I gotta give credit to the guys behind the Penny Arcade webcomic. Not only do they have one of the most popular gamer oriented webcomics around, but they’ve lived every geek’s dream by starting their own gaming convention known as the “Penny Arcade Expo” or PAX for short. It’s only been around for a few years, but it’s grown year by year hitting a record of 58,000 attendees this year. Hardware and software companies make it a point to attend and show off their latest wares to the hardest of the hard core gamers. Even going so far as to drop out of other industry sponsored events, such as E3, in order to focus on this one. Journalists refer to it as the “Geek Burning Man Event” because they’re not really sure how else to describe it. It’s exactly the sort of convention I dreamed of when I was a teenager myself.
One of these days I’d like to make it out to a PAX, but that wasn’t possible this year so I have to live it vicariously through press coverage and one of the better articles I’ve read in terms of giving you a feel for what it was like is this one at ArsTechnica. Here’s a snip from Bioshock creator Ken Levine’s keynote address:
Instead of talking about his latest game, he talks about growing up young and nerdy, of being ashamed of his enthusiasm for comic books and games like Dungeons and Dragons. He talks about how the issues dealt with in favorite comics like Spiderman may have made him feel more grown-up than his peers, while noting that he was mocked for his choice of reading material.
He describes his first Dungeons and Dragons source book, read under the sheets in the dead of night, as if it was pornography that he was afraid to be caught with. He describes how the gift of an Atari system one Hanukkah changed his life. “This was my Nerd Siberia,” he tells the packed auditorium, as they nod in understanding. No friends. Picked on at school. Ashamed of a growing comic book collection.
He shows a picture of Farrah Fawcett. “Believe me, this was the shit back in the ‘70s,” he says, before changing the slide to a scantily clad illustration. “Me? I wanted to fuck the Scarlet Witch.” The room erupts.
[…] “After many years running from things I love, it’s amazing to come here and see what Gabe and Tycho and so many others have built together,” he said. “We are united by a common element, but it’s not the color of our skin or our ideology or politics,” he went on, his voice rising. “What brings us together at PAX is that we are a giant bunch of fucking nerds.” The kids sitting to the right of me, wearing Magic: The Gathering shirts and suffering through what looked like hard bouts of acne, almost bowl me over as they rush to stand up, applaud, and cheer. I believe one of them is crying.
I’m welling up just thinking about it. These are my people.
It’s amazing to me to think of how this wouldn’t have been at all possible without the rise of the Internet. I was lucky as a geeky teenager in that growing up in Pontiac Michigan the schools were large enough that finding other geeks to befriend wasn’t that difficult. It also helped that I decided to run a Bulletin Board System (BBS) on my Commodore 64 starting in early 1981, which pretty much guaranteed I’d hook up with other geeks. By the end of my freshmen year of high school I was fortunate to have a core group of good friends who were into many of the same things I was: video games, computers, Dungeons & Dragons (and a dozen other RPGs), and Sci-Fi/Fantasy books and movies. We spent countless hours hanging out between school and work playing marathon sessions – upwards of 12 to 15 hours at a time on weekends – of video games or pen and paper RPGs. We managed to find our way onto the Internet thanks to some of us going off to college long before it went mainstream in 1996. I can only imagine what trying to access the Net today on a Commodore 64 with a 300 baud modem would be like. There was no World Wide Web back then and we had no idea of the revolution that was to come, but we glimpsed the potential in how it enabled us to contact other geeks from all over the world.
Had you asked me then if I could foresee a day when a couple of geeks would achieve a massive following for a comic strip they gave away for free that would start their own gaming convention that would attract tens of thousands of geeks yearly along with a charity that would raise tons of money for children’s hospitals (they also started Child’s Play which raised 1.3 million dollars last year) I’d have probably laughed at the thought that there were enough geeks in the world to make something like that possible. Behold the Power of the Internet!
I suppose this is a very long-winded way of saying just how much I envy the geeks of today. We would’ve given our left nut for a convention like PAX back in my youth. OK maybe not our left nut, but certainly a leg or a foot. Not an arm though cause we’d need that to work the joysticks.