What I Learned at PAX

I’m now home from the Penny Arcade Expo – PAX – the first non-academic, fan-type conference I’ve attended. I must say it was a lot more fun than the academic conferences I’ve been to. And, in many ways, more educational. In lieu of wading through the 79 emails in my inbox, I’ll offer some reflections on what I saw and did and thought. ‘Cause there was a lot.

One hour after leaving the hospital for car-accident-related injuries (minor whiplash), I got my picture taken with Jonathan Coulton.

Twenty minutes after that, I found myself talking to the lead writer of Mass Effect.

I saw tabletop gamers and LAN partiers and console jockeys and cosplayers of all shapes and sizes.

I overheard a tall, bespectacled Jedi musing over whether being a Jedi precluded him from whacking people with his lightsaber.

I smiled at and received a SWAG bag from a Booth Babe who knew nothing about the game she was advertising; she was a cosmotology student and a temp.

I smiled with hopefully not too much pity at another Booth Babe in approximately 8 square inches of vinyl who was trying very gamely to look like she was enjoying the leers she was getting from the boys walking by. For which leers she was ostensibly being paid to receive.

I put on some fancy glasses and saw Resident Evil 5 in shockingly effective 3D. (I still didn’t want to play it.)

I refused to wait in 2-hour lines to play the demos for Dragon Age: Origins and Left 4 Dead 2, but I dug their high-cost displays from afar.

I watched guys ride a mechanical bull that was done up as a fifteen-foot-long hell horse. I’m not sure what game that was affiliated with.

I saw my beloved Blizzard from the perspective of one of its competitors, and understood why it’s referred to by some industry insiders as the McDonald’s of gaming.

Then again, I drooled over Blizzard’s entire corner of the 94,800 sq. ft. main expo hall, which corner housed 54 computers for playable Starcraft II, Diablo III, and WoW Cataclysm demos. Each of which had a line of three players minimum at all times.

I was loudly enticed to try a Hello Kitty MMO, and felt happy that such a thing exists, even if I have zero interest in it.

I was loudly enticed to appreciate the macho badassery of the next Splinter Cell game, and cut a wide swath around their booth, and wished the slick announcer guy ill.

I killed three Klingon Warbirds and was proud of myself, because the little girl before me had gotten pwned, and age and gender mean shit in terms of gaming skill.

I went to a CCP/White Wolf after party, at which there was free booze and exotic dancers dressed like vampires juggling firey implements. Which is pretty reckless for vampires, come to think of it.

I tried to get Zaboo and Vork from The Guild to come with us to the CCP party, but they were too cool for me.

I watched Jerry “Tycho” Holkins and Mike “Gabe” Krahulik, the fathers and stars of the show, create this comic live, in front of 3,000 fans, with simultaneous Q&A.

I watched (and recorded) Tycho, a master wordsmith and personal hero, give a disappointing but unsurprising answer to Shawn’s question about how much he (Tycho) considers positionalities of race/class/gender when writing his cartoons.

I talked to the writers at the 1up.com booth about writing freelance reviews for them, and was excited to learn that they’re more interested in essays than reviews.

I listened to a presentation on “The Aesthetics of Play Control: The Role of User Interfaces in the Ongoing Discussion of Video Games as Art” by a guy with ink still drying on his Ph.D, and resolved to come back next year and do one of these panels my damn self.

I hung out with Robert Mull, former Coug and current Community Relations Director of EA Mythic (and a fine fellow indeed), and got not only amazing SWAG but also all manner of insider stories and introductions to insiders.

All in all, it was a swell time.

I went to PAX expecting to learn a little bit about what life is like on the other sides of this industry – namely, those of the developers and the media. To maybe feel out potential alternative career paths, should my upcoming round of academic applications fall flat. I did learn a lot about these paths, some of which info was exciting and some of which wasn’t. In the end, ironically, I felt more excited about the side I’m already on: academia’s unique privilege and freedom to analyze the place that videogames hold in our society.

The biggest question I wanted to answer was what the best position is to influence the evolution of videogames as art forms. My time studying videogames within the academy has convinced me that games are utilizing maybe 40% of their positive cultural potential – the potential to teach people valuable ideas and skills, to challenge their conceptions of themselves and others, to help reorient the power structures of the world. That sounds hyperbolic but isn’t: the videogame is a tremendously persuasive medium, because it absorbs its audience in ways that other media just can’t. If books and films and non-digital games can influence the world, videogames can too.

