New York, San Diego, Austin, Boston, Atlanta. If you are a fan of national conventions, these are probably the cities you have searched for on Kayak, along with tens of thousands of other attendees. This weekend saw Boston host PAX East, the largest video game convention on the East Coast.
Since 2010 it has drawn game fanatics and industry exhibitors from around the world. But what about the fans that are already in the area?
All cons have a local contingent, and that can change the experience from expensive weekend getaway to ultimate staycation. Besides the sheer convenience of being able to head to your own house after hours on the floor and never needing to buy the overpriced travel size of the item you forgot, there is a sense of pride and responsibility that comes with being from the host city. From neighborhood exhibitors to those visiting after time away, the floor this weekend was filled with local ambassadors who took it upon themselves to show hometown hospitality.
If you stopped by the Nobody Ever Respects Dorks Society (N.E.R.D.S.) booth, Gregory Nuñez may have given you a bit of local wit along with one of their high-style gamer tee, packaged in boxes reminiscent of classic Nintendo cartridges. “I feel as though as far as interactions go I give a piece of Boston to anybody I meet no matter where they’re from,” he said, straightening his display. The company is out of New Jersey, but Nuñez lives just outside of Boston.
“I ask them where they’re from, you know, I give them a hard time. I kinda let them know how fast and slick that we are, from Massachusetts. Also we’re very friendly, very smiley, we like to get to know people through pretty much giving each other a hard time.” He explained further, “I feel like I get to know people more by saying ‘Where did you get that shirt from, that’s horrible, you might as well get on of our shirts versus just like ‘Hey everything’s so nice and uh, take a look at our brand!’ I feel like you get more realistic people that way.” At this point, a large group of shoppers were starting to crowd the tables so I left Nuñez to give them a taste of Boston salesmanship.
Though N.E.R.D.S. had to truck their goods from out of state, Jamie York of Game Underground — an arcade and video game store that hosts game tournaments in the nearby town of Natick – was thrilled to be only a half hour out from the show. We chatted while several employees helped the lines of people searching through their large selection of games that ranged from original Playstation to Wii U. “Having PAX East in Boston is one of the most important things of the entire year for Game Underground,” York said as he checked inventory under the table. “Having this be affordable to travel to and sell games really helps our company.” It’s not all business, though. I had been by the booth several times during the weekend and he was constantly being pulled aside by other parties. “I get to see all my friends here as well people like D1, who’s a Smash Bros commentator. That I get to see him, where he used to be from around the area and now lives far away, it’s really cool.” Rather than hoping that you will run into someone, being local means that everyone is already seeking you out as their “inside man”. But in a 20,000 person convention this means getting the same where to eat/stay/party questions multiple times a day, every day.
And being seen as an expert on the area does not mean that someone has all the answers. All major cities have a few characteristics that everyone will ask about, and in Boston that meant the single digit weather attendees faced. When asked if there was anything particularly weird that people wanted to know, York laughed. “I talked to a lot of people from Florida and things like that, they’re like ‘What am I supposed to do? I’m so cold’ and I don’t know man! I left my coat in the car and just trudged out here. I don’t know what you want from me.”
If you have moved away from your major city but find it hosting your industry’s major convention, it can end up a great chance to kill two birds with one stone. In a tech hub like Boston, game developers like Harmonix (Rock Band, Guitar Hero) use local talent. Sean Baptiste started off at the first in Community Development and is now down South, working as the Product Marketing Manager at Adult Swim Games and co-hosting their Lunchtime Games stream. He also moderated the always hilarious “Foreplay: Romance in Video Games” panel. For him, coming back showed how much he had changed. Physiologically.
“It’s really interesting coming back for a convention, I’ve lived here like my entire life, but now I live in Atlanta. It’s currently in the 80s in Atlanta, it’s currently 9 degrees in Boston,” he said, chatting by the Rick and Morty VR demo.
“It’s like I came back to Boston and Boston’s like ‘Nah we don’t need you’. You move to Atlanta you get soft real quick to the cold. Like 50 degrees is very cold to me.” But when asked about how it felt to go to a convention and have everyone know that you have a history there, he got understandably nostalgic. “Boston is a place I deeply loved, it’s a place I lived for a very very very VERY long time. I would love to come when it’s warmer again. I can’t get a good lobster roll anywhere but here. And I’ve almost only eaten lobster rolls. And it’s good to run into friends,” he noted. “There’s such an amazing game development scene here, really vibrant and interesting, and I do feel a responsibility to the people who are still here to help out in any way I can.” Well, as long as that doesn’t involve asking about what to do in the immediate area.
