It all started with the snails.
It wasn’t much of a surprise when what my daughter really wanted for her 13th birthday was to go to New York, see a real Broadway musical, and eat expensive food. Both kids, overwhelmed by the volume of toys and games coming in Amazon boxes to my name, are experience junkies, not hoarders. And thus, sitting over appetizers at Les Halles in New York, my daughter came up with the idea.
“Oh my god. You should totally take Peter to PAX for his birthday!” she mumbled over a mouthful of escargot, her current favorite food ever. “Oh daddy you have to,” she beamed. “You have to take him. Can I come too?”
Over the next few weeks, we hatch the plan.
My wife will drive Peter out for the full Sunday of PAX, but not the whole thing. My theory is that, other than being selfish and giving me some solo time at PAX, three full days would be overwhelming, and maneuvering him in and out of panels I was on would be a challenge.
When the badge arrived, I realized that Peter viewed PAX as a kind of nerd Disney World.
“I want to do everything,” said Peter, staring at the bright red plastic rectangle. He’d been waiting for the moment a long time.
He flipped the badge over to the back side. “Rule #1: Drugs are bad. Rule #2: Don’t Steal. Rule #3: Don’t Punch or Kick People?”
“Yeah bud, those are the 7 rules of PAX.”
“They seem kind of … obvious,” he said with the studied delivery of someone trying to keep in mind the conflicting realities that grownups are usually right, but sometimes complete idiots.
“You’d think, wouldn’t you?”
He looked back up to me, unfazed.
“I want to go everywhere, see everything, and do everything,” he clarifies, in case perhaps he hadn’t made his extraordinary exploratory desires clear enough the first time.
“Well, it’s not exactly a thing you map out, bud. It’s not quite like an assault on the Magic Kingdom.”
“But there will be games to play right? Like that arcade you talked about? And Riot will be there?”
I nodded. “Yep, don’t worry, there will be a League of Legends booth bigger than our house. Guaranteed.”
He beamed. I wasn’t sure what I could do to prepare him. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what to expect, touring PAX with a 9 year old nerd-in-training. I tried as best I could to downplay things, but when the badge arrived 10 days before the event, his enthusiasm was uncontainable and more than a little infectious.
It’s a word I don’t get tired of hearing. I turned around and saw my boy racing across the hotel lobby at me. He tackled me hard, head butting my ribs.
“Hey buddy! You ready?” I asked. He literally bounced up and down.
“Let’s go!” he said. I gave my wife a good morning hug, and she sent us on our way. We walked through the Westin lobby, and he pointed at a grizzled, camo-clad gentleman coming down the stairs with a cup of coffee, looking for all the world like he hadn’t slept.
My son pointed. “Who’s that!?”
In polite society, I would have told him that pointing was rude. In this case, however, the gentleman in question was clearly a Solid Snake cosplayer. I’d never really processed it before, but I assumed that cosplayers are probably fine with being pointed at by smiling, bubbly 9 year old boys.
“That’s Solid Snake,” I said. “He’s the good guy from Metal Gear Solid.”
And he uttered, for the first of 100 times that Sunday, his catchphrase. “That’s so awesome!”
We passed Solid Snake on the stairs. He made eye contact, gave a nod of approval.
We made our way across the skybridge and towards the main exhibit hall doors. Peter continued to point out cosplayers, posters, the installation of some giant robotic pod-thing at the center of the foyer, each time announced with “that’s so awesome!”
We turned through the crowd and headed into the main hall. The doors had only just opened, but the view from the top of the escalators made Peter stop. He cuddled into my leg and looked up at me, a little nervous.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “It’s pretty overwhelming huh?”
He looked at the crowd below, a sea of lemming heads as far as the eye could see. At that moment, it seemed inconceivable that we could join the throng. Surely adding two more bodies to the press would cause the building to simply explode.
“It’s OK bud. Just hang on to my hand, and we’ll be fine. Let’s go see some cool stuff, ok?”
He nodded, and we descended into the sea of nerds.
And that’s when I realized how little I see of PAX.
For me, PAX has always been about the big things — the meetups, the panels, the big games. While I had certainly browsed the shops on the edges and made a diligent pass through the Indie MegaBooth, they were diversions from the main events.
For Peter, PAX was about whatever was in front of him at the time. He’d long learned that waiting in line was a sucker’s lot, so he had no interest in waiting to play some game he’d never heard of just because all the grownups thought it was cool. Instead, he found his own cool. In the course of our day at PAX, we shot paintball guns, we hunted for Teemo Mushrooms and played iPad games in the indie booth. We wandered through the classic console room and played Asteroids on a working Vectrex. He learned how to play Steel Battalion — “the most complicated game in the world” as he calls it — despite the fact it’s been sitting in my basement for years.
For Peter, PAX was about finding a quiet corner of the free-play PC room to sneak a game of League of Legends in and recharge our batteries. It was about random Gamers With Jobs rushing across the tabletop room to say "Hi" — not to me, but to this kid they’d heard me talk about for so many years.
For Peter, PAX was, in some small way, about getting to see a world that I live in all the time, and which he only witnesses occasionally. Sitting in the front of our panel, he looked up at the stage as the room filled. When the music started and the crowd applauded, his jaw dropped. All these people? Just to listen to a few friends (and “the sweary guy” as he called Jeff Green) talk about games?
Hours later, as we made a final pass to say our goodbyes and grab a souvenir or two, I could see him starting to fade. He’d kept his energy high, and a smile had never left his face. Now he seemed a bit tired — even a bit down.
“Hey Peter, what’s up? You look a little sad. You had a good day? Was it what you expected?”
He gave me a quick hug. “No dad, this was the best day ever. I just don’t want it to end.”
I hugged him back. I could see he was indeed a bit sad, and his eyes just a little wet.
“I had no idea there were so many of us.”