Archive for April 9, 2012
On my way back to work from lunch, I was listening to Word of Mouth on our local NPR affiliate. This is a really good show because they focus on some really off-the-beaten-track topics, and on occasion they hang a left into Geekville. Today, they were talking about the rise in popularity of “German-Style” board games here in the U.S. If you’ve heard of Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride or Insert-Your-Favorite-Here, then you know what the term “German-Style” board game means. For those who don’t, I have no idea how you found this post, but these games are usually more cerebral, require more strategy in order to win, and revolve around some odd themes (the show mentioned one concerning the “Tulip Craze” in 17th century Holland).
I really like these games, although I admit I haven’t played many. I played Agricola once, and have only played the electronic versions of Settlers of Catan (I do own the boxed copy, though), Carcassonne, and Small World. Although I like the presentations on WoF most of the time, they seem to consistently drop the ball when it comes to understanding the gamer community. Case in point: parts of the show were contrasting the board game culture with the video game culture, asking questions like whether or not it was more advantageous for kids to play these board games as opposed to video games. Oh man. Where to start?
First, and hopefully without saying around here, the notion that it’s “kids” who are playing video games is so epically archaic that my faith in the rest of any argument proceeding such assertions always takes a nose-dive. But I can overlook that in this case mainly because I think that video game players need to share in the credit for the popularity of these kinds of games.
Back Then™, when being a “geek” was a forced condition, and not an outfit one puts on in the morning, board games required that you have people to play with. You could play Payday or Scrabble with your parents, but when geeks were isolated and potentially without like-minded friends, video games filled the void because they didn’t require (or yet support) multiplayer gaming. Fast forward to 2012, where video gamers get cranky if there isn’t a multiplayer component in their game. Online gaming and social networking have blown the doors off the isolated geek stereotype and have brought gamers and geeks together over great distances – or even across town, where 20 years ago one geek wouldn’t even know of the existence of another unless they happened to be at the exact same place, at the exact same time, for the exact same reason.
Seeing as how I have just returned from PAX East, this is such a powerful realization. Here we have seventy thousand geeks, dorks, nerds, gamers, collectors, and cosplayers, all of whom would have been social outcasts 20 years ago, from across the country (maybe even some from other countries, as well), taking what online gaming and social media have given them – the opportunity to easily connect to like-minded individuals – and kicking it up a notch by bringing them together physically to celebrate what they love. And it’s not just video games! There is always a massive section devoted to tabletop gaming play, and whole sections of the floor are given over to companies who sell these old-school “German Style” games and their successors.
A lot of the “analog games” (as we’ll call them) that are on display at PAX are the next generation of “German Style”, and many of them are based on properties that video gamers and general geek society has been privy to for decades, but which have recently been reaching the “non-geek” public: Lord of the Rings, Call of Chtulhu, Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica…even The Walking Dead. Munchkin is a card game which has been around for ages, and which is seeing a renaissance of it’s own thanks to the momentum of the analog game market.
The popularity of these kinds of games certainly aren’t being propelled by the reality-TV crowd. They’re being developed and discovered by the geeks and the gamers of other stripes who are maybe introducing their non-gamer friends and family to experiences which aren’t as “threatening” as video games are perceived to be. There’s no special hardware, no eye-strain, no esoteric jargon to master. It’s a lot closer to Scrabble or Sorry! then World of Warcraft is, so it’s a lot easier to convince a non-gamers to give it a try. I think that these analog games appeal to the open-mindedness of video gamers who, believe it or not, can and do thrive on social interaction. It’s not “one or the other”, or one supplanting the other; it’s a complimentary opportunity for a demographic that was once marginalized and isolated to come together, even in the face of outdated stereotypes.
So another PAX East has come and gone. I think that for me, this was both the best and the worst of the oh so many of these event’s I’ve been able to attend, which is a lot like saying that my trip to the Moon is both the best and worst of the dead and lifeless places-in-outer-space that I’ve visited. That includes New Jersey.
