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Being A History Of A Nerd Gathering

Let’s get one thing clear about PAX East 2010 and me — going in, I knew to a certain extent that this event isn’t for me. I’m not part of the gamer tribe by nature; I haven’t owned a console since my siblings and I were joint owners of an Atari 2600. Sure, I’ve logged respectable hours in the Civilization series and have almost finished Osmos, but I have (gasp, horror) never played any kind of musical hero game, any MMPORG, and am only barely aware of the terms “aggro” and “mobs”. Nevertheless, the staff and attendees of PAX East seemingly went out of their way to make me feel at home; this event was a culture made physical, one where anybody is welcome to plant stakes and live, or just visit for as long as they like.

The Spine of PAX

Pick a random direction while at PAX East, and look down it. Three, four, five … you’re counting the number of Enforcers, volunteer staffers that keep things running smoothly. More than that, they are the finest group of con volunteers I have ever encountered, and a standard to which every other show should aspire. I asked nearly every one I encountered How long have you been Enforcing, and got an even split between This is my first time and Oh, I started at PAX the {second|third|fourth} year and just kept with it. Once an Enforcer, it seems, always an Enforcer.

Talking on this point with a young lady named (per her badge) Jorunn, she kept coming back to what she described as A year-round brother- and sisterhood; brilliantly, crucially, the PAX coordinators have made Enforcing not something that you attend a couple of volunteer meetings and then do for a weekend — it’s a self-sustaining community, with the convention duty only being the part most visible to civilians.

This permanent sense of family (there were about 400 Enforcers on duty for the weekend) has resulted in the best, most effective con volunteer staff I’ve ever seen. We’ve all seen con volunteers who’ve eventually come to the conclusion that they’re the most important person on the floor, and act like it … they throw their weight around, the attendees come to resent them, the poisonous attitudes become almost visible. Enforcers treat attendees Like you’re guests in my house, and I want everybody to have a good time. That’s my job.

That sense of hospitality comes across, and from making announcements that capacity on a session had been reached to line-wrangling, or even apologizing for disorganization, the attitude of the Enforcers made it only right for the attendees to respond like gracious guests who don’t want to put their hosts out. The organizers past (Amber Fechko) and present (Jeff Kalles, Kristen Linsday, Robert Khoo, Lance Fensterman from Reed Exhibitions) were unanimous in their praise for the Enforcers, and every one that I met (Haikon, Gwyn, Mojo, and dozens more) merited that praise.

Ambassador? I Hardly Know Her!

There were a lot of media at PAX East — a lot a lot. Joshua Price, wrangler of we ink- and pixel-stained wretches, put our count around 680 (meaning if you took that random look in any direction, there would be about 1.5 yellow MEDIA badges for every Enforcer, but we thankfully don’t stand out). Just about every single one of them (particularly those that don’t cover the corners of the culture that PAX most thoroughly intersects) wanted face time with The Big Names (Gabe, Tycho, Wil, JoCo, and suchlike), who naturally cannot be all places at all times.

For such circumstances, there was an on-call Media Ambassador, a handsome man named Kris Straub. In between interacting with his own fans, Straub was dashing off to answer questions, do on-camera interviews, and in his words, Be Mike and Jerry when they can’t be there. Given that local cable reporters and the Boston Globe didn’t run vicious distortions about all the freaks who like videogames, it would appear that his ambassading was pretty successful.

Run, Coward!

Games were everywhere, as one might expect. But for those of us of a certain age, the greatest corner of PAX East might have been the classic arcade set up in a room on the third floor — classic arcade machines, lovingly restored and set for permanent free play. I’m proud to report that Sinistar kicked my ass just as thoroughly as when I was 12, and that Dragon’s Lair remained as impenetrably frustrating to me as the day I resolved that dropping a quarter every 20 seconds wasn’t a good use of my allowance. As one person observing the play remarked, it really is like navigating a DVD for entertainment.

One Sharp-Dressed Motherscratcher

Of course, not all could run perfectly; the greatest challenge to the show was the venue itself. The Hynes Convention Center is laid out like a concert hall, with sweeping hallways and high ceilings more suited to a stately procession of medium-sized crowds, rather than a press of people trying to get into the main hall via the same physical space as tables occupied by MC Frontalot, JoCo, Paul and Storm, Scott Kurtz, and Wil Wheaton have fans lined up around corners and through various chokepoints.

The space just didn’t work for the size and kind of crowd that was present, and the fact that it didn’t end up in stampedes and riots comes back to the dedication of Enforcers and the willingness of the crowds to work with them. Fortunately, the three-year deal between PAX and Boston permits the show to shift to the much larger Boston Convention Center, which is laid out in the more traditional big honkin’ room with long straight hallways model, which should make logistics easier.

But no matter how well prepared, any event that large has the potential to turn to disaster in a moment, and on top of it were the Access All Areas staff, with the biggest problems no doubt finding their way back to Penny Arcade President of Business Development Robert Khoo. Anybody that’s seen the Penny Arcade TV series knows what Khoo brings to the table and what he expects from those that work for him.

Speaking with Amber Fechko (who ran the first three iterations of PAX), was given a perfect example of what a difficult undertaking such a large show is to run smoothly: Fechko left Penny Arcade and is now in the first year of a combined MD/PhD program. As some of you may know, I went to nerd school and have multiple personal acquaintances who breezed through engineering programs only to be brought up short by med school; not one of them was foolish enough to try to become a medical doctor at the same time as getting a PhD in neuroscience.

Guys, Amber spends her time doing brain surgery on moths so she can remotely direct their flight with a wireless XBox controller. To get them to survive the surgery, she puts them in a controlled-stimulus environment to make them think that they haven’t become cyborgs. She has invented The Moth Matrix in her first year.

This work (which to my eye may lead some day to Nobel Prizes) she charitably allows is somewhat harder than working for Khoo at Penny Arcade.

Unhurried, unflabble, wearing an impeccably-tailored double-vented suit, Khoo floated from potential crisis to potential crisis, always apologizing for having to leave our conversation. Given the level of work, skill, and dedication that he is able to muster from his people, we should all be grateful that the empire he has set out to build occupies a niche of popular culture and its devotees. Were he to set his sights on the geopolitical situation, we’re talking supervillian-grade abilities. I exaggerate somewhat.

There Were Also Webcomics

But this has gone on long enough, so we’ll get to those tomorrow. In the meantime, check out the relaunched Wigu, because it kicks ass.

[…] but there were comicky types there as well; the previously mentioned Kris Straub, when not ambassading, plied his wares (including the too-awesome How The Jinxlets Saved The Space Zoo coloring book) […]

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[…] has a post about PAX East 2010 if you’re curious about how it’s […]

As an Enforcer I would like to thank you for your very kind words. And it’s true, once an Enforcer, always an Enforcer. This was my first year as well, but I cant imagine having experienced PAX any other way. I am most surely looking forward to the years ahead of being an Enforcer and chilling with the new friends and family I have.

[…] Krahulik is one table away with his wife, Kara, along with Robert Khoo and onetime PAX-wrangler Amber Fechko. She’s getting close to finishing medical school and her PhD, hoping to stay in Seattle for […]

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