“What can I do around the convention center? I’m like mmm, nothing” Baptiste says, throwing up his hands and shrugging. “You can go to the convention and then go anywhere else in the city.” He proceeds to rattle off local neighborhoods that require attendees to explore with purpose rather than just wander within walking distance. It’s no wonder that when you know how interesting your city is, you try and push people to realize it is more than just the convention center. And getting a taste of home was certainly high on the “in town for the weekend” list for Baptiste.
”The first thing we did when we got back was we had lunch in our hotel and they actually had a lobster roll on there,” he said, grinning wildly. “I ate the lobster roll and I actually started tearing up.” My face must have been all question marks, so he went into more detail. “First of all it was the best lobster roll I ever had. Second of all, it’s just– I missed it. I missed it so much. And I actually miss the saltiness sometimes. Understand that in Atlanta, people are real nice, and the southern hospitality is fantastic. It’s not stressful because everyone is nice all the time. But sometimes,” — he paused for a second to get the wording right — “You just want someone to call you out on your sh** and that’s the thing I get nostalgic for. I saw this bartender who refused to serve someone a Sambuca on ice because he was like ‘I’m not going to serve that, it ruins the Sambuca’ and I thought, ‘Yeah that’s Boston’. It’s opinionated and it’s loud and it gets fighty and I love it so much. But I get very emotional about that.”
On the last day, I happened to run into fellow Forces of Geek contributor Clay N. Ferno. He was working in another capacity, coordinating the post-PAX entertainment at clubs in the area. Besides trying out the next 6 months of new games, PAX has a long history of supporting the nerdcore and chiptunes community with concerts from genre legends like Mega Ran, MC Lars, The Protomen, and The Doubleclicks.
“It’s my responsibility, I take it very seriously,” he said, while we stood at the edge of an indie game area. “I’ve been doing it for almost 5 years now, trying to host a good afterparty for people that like the bands that play the PAX concert. We have a big show coming up Monday; we consistently try to provide entertainment for people in town after the show with the same bands that they like to see and play the PAX main stage. We host them for another night.” Clay is happy that PAX is in Boston, but his reasoning is more straightforward: “With the exception of New York Comic Con, I don’t really travel too much for conventions. I like to go home after the show.”
Local reviewer Bob Chipman (better known as Movie Bob) took a moment to chat with me outside of the journalism panel, one of the last of the weekend. He was upbeat about how strange but awesome it is to have the nerd industry on your doorstep. “It is still a surreal experience, because Boston is a major international cosmopolitan city but it’s also a place I’m in and around. And every year having so many people show up and fill up the city, who have these specific interests, it is a surreal experience because I walk in off the street and it’s like, ‘Hey it’s the Westin and the convention center! I know this place!’” as he gestures around at the hall, slowly emptying in the final hours of the con. “I mean, I’ve seen this place fill up for auto shows. And then to be walking around neighborhoods where I grew up and I travel every day, running on the Silver Line and the Blue Line (local bus and train routes); to see it fill up with cosplayers and people dressed up like Pokemon and Sailor Scouts just walking around. You get used to it after a little while, but then you’re on your way home and it’s like ‘okay no it’s no big deal just riding home on the train with Pikachu and Sailor Mars, no big whoop, this is happening’. It is a trip but it’s great for the city, it brings a lot of business.”
We talked more about the overlapping of the digital world and these brief opportunities to connect with each other offline. “It’s a fascinating and good experience to have in this weird industry that is so spread out digitally to have people that you know,” Chipman remarked. “You know them personally, you’ve met them, you’ve had dinner with them, but most of the time they’re a Twitter avatar or a Facebook person and then suddenly they’re like ‘oh hey we’re actually doing a show in the real space of town’ and it’s good for keeping that together. Because now more than ever you need to cultivate that personal connection in journalism, in this industry, and it’s hard to do without spaces like this where people can come in and just say ‘oh yes right, you exist as a real person’.”
As PAX wound down and everyone headed to their respective corners of the globe, there were promises to keep in touch with newfound friends. There were also confirmations of meetups in other convention hubs like New York City, Washington D.C., and Seattle. As quickly as the city had filled, it emptied out through trains, planes, and (for the regional) automobiles. But the hosting spirit never leaves; it just waits for the next excited group of out-of-towners.