'One Question' - PAX Unplugged
2019 is going to bring some new things to my writing format. I'm going to be introducing some structure to my topics, as well as some styles of writing that will help me focus the cluster @#$& that is my mind. One of the new formats I'm going to introduce will be my “One Question…” series.
If you haven't noticed, I tend to hype up going to conventions and, as my editor knows, I take FOREVER to deliver a finished piece or I simply don't write anything at all… that's not true… I write a bunch of things and just never finish them. I leave 4 or 5 unfinished articles on my Google Docs for a couple months, forget about them, then archive them when I go back in to write about something else. That folder is like a hospice for my scattered ideas. The frustrating part is that I'm not leaving them incomplete because they are bad ideas or because I don't like what I've written. It's mostly just because writing isn't always easy, and I work a lot, and finding the time to outline, write, edit, and publish an article takes time and energy I don't always have. ESPECIALLY when I have a million ideas floating around in my noggin.
So today is going to be the premiere article for my new convention series “One Question” where I go to a convention with one question and don't leave until I have it answered.
A quick catch up for those who don't know what PAX is. The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) is a series of conventions that revolve around gaming culture. The biggest draws tend to be video games, but arcade and tabletop games are also a major part of the festivities. The major PAX events take place all over the world, and beginning last year, a special convention has been introduced that solely focuses on all aspects of tabletop gaming. This event takes place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
I entered the robust expo hall of PAX Unplugged with a very obvious question:
How, in 2018, are tabletop games not only as popular as ever, but seemingly the most popular they have ever been?
A simple question to ask for sure, I'm currently writing this sentence on my phone, using a mobile version of my writing platform that live updates on a second by second basis, listening to music on my wireless headphones, while doing cardio at the gym… technology is amazingly advanced. How can a board game compete with Red Dead Redemption 2? How can a deck of cards compare with the ability to FaceTime someone from almost anywhere on Earth? How can… another example of old technology match up to another example of new technology… bare with me here I'm still on the stair-machine.
I brought this question to 59 different developers, creators, and producers across 22 different companies. I'm going to be honest, I expected this question to be answerable, but I did expect to stump AT LEAST one of the interviewees… and damn was I disappointed in the best way possible.
“Nothing replaces that face-to-face, intangible connection”, Cassidy (Cheapass Games) told me without hesitation. She didn't bat an eye, didn't break stride, she didn't even look up from grabbing a pin from the table in front of her (she gave me that pin by the way, YOU'RE THE BEST Cassidy). It wasn't that the answer was rehearsed, she just knew the answer and believed it in her heart. This wasn't an uncommon occurrence either, I received heartfelt, off-the-cuff responses from nearly every single person I spoke with.
The answers even shared a common theme:
“People are looking for human connections”: Joshua, Capstone Games
“(They) are craving personal interaction”: Nick, Weird Giraffe Games
“People want person to person interaction”: Talitha, Wyrmwood Studios
“It's about socializing”: Tory, Calliope Games
“Everyone is always on their phones, this allows gamers to get back to basics”: Metallic Dice Games
“(Even with such advanced technology) people still miss people… We are social creatures”: Raz, Rattrap Productions
“It’s all about the experience. Board games bring people together like nothing I’ve ever seen”: Burky, Game Toppers
The major theme that developed was so beautifully simple: we have voluntarily separated ourselves in a sacrifice to the advancement of technology, tabletop gaming allows us to rebuild those much needed connections and strengthen our human bonds. So many of the modern technological comforts that have been developed in the past decade make it so easy to communicate with others, but with the glaring handicap of a computer screen. We talk to friends and family through Facebook and Twitter, we share our life experiences on Instagram, we play with our friends on XBox, Playstation, Switch, and Steam, but we rarely ever see these people. We maybe hear their voice, maybe see a 3 inch display of them, but we don’t get that real social interaction that can literally improve our lives.
Tabletop gaming acts as the antidote to this lack of social isolation. It forces us to not only get out from behind the literal and metaphorical “screen” but to build socialization muscles that we have long since allowed to weaken. In my conversation with Raz (Rattrap Productions), we were discussing how technology can feel too clean, almost sterile, in how it forces you to communicate. “(When tabletop gaming) you get to collaboratively tell a story”, he told me, “it’s random and messy”. He is right too, as advanced as Amazon’s Echo is, you need to give a specific wording or phrase for it to react. You need to know exactly what to say and precisely how to say it. Compare that to gaming with others, be it a hardcore role-playing game that spans days or a quick WWE-style card game (thank you SRG Universe for the funniest 10 minutes of the expo), or whether or not you are an expert gamer or casual fan, the act of face-to-face gaming creates a bond among its participants that is difficult to replicate. Katy (ExoCrate Games) summed it up succinctly, “we are all so used to our phones in our faces, [tabletop games] allows you to put yourself out there”.
The idea of human connection and interaction was at the base of almost every vendor I met with, from game developer to dice maker. We build our mental muscles when we are together. Teamwork, communication, problem solving, quick thinking, even more high level concepts like imagination and creativity are all encouraged with nearly every game played. It is the cornerstone of the tabletop industry. “Games are designed with heirloom in mind”, Jordan (Wyrmwood Studios) told me. ‘Your parents teach you, you teach your kids, they teach their friends, etc’. It was an idea that had never occurred to me before. Not only was the playing of the game a social experience, but so was the setting up, teaching, and breaking down as well. With that idea in mind it's easier to understand the pricing behind one of Wyrmwood's or Carolina Game Tables’ gorgeous gaming tables, they aren't meant to be kept in a game room or man cave, they're meant as centerpieces for gathering spaces, a place where friends and family meet often to socialize, where parents will teach their children and where new relationships will be built and strengthened. No matter how state of the art a streamers’ space is, it's meant for one, to be kept off to the side until it's needed and nothing more.
That doesn't mean that technology hasn't played its own part in the resurgence of tabletop gaming. “Critical Role” the owner of Carolina Game Tables told me, “the entire idea of being able to watch steamers play games has made it more mainstream”. I take joy in watching Ninja solo a squads match in Fortnite, but it's never made me want to join in. I like playing the game but what fun could I take from getting wrecked by him or weighing his team down? Compare that to a live stream of High Rollers, the library of episodes of Tabletop, or the plethora of podcasts that offer unique and original takes on the tabletop game experience (my favorites are D&D is for Nerds and The Film Reroll). They are active and full of life. They make you want to join in. They make you want to find others to join in with the fun. 30-year veterans see facsimiles of themselves in the cultural zeitgeist and newcomers get to see (famous) people not only having a great time, but more importantly, being comfortable with having that great time.
PAX Unplugged was a phenomenal experience. I’m going to be honest, I got sick literally the day before it began and I had ZERO intention of showing up. I only made the trip out of a sense of duty to my editor who puts up with SO MUCH of my ‘B.S.’ that I felt obligated to do work for the guy that pays me to be a nerd… weird concept I know… and I couldn’t have been happier that I did. I met an amazing group of people in an industry that is held up by their passion and drive. They believe in not only their product and their industry, but that what they do is a betterment to society, and you know what? I agree with them.
I want to thank so many people for the time they took to speak with me. Please go check out and support: