I had an absolute blast. The hardest part, both last year and this year, was not being a creepy fangirl. I think I did a pretty good job, and if any of them remember me a year from now, I hope it’s not as a creeper and rather as a dedicated fan.
5. Find Ways to Decompress
It’s extremely easy to get overwhelmed at events like PAX. If you’re like me, the easiest way to decompress is with some canine love. Because of enhanced security, the Boston Convention Center utilizes explosive detection dogs to sniff out dangerous luggage. Thankfully, they also have a pretty open attitude, and will let you pet the dogs if you ask.
I know I annoyed at least one handler by popping up too often, but most of them are easy going and had no problem with me trying to relax with some tail wagging. The dogs were certainly appreciative; one did a nose dive into my lap to demand belly rubs. To be fair, there are probably several other ways to decompress as well. For instance, they have lounges set up specifically for you to take a few minutes and relax. That being said, I preferred my puppy love.
6. Enjoy the Diversity
So maybe this one isn’t a tip, but you’ll find that everyone is really inclusive. It’s rather ironic that video games have such a bad reputation for things like violence and sexism (Gamergate aside), because PAX is probably the most inclusive event I’ve ever been to. They have what’s called the Diversity Lounge, where representatives from groups like Press XY and the queer community set up tables specifically to answer any questions and make sure everyone’s involved. Press XY usually has a panel as well. I kept popping back and forth between the BioWare Base and the Diversity Lounge, encouraging members from both to check out the other, because I’m pretty sure the BioWare Base could run the Diversity Lounge themselves.
7. Be Prepared for a Panel
Again, I need to repeat the number. Ten thousand people. If you find a panel you want to attend, be prepared to get there up to an hour before hand. If it’s a popular one like the last round of Omegathon, get there even earlier. My first PAX, I figured a five minute head start would be more than enough time. Boy was I wrong. This year, I only wanted to attend one panel, on love and lust in games (primarily because it was run by BioWare people – yes, I am obsessed), so I showed up an hour beforehand.
Don’t consider this time wasted, though. I had a great time chatting with everyone else in line about what we loved about Dragon Age: Inquisition, and our different approaches to how to love Cullen Rutherford (hint: don’t bring up Lyrium). Along with showing up early, be prepared for the kind of panel you’re going to. I tried to hold my own panel a few years ago, and even had the Community Outreach Manager of BioWare review my application. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any internet credentials (I wasn’t part of the industry, I didn’t write for a major website, etc), so I never heard a word back from the PAX people.
What I discovered from them is that a panel usually consists of internet famous people joking around and saying nothing of importance for a half hour, then taking questions. The Rooster Teeth Panel is usually like this; they put on a video of them screwing around in the office, and then take questions. I was pretty jaded about attending any panels this year, but was delightfully surprised by the Love and Lust panel. They stayed on topic and talked about some really fascinating subjects. In the end, you should be prepared for an hour of nonsense, but also be prepared for legitimate content. Also, if you want to put on a panel, get some internet cred.
8. Driving in Boston is Stupid
If you’re crazy lucky like me, you’ll be able to get a hotel within walking distance of the convention center for less than $600 a night. If you check out the PAX website, they like to brag about these special room deals they have with the Boston hotels. I can pretty much guarantee that by the time you get around to booking a room, those rooms will all be taken. Chances are, you’ll have to get a room somewhere along the T Line and ride in to the convention center. They do offer a shuttle service, but being able to walk to the center is worth its time/weight/applicable unit in gold. Just don’t try to drive. I did last year, and it was a bitch finding parking. Just don’t bother.
9. Be Prepared to Spend a lot of Money
I always go to PAX with a vague idea of how much I’m willing to spend. I bite the bullet and just assume I’m going to walk away broke. And that’s fine, I’m prepared for it. Between tickets, the hotel, swag, food, what have you – you will drop a lot of cash. However, if you know you’re willing to spend it, then you don’t have to feel guilty. The Halo 5: Guardians booth was giving out lanyards to anyone who waited in line to play the demo. Every time I made it down there, they were out, so on Saturday night I saw someone else wearing a lanyard and offered him $20 for it on the spot. He forked the lanyard right over. Is this lanyard that’s currently holding my work badge worth $20? Probably not, but I was willing to spend it and I’m really happy I was able to get my hands on it.
10. Different Ways of Approaching Cosplay
At my first PAX, I ran into a woman named Holly Conrad dressed as Commander Shepard. She looked amazing, and for several years after that I was almost desperate to find a way to match that quality of costuming. Last year, I discovered that there’s a really fine balance between amazing cosplay and PAX enjoyment; when you decide to go with that quality of costuming, you sacrifice a lot of the convention. Most serious cosplayers have a handler – someone to walk around with them, carrying their things and basically handling them, like the Secret Service. If you have the time, money and skill to make that kind of costume, I’m sure it’s worth it. However, when I dressed as Rhydnara Sveinsdottir, 9th century Danish Jarl last year, I didn’t have a handler.
My costume may not have been as involved as Holly’s, but it was involved enough that it impacted my enjoyment of the con. On Sunday last year, I ditched the costume and just wore a Mass Effect t-shirt instead. Needless to say, I had a much better time that way. With that in mind, the genius folks over at BioWare have been working on a clothing line they call “Hidden cosplay.” These are garments that look slightly similar to elements in their games (I’m sure everyone’s seen an N7 hoodie), which make the wearer both easily recognizable and capable of walking around without a handler. I decided to go with the Cassandra Believer Plate Hoodie, and diehard fans of the series still recognized me.
I was still jealous of the people decked out as Empress Selene or Cullen Rutherford (which lead to some sexual confusion for me, as this Cullen was played by a woman), but these cosplayers were being mobbed for pictures and weren’t able to walk around like a regular fan. It’s a trade off, and as I’m not super talented with a sewing machine or moldable plexiglass, I have a better time sticking with the hoodies. Then again, I was quoted $500 for a set of Shepard armor of the same quality as Holly’s…so I may take them up on that offer in the near future. Sometimes I like to be silly with my money.
11. Make Sure to Have Friends Who Can Get You Tickets
I work for a government contractor, so the PAX website is blocked during the day. PAX tickets sold out within a half hour, but I was lucky enough to have several friends who camped the website when tickets went on sale. Otherwise, I’d have to get tickets from a scalper, and that is both expensive and dangerous. The PAX moderators have been trying to crack down on scalping, and you run the risk of being permanently banned from the con if you’re caught. In other words, try networking to get your tickets.
12. Be Assertive
I’d almost use the word aggressive, but remember, everyone is your friend. Instead of being aggressive, be assertive in lines. A lot of the time, there won’t be an organized line, but rather a blob of people trying to get someone’s attention. I was able to interact with so many BioWare employees because I was assertive. Instead of standing in the back, waiting for the crowd to disperse, I got right in the front and grabbed their attention.
If you see a free space near the front, take it; otherwise, you’ll never get a chance to bubble about your favorite game or hug one of your personal heroes. That being said, follow Wheaton’s Law, too: Don’t be a dick about it. If you’ve grabbed five or ten minutes of their time, let someone else bask in the glow of their presence (it’s really hard not to be a creepy fangirl sometimes).
13. Ward Yourself Against the PAX Plague
Squeeze ten thousand plus people in the same building, and you’re asking for a plague. I have a habit of getting really sick the week before PAX, so by the time I make it to Boston, my immune system is on high alert. Still, make sure to wash your hands regularly and respect the PAX handshake; instead of shaking hands, bump elbows. No, really. That’s the recommended way to do it.
14. You’re Going to Have to Stand in Line at Some Point
There’s no way of getting around it. Ironically, if you’re a woman, you probably won’t have to wait in line to use the bathroom. If you’re a guy, you probably will. There are numerous ways to pass the time while you’re in line, but please avoid using these for the bathroom. Bring a pack of cards, or a simple board game (not Arkham Horror), or just chat with other queuers.
15. Don’t Worry About ‘Breaking Into the Industry’
There are always panels and discussions about how to get involved in game development. A huge part of BioWare’s presence at the convention was recruitment, I suspect because they’re starting a brand new IP. However, after talking with Mike Laidlaw (the creative director of Dragon Age: Inquisition), I realized that I don’t want to be a part of it. What I always get out of games is the emotional impact of the story. That’s why I’m so invested in Halo, Dragon Age, The Elder Scrolls, and Mass Effect. I couldn’t care less about game play; it’s all about the story for me.
Mike confirmed what I already suspected: being directly involved in game development changes that emotional impact. If I had the ability to change the story, or affect its outcome in any way, I wouldn’t get the impact. It’s okay to just enjoy it from a fan’s perspective. If it was up to me, my Inquisitor wouldn’t do anything other than sleep with Cullen, Thane would survive Kepral’s Syndrome and Jacob Taylor wouldn’t even exist. Oh, and the Dragonborn would be able to marry Ulfric Stormcloak. Do you see how this could ruin the story? Leave the games to the developers. Although I’m pretty sure my Inquisitor, an abrasive atheist, would make the best Divine.
16. Beware of Spoilers (This Paragraph Contains Spoilers)
When you’re hanging out at a specific booth for that new game you can’t wait for, be aware that spoilers will probably abound. Some booths will let you know that there may be spoilers, but not all. Also keep that in mind when talking to other fans. I ran into someone dressed as Merrill from Dragon Age 2, and accidentally spoiled that the tattoos the Dalish wear are actually slave markings. I’m the terrible kind of person that doesn’t just read the last page before starting a book, but actually reads a full summary before opening the book, so I’m a lot less careful about spoilers than I should be. My advice is don’t be me, and be careful with what you overhear.
17. Be Prepared for BioWare to be Amazing
No, this isn’t actually a tip or trick. But allow me to fangirl for a bit about my time in the BioWare base. The BioWare employees are extremely friendly and approachable, and I am blessed to be a fan of such a company.
I had the ability to have a conversation with Mike Laidlaw about why BioWare includes so much diversity in their games. Inquisition broke serious barriers by introducing a trans character, alluding to BDSM, masturbation, and conversion therapy. I asked Mike why they included so much in their games, and he echoed pretty much everyone else there in that they do it because they can.
BioWare is dedicated to introducing these controversial topics – not because they want to hurt anyone, but because it’s right. To quote him specifically, “This won’t make everyone happy, but this will make someone happy.” Their goal is to normalize these basic aspects of human nature in a safe and welcoming environment.
Besides talking about such serious topics as human sexuality and faith (which was a big risk for them, considering the approach to the Chantry and how your Inquisitor can basically abandon religion completely), I was also able to just geek out with them. I showed off a piece of embroidery I’m working on featuring a Qunari quote from Inquisition, and Patrick Weekes, a lead writer for Dragon Age and Mass Effect, fist bumped me.
I chatted with Billy Buskell, an associate producer, about our mutual love for Halo, and I introduced him to the Forerunner Saga books by Greg Bear. A few years ago I actually criticized Patrick about his approach to biology in Mass Effect, and how he almost got it right. Just like every other PAX attendee, the BioWare employees are geeks just like you and me.
18. Lastly, Go Home
I hate hanging out with a friend when the night just drags on. I’m always the one to leave first, or just cut something short. Lingering at PAX is not a good thing to do. We all wish it could last forever, but you need to remember that it’ll come again next year. When you’ve done everything you set out to do – not everything there IS to do, because that’s impossible – head home. Get back to your normal life. It’s ok to be sad that it’s over, but be glad it happened, and look forward to next year.
Whether you follow my advice or not, rest assured that you’ll have fun in some way, shape, or form. PAX is always the highlight of my year, and hopefully next year will be even better. Maybe I’ll finally do that panel, but if not, I’ll probably just camp the BioWare Base again.
This post was written by Guest Contributor Rhydnara