PAX East 2011 Part 1: Overview

Well, we’ve been home from PAX for a couple of days now.  I’ve had time to unpack all my swag and think about everything we saw and did.  So, let’s talk about it.

1. Staying at the Westin was the right choice and staying over Thursday night was even better.

Even though we live less than an hour from the convention center, Brian and I decided to get a room this year.  We thought it would be a nice little mini vacation for us.  Plus, after last year when we drove back and forth from the convention center, staying over seemed like a much better option.  We also got a room for Thursday night which turned out to be especially good since the convention started at 10 on Friday instead of 2 like last year.

By staying at the Westin, which is connected to the BCEC, we were able to pop back to our hotel room anytime we wanted and take a break or drop off swag (oh man, did I get some swag).

There were two main negatives to the Westin, though.

First, they charge for parking, even if you’re staying there.  That’s a load of crap. If you want to also open your parking garage up to people not staying at the hotel and charge them, that’s fine.  And to add insult to injury, it was $30 a night.  On top of your room cost.  Nonsense.

The second problem is that there aren’t a lot of food options in that part of town.  Granted, that’s not a problem limited to the Westin, but their room service selection for meals other than breakfast weren’t stellar either (Brian and I have never been afraid to order room service when there’s nothing else to eat).  I think next year we might request a fridge for our room and bring sandwich stuff with us. That way if can’t find something to have, we won’t be limited to granola bars.

2. The BCEC is a really awesome venue.

After being packed into the Hynes last year, the BCEC had a refreshing amount of space.  One of my biggest problems last year was sitting on the floor while in line.  By the end of the weekend, my back and hips were killing me.  I’m just not built to sit on a hard  concrete floor.  Almost all the hallways where lines were formed were carpeted and most of them had benches.  It was fantastic.

There was just a lot more space.  Even with 70,000 people, you could find quiet areas of the convention center to sit and relax. (This is especially nice when you’ve run into one of those people who has been up for 78 hours and hasn’t showered yet.) There was also plenty of tables and chairs for playing card or board games.  They have a library of board games which you can borrow, and a lot of people would get them set up and put up a sign that read “LFG”.  The rooms for panels were larger and could accommodate more people. It felt like there was just a ton more to see and do this year. I wound up being pretty overwhelmed with everything that I wanted to see.

The only negative, as I mentioned before, is the lack of proximity to food.  There has been talk of expanding the convention complex, which would be fantastic.  On the plus side, the Starbucks at the Westin was fantastic and it broke our streak of going on great vacations where we are completely unable to get a decent cup of coffee.

3. Jane McGonigal’s keynote was fantastic.

Last year for the inaugural  PAX East, Wil Wheaton gave the keynote address.  Now, I’ve got to tell you, that’s a hard act to follow.  He’s definitely a guy who is a wonderful public speaker and one who really knows his audience. Plus, y’know, he’s Wil Flippin’ Wheaton.

For those not familiar with her work, Jane McGonigal is into seeing how games actually make us better people and better at what we do.  She goes way further than, say, using Mavis Beacon to learn how to type.  Her whole idea is that the skills we learn and develop by playing games can be used in the “real world” to make a huge impact on our everyday lives.  Her book, Reality is Broken, came out in January and if you haven’t read it, I recommend it. (I actually haven’t finished reading it yet.  Standing in line waiting for the keynote, I had my iPad out and was reading on my Kindle app.  A few feet behind me, a guy had the book out and was about half way through.  It felt like we hadn’t read the book for the quiz.)

Jane has been everywhere lately.  She did a TED talk and was even on the Colbert Report.  Public speaking is certainly not a problem for her.  I think she also had the advantage at PAX of speaking to a group of people who are behind what she has to say 100%.  I imagine at a lot of her talks there must be a fair number of skeptics who think that playing games (and especially video games) is either escapism or at least a waste of time.  The PAX audience got to hear a speech based around the idea that we are all awesome and it’s in large part due to the hobbies we enjoy.  You really can’t go wrong with a subject like that.

4. I didn’t spend the entire weekend sitting in line.

When I really stopped to think about last year, I’m pretty sure I spent a total of about 8 to 10 hours in line.  The kicker is that other than the keynote, I didn’t see any panels last year.   This year, I spent a minimal amount of time in line.  Some of this was by choice (We opted not to go to the concert this year. More about that in a later post.) but most was by design.

The use of official Twitter feeds was amazing.  There was one feed that was exclusively for lines.  It would tell you if a particular panel’s line was filling up fast or if there was plenty of room for more.  The only down side was that the internet at the convention center was a bit bogged down at peak times.  There was free wifi at the BCEC, and I was really surprised at how well it held up.  We overloaded the Hynes wifi within about an hour of them letting us in the building last year.  First thing in the morning I had no problem getting wifi, and I could occasionally pick up a signal off and on during the day.  Next year it might be worth it for me to splurge and pay for the hotel wifi just to be sure I can get important con information.

Another great improvement this year was the use of the Conventionist app.  Available on most smart phones, you could download the PAX info that included maps, a list of exhibitors, and a schedule of panels.  You could choose which panels you wanted to see and have your phone give you a reminder that they were coming up.  That was the hardest part for me last year.  I couldn’t keep track of what time it was or when things I wanted to see where going on.

The only feature that Conventionist is missing is the ability to share your schedule with others.  Ideally, I’d love to be able to swap schedules within the app.  Then I’d be able to look and see where my friends are and what their plans are and compare them to mine.  However, I’d settle for the ability to email my schedule to other people.  An lot of my friends that I don’t get to see often were at PAX, and I never got around to seeing most of them.

5. I laughed.  A lot.

The absolute highlight of PAX for me this year was the amount of time I spent laughing.  Scott Kurtz and Kris Straub were responsible for a lot of that (they get their own post), but a lot of it was just getting to hang out and play games with other people who are like me.  Going to the con really is like spending the weekend with 70,000 of your closest friends that you’ve never met.  Sure, there were a few people there who I’m not about to be inviting over for dinner anytime soon, but you can pretty much guarantee that you’ve got at least one thing in common with any other person in the building. For someone who spends most of her time alone, that’s a pretty great feeling. I’m already excited for next year and have started making plans for some awesome stuff.

I saw a lot and did a lot over the weekend, so I’ll have more posts detailing more of the specifics.  There are a ton of cool video games I can’t wait to talk about.

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