How PAX East 2018 Got Inclusion Right

Attending events alone can invoke that dreaded feeling of FOMO – Fear of Missing Out. With the Penny Arcade Expo West (PAX West) recently announced and selling out, my experience of PAX East 2018 has been on my mind. How did the general vibe and environment feel to an introvert such as myself?

When I attend events for work, I often go alone. As a introvert, this isn’t something I usually mind: during the actual travel time and in the evenings are the perfect time for me to wander an unfamiliar city on my own or play games without feeling like I’m neglecting my cats or husband… It’s normally quite lovely. But events are social places, and seeing groups of friends and coworkers wandering with one another, especially at long gaming conventions like this week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (or E3 for short), can make even an introvert such as myself feel a little bit of that social Fear of Missing Out. With the Penny Arcade Expo West (PAX West) getting officially announced and sold out recently, I’ve been thinking about my experiences at PAX East earlier this year.

I find that when in events where I’m alone, whether it’s a convention for work or even something as simple as a large party, I start asking myself lots of questions. Here are some of the questions I asked myself at PAX East this year:

  • Should I be more social?
  • Should I make small talk?
  • Am I going to end up by myself the whole time?
  • Am I weird if I do want to just be by myself at least some of the time? Should I find a lunch buddy?
  • How do I start talking to a person I don’t know? Who can I share my stories with when I get back? Will anyone even know what I’m referring to?AmIworryingtoomuch?

For me, events like PAX are like a good dessert: sometimes it’s fun to share with others! I often feel like I miss out on the camaraderie that comes from having friends to discover games and experience the show floor with.

At the same time: I really like dessert (especially ice cream), and I don’t necessarily want to share. Having the freedom to wander and explore at my leisure is quite nice!

The balance can be hard to find.

Inclusion on the PAX East Show Floor

PAX East felt different for me because than other shows because of the energy and sense of community, particularly found in the various indie game sections of the show floor. I’ve heard from others that attendees at game conventions can feel comfortable in “letting our nerd flags fly…”but I don’t think that’s the sole reason this PAX felt so enjoyable to me.

There have been many an industry event where I’ve felt out of place. But, even walking solo, I was pleasantly surprised that the feeling of “social FOMO” didn’t crop up. No flurry of questions in my brain analyzing if I fit in. No concern of whether or not I should engage with people. Why did I feel so comfortable? Because the developers and booth attendants modeled inclusive, community building behaviors.

Walking up to the booth for Floor Kids, a breakdance battle game by Merj Media, the first sight that caught my eye was the devs near the outer edges of their booth area, drawing people in. While one of them danced and sang to entertain waiting players, another walked up to me. He was welcoming (but not overbearingly so), and asked me how my day was going, if I had any questions. Not only did he treat me like someone who actually knows how to hold a controller (some people like to assume I don’t know how to play games), but in noticing I was on my own, made a point to ask if I wanted to play the game, saying he understood if I just wanted to watch. Once I said I wanted to play, he made sure I was paired with another person to play with, introducing us by name and getting us started. This process took away so many of the potentially awkward moments!

The Floor Kids team made sure everyone at their booth got at least a “hello.” They shared dance moves, and even got folks dancing to music from their game. Perhaps this was just their strategic marketing tactic? Regardless, I felt welcome there. I saw others smile and relax, removing that “constantly searching” vibe people tend to get on the show floor, and many of these people stuck around for further conversation. Even more interestingly? I felt that positive vibe move beyond the Floor Kids booth into the surrounding areas, and when I saw some of those same people elsewhere on the show floor (even days later), we recognized each other with at least a smile and wave.

Watching the good energy flow

This good energy wasn’t a isolated incident. Numerous other booths practiced this sort of welcoming, laid back, community-building behavior, and as a result, many of the the attendees reflected the vibe. Attendees opened up, moving aside for one another, and asking folks around them if they’d had a turn yet getting to play the featured game. I felt like this was no random occurance of people generally being nice: by the developers, initiating and modeling inclusion, it set the baseline for the attendees.In many ways, it felt less sales-y and more intimate, like friends showing off their (really, really) cool projects.

In this sea of people, you could see pockets of mini “booth communities” ebbing and flowing, and there was a “passing of the torch” I found happen at many of the indie game booths: as one group finished up, they’d naturally bring another roaming group into the space to keep the energy going. People were excited to be there and to share in discovery together.

“Ah, are you really liking Super Darryl Deluxe? Sweet! I’ve gotta check it out!”

“Oh, wait, if you liked this game, you’ll love Semblance! It’s just around the corner!”

“There’s this really cute game way in the back over there…if you’ve got time, you should try their demo!”

“Really? Okay, thanks, I’ll have to find it!”

This kind of commentary surrounding games was and music to my ears. Did all of these people know each other? Nope. Was there an obligation to stick together after meeting at the booth? Not at all. Just a sense that were we all there to find something we love and enjoy sharing stories of our discoveries. Having positive booth facilitators helps with that, and the indie devs of PAX East, along with their teams, were overall great facilitators at their tables.

Remembering why it’s important

I won’t pretend that PAX East was perfect. Of course, not every single booth in the show floor had this inclusive, community-oriented atmosphere. For all the inclusion I experienced, the show floor itself lacked diversity: it felt mainly attended by a predominantly white, upper-middle class crowd. But maybe by creating more warm, welcoming spaces where anyone can feel comfortable experiencing a game on their own terms, we’ll see greater diversity in attendance. We spend a lot of time focusing on the negative moments in gaming, but it’s important to highlight the positives as well. I left PAX East more excited for my next gaming convention because I played great games AND because the developers made me feel like I belonged in that space. With more gaming events like that, we’ll all have plenty more positive stories to share.

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