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Opinion: The pandemic PAX - Relearning how to gather in a dangerous world

"A back-to-basics convention that actually did seem—whether accidentally or otherwise—to put meaningful interactions between people first."

I really didn’t think it was going to happen. After a year and a half of cancellations, staying at home, bad news, and a collective unwillingness to absorb or trust good news, it just didn’t feel safe to rely on the idea that PAX West was going to happen. But it did.

I attended all four days and immersed myself in a convention experience that was, at once, a striking return to form and a slightly surreal and pared-back experience. The theme this year was “Camp PAX,” with merch emphasizing a camping theme. Its jokey tagline “The Great Indoors” may have been a gag about our nerdy predilections for sunless rooms, but it turned out to be a strikingly apposite way of celebrating our return to a space that had been denied to us by a worldwide pandemic for more than a year and a half. I had, indeed, missed the Great Indoors.

That pandemic, however, is far from over. On the long and unpaved road to COVID-19’s endemicity, the US stands amidst a surge in COVID’s Delta variant that may only just be starting to crest. Bowing to that reality, PAX belatedly imposed a vaccination/negative-test requirement for the convention—and at least one attendee told me she’d not have come but for that requirement. Yet there are no straightforward stories about the COVID pandemic; no morality tale or denialist paean can capture the remorseless amorality of an infectious disease. There is a surge; yet Seattle is one of the most vaccinated large cities in the country. Vaccines aren’t perfect; yet they’re far and away the strongest single intervention against the disease. Gathering is extraordinarily risky; it is also extraordinarily human. Our individual choices don’t just affect us; but the most impactful choices are those taken by governments and corporations.

So, what was the pandemic PAX like? There are two stories I could tell.

***

The first story would go something like this: There is something unseemly about the persistence of this event above many others. What could be more frivolous and non-essential than a video game fan convention, after all? In the middle of a pandemic that has claimed millions of lives around the world, one often finds herself asking about any banal activity: is this worth dying for?

The convention’s expo hall was much diminished this year, its great corporate cathedrals lying empty and despoiled under the harsh lighting of a strangely too-bright space. The ‘big names’ were largely absent; only Bandai Namco had a pavilion that evoked the Before Times PAX to show off their forthcoming JRPG Tales of Arise. And yet we had still come in our thousands to worship, to adorn ourselves and genuflect for all the old pointless rituals that the past year and a half should’ve told us were nigh on meaningless.

In a weak moment I found myself humming an appropriately-Seattle tune:

I feel stupid and contagious/ Here we are now, entertain us.

***

I could make that particular morality play the entire article and leave it there. But it does a great disservice to the complicated truths I spoke of earlier, where this pandemic denies us the comfort of a simple tale.

The second story I could tell is, thus, an infinitely truer one.

Much as I want to write beautiful invective tearing PAX and ReedPop a new one for profits-before-people corporatism, the reality of this convention was starkly different. A back-to-basics convention that actually did seem—whether accidentally or otherwise—to put meaningful interactions between people first, where reduced capacity actually did many favors for the experience.

Without those grand corporate temples I mentioned—whose absence, by the by, was angrily lamented by some gamers on social media—the focus shifted powerfully to what PAX was always meant to be. One former PAX executive I spoke to told me, at great length, that the purpose of the convention was not to mimic E3 but to bring people together and get them talking, in-person, drawing together fans and hobbyists from all over the world, from all walks of life, who might share an interest in something as esoteric as EVE Online’s economy. That aspect of PAX was as strong and vibrant as ever.

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If there ever was a soul lurking somewhere in PAX’s expo halls, it was a stronger presence this year, like an old and frightened ghost that had been chased away by strobe lights and bass all these years finally peeking her head out.

I played my share of games and made a few ill-advised purchases at Sanshee, per usual. But what made the experience truly sing was the presence of other people, the serendipity of bumping into old friends at the elevators or wandering the expo hall together. The delightful strangeness of some people’s cosplay, from Princess Peach in a powdered pink business suit, to a young woman dressed as a turret from Portal, to someone whose costume I can’t begin to describe, wandering around with a marker board tallying upvotes in a strange poll that asked whether human beings were straws. There were casual chats and strange encounters (a Chessex salesman wordlessly handed me a block of dice for some reason), surprisingly emotional meetings with friends old and new, happy surprises from people I didn’t expect to see at all, the rush one feels around a board gaming table when something funny or exciting happens. And then there was the impromptu Pokemon meetup, in the park outside the convention centre. It was all gloriously non-essential.

Conventions and conferences thrive precisely because they are in-person social events; reducing them merely to the exchange of information on panels is, and remains, a profound disservice. Such events are as much about atmosphere and creating propitious conditions for informal social gatherings. The pandemic has forced a useful discussion about the darker side of all this, naturally. Zoom has allowed certain people with disabilities to participate in events and discussions they might otherwise have been functionally barred from; many of my own colleagues also noted that we were far less likely to be sexually harassed or groped or drugged at an online convention; some sober friends noted there was infinitely less pressure to drink alcohol.

