"Excuse me, I don't mean to interrupt."

I'm deep in a conversation, so this is clearly a lie. Even the most casual semiotician would gather that the meaning here was precisely interruption.

The interrupter is a short, wild-haired kid, perhaps 17 years old. He's non-specifically Asian, expectedly geeky in a Wil Wheaton "Don't Be A Dick" T-Shirt, cargo pants, and a safari vest studded with nerd-flair. He's clearly nervous behind his buddy holly glasses. Instantly charming.

"Oh hey, no problem. What's up?" I ask.

It really is OK. By Saturday afternoon I have PAX East figured out. Unlike GenCon or E3, PAX isn't about doing, it's about being.

Sure, there are plenty of things I could do: there are panels to line up for and attend. There are a dozen rooms with console games of every era. There's a 5-on-5 Steel Battalion setup, and a recreated 1980's Arcade complete with Phil Collins and Don Henley on the radio. For most folks here, I'm imagining doing all these things is the point.

For me, though, I have decided to simply be. To meet people and talk and be a part of something. To that end, I have put a large sticker on my pass that says "Julian Murdoch" in the hopes that people might recognize the name and introduce themselves. I am the only one I see all weekend long with a nametag.

I am not without ego. I won't deny that I enjoy it when someone comes up and says they liked my work or the podcast. And judging by the box of 150 business cards I exhaust in 72 hours, that happens a lot. But nine times out of ten the best part was the conversation after that initial awkward "hey I know you from the internet" introduction.

So when non-specific Asian kid with nerd-flair interrupts me, I am delighted. Here, I thought, is another member of Nerdnation, with another story to tell.

"Hi!" he says, proffering his hand. Against my better judgment I shake it eagerly (a decision I repeat a thousand times which will result in three days of fever and congestion.) "I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your work, and meet you in person."

The irony, of course, is that nearly these same words have come out of my mouth a dozen times in the previous days. PAX is a tremendous opportunity to put names with faces and make a human connection to other writers, editors and developers I've known for years, virtually. Without exception, every momentary awkwardness is overwhelmed by a sense of friendship and real connection.

In fact, it is one of these conversations that non-specific Asian kid is interrupting.

"That's so nice of you to say," I respond. "What did you think of the panel?"

Behind non-specific Asian kid, someone is dying of caged laughter. Clearly it's one of his friends. I laugh a little, not because I get the joke, but just because the good humor of PAX seems to permeate every conversation like gasoline vapors — the slightest spark can ignite a chuckle.

"When I played Bioshock, it was just …"

Behind me, Ken Levine snarfs water out his nose. The friend's contained mirth explodes into a seizure of belly laughs.

"Oh, you meant Ken, I'm Julian," I say, pointing to my nametag. His face drops. I recognize the panic and horror.

Ken, ever the gracious front man, shakes non-specific Asian kid's hand and immediately puts him at ease. They exchange pleasantries and a kind of nerd-Papal dispensation. The gaggle of folks standing nearby bursts into hysterics. I myself laugh so hard I wipe tears from my eyes.

The friend leans over to me and whispers.

"Sorry about that. I could see that train wreck happening, but just couldn't bring myself to stop it."

As the laughter dies down, non-specific Asian kid relaxes. I hope it's because he realizes we're not laughing at him in a cruel schoolyard way. I know firsthand how hard it is to walk up to a stranger you admire and say hello. Ken works his way around the group of us, introducing the kid to his wife, his colleagues, another writer or two.

"And this is Julian," he says. "But I think you two might have already met."

This kicks off another round of manic laughter from the assembled crowd. "His work's not bad either."


Later that evening, I find myself wandering PAX around midnight, alone. I've left my dinner companions, and I should be heading to bed. My path takes me past the door to the main theater, where Paul and Storm are on the verge of surrendering the stage to geek-muse Jonathan Coulton. I wander in.

I'd had no intention of attending any of the concerts at PAX; I'm not much one for waiting in lines. But miraculously, there seems to be room at the Inn. I wander forward, unmolested, and grab what seems to be an empty seat 20 feet or so from the stage, as if it had been saved just for me in a crowd of thousands. A few feet to my right, I see the mayor of geektown, Wil Wheaton, screaming "Argh" on cue (it's a pirate song). Looking around me, I recognize half a dozen faces, make a few nods of recognition.

