A Perspective on PAX East and the Escape Room Game Jam
As a fledgling graduate student in media studies, much of my time is spent doing readings and work for class. Much of this involves catching up on the literature and history of the field, learning about related disciplines and media, and becoming versed in the processes and vocabularies that will mark me as a scholar in my adopted field. This is really rewarding work, but sometimes it can be difficult to spend some time on my long term work, the stuff I’ll be researching and writing about for my thesis and that, at the end of the day, is why I work so hard yet love what I do. Thus, getting the chance to dive into that work is a rare and fantastic opportunity.
In this past month and a half, I have found fantastic opportunities to do just that: immerse myself amongst the people and cultures around games. I was lucky enough to bounce around from a panel on the lifestyles of popular livestreamers to PAX East, then to MIT’s Sandbox Summit, and finally to the Game Lab’s own Escape Room Game Jam, making for a busy but awesome March. Now I’m looking forward to a summer chock-full of games bliss, including a Distant Worlds Final Fantasy concert, two premier games research conferences, and a number of game design workshops. Needless to say, I’ve been a happy camper on that front, and attending all these events ever, let alone within a few months of each other, seems like a dream come true.
At the top of March, I made my way to the biggest of these events, PAX East, Boston’s branch of the Penny Arcade Expo gaming convention. PAX’s various branches are somewhere between cons (fan-centered) and trade shows (industry-centered). For three days, publishers’ huge booths, with mostly unreleased games set up to be played, were lined with enthusiasts sporting branded gear or cosplay (a portmanteau of costume-play, wherein fans dress up as a game/anime/etc. character). The show floor is, in essence, a playground— fans play the next hottest game while chatting with friends old and new, united by a passion for the games they’ve come to play and display.
I haven’t been to many cons in my life, and PAX is definitely the largest I’ve attended. Not only that, but its reputation precedes it; I’ve been wanting to go to PAX ever since I first heard about it in Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine (R.I.P.), my portal to the pulse of the gaming world as an adolescent. Yet, I feel like my experience of PAX would’ve been very different had I gone then, or at least before I began studying games and their communities.
The funny thing about transforming from a fan to an academic in a given space is the fluidity of the “aca-fan.” The line “separating” my identity as a lifelong fan with a gaming history, favorite titles and genres, and ways of engaging with other fans and my identity as a budding academic with research questions, short- and long-term professional goals, and obligations to ethical and sound research practices is not so much a line but rather a permeable, shapeless boundary that is often only really defined by my approach to certain situations. At PAX, I found that boundary stumbling over itself. Although I wore my markings of fandom and belonging proudly, I also found myself looking around through the lens of what I might call “academic distance,” trying to see the people and events around me as opportunities to ask investigative questions rather than only squeeing about the newest Square Enix games and merch (which I also did).
Contrast this with my work at two game jams as hosted by the Game Lab, through which I began from a place of academic distance and found myself feeling more and more like a participant. The more recent jam, the Escape Room Game Jam, took place over three days (totaling 26 thrillingly exhausting hours for me) in late March. We asked jammers to design escape rooms focused on a narrative/prebuilt world and that could be played competitively. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, the jam’s participants’ designs needed to be interesting, comparable, scaleable, cheat-proof, feasible, and competitively stable to be considered for the grand prize— a trip for the team to San Diego Comic-Con and the potential reality of their designed room.
Game jams can seem quite daunting, particularly one with prizewinning stakes and constraints as difficult as what’s needed for a competitive escape room. However, as much as I saw hard work at the jam, I also saw people having tons of fun playing with ideas. Thanks to that unparalleled creative energy, the game jam was crazy fun to run. My work at the jam was mostly logistical (herding people, materials, and food around), but I did get the chance to listen in on a few brainstorming sessions, including sharing lunch with one team as they began diving into their design. I listened to their ideas weave together, offering additional things to consider or a way in which two seemingly conflicting concepts could be bridged.
I wasn’t a participant, but I was there in part to help spur ideas and make sure teams were happily working. This was fine by me; I’ve never considered myself a game maker, or even capable of being one worth any salt. Yet, being in a room full of people catching ideas out of the buzz of generative conversations, sculpting them into elaborate and fascinating puzzle rooms, it occurred to me that maybe I could do this too. That maybe I belonged in that space, not just for logistical help, but as a creative someone who really could add something to one of these teams. As I moved between Mover of Useful Things to Lab Representative to Theoretical Scholar, another identity was added to my pile: Rising Game Designer.
Although I enjoyed my experience at PAX, there was something even more magical about the Escape Room Jam. Take away the huge booths, the spectacle of the lights and sound and cosplay, the glitz of the industry’s big names, and PAX distills down to people celebrating a shared identity, as enthusiasts of the current trends in the games industry, which in that space needn’t be squashed for their other identities. But at the Escape Room Jam, beyond the long days, cool materials, and setup/takedown, I found people pooling their strengths and knowledge into building upon their shared identities, as game makers becoming as cutting edge, professionally recognized game makers.
For me, turning my hobby in and passion for games into a career didn’t sap away the the fun and excitement I get from them. Instead, becoming a graduate student in games has gifted me a fluidity of identities that draw upon each other. Like those at PAX, I am able to savor what particular identities mean to me, and thanks to the participants and fellow organizers at the Escape Room Jam, I have opened my horizons, both professional and personal, to all sorts of approaches to and experiences in spaces that I once wouldn’t have even considered myself worthy of.
Note: Photos taken at PAX East by Kyrie Caldwell. Photos of the Escape Room Jam courtesy of Michael Rose.