Why I love PAX (and why I won’t likely go back)

When I first attended PAX in 2009, I had already been a fan of the comic for around six years. The business model that Mike and Jerry had of creating content and giving it away for free was inspiring to me, I loved their response to Jack Thompson, I was a staunch supporter of their charity, and I just generally wanted to meet them. I had an absolutely amazing time, and I knew I wanted to go back.

It took me a couple of years, but I applied to be an Enforcer and I joined the volunteer staff in 2011 at PAX East. Enforcers are the ones who make the show work. There are generally 7-900 Enforcers running every PAX, and it’s a special group of people. They work hard because they love the show and the people who attend and each other. PAX and Enforcers are inseparable; PAX wouldn’t be what it is without Enforcers, and vice-versa.

The slogan of PAX is “Welcome Home,” and I truly felt that in 2009. For a lot of us, we grew up on the fringes of society. We were nerds, freaks, and outcasts. But at PAX, we were normal. We were suddenly surrounded by 60,000 other people just like us. We all shared similar interests, and similar backgrounds, and similar hopes and dreams for the future. For such a large event, it is always shockingly civil, and it’s just a wonderful, supportive environment.

That environment has only improved, in my estimation, over the last few years. I’ve now worked at four PAX Easts (I missed 2014), and I have observed the show welcoming more and more people in. We have introduced the Diversity Lounge for people who are looking for a specific and safe place where they can feel accepted. We have the AFK Room for people who feel overwhelmed or are struggling with something mentally or emotionally and just want to get away or need someone to talk with. We have designated a transgender bathroom. I see more LGBTQIA people at PAX being open and comfortable than anywhere else I have been. PAX welcomes them too. It is home, and no one is relegated to the fringes there. Even when there’s drama or conflict, the Enforcers rally to make the show better the next year.

We all know that conflict and drama happens, and I’m not going to write about anything specific. I will share that I’ve seen the response of the staff from behind the curtain, though, and it is always above-board. Both Penny-Arcade and the Enforcers care tremendously about people feeling disenfranchised, belittled, excluded, hurt, etc., because we want PAX to be a safe place for everyone. We work actively to make that happen. Every year, there are accusations that come up and questions about why PA doesn’t do anything about it. You don’t usually hear those complaints two years later, though, because by the next PAX, it has been resolved.

All this to say, PAX is awesome. The people I worked with are awesome. And I really love both Penny-Arcade and the Penny-Arcade Expo.

But I won’t likely be going back.

Being at PAX in 2009 was like finding home. It’s weird to think that was only six years ago, and to realize how incredibly much I have changed in that six years. April and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary a couple of months ago, in January, which is to say that I was already married when I went to that first PAX. I’d had my job for two years before that first PAX. I had already been involved in church ministry by the time of that first PAX. We had been home-owners for a year. If I were to make a checklist of the things that should have made me feel comfortable and secure, I should have been able to check all those boxes… but I didn’t feel comfortable, and six years ago PAX in 2009 helped me take a step forward.

When I Enforced in 2013, I began to realize I was already changing. Previously, I’d had a fever, and the only prescription was more PAX. By 2013, my fever had broken. I was beginning to value myself more, and my time, and I was beginning to realize what I really wanted to do with my life. When I went in 2013, it felt more like visiting home after college; it was still home, but I’d built a new life elsewhere.

This year, at PAX East 2015, I was able to confirm that feeling. It no longer felt like home to me. It was still great, and I enjoyed seeing the people I knew from years previous, and I had a good time, but I’m so much more mentally and emotionally healthy than I was in 2009 (just as I was healthier in 2009 than I had been in 2003!). I love that PAX exists, and I hope it can be a bit of home for other people. But I have a new home now. I love being at home in Springfield with my wife, being at our house with our dog and two cats, reading quietly or going for walks or seeing friends for board games or movies. I’m no longer on the fringe, not even a little. I’m centered now.

There are a couple of other factors that will keep me from returning to PAX. As much as I love Enforcers as a group, and there are people I know there that I like a lot, no real lasting relationships have come out of Enforcing. I don’t have any pen pals, or people I talk with on the phone. I’ve tried writing a few, but received no consistent responses, and I just don’t have time to sit in IRC regularly. Over the last year or two, I have become more deliberate in my relationships, and everyone I meet through PAX is going to be a long-distance friendship at best. I’m OK with that, and I maintain several long-distance friendships, but it has to be reciprocal and I’m just not seeing that reciprocity from anyone. Beyond that, it was cheap for me this year due to frequent flyer miles, but even with a free flight and sharing a hotel room with three other people, the trip still cost me almost $700. If I’d had to buy plane tickets, it would have been over $1000, and not sharing a hotel room would have put that closer to $2000. With relationships being one of the most important facets of life to me, it doesn’t seem wise to pay $700-2000 per year for 3 days of reconnecting with people who I like but don’t have a connection with the other 362 days of the year.

I’ve also become more cognizant of the gap between me and (what seems to be) most of the Enforcers. There are Enforcers who are older than me, but it doesn’t seem like there are very many. Several I worked with this year were ten years (or more!) younger than me. And for a lot of them, they’re there because of all the reasons I am, but they also want to get into the industry. Or maybe I should say The Industry. They want to work in gaming, and they’re starting college or are a couple of years in, and they’re trying to figure out how to break into The Industry, and that’s just not me. I’ve got a well-established career, and I work in a different field, and I have a wife and family and circle of friends that is completely divorced from PAX.

I enjoyed being an Enforcer this year more than any year previous, but that was only because I only spent around 3 hours a day at the show, did my shift, then left. I spent the rest of the time reading, or talking with people in the bar, or visiting with friends. What makes up PAX as a show isn’t of interest to me anymore: I don’t like Expo Hall (why spend 3 hours waiting in line to play a game? I know what I like, and if I want to play it, I’ll get it when it comes out); I don’t like tabletop or other gaming because gaming for me is about the chatter and relationship building, and I don’t do that with strangers; and I don’t like attending presentations or panels because they’re rarely of interest to me (because, again, I don’t want to get into The Industry).

Subsequently, I won’t be returning as an attendee either. There’s a slim chance I could return as a presenter or exhibitor because I’ve talked with a few people about doing project management for indie game companies, but that seems pretty unlikely at this point. I have a great job and very little free time, so there’s no incentive for me to pursue that work, and I don’t think it will happen otherwise. But you never know what the future may hold.

So that’s it. PAX East 2015 was fantastic, and the show ran surprisingly well considering how understaffed we were (a lot of Enforcers didn’t make it due to weather and transportation problems). I love PAX and all it stands for and how people feel comfortable there. It was great for me at a time in my life when I really, desperately needed it. But I’m different now; healthier and more whole, partly because of PAX and the Enforcers. I am glad that PAX can be there for other people, but unless there’s suddenly a PAX St. Louis or PAX Kansas City, or I mysteriously find myself working in The Industry despite my lack of intent to do so, I doubt I’ll return.

I am glad to leave behind a bit of a legacy. There are people who know me as dmmagic, or DM for short, and that warms my heart. A tradition I started in 2013 of Post-PAX Waffles has continued at other PAXes without my knowledge or involvement, and has even started to spread to other conventions altogether. I have incredibly fond memories of a lot of people, and I hope they have wonderful, magical, blessed lives. I hope we meet each other again someday.

For me, for now, I am home.

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