Off Main: PAX Expo in Boston offers a glimpse of the future

Last modified: Sunday, March 22, 2015
Every March or April for the past five years, I’ve headed down to Boston to glimpse the future of video games.

No crystal ball is involved. Instead, I attend the PAX East expo, a gargantuan gathering that fills the city’s convention center for three days of out-and-out geekery. Video game (and board game) developers and publishers tout their new and upcoming wares. Players compete in tournaments. Game designers talk about their art and craft in panel discussions.

People dress up like their favorite video game characters, too.

Every year while at PAX East, I look for trends. When you have more than 70,000 people crowding a space over the long weekend, along with hundreds upon hundreds of games on display, it’s natural to search for order in the chaos. And we’re living in a game-saturated society. Everyone has little time-wasting puzzles downloaded on their mobile phones or tablets. Many own a video game system – some model of Wii, PlayStation or Xbox.

So what’s coming up? What do you – and I – have to look forward to?

Virtual reality is real

Have you heard of Oculus? You will. It’s a company owned by Facebook that’s making virtual reality headsets. You can’t buy them easily, as the technology is still under development. But there should be an early model (using a Samsung mobile phone) available commercially by the end of the year.

Oculus is pursuing more than that, though. It’s also developing headsets powered by PCs. And would-be competitors are getting into the virtual reality space, including Sony and game company Valve.

It sounds very late ’90s, but virtual reality is coming. Wearers of these headsets will be able to look around – and in some cases interact with – a virtual space. Games are being developed for the technology, along with movies and (of course) pornography.

Oculus had a major presence at PAX, and early versions of its headsets were showing up at other companies’ booths, too.

Given the number of players in the field, both developing hardware and software, you can count on virtual reality becoming a big deal over the next couple of years. One of your kids or your spouse will be dropping serious hints come holiday time. But will VR ultimately be a genuine phenomenon or just a fad?

We’ll have to wait and see.

Diversity is a flashpoint

The PAX in PAX East stands for Penny Arcade Expo. It’s named after a popular video game-themed webcomic by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik.

While the convention has always attracted a diverse crowd – men, women, straight, gay, white, black – its founders have occasionally crossed lines with comments about rape and transgender people. The two have taken a lower profile at the event in recent years, but they still raise the hackles of some progressive gamers.

Over the last year, though, “Gamergate” has added fuel to the fire. An online movement supposedly focused on ethics, Gamergate has instead seen supporters harassing high-profile women in the industry. Anita Sarkeesian, a critic, and Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn, both game developers, have garnered huge amounts of negative attention. What have they done to deserve it? Challenging the overwhelmingly white and male perspective undergirding the game industry.

Wu’s company, Giant Spacekat, didn’t attend PAX East this year because of safety concerns. She wanted extra security and said event organizers weren’t responsive. She did, however, attend the convention to speak on a panel.

Indie games are the new American Dream

Every one of the conventions I’ve attended has gone out of its way to highlight independent games. These are the creations of smaller development studios, sometimes only a couple of people.

As PAX East has grown and changed since its debut in 2010, the indie games have dramatically increased in number, quality and depth. As the biggest players in the industry have turned to sequel after sequel – take the 500 “Call of Duty” games – developers with modest resources have started driving both innovation and conversation.

Kickstarter has helped. While game makers once needed investment from a publisher to move forward, now they can ask the public at large to assist. While some Kickstarted projects have fizzled, others (“Divinity: Original Sin,” multiple projects from San Francisco developer Double Fine) have become high-profile hits.

Everything can be game-ified

PAX proves that nearly everything can be viewed through the lens of video games.

Video game-themed clothes? They have bunches of those. Music? They feature full concerts of video game-themed tunes. Mental health? There was a booth advertising therapy through games. Religion? I was handed a tract about how Jesus was a most righteous gamer.

And while diversity might be a sore spot (as mentioned above), PAX also includes an LGBT-focused “diversity lounge.” It includes a bunch of bean bags and booths featuring comics, clothes and conversation. My husband, our son and I spent a lot of time there when we weren’t venturing out onto the deafening main show floor.

The kids are all right

Video games and those who play them can be dismissed. They’re escapist, some say. They’re vapid. They waste time. They’re isolating.

Attending the convention puts these tired tropes to rest. Indie games dealing with the heaviest of themes (suicide, war, mental illness) are anything but escapist or vapid. Astonishing works of expression and creativity do anything but waste players’ time.

And as thousands of people converge on a single convention center in Boston, video games are anything but isolating. They actually form a community that, at its best, transcends petty griping and everyday responsibilities. The community isn’t perfect. Indeed, much can and should be done to make it more accepting to all kinds of games and gamers.

But as I watched the multitudes pour through the hallways and main floor at PAX, I didn’t see a mass of sameness. I saw an exciting heterogeneity coming into its own.

(Clay Wirestone can be reached at 369-3305, cwirestone@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @claywires.)