I don't know all of the music played during the next hour. It’s entertaining, because its being done by skilled performers. I know a few of the early Coulton songs from their appearance on Rock Band.

“This was a triump …”

The audience erupts, as Coulton begins the lilting guitar part for “Still Alive,” the closing credits song from Valve’s Portal. Around the room, people hold up phones and DS’s and PSP’s to fill the room with an eerie blue glow.

“I’m making a note here: Huge Success.”

By the second line, it’s nearly impossible to hear Coulton’s voice over the thousands singing in unison.

That’s when it hits me: I am at the nerd communion rail receiving an unexpected but entirely welcome sacrament.

It’s not the content of the song, or the delivery of Coulton, or even the simple madness of crowds which makes even the most inexpert concert a community experience. The sacrament is instead one of acknowledging and celebrating a shared context.

That which defines geekdom is often solitary. Portal is a single player game. Even the most grandiose of multiplayer games - World of Warcraft is most often played solo or in small groups. Football fans and Parrotheads and diligent Episcopalians and Marathon runners all have community as an inherent part of their activities. They need no reminders that they are part of something larger than themselves, which has a history and a narrative and will last long after they are gone.

I won’t get to PAX Prime this year. And who knows how often I’ll make it to PAX East or GenCon or ComiCon. But I left the theater that night comforted that such things will go on whether I am there or not, and when I can make the Hajj to those sacred places, I will always be welcomed as family.


Lovely piece, Rabbit. I was sad that I didn't get to bump into you in the media room at PAX East, but I'm glad that obviously a ton of other people did get to. Leaving my praise late, your work and the work of the rest of the GWJ crew was definitely a big influence on my starting to write and podcast for Colony of Gamers and my own site, both of which have provided very welcome creative outlets when I've needed them over the last year. So thanks.

You're not Ken Levine? I'm confused.

I'm not a huge fan of crowds, so I don't think I'd really like attending a PAX type event. I really do love hearing about the experiences people have there, though. Nice piece, rabbit.

The line "Behind me, Ken Levine snarfs water out his nose." made me snarf coffee out my nose. Great article.


Family: 3 a : a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation : fellowship

Thanks for the piece. I haven't been to a convention in decades but your piece has stirred up the wonderful feelings of comfort and belonging that I felt when I did attend.

Maybe its time for a booster shot. PAX Prime maybe?

Man, I wish I hadn't been so certain that March weather was going to be too horrible to suffer a drive to Boston.

Wonderful article Rabbit: you really nailed the overall feeling of PAX. I ended up doing lots of waiting in line at PAX, and even that was fun because I got a chance to speak with all kinds of different people who were all attending the con for similar reasons. I'm thrilled I was able to attend PAX East, and I'll definitely be considering attending again.

Nice. Makes me feel like i was there.

I definitely felt the same way many times over the weekend! I guess there's a reason why people refer to PAX as "going home".

The PAX ad that really got me was the one that says: "PAX: Welcome Home". I think that sums it up pretty well.

Loved this piece. Maybe I should try this PAX thing...

I can't believe they announced that they aren't finishing the Penny Arcade RPG series.

What the curse!

Sorry I missed Ken & the snarfed water.

Thanks for the reminder that beneath the jaded cynicism that so often permeates gamer (and game developer!) culture there is a community that ties it all together.

"Sorry about that. I could see that train wreck hapenning, but just couldn't bring myself to stop it."

/eyebrow raise sir?

Spot on, Rabbit.

This is *exactly* the reason that I signed up to join the ranks of the Enforcers. PAX is an oddly magical event, and I felt duty-bound to help out in a small way to keep it going. The fact that PAX Prime is on my doorstep gave me no excuse not to.

It's a rare chance to get your nerd on without having to maintain some semblance of socially acceptable 'normality' that the modern geek wears almost unconsciously when out in the real world. Long may it last.

As if PAX East didn't sound cool enough already.

Glad it went well. Need to see what the post-show contagion report is though.

This actually solidifies in my mind I will never ever go to one of these things. I like video games, I've been playing them all my life, I've read Wheaton's blog once apon a time, and yes I can sing 'Still Alive', but...

I have no idea who Ken Levine is, other than what I can glean from your article. Nor any other name that is likely to come up. Nor your name - despite the fact I have read every article on GWJ for more than a year and played with you on occasion. ("Rabbit" I remember, of course.)

Ah well. I have emotional connection to the same media, but not to the people that create or work with the media.

This makes me:
a) Stupid
b) Not a real gamer
c) Pink

boogle wrote:
"Sorry about that. I could see that train wreck hapenning, but just couldn't bring myself to stop it."

/eyebrow raise sir?

I tried to warn him...

Nathaniel wrote:

This makes me:
a) Stupid
b) Not a real gamer
c) Pink

d) Profit

I don't know whether an intimate knowledge of the who's who of the game industry is necessary to be a self-proclaimed "gamer". In fact, you could probably argue that while everyone else is reading tidbits on Kotaku, you're actually, y'know, playing the games.


Strange sentiment. Videogaming has always been a social activity for me. I only got introduced to solitary gaming with JRPGs, and that ended quickly when Starcraft really came alive.

Games like ME2 and Dragon Age still reel me in, but to be honest, if I didn't have a community to participate in after playing these games, I would be much less inclined to play them.

Wonderful piece Julian.

LarryC wrote:

Strange sentiment. Videogaming has always been a social activity for me.

I'm not sure if we're talking about the same thing here.

Nathaniel wrote:

I have emotional connection to the same media, but not to the people that create or work with the media.

You can still connect socially with others based on the experience of playing the games themselves, without knowing much about the industry/developers/trade shows. Not caring about the 'scene' stuff doesn't make you antisocial.

In his piece, Julian talks about how PAX makes you feel that you're part of a greater community. I don't need PAX to feel that. Gaming for me has always been being part of something bigger than myself.

I grew up in a large household with few appliances. Up to 8 kids in the living room, one Famicom. Gaming naturally becomes a social activity in order to be at all acceptable as a pastime, else everyone just relocates to the yard to play hopscotch.

Nice write up, but then, yours are always great! PAX East was awesome, and I hope to make it to future ones (married with kids makes that a daunting task!). I can relate to the kid, for sure. I had a tough time going up to people and saying that and not feeling like an overaged groupie haha.

I totally feel this article though, because even waiting in lines for panels (and at PAX you wait in lines seemingly the whole time) everyone is very friendly and it's more often than not you strike up a conversation with those around you.

I will always be welcomed as family.

Or, as Ken Levine. Either way!

Rabbit, that's exactly how I felt about PAX East too, but you expressed it more elegantly than I ever could have.

Sorry I missed your panel and thus didn't meet you or Ken! Maybe next year?

Great essay, Julian. I wasn't at the concert, but I managed to catch little snippets of that sacrament you note. As stressed as I was, there was more joy and less exhaustion on the faces of attendees than I have seen at other cons.

I ran to the drugstore to get a friend some pain relief and there was a woman in line that came all the way from Ohio on spring break for this con. She was trying to find out if anyone else in the store had a similar story. She was evangelizing on how important this was to her and her friends - to be surrounded by a group of like minded people.

I was on the escalator with that same friend a couple of days later and a guy recognized her from her TV and online video appearances. He was giddy at the idea of having his picture taken with her, but there was no awkwardness or weirdness - just the sense that he had met a more public nerd and he wanted to memorialize that.

Definitely going back next year.

What beautiful memories. Thanks for sharing them, Julian. As someone who follows, but has never attended PAX and many of the other major conventions, you helped bring the experience home.

Edit: Whoops. Posted from the husband's account.



Oh oh oh, this sums it up perfectly. East was the first PAX I've ever missed, and this article makes me ache for it in the best of ways. Can't wait until the next one.

Beautifully written, as always. I'll continue to look forward to your articles.

Very cool piece! I whined about the lack of people reporting on the PAX experience in a previous thread and this was exactly what I was looking for. I'm seriously looking forward to PAX Prime now.