SEATTLE—From the ongoing wreckage of a variant-riddled pandemic comes… a modest, regional, and relatively fun nerd convention.
My perspective on PAX West, arguably the largest Northwest expo dedicated to gaming culture, is biased by the lines, crowds, and hype I’ve seen at every incarnation since its first downtown Seattle sellout in 2007. Back then, the show was firmly attached to the webcomic Penny Arcade, which is also a Seattle creation. But the expo’s reputation grew quickly, and it become a multiday, multibuilding extravaganza. Ever since, the fest has been increasingly divorced from its comic origins, and the PAX model has been officially duplicated and been liberally borrowed in other regions.
Recently, of course, a little worldwide dilemma got in the way.
This year, PAX has beaten most other wildly visible American nerd expos at putting the “public” back into “public expo.” 2021’s PAX was set into motion back when vaccination rates and optimism made an expo on Labor Day weekend seem like a good idea. But, uh, yeah—about that.
An anecdotal crowd estimate on day one
In the past month, I have survived three direct delta exposures (leading me to a weekly nose-swab testing regimen, all negative, all good). I also do not have regular contact with vulnerable populations like kids. So when PAX began yesterday, I decided to mask up and dive in. The result was weird. I felt uneasy, but somehow, the expo was also cozy, relatively comfortable, and fun.
This PAX, like most PAXes, is split clearly between two parts. First, there’s the vendor-filled expo hall full of brand-new games, hands-on demos, and mountains of merch. Elsewhere, you can find the DIY play spaces buttressed by TVs, consoles, large tables, and massive lending libraries of board and tabletop games. Both are a lot less crowded this time around.
How much less crowded? It’s hard to say. PAX’s showrunners made clear that they were reducing maximum attendance for this year’s show, so the smaller crowds are, to some extent, intentional. Up until the show’s opening hour, however, single-day and full-weekend (September 3 thru September 6) passes were still on sale. My eyeball estimate of the main expo hall’s queue, ahead of the show’s start at 10 am Friday, was approximately 3,000 showgoers. That’s a decent crowd, sure, but not the 10,000-plus I regularly saw in line on an average PAX West morning.
100% mask compliance, thank goodness
Sadly, PAX’s organizers at ReedPop elected to block off some large spaces in the convention center’s main exhibitor hall instead of using them to spread booths out and better guarantee six feet of social distancing. A few marked queues inside the hall suggest staying six feet away from others, but the occasional mass of bodies near, say, a game demo makes me hope the show’s 100 percent mask compliance and proof of vaccination or recent COVID tests are doing the trick.
It’s at least refreshing to know complete mask compliance can happen in America. Every nose I saw during the first morning and afternoon was even properly tucked in, and I should know—I spent hours hunting for violations. Bless PAX’s gamers for getting this right.
Lower attendance means the space between booths is also far less crowded than in PAXes past. A decent buffer separates the two maskless food courts from the hall’s mask-mandated paths, so no one is spitting particles less than six feet from a gaming booth. Still, part of me wishes these eating zones were part of the expo hall’s barricaded, blacked out zone—where I would have preferred people eat in shame (kidding, kind of).