Way back in February of 2020, when there was increased chatter around this mysterious new illness called COVID, I remember thinking my wife was being a bit too dramatic when she dared to imply that Wondercon, which was slated for late March/early April, would be canceled.
“That show is so massive. There’s no way they’d cancel.” I said.
Like so many others, I thought the threat would pass by with barely a blip.
Well…file that under things I was insanely wrong about.
Now, nearly 18 months later, while the Delta variant is causing some late-stage stumbles on our road to recovery, the prevalence of vaccine availability in the U.S. is at least helping us look ahead to some sense of normalcy.
A testament to this progress is the return of “convention season”, such as it is. While the major summer conventions, such as San Diego Comic Con and Anime Expo, were pared back as vaccines continued to roll out, there are a number of notable shows happening in the coming weeks and months that are going to inform how future conventions will conduct themselves in our (not quite) post-COVID world.
Our return to the convention scene was with PAX West this last weekend. The show’s attendance was drastically reduced (on purpose), and as a result so was the size of the show floor.
Originally, PAX intended on going by the “honor system” with vaccines and masking, indicating that those who claimed to be vaccinated could attend unmasked, while others who were unvaccinated would be required to remain masked at all times (without verifying who was or was not, in fact, vaccinated).
This drew quite a bit of concerned feedback from developers and vendors alike, and for a while it seemed as though PAX was going to hold its ground.
Well, the complications of the Delta variant ended up forcing their hand, and eventually it was announced that attendees would be required to have either proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test for admission to the show.
This concession, many feel, was the first step in providing a safe environment for PAX, and indeed for future conventions.
In addition to the vaccination requirement, mandatory masking was also announced, regardless of vaccination status.
When I arrived, I provided my proof of vaccination to receive a wristband. This wristband allowed me to claim my badge. As the show progressed, enforcers and show staff would be checking for both wristbands and badges simultaneously. This would help prevent people from handing off badges to unauthorized attendees. The wristbands were also not designed to be easily removed, but you could get another if needed by providing your proof again. Again, this was a countermeasure against badge-swapping.
As TheJewphin and I walked the show, we noticed there was a lot of attention being paid to ensuring guests kept their masks on. At one point we were taking some pictures at a vendor’s booth and TheJewphin removed his mask and within ~30 seconds an enforcer came by to request he put his mask back on. We appreciated their diligence!
Not only was PAX doing their best to enforce policy, we noticed that pretty much every attendee we encountered was being particularly conscientious around spacing and comfort. As I was taking a brief break from interviews and walking the floor, I had a whole banquet table to myself while enjoying an overpriced can of soda and chocolate chip cookie. Another attendee approached and asked if I would be comfortable if they sat across from me. Not “is it okay if I sit here” – a pretty standard question in convention spaces – but essentially “I’m ready for you to tell me that you’d like this entire table to yourself to preserve your social distancing.”
And yet, despite the masks, despite the extra paperwork with the vaccine cards or test results, the most encouraging thing I experienced throughout the weekend was a sense of familiarity…the returning buzz of excitement around gathering as a community of like-minded nerds to celebrate some great indie games, buy swag, and meet new people.
Interestingly, with the absence of most AAA studios from PAX this year, some attendees I ran into argued that it was more representative of the indie studios that PAX was designed to spotlight. It was a call back to the early years of PAX, before Friday and Saturday badges sold out in minutes and studios like Capcom and Square Enix filled massive booths with the latest and greatest.
Of course, the absence of these studios, and indeed, a good chunk of the usual attendees, did sting for some folks. From Twitter to Reddit and beyond, many disparaged the seemingly empty halls and reflected on the value of the show. Some vendors and developers also shared in this concern, as many risked not only the personal expense and time, but now there was the added concern of health and safety.
Ultimately, the return of conventions has got to be met with some form of growing pains, and I think the balance between managing attendance properly while also juggling attendees expectations is part of that challenge.
Overall, TheJewphin and I had a great time at PAX West. The show was ran exceedingly well, with health and safety taking center stage, and yet there were so many fascinating vendors that we got to connect with, and interesting games we got to demo. Of course, you can see and hear more of our experiences in our continuing series “PAX West 2021 Spotlight”, which we will be continuing to publish in the coming days.
In the coming weeks I’ve got friends attending GenCon, and PAX Unplugged is also on the horizon. By the time PAX East comes around next March, I’m curious to see how things have changed, if at all. That being said, if this last show was any indication, I think we can look forward to the return of conventions in their proper form pretty soon…
In the meantime, stay healthy, and take good care out there, geeks!