Of course, the most direct position from which to do this appears to be the inside: developers make the games, and they make all the decisions about what goes in them. Games are rhetorical artifacts, etc. But I learned that developers aren’t as free in their decisions as I had assumed. Almost every developer – all the big ones, anyway, who push the most successful titles – has all manner of creative constraints to deal with: the demands of corporate financiers, owners of intellectual property, retailers, hardware producers, players. As my friend and colleague Shawn Lamebull put it, they lack agency. In other words, they can change the status quo slowly at best, and most of the time indirectly.

On the other hand, academics, who are largely outside of the corporate complex and are (mostly) protected/emboldened by “academic freedom,” can speak a lot more directly about what’s going on. We can name the racisms of WoW and the sexisms of Mass Effect, not because we hate these texts, but because we love them and want them to do better. But I’ve long harbored a lot of anxiety about whether anyone’s listening to the academics, and my suspicion that the answer is “nobody” has been frequently confirmed. From the industry’s point of view, we’re talking above them, and our arguments about their ideologies overlook the fact that those ideologies are earning them a healthy bottom line. Or so they think.

But as Shawn and I sat through Daniel Gronsky, Ph.D’s presentation – at which there were several hundred more people in attendance than almost every academic conference presentation I’ve seen, and at 7:30 on Saturday night – it occurred to us that more connections need to be forged. The academics love games as much as the developers and the gaming media; we’re all players at the end of the day. We all want videogames to succeed and gain more societal respect. Sure, we have differences in training and perspective, but there’s plenty of common ground between us.

So what can academics do to connect with the industry, then? One insider I talked to provided two suggestions: to write more accessibly, and to aim our arguments at developers in a more realistic way. Suggestion 1 is already a major goal for yours truly, if you can’t already tell.  Suggestion 2 is tougher for us academics, because a lot of us are leftists, with major love/hate issues re capitalism. However, to the question of how changing X will sell more games, Shawn and I devised a pretty good answer: in terms of their narratives and representations of people’s identities – race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ability, etc. – game developers should want to get away from their status quo because it’ll open up new markets. Many developers are already doing this – Nintendo being the shining example – but most U.S. developers are still pretty much making games by and for young middle-class white guys. It’s widely acknowledged that way more people play videogames than this demographic. And really, honestly, our stories are starting to get played out. (To say nothing of their troubling political ties.)

What I ultimately learned at PAX, then, is that there’s no perfect position from which to shape videogames in a progressive way. Each one draws excellent, talented people; each one has its limitations. What needs to happen more, though, is discussion and creative collaboration between these people. I know this already happens: folks like Ian Bogost and groups like gameology.org and Terra Nova are crossing boundaries in a variety of cool ways. How it plays out for me remains to be seen (let me just finish this one thing first), but I’m excited about the possibilities. And I’ll definitely be at PAX again next year, on stage with some other academics and developers if I can help it. I’d say that’s a pretty good start.

5 comments

  1. Shawn says:

    As the would-be Crack-ademic (a term I am proposing to describe those folks who research that which they are addicted to), in cahoots with Herr Ritter I categorically agree with his descriptions.

    In addition, (and Chris correct me if I am wrong), we came to the conclusion that narratives from the fringe have the possibility of being more attractive to the consumptive mass of gamers…if not for any other reason than it is “new”, in the same way that Columbus “discovered” the “New World”. There are a number of issues that may arise due to this, but that is another collaboration for the “Critter” and I.

    I must gratuitously praise my compadre, for his cool under pressure (after we were struck from behind by a vehicle not more than 2 blocks from our hotel), his zeal, his drive for discourse and ability to withstand hours of military tales from a triad of Sgts.

    ~S~

  2. I was most pleased to read that other academics are starting to bring their discussions directly to gamers. I think that is the best way for you to engage directly with the developers and other armchair academics that might have some great insights. As Joss Whedon said, we should listen to everyone because the stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.

  3. Annie says:

    Beautifully written, Chris. I am so glad that you got so much from this conference. Your excitement is so obvious that it makes me feel like this kind of thing is really your calling.

  4. The Stupidest Person says:

    If my idea is the best can everyone stop calling me the stupidest person in the room? Please.

  5. collin says:

    Nice write-up…thanks!

    cgb

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