It is a surreal thing wandering into a trade show like PAX East as we are into the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. My last in-person experience with this iconic gaming conference was in March 2020 just before the pandemic was declared and the world stopped in its tracks.
Since the pandemic began, this is the third PAX being held in person, with PAX West and Unplugged having taken place just before Omicron added new wrinkles to how we deal with the virus. Months into the spread of this new variant, restrictions are relaxing and travel is starting again.
The nice thing about PAX East, and frankly why I went, was that the organizers had a strict health and safety policy. Everyone had to be vaccinated and mask usage in the conference center grounds was mandated. They held firm on this despite the host state, Massachusetts, having dropped many restrictions.
This, plus the smaller footprint, lower attendance caps, and lack of major Triple A studio presence made PAX East 2022 radically different than in previous years. People were calm, respectful, helpful and frankly just damn happy to be at the conference whose tagline is “Welcome Home.”
The Show Floor
PAX East is a showcase for all things gaming. The major draw at this conference is the Expo Hall, which was open all four days. The show floor is roughly divided into two parts, with videogames near the front entrance and tabletop games at the rear.
In the past the videogame showcases occupied the majority of the expo space, but as interest in tabletop experiences has grown so has their presence at PAX East. There are also scattered vendors, hardware manufacturers, food and drink vendors and educational entities filling out the remaining areas.
The result is an immense showcase of videogames, apparel, dice, tabletop games and opportunities for ad-hoc gaming sessions. Paradoxically, the reduced footprint and lack of major players like Sony and Microsoft made the event feel somehow infinite, with dozens of Independent games giving us great new experiences to discover.
It was a pleasure wandering the show floor for the whole event. People were exuberant. The weather in Boston was fantastic so folks were coming in and out and happy to do so. PAX also introduced new security scanners to speed up gate checks. The vibe was one of general glee and wonder.
The Panels and Activities
Another major focus is the well over a hundred panels that run during the conference. These range from major industry showcases like the Gearbox Main Theatre Show to smaller focused talks like Ready Player Queer: Growth of Queerness in Gaming and The Evolution of PC Modding.
These panels run concurrently in multiple theaters so there are always plenty of options to choose from in whatever aspect of the industry catches your interest. Many of the scheduled sessions are also centered around gaming tournaments, outreach, and how to play certain experiences.
Across the sprawling Boston Convention and Exhibition Center there are also many stages, breakout spaces and hangout spaces that give plenty of opportunities to try new things. A great example is penny trading, which has become a big deal with folks trading the collectible pins. These spaces are scattered everywhere.
Spaces like a Jackbox Games stage, Speedrun stations and charity spaces like the infamous Cookie Brigade and Child’s Play also offer games, entertainment and opportunities to donate. These extra spaces as well as community rooms for LGBTQ spaces and lounges for handheld gaming round out a fantastic experience for everyone who attends PAX East.
The Social Activities
While all of PAX East is a social experience, there are specific events tailored to just having pure fun without sitting at a panel or wandering the show floor. Every night there is a major event or concert in the Main Theater which gives folks a chance to stay at the convention center in a safe space and listen to music or watch the iconic Acquisition Inc. team play a live D&D session.
After-hours events are also common and while they are not run by the convention organizers they are commonly associated with the event. Black Dessert online, Voodoo Ranger beer and Acer all threw great social events allowing PAX-goers to blow off some steam after hours.
The Seaport area around the BCEC has expanded greatly over the years and many new hotels are now attached or within walking distance. These hotel lobbies and bars, in particular the attached Westin, become hotspots of activity with board games, socializing and reminiscing amongst friends happening after each night of the event.
The PAX East Experience
PAX East is a truly special event that brings together gamers in a way that no other convention or trade show can compare to. The catchphrase “Welcome Home” is truly one that has meaning and feels real as the disparate group of people come together as one for four days in Boston.