This is a guest article by a good friend of lots of us on the site: Reid. He worked as an Enforcer at PAX East 2015, and thought it would be interesting to give a different perspective on the gaming expo that we all know and love. We hope you enjoy!
Conventions: In geek culture, conventions are the Mecca that gamers, otaku and comic book enthusiasts flock to, bearing bad weather, camped hotel spaces and mass transportation in their pilgrimage. Conventions are both a chance to see the latest in the games we know and love, as well as discover what new titles or additions developers have to offer, all while being among your peers. For those in the East coast Area, PAX East is the crown jewel. But among all the set up booths, awesome panels, and sweet events is the tireless workforce helping to glue it all together: The red shirted Enforcers.
For 2015, I found myself as one of them.
The Brilliant Plan
I had the pleasure of being an attendee of PAX East back in 2013 after hearing how awesome it was from a certain blog’s editor. It was awesome, and I