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PAX-demic West impressions: Creating fun out of thin, masked air


SEATTLE—From the ongoing wreckage of a variant-riddled pandemic comes… a modest, regional, and relatively fun nerd convention.

My perspective on PAX West, arguably the largest Northwest expo dedicated to gaming culture, is biased by the lines, crowds, and hype I’ve seen attached to every incarnation since its first downtown Seattle sellout in 2007. Back then, the show was firmly attached to the webcomic Penny Arcade (also a Seattle creation), but the show’s reputation grew quickly enough to become a multi-day, multi-building extravaganza.

Ever since, the fest formula has been increasingly divorced from its comic origins. The PAX model has officially duplicated and been liberally borrowed in other regions. In recent years, of course, a little worldwide dilemma got in the way.

This year, PAX has beaten most other wildly visible American nerd expos to the punch of putting the “public” back into “public expo.” Their plan was set into motion back when vaccination rates and optimism made Labor Day 2021 seem like a solid time to try again. But, uh, yeah—about that.

An anecdotal crowd estimate on day one

I have now survived three direct delta exposures in the past month (leading me to a weekly nose-swab testing regimen, all negative, all good). I also do not have any regular contact with vulnerable populations like kids. So when the start of PAX finally arrived, I decided to mask up and dive in. The result, at least on PAX West 2021’s first of four days, was weird. It was uneasy. Yet, it was somehow also cozy, relatively comfortable, and fun.

This PAX, like most PAXes, is split clearly between two parts. First, there’s the vendor-filled expo hall full of brand-new games, hands-on demos, and mountains of merch. Elsewhere, you can find the DIY play spaces, buttressed by TVs, consoles, large tables, and massive lending libraries of board and tabletop games. Both are a lot less crowded this time around.

How much less crowded? It’s hard to say. PAX’s showrunners made clear that they were reducing maximum attendance for this year’s show, so the smaller crowds are to some extent intentional. Up until the show’s opening hour, however, single-day and full-weekend passes were still on sale. My eyeball estimate of the main expo hall’s queue, ahead of the show’s 10 a.m. start on Friday, reached approximately 3,000 showgoers. That’s a decent crowd, sure, but not the 10,000-plus I’ve regularly seen line up on an average PAX West morning.

100% mask compliance, thank goodness

Sadly, PAX’s organizers at ReedPOP elected to block off some considerably large spaces in the convention center’s main exhibitor hall instead of using them to organically spread booths out—and better guarantee six feet of social distancing. A few marked queues inside the hall suggest staying six feet away from others, but the occasional mass of bodies near, say, a game demo is bunched enough to make me hope the show’s 100% mask compliance, and proof of vaccination or recent COVID tests, is doing the trick.

It’s at least refreshing to know complete mask compliance can happen in America, all noses properly tucked in even. Bless PAX’s gamers for getting this right (at least, from what I saw in the show’s first morning and afternoon, though believe me, I spent hours hunting for violations).

Ultimately, this PAX is far less crowded on a between-booth basis than years past. Smaller attendance is winning out. Worth noting: two maskless food court centers sit directly next to this hall’s mask-mandated paths, full of chairs and with a decent space buffer from masked folks. This doesn’t mean anyone is spitting particles less than six feet away from a gaming booth, but part of me wishes these zones were shifted to the expo hall’s barricaded, blacked out zone—where I would have preferred people eat in shame (kidding, kind of).

Some DIY-gaming support, but less than usual

In years past, I maintained that the more fun PAX experience comes not from its gargantuan lines and hype-filled demos, but from its DIY elements. This year, the hype-filled demo options are pretty much nil, so if you’re coming to PAX-demic West, you’re forced to take my advice by default.

PAX West continues to fuel this side of the experience by offering massive lending libraries across the gaming spectrum, all available on a one-per-attendee basis. Console “free play” rooms offer every system imaginable, from a PS5 to a Nintendo Entertainment System, and discs, cartridges, and controllers to match. A massive computer lab comes stocked with powerful machines and a seemingly infinite selection of software—along with networked opportunities to face off in specific games at various hours.

And the show’s tabletop lounge continues to operate with hundreds of open-box board games, plus a massive, dedicated Magic: The Gathering space. If you and your friends have been eager to test a rare or expensive board game, like Wasteland Express, Tokyo Highway, or anything from Ars’s regular best-of lists, before plunking down cash, this year’s PAX West still has your back. But the same cannot be said for the show’s usual variety of tabletop games, particularly massive war games like Warhammer. You can find ways to spin up Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, but not with its creators’ official massive support like at previous PAXes.

The main exhibitor hall, on the other hand, has sputtered out into a ditch compared to years past. The chicken-and-egg argument of what came first—lower attendance or fewer known companies participating—is arguably up to much deeper analysis than I can access. Either way, the result is a bummer omelet, one in which only Bandai Namco counts as a triple-A publisher. Sadly, that company only brought a single game to show off, the RPG sequel Tales of Arise—fine stuff if you’ve played Tales games before, I suppose.

An unwelcome speedrunning record

But if you come to PAX in search of previous show highlights, like experimental VR, last-minute teases of the year’s biggest console releases, the official presence of any console manufacturer, or even a crowded “megabooth” of critically acclaimed indies, brace yourself for a big goose egg. I still managed to have fun sampling a few indies on the show floor, particularly Cursed to Golf, a charming roguelike that combines Golf Story with Spelunky and has already landed on my gonna-buy list. But my exhibition hall “lap,” complete with game demos and merchandise perusal, took less than two hours. That’s a personal PAX speedrunning record, and I don’t say that as a compliment.

The galleries through this article includes some show highlights, including inventive cosplay, a $1,300, 20-sided die made of incredibly heavy tungsten, and a solid selection of nicely made gamer merchandise. But it’s not the show’s usual feast of the senses, and its roster of discussion panels severely lacks the name recognition of prior PAXes. In good news for delta-conscious gamers, all of these panels are streaming via PAX’s Twitch channel, should you wish to tune in and support compelling topics like inclusion and diversity among various gaming trades.

As is, this downgraded show’s best potential rests in its ability to support a DIY gaming spirit, and that may very well have to be the model for public gaming and nerd expos for the foreseeable future. If triple-A gaming publishers can’t staff up to make public splashes out of their next big things, then you and your friends will have to look for your own surprises. Shows like PAX can still create the perfect environment for that by supplying borrowable games, massive tables, clear masking and vaccine-testing policies, and like-minded, health-conscious nerds ready to fill in any empty spots in video or board games.

Listing image by Sam Machkovech


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