Last year, we got bumped from the cozy Westin Waterfront to a hotel across town because the Westin had overbooked. This year, we gave them the middle-finger so they knew not to screw with us again: instead of going down on Friday, we went down on Thursday. Take THAT, you greedy bastards! This was advantageous, because we were able to get to the expo floor early on Friday, which means we were in lane 12 in the queue room instead of lane 15. Seriously, some people must have camped out on the concrete floor to get a place in line. Considering how some people smelled, I don’t think I’m too far off the mark.
One of the issues I had with the event last year was that the use of expo space in the BCEC. The lanes were crowded, and once you emerged from the privacy curtains that ringed the exhibitions, you saw that there was probably about 200 feet of empty distance to the nearest concrete wall on all sides. This year, they did away with that, giving the exhibitors more floor space, which thankfully translated into the same sized footprints but more room in between exhibitions. At least it felt that way, as traffic was, for the most part, pretty fluid (except when the assholes from G4 show up and cordon off the walkways like they own the goddamn place).
Most of the panels on tap weren’t all that appealing to me. I had wanted to attend several of the D&D themed events, but found myself too apathetic to get my butt upstairs to do so, which meant that I spent more time on the expo floor this year. We covered what we think is the entire floor, and actually stood in line for several games like Borderlands 2 (got a cool shirt!), XCom: Enemy Unknown (got abducted in the middle of the night!), and Firefall (cleared for the beta at home!). One of the unexpected highlights of the time spent there was finding Primal Carnage tucked away in a corner of the hall. In this indie multiplayer shooter, you play as either a human, or a dinosaur. Hell yeah! While that might actually induce eye-rolling in some, the game felt really, really well balanced, where a good, coordinated assault by the humans could take down a T-Rex with minimal (not zero, minimal) casualties.
Some other daily things of note: I didn’t get to really scope out the tabletop section all that well this year. I always want to, but my local friends aren’t really into that kind of thing, so paying upwards of $50 on an elaborate game would be kind of a waste. There were also a lot more kids this year, I think. We’re talking age 10 and under, some of the tiny variety, strapped to the torso of a parent. And this may be anecdotal, but two thing we believed to have observed were that A) there was more cosplay this year then last, and B) the majority of the players were female, and most of those were walking around with guys who weren’t dressed up. No, I have no point, but we thought it lopsided enough to discuss it in brief at some point.
Our Tweetup went very well this year. We managed to integrate several tables this year as they became available, and got to hang out with @girl_vs_mmo, @Hawkinsa1, @Mindstrike, @pasmith, @g33kg0dd3ss, @grimnir_ (and oh man, I lost the card on which I had written his friend’s Twitter name on, so if I could get those again…?), @CreepTheProphet (and Ray, but I didn’t get if he had a Twitter account or not), and @OrwellsSmith. Once again, we closed up shop around 2 AM. Some people had to retire to their off-site accommodations, and for the rest of us, the bar had closed so we figured we might as well just call it a night.
I do have to say that my earlier feelings that PAX would cause my irritation with the “gamer culture” to flair up were mostly unfounded. It was a very pleasant experience, with the wider lanes meaning less shoulder-to-shoulder encounters with everyone around you, and I didn’t subject myself to too many panels, which meant I didn’t have to listen to audience members stumble over their recitations of their personal gaming manifestos in front of the captive industry folks. Everyone on the floor was kind and courteous, although some were rushed and spent more time looking at the exhibits when they should have been looking where they were walking.
Had it not been for the anticipation of the Tweetup on Saturday night, I really felt that I could have left Saturday afternoon and been satisfied with the amount of exposure I got this year. I decided that this year, every moment still counted, but not every moment needed to be crammed full of “being somewhere specific”. I got to see more games, spend more time with the games, and actually play more of the games this year (and spend more time in lines to do so), but I feel far more comfortable with what was accomplished this year then I had expected.