Yet, many of those same people attended this PAX with a sense of palpable relief. Those discussions remain as urgent as ever; the opportunity to re-imagine conventions remains with us and should not be squandered. Similarly, we should not lose sight of the sheer importance of gathering in-person. What it enables remains magical.

***

I was joined in that opinion by many of the exhibitors, who I made a point of speaking to on the matter, awkwardly brushing off reporter skills I’d not used in over two years. Fortunately, awkward returns to form were the order of the day. No one I spoke to had an unkind word to say about the convention itself or the feeling of being back in attendance. The most ambivalent and loaded adjective that came up time and time again was “weird”—one exhibitor told me that it was “nice and strange” to be back as she helped at a stall selling D&D-themed merchandise. Another told me that “something about sharing the same space is inspiring,” while another, a game developer, said that they had “a lot of mixed feelings but it’s good to be back.”

On the virus itself there was resolution. “Of course, there’s a certain amount of nervousness,” Bryan Scheidler, the creator of the indie board game The Treasure of Montecristo Island told me, “but I missed [cons]. It’s been hard to share the game with the world when people couldn’t touch it.” Scheidler, like others I spoke with, offered unprompted praise for PAX West’s policies, saying he felt safer because of them.

But it was L. Stephanie Tait, the project manager and producer for that game, who offered me one of the most moving reflections I had heard at the entire convention. She confessed to me that she was immunocompromised—“I have no immune system,” she told me, almost self-effacingly, “but one of the most important things about game development is co-working and co-creation. I miss being able to co-create, and sometimes that means having a conversation face to face.” She gestured at the table she and her colleagues had set up for demoing the board game—a co-op adventure game that sees the players take on the roles of a diverse crew hunting for treasure on an island and trying to thwart an NPC thief. Quoting a relative of hers, she added, “I can either be weird about it or find a way to exist in this space.”

Tait went on to discuss the importance of gathering in person to play, noting that especially for board games, much was lost in an online-only experience. It was a fact I was reminded of when I played Montecristo Island myself and had the joy of rolling dice with complete strangers for the first time in years. The game itself is a charming romp that lends itself to the kind of comical ad hoc storytelling that good board games excel at, with gorgeously characterful art by Brian Carroll, Tait’s husband. As Tait told me how she overcame her fears of these sorts of gatherings she kept returning to how much she loved the work she and her colleagues did, and how rewarding it was to see it blossom in person. Like others, she also, without prompting, praised PAX’s vaccine and mask mandates.

By Monday morning, their booth had sold out of all the games and expansions they’d brought with them.

***

It’s worth noting that fact because Good Nerd Bad Nerd Games, the small company behind Montecristo, had pride of place on the expo hall floor next to one of the entrances. They sat alongside several other smaller board game publishers, like Lone Shark Games who also did well for themselves at the con. Without Activision or Ubisoft to suck all the air out of the expo hall there was more room for a little board game with a big heart to flourish. That, too, was to the credit of this PAX West.

I often thought back to L. Stephanie Tait’s aphorism about “finding a way to exist in the space” and her determination to find a way to trust such spaces again. I realized it’s what I was trying to do, and it was a way of looking at this strange situation that I empathized with. If COVID-19 cannot be eradicated, then we will have to be willing to negotiate with ourselves about balancing risk-tolerance with the perfectly human need to gather with our fellows. There will be no choice from here on out but to think along these lines. To find a way to exist, as Tait said.

There was nothing meanspirited in her words, just simple joy and hope—of a character that I thought had nearly gone extinct after a relentless year. But I was repeatedly reminded that there is a difference between meeting people in person and hearing them rant on Twitter, where the latter rewards rage and absolutism, despair and nihilism. That, indeed, is the other great virtue of getting back out into a world of socialising face-to-face: reminding yourself that we are, collectively, something more than that great sewer of emotional desolation that is social media.

***

Of all the adjectives I could use to describe the four strangely relaxed days of PAX West, the one I kept coming back to was “healing.” It’s a strange word to use for a convention where it is nearly inevitable that someone will get COVID-19.

In addition to that risk, however, was a rejuvenation of my mental health that was undeniable. 

And I wasn’t alone in thinking so. Many of the devs and exhibitors I spoke to talked at length about how good it was to return to the space. One developer described his excitement at calling out to the first people he saw after the expo hall doors opened to say “Hey! Want to try our game?” It was like the showmanship never left him, he said.

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Try as we might, these are not sensations easily recreated on Zoom, our shared digital purgatory. Vital a link as it has been, it was only just that: an emergency tether meant to desperately lash us to some semblance of the social interactions that make life meaningful. Those of us in videogame land were, perhaps, most poised to make the best of it; we’re used to making friends who exist only in text-boxes and on voice chat. But PAX was and remains a monument to the virtues of seeing one another in-person, for one ineffable experience after another.

The vaccine/negative test mandate made it possible to do this as safely as could be managed. Going into PAX my biggest concern was that allowing people to submit a negative COVID test each morning would be a loophole that would allow the virus to gain a strong foothold. But I learned from the Enforcers that there was a separate verification system for each. People who were two weeks post-full-vaccination were given black wristbands. People who were not fully vaccinated and/or submitted a negative test were given a different color wristband for each day of the convention.

Every single wristband I saw was black. Anecdotally, from the Enforcers I spoke with who managed the queues for each panel, the brightly colored negative test wristbands were found on fewer than 1 percent of attendees—at least, as these Enforcers perceived it. Every time I stopped to look it was black wristbands as far as the eye could see. And mask compliance was robust, with few if any lapses.

One exhibitor at Fangamer I spoke to half-jokingly lamented that he hadn’t seen a single smile all weekend. I beamed behind my N95 and traced my smile across it with my index finger and said, “Well now you can say you saw at least one!”

***

As important as masking was to give an added layer of protection to people like Tait, vaccination was the keystone. And its uptake was impressive. The wristband could only be tightened, not loosened. And while there were a tiny number of reports of people Houdini-ing their way out of them (I learned of four from knowledgeable sources), most of us kept ours on all weekend. When I finally cut mine off ahead of a Rosh Hashanah dinner, it felt like breaking the seal of a ritual. Appropriate before a prayer to seal myself in the book of life, I suppose.

Here in King County, where the convention is held, cases are still in the low hundreds per day, with the overwhelming majority among the unvaccinated. Meanwhile, as of this writing, 78 percent of the county’s 12-and-over population is fully vaccinated. Speaking of prayers, I suspect almost everyone in attendance was, like me, muttering a few silent ones each day we walked into the convention. We all hoped that we would not join any of the fell statistics we’ve all been obsessively tracking since March 2020. Was it worth it?

Amidst the unending hell of the pandemic, it can be easy for some to forget what we’ve spent the last year fighting for: to save lives and race toward the ability to meet and gather once more. It is also easy for some to forget that there will be no flipping of a switch, no single moment when everyone feels safe amidst such gatherings. Camp PAX’s intimacy was no failing, despite the caterwauling of some Redditors who seem not to understand the immense toll that ongoing border closures, travel restrictions, and the Delta variant itself, claim on such events. That PAX happened at all was a small miracle; that it retained its essence as a gathering was nothing short of magical.

It was also good because a smaller event was, simply, safer and more approachable for some. I’m keenly aware of the fact that the enthusiastic devs and exhibitors I interviewed are a self-selected group. Those who feel very differently, who thought PAX irresponsible, or who felt unsafe, simply weren’t in attendance at all. But this slow, steady, turning up of a dial is what we can expect over the next two years as the world staggers towards endemic, vaccine-mediated COVID. People will only feel safe when they are ready, and these adjustments are all occurring on different schedules, built around different needs—a crucial point to bear in mind as school begins again with vast, unvaccinated classrooms in many countries.

For those of us who opted to take the risk, PAX was perhaps more rewarding than it had ever been. The lighter workload was a blessing for many exhibitors and Enforcers. The greater distance between booths—intended for social distancing—ended up being a boon for disabled people; there was more space than ever for wheelchairs, more room for autistic people like me to not constantly bump into people or get stuck in immobile crowds. Two meters of space is not meaningfully protective from COVID in an indoor space. Vaccines and masks are, in that order. But it was good to see that the added space was useful, nevertheless. It’s worth maintaining in the future.

To talk of the benefits of this convention is to find words failing. But there is a qualitative difference between saying certain things on FaceTime and saying so in person when you can hold hands, hear each other’s laughter, and experience the irreplaceable motility of wandering. The worst thing about Zoom was that there was no sense of place to it. The Zoom classroom was the same as Zoom happy hour, which was the same as Zoom with one’s family, which was the same as Zoom therapy, and Zoom yoga, and Zoom work meetings, and Zoom karaoke, and Zoom everything else. When you ended your call, you were in the same chair you’d been in for months, in the same room of the same apartment or house. Simply being someplace where scenery goes by, where there is serendipity and transience, where you’re not always looking at the same thing endlessly is, I’ve realized, a blessing beyond measure. And PAX had that in abundance this year.

Steering between the Scylla and Charybdis of these contradictions—of risk and humanity—at our differing speeds in our wildly different ships, is what it will mean to relearn how to live as this virus becomes endemic.

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