Category Archives: Seattle

PAX!

PAX is, bar none, the best convention I have ever been to.

Granted, I don’t have that much experience with cons. I’ve been to Seattle’s Emerald City ComiCon and once went to a Star Wars con in Japan. I’ve also turned up at several geeky gatherings in Portland, but I’ve never really traveled with the sole intent of going to a convention. Until now, of course. It was entirely worth it.

Being able to go at all was something like winning the geek lottery- PAX had long been sold out, and it was by pure fortuitous chance that I was able to get a three day pass at face value. Pass in hand, I made my way up I-5 with the photographer extraordinaire Sarah Giffrow and two other lovely Portland geeks.

Day One: I Am Surrounded By Shiny Stuff and Don’t Know What to Do

Upon arriving at the Washington State Convention Center, I had only a vague idea about what was going on. I knew that there were panels, exhibits, and free-play areas but had no coherent idea of how to address them all. I flipped through the schedule and, not really knowing what to do, just wandered into the main exhibition hall.

The hall is probably the most “normal” part of PAX. It’s all exhibits by major game companies promoting various triple-A titles and new releases. The screens are huge, the lines are long, and noise and light pulsate from displays that range in size from big to huge. I don’t really try to stay current with my gaming habits (the last game that I got really into was the original Dawn of War) so the new releases didn’t hold much interest for me, but the exhibition hall was amusing in an over-the-top sort of way.

Wanting to do something that did not have the volume turned up to 11, Sarah and I attempted to get in line for the Wil Wheaton panel. We thought that we would most assuredly have a spot, given that we were there an hour ahead of time. The line, though, was closed. Wheaton is a popular fellow at these events.

We wandered around the indie games exhibit for a while, and were somewhat amused by a booth promoting a game called Uncle Slam. “It’s like Punch-Out but with presidents.” The game’s concept was amusing enough, but the poor play control got in the way of my enjoyment. For my comments, they gave me a t-shirt.

We ended up playing some Marvel VS Capcom 3 in the console free play area, which I found to be an absolutely wonderful space. PAX goers could sign up to play games on current-generation consoles and stay there as long as they liked. It was a great space to try out new games, and it also served the function of being a place where people could chill out, sit down, and yet still do be doing something PAX-related.

I got a text from a friend of mine, and we ended up joining him and his wife for a panel on indie RPG design. I wasn’t initially excited about it, but it was kind of inspiring to hear self-made creative types talk about what they do. After that, we got some dinner, played some Steve Jackson card games with people, and went to bed. It served as a nice introduction to the whole thing, and the next day I was able to much more coherently enjoy the event.

Day Two: You Will Stand in Line and Like It

One of the main things that I’d wanted to see at PAX was Tycho and Gabe from Penny Arcade actually make a strip in front of an audience. Even though it was one of the first events of the day, I knew it would be popular. I took my place in line in front of the main theater an hour and a half early. My expectation would be that I’d spend most of the time reading, but someone shouted “JOE!” and I ran into someone else from Portland. The line ended up being quite the fun social hangout. People were playing card and dice games, I ended up having a nice chat with some complete strangers, and various PAX volunteers (amusingly known as “enforcers”) kept things interesting by giving us stuff to do. Several of them were handing out pipe cleaners for people to make pipe cleaner art (there were some very magnificent specimens- later on, one woman ended up making a pipe cleaner Sonic Screwdriver), enforcers gave out candy and buttons to people who could answer trivia questions, and several beach balls ended up getting bounced around the crowd. (At one point a beach ball got lodged in a fire escape and had to be rescued by a rather daring gentleman. He was cheered as a hero, and was pretty much our very own Spiderman.)

I appreciated all of this. If participants are going to spend a lot of time in line, then the line might as well be interesting. There was very much a carnival atmosphere in the air, and by the time we all went into the main theater, we were already having lots of fun.

Tycho and Gabe (aka, Jerry and Mike) both have fairly good stage presence, and it was clear that they were quite happy to be in front of their fans. Tycho wrote a comic script in the first few moments of the event, comically pretending to make typos and punctuation errors. For the rest of the event, Gabe’s drawings were projected onto a large screen, and various fans asked them questions.

I found the relationship between the Penny Arcade guys and their fans to be kind of wonderful. Neither of them seemed standoffish or inaccessible, and frequently fans presented them with whimsical gifts such as stuffed animal microbes. It was amazing to watch Gabe/Mike draw. It really is true about skilled people making it look easy. What he was doing looked extraordinarily simple and intuitive, but only because he’s been drawing for years (I guess it’s fair to say that at this point, it’s simple and intuitive to him.)

The whole thing was excellent, and later on I met up with Sarah again to see a live recording of the Acquisitions, Incorporated┬ápodcast. It was pretty much the PA guys, Wil Wheaton, and Scott Kurtz all playing D&D, but they were amusing enough to make it a whole lot of fun. Later on I went to a panel all about gaming’s relationship to the LGBT community, and ended the evening playing the Battlestar Galactica board game until about 1:30 in the morning. (The game perfectly captures the paranoia and desperation of the show- I kind of want it now.)

I went to bed immensely satisfied

Day Three: Portland Geek Pride

On day three I wandered about a bit more, played a whole lot of Marvel VS Capcom III and Street Fighter IV, and realized that as much as I like fighting games some guys are just mind-bendingly skilled. I also went to a panel on freelance game journalism, which is relevant to my interest, but none of that is what I want to focus on. No, day three was all about the Omegathon.

The Omegathon is a competition wherein a small number of lucky PAXers are randomly selected to participate in a tournament-style gaming competition. Five rounds precede the finals, and various preliminary rounds can feature games as disparate as Dance Central or Mario Kart.

The final round of the Omegathon acts as a closing ceremonies of sorts for PAX, and one of the players was actually from Portland. Normally I wouldn’t have had any kind of emotional investment in the outcome, but one of the guys was from my general geographic area, and that changed things.

Several Portland geeks crowded near the front of the theater, bumping up against the stage in a manner that reminded me of mosh pits. None of us knew what the final round would consist of- in previous years it had been claw games and ski ball, and is usually something whimsical or weird.

So, we were very surprised when a familiar eight-bit theme started playing. Two televisions were set up side by side, and the final round was to be competitive Legend of Zelda. Whoever got to the first piece of the Triforce the fastest would be the winner.

A large mosh-pit like conglomeration of Portland geeks proceeded to absolutely lose their shit, and shouted various bits of high-volume encouragement at their representative on stage. Including myself. I was utterly emotionally invested in the outcome of this game, solely because one of the guys who was playing was someone I’d seen before at Geek Trivia.

When something like this happens, I sort of mentally prepare myself for disappointment. I try to cope with losing before it happens, which I’m sure is probably unproductive in a lot of ways. There was no need for that here, though. Our boy from Portland actually won, and got himself a trip to the Tokyo Games Show.

I can understand why soccer fanatic feel the way they do. It was exhilarating to be part of a large, cheering group, all of our various enthusiasm bent on one thing.

I went home exhausted, and satisfied, but also sort of wishing that I didn’t have to go back into the real world again. There’s something nice about hanging out with a bunch of like-minded people, and simply playing games together, striking up impromptu conversations, doing things off the cuff with people you’ve never seen before. That can happen in the real world, certainly, but it’s far easier for that to transpire when you know everyone in the vicinity shares something with you. You’re all there for the same thing, and common ground has already been established.

Seattle Has a Most Nifty Library

Architecture goes stale fairly quickly, and when it does, it’s painful. What looks cutting edge and futuristic in one era can quickly look dated and of its time a scant decade later. Whenever a slick new building is put up that seems to be on the bleeding edge of design I think to myself how well it will be received in five, ten, or twenty-five years time. How will it look after it’s been used, or when it’s dirty? How will it look with rain splatters all over it, or when it shows signs of habitation? Will it always seem cutting edge, or will it soon seem to be a brief emblem of its time period?

The Oregon State Capitol is a good example of this.

I’m sure it looked quite cutting edge in the late thirties when it was built. Back then the future looked was austere and deco-inspired. Now its merely the blocky remnants of what a past decade thought the future looked like.

The notorious Portland Building is even worse.

While I do think that hating it is sometimes a fashionable affectation, it’s hard to admit that it doesn’t look of its time. The thing positively bleeds 80s-ness. It’s practically the architectural equivalent of a Patrick Nagel print.

Buildings like this carry a certain embarrassment with them- there is the tacit assumption from the architect, the city planners, the property managers, and everyone else involved with raising them that the conventions of one era will carry over into another. Buildings, after all, generally stick around for longer than people, art installations, wardrobes, or music collections. Once they’re up, we have to deal with their aesthetic choices for some time.

That said, I really enjoyed seeing Seattle’s public library. I don’t, by any means, think that we should just stick with austere, safe modernist or classical designs. I like buildings that have shiny flourishes to them. The above two, though, don’t pull it off very well. Seattle’s library, though, did it a much better.

The exterior’s fairly unremarkable, but the inside has all kind of flourishes that actually work pretty well, like the outward-bent window-walls on the second floor.

Not only is it kind of off-kilter, but it also lets tons of natural light into a reading space. It’s functional as well as quirky. There’s also the red halls above that make it look like you’re walking around inside the living guts or some giant creature.

Splashes of dramatic color about, usually contrasting dramatically with each other.

Most dramatically there are the bright yellow escalators which pop out excitedly in front of their dark background.

The whole building left me very satisfied that something can look both new and exciting (hopefully) not end up dated and stale in five years time. The building seemed functional and inviting (again, there was lots of light) and nowhere did the weirdness of the design seem to get in the way of the use of the building. What I liked most about it, though, was that it didn’t seem to take itself too seriously.

It seemed as if the designers were self-awaredly attempting to make something that was not necessarily cool or fashionable or futuristic, but fun. Seattle’s library doesn’t try to convince you that it’s the vanguard of a Brave New World or on the bleeding edge of fashion. Instead, it tries to be charming and amusing, and succeeds in doing so. Charm and wit retains their freshness far longer than any attempt at being “cool.” I don’t doubt that the library will continue to amuse visitors, even as the Portland Building languishes, perpetually showing up for the future wearing another decade’s fashions.

“Is that a TIE fighter?”

This past weekend I had a lovely trip to Seattle to visit some friends. While I was there, I accompanied photographer extraordinaire Sarah Giffrow to Gas Works Park so she could take pretty pictures of old rusty industrial stuff. On our way there, we went down a series of steps (actually a miniature park called the Wallingford Steps) and noticed something:

“Is that a TIE fighter?” one of us said.

Amidst the various tiles depicting wildlife and sea creatures of various sorts, there did indeed seem to be a TIE fighter. For a moment I thought that perhaps it was something else, and we were just seeing things. Other people have noticed it too, though. Even if the artist did intend it to be something else (or just an abstract pattern) I don’t care- there is a Seattle park with a TIE fighter. Now Portland needs to hide an X-wing somewhere, so we can even things out.

Tough Chicks

About two weeks ago I found myself in Seattle, watching several scantily clad women run around and tackle several other scantily clad women. They were, theoretically, playing football. Not very good football, mind you. There weren’t many completed passes, and the game was pretty lopsided, score-wise, but there were scantily clad women, which theoretically made up for that. (American football, by the way, is a game that I would be more into if there weren’t so many interruptions. It’s tactically interesting and can be exciting in fits and start, but the pace of the game really kills it for me.)

It was the opening night of the Lingerie Football League in Seattle, and as semi-amusing as I find the conceit I could not help but be reminded of the XFL, the failed and gimmicky “extreme” football league started (and folded) some years ago by wrestling mastermind Vince McMahon. Like the XFL, lingerie football seemed extraneous- an established sport with a patina of something allegedly interesting on top of it. The “extra” part of it, though, the girls and their semi-unclad states, was not sufficient to really hold my attention. Even though two teamsworth of conventionally attractive women were piling on top of each other (though not especially well) I didn’t really see too much of a reason for the league’s existence other than the brief novelty we were all enjoying in our variously semi-drunken states.

The whole time, I thought to myself “Roller derby is much better.” The comparison was unavoidable, really. Both are active spectator sports, and both feature attractive women falling down. The next week, miles southward in Eugene, I got to view my preferred ladysport, watching the last bout of the year of the Emerald City Roller Girls.

Unlike lingerie football, roller derby is something wholly new and other. It is not an approximation or copy of something else, not a parody of something established. The image I got of lingerie football was some barker saying “Hey, buddy! Yeah, you! You like football? You like bitches? Well guess what we have! We have bitches playing fucking football! You like that? Yeah you do. Get in there.”

Roller derby, however, is it’s own realm and species, unlike other forms of competition. Because of this, the attitudes and sexiness of it all come across as intrinsic and essential, an organic part of it without pretense or artifice. Moreover, it has teeth, and the teeth are half the reason I enjoy it so much.

For some reason or another, roller derby has become a sort of hipster/punk/indie/etc. event, a spectacle bedecked with skulls, flames and attitude. The derby girls sport noms de track such as “Lil’ Whip-Her Snap-Her,” “Bettie Aim Fire,” “Slapcat,” and “Reign of Tara.” Team uniforms are not uniform at all- embellishments and flairs of individuality are common. There may be fishnets here and garters there, flashes of nonuniform color or different stuff on helmets. The roller girls really do look a lot like a gang, like a bunch of like-minded people who just happen to dress in a very similar fashion.

Once they start rolling, the action itself stays, and interruptions are usually only about thirty seconds. By definition and nature derby is about speed and maneuvering, tactical issues that carry the unavoidable side effects of people falling down. It is jostling through a crowd, except the crowd is zooming and turning. There is action, music, and spectacle. Lingerie football billed itself as something explicitly prurient, and for that reason my interest in it (and the girls) flagged. Roller derby is not prurient. It is a real sport. There is impassioned competition flying by, courtesy of those wheels and axles. There is a sheen of sexiness upon it, but like I said that sexiness is emergent rather than applied. Watching the roller girls, I found them in their embellished uniforms far more interesting than any of the football chicks. Given the choice, I know which breed of female I would rather chat up.

Which brings me to a larger point. I’m going to ignore the creep-factor of a single guy talking about chicks, and talk about them anyway.

I’d take Bettie Page over Marilyn Monroe, thorns over roses, Suicide Girls over Hustler. My preferences are by no means radical or even all that unusual, but I like to think that this choice of attitude and aesthetics says something positive about me, makes me a better man in some respects. I would by lying if I said that I didn’t feel superior to “ordinary” guys because of these preferences. I set myself apart from the rotund guys wearing football jerseys because I think “I get off on better quality shit than you do, suckers.”

I don’t think that this is simple arrogance. I really, honestly do think that roller girls are sexier than lingerie football girls, and I actually do think that finding them so is the more enlightened/feminist/socially responsible/generally interesting position. The conclusion that I’m drawing here is that I like women who are actually ambitious, creative, and idiosyncratic. By extension, I’m putting guys who like conventional blond bimbos in a negative light- supposedly if I like these things, they don’t, and I, therefore, have a cozy place where I can feel arrogant and superior.

This does bother me slightly, but turning the idea over in my head I can’t get away from the feeling that I am, in fact, right. Heres why. The lingerie football girls all seem to be approximations of some kind of cenerfoldian ideal that remains unreached, and therefore they do not become as interesting as their skate-mounted counterparts. (By the way, I’m sure that individually they could easily be highly cool, but I’m dealing in generalities and images here.) The derby girls, on the other hand, seem to have dispensed with such uniform pursuits and mostly just present themselves in a way that they find interesting and suitable. This is much better, and why the aesthetics of roller derby interest me much more.

Armpieces, centerfolds, and trophies are boring. I don’t think this is a misogynistic conclusion to come to. If anything, I think it’s a very feminist position for a guy to have. I don’t want to personally associate myself (or find myself in the position of wanting) a girl who has all the personal constitution of a well-soaked piece of gingerbread. Granted, both the lingerie football and derby girls were presenting themselves as tough. But, in the case of the football girls, it was a kind of parodic and cute toughness, as if inviting us to say “Aw, look! The chicks are doing boy things!” Roller derby, though, has none of that.

I’ll probably never go to another lingerie football game, but I’m definitely catching roller derby again. The Rose City Rollers are supposed to put on quite a show, and I’d love to see it on a banked track, rather than a flat one. Wheels and attitude. That’s what will keep me coming back.