Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dispatch from #PAX -- Part 1

Friday, 11:00a.

I am sitting by myself on a cold, concrete floor, surrounded by thousands of busy, bubbling strangers with shiny electronic devices in their hands and little picture-cards meticulously placed around them on the floor. I do not yet know who I am.

While my posterior slowly falls asleep, I gather what I know about myself and try to organize the facts into some sort of meaning. I am a geek in many ways: I can tell you why nobody can accurately reproduce a Stradivarius violin (it's the varnish--nobody knows what's in it); I can properly use a semicolon in a complex list; and I will always take pains to insist that the fourth game in the King's Quest series is called The Perils of Rosella, and that it was the first computer RPG to feature a female protagonist. (I also know how to use words like "protagonist.") While these bits of niche trivia are occasionally handy, it occurs to me that they are but the merest shadow of the collective niche knowledge in the room. This is, after all, a gaming convention. The sheer volume of rules, procedures, and facts that the couple sitting next to me must keep in their heads at any given time is awe-inspiring. They are playing Magic. It has been fifteen years since I have seen anyone playing Magic. There are thousands of couples just like them, all around me.

I have made the mistake of coming alone to this event. I figured there might be some other loners, considering the sometimes solitary nature of gaming. I was entirely wrong about this. Looking at the line around me, I feel like the only person who has come here alone. I feel strange standing up by myself to let the blood flow back into my arse, so I halfheartedly do some kind of yoga stretch whenever I start to lose feeling in my buttocks. There is some comfort in the fact that I do have at least one friend attending the event, and while I wait, I discover (through the magic of Facebook) that there will be at least one more. I wonder if I will find them easily among these tens of thousands of unfamiliar faces.

One of the games I've brought in my bag might give me a little bit of geek-cred. It's a second edition of Fluxx, by Looney Labs. I used to play it a lot when I was in high school. Unfortunately, it requires friends to play. I also brought Set (which is probably not worth any geek pointz) which I also played a lot of in high school. If I weren't so introverted, I probably would have met someone in line to play with by now. Yes, that's right. An introvert came to a gaming convention alone. I feel like that's the punchline to something, but the only possible joke is my life. Being on the periphery of the periphery reminds me that I've always lived with one foot in each of two worlds--races, classes, spheres of societal influence. Now this: I'm geek/not-geek. I'm here, but I don't belong.

(Much of this was written while sitting in line, so I'm going to add an editor's note here. Pro tip: sitting on concrete saps your joie de vivre. AVOID.)

An enforcer (what they call the volunteers they have to answer questions and herd cats) walks through the crowd shouting for Jacob Wilson. After each repetition of his name, some wise guy shouts things like, "Your Mom's here!" or "You forgot your lunch!" and people laugh. Sometimes applause erupts, and I worry that I'm missing enforcers spiriting Wil Wheaton through some hidden door. Most of the reason I decided to come in the first place was because he said he'd be doing the keynote. The applause, however, is usually because someone has managed to take down one of the oddly flimsy metal line barriers--the material is strong, but the construction is faulty. The crossbars are very easily knocked off the posts. Other times, the applause is for some kind of game that's being projected on the wall across the room from where I'm sitting. People are standing and waving their arms. Enforcers are also walking around handing out small prizes for trivia contests.

Strains of rock music ("Carry On Wayward Son," among others) float up out of nowhere and die out as quickly as they arose. Roving camera crews pump up the crowd as they pass through the doors. They have to set up for the keynote, so they get to go first. When the door opens to let them through, the crowd doesn't need any more pumping up. There is a guy playing that sailor jig on a concertina just because he can. They are excited. They are passionate. They are one hundred percent ready to not be sitting on concrete anymore, and so am I.

Friday 2:00

When the doors open, it is a mad dash to get inside, but we are all hurrying up to wait. Once you enter the main hallway, there is a set of escalators going up to the main theater, where the keynote will be. I can see the bottom of the escalator when a man in a blue sweater cuts the line off, starting with me. There are too many people on the escalator. They will be utterly screwed if it stops, so they decide to let people up in waves. I am the very first person in the second wave.