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What Penny Arcade Expo Did For Me

I spent a large part of this past weekend attending my very first Penny Arcade Expo, affectionately known as PAX. A couple of my amazing friends had asked me about going to the convention a couple months back, and when I realized I’d have some extra money kicking around, I spontaneously decided to join them for the weekend.

I could wax poetic for hours about all of the awesome moments I got to experience over those three wonderful days. After years of waiting, I finally got to see Starcraft 2 in a playable format. I got to play Beatles Rock Band before its release. I got to play Dominion with THE Mike Krahulik, and win at it! I saw Jonathan Coulton and Paul and Storm sing a song to Wil Wheaton, and was filled up with the glee of seeing Wil’s unadulterated joy and excitement during that moment. I spent the whole weekend laughing and playing with some of the most excellent people I know, and met some truly excellent new people, too.

But, that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the effect PAX had on me. Going to PAX made me realize two important things:

PAX made me realize that I am, have always been, and will likely always be, a gamer. This probably sounds like an obvious revelation for someone who consciously chose to attend a gaming convention, but for me, it was almost a shock to realize.

See, I haven’t exactly been a huge gamer, over the past couple of years. My last serious foray into gaming was when I was very into World of Warcraft, playing the game on a daily basis for a solid year, until late Spring of 2006. At that point, I scaled back my WoW time a bit, in favor of preparing for an upcoming wushu tournament, and not long after the tournament, I ended a 6-year relationship. My life changed drastically enough in the few months that followed that I simply quit WoW entirely.

In fact, I didn’t play many games at all, for a while there. I just wasn’t feeling the mojo, and it seemed like something that I’d only done because my Ex did it, too, so I didn’t even want to touch it. My other former boyfriends had been gamers, too, so it seemed like something that belonged to them more than it did to me. I’d hear my mother’s voice in the back of my head, telling me that I’m “too old” for games, and making me feel like less of an adult, and less of a woman, for wanting to play them. I told myself that I didn’t want to spend my whole life chained to a desk at my job by day, and then willingly chained to my at-home desk by night playing games.

And the silly thing is, even though I’d been drawn into any number of games, such as WoW, Sims 1 and 2, Starcraft, D&D and D20 roleplaying groups, Diablo, DDR, Robo Rally, even Magic: The Gathering, I’d never really considered myself a capital-G Gamer. A geek, sure; a nerd, yes; a dork? Most definitely. But, never a Gamer. Even though I was president of the Gaming Club at my college one year, I was still never as hardcore into a given game as the guy or girl next to me. I didn’t buy all of the source books, or have all the rules memorized, or know all the latest news or trivia, so I considered myself to be Less Than, as a gamer.

In light of that, I had more than a few reservations about going to PAX. I didn’t want to go there and be the girl who was dressed too well and knew too little, the girl who’d simply tagged along with her gamer buddies, or, lord forbid, The Resident N00b. Lord knows I spend enough of my time feeling like an outsider; I certainly don’t need to pay for the privilege.

Thing is, when I got to PAX, everyone was just so… NICE. Nary a negative word was spoken. I went up and talked to strangers of my own volition, and they welcomed it. I didn’t feel that fear of sounding like some dorky kid-in-an-adult’s-body when I talked to them, because these people GET IT. And they don’t crap on your head for knowing less than they do; they’re just glad to share that enthusiasm with you.

The moment that really brought it all together for me, however, was the final round of the Omegathon. It wasn’t simply that it was the last event of the weekend, it was finding out that the final game of PAX’s ultimate gaming competition was… SKEE-BALL. That’s when it hit me: gaming isn’t just about having the most fleshed-out role-playing character, or having the best gear on your level-80, or unlocking every last secret achievement. I’d been a gamer all my life, and I had never let myself believe it until then.

I was a gamer when I struggled to gain PvP ranks in WoW, with a wushu tournament looming over my head. I was a gamer when I was drawing my Spycraft character in my roleplaying binder, because I wanted to see what she looked like that badly. I was a gamer when I dressed up as Xianghua–the Soul Calibur III black-and-white costume–and even most of my software programmer co-workers didn’t get the reference. I was a gamer when I ducked down to the student union between classes to sneak in a round of Dance Dance Revolution. I was a gamer when I stayed up entire nights in the dorms, playing round after round of Starcraft, and then sleeping through class the next day.

I was a gamer when I crocheted my own dice bag. I was a gamer when my best friend downloaded Paperboy on MAME, and we laughed for hours over how much we sucked at it. I was a gamer when I tried to cobble together my green-and-white Magic deck on a nonexistent budget. I was a gamer when my dad caught me swearing for the first time, after a bad round of Street Fighter II. I was a gamer when stayed up all night with my two best friends in middle school, beating the hell out of Altered Beast and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker on my Sega Genesis. I was a gamer when the other kids headed for the ball crawl, and I made a beeline for Galaga. I was a gamer when I camped out on the NES at my neighbor’s house, because my parents wouldn’t buy me one of my own. I was a gamer when I played Solarquest, and Scattergories, and Parcheesi with my folks in elementary school, because I had no other friends to play with.

I’ve always been a gamer. And I’ve ALWAYS loved it. And now, I think I can comfortably say it.

The other important thing that PAX did for me? Simply put, PAX made me want to play more games.

Games haven’t been such a presence in my life, over the past couple years. My boyfriend and I moved to Portland started our own business just over two years ago, so I’ve been working at that, while holding down a full-time job, and training in wushu 3 nights a week. These were all things I either needed or wanted to do, and a girl only has so much energy, and so many hours in the day. Something had to give, and that something ended up being gaming.

Being at PAX, however, made me realize that I miss gaming. Fact is, I’ve had a lot of good times when I was gaming, and it wasn’t just about the game itself. It was the opportunity to share the joy of gaming with other people. It was doing something positive with people I enjoy spending time with, having an excuse for us all to get together, and having something that we could all get excited about. It was being part of the culture.

I’m excited about the prospect of playing Starcraft 2. I’m excited about vocal harmonies in Beatles Rock Band. I want to play Dominion again, and see if I can keep winning at it. I even want to buy the dance game for the Wii that I demo-ed at PAX, even though I was terrible at it. I want to see where this culture of gaming will go in the future, and I do want to be part of it.

I probably still won’t play games quite as much as I did back in the day, because, yeah, still working my ass off over here. But, I will absolutely play them, and I’ll enjoy them without guilt or remorse. And I won’t feel like I’m wasting my life by doing so, just because I feel like having some genuine, honest-to-god FUN today. If you can’t have fun every so often, then what’s the point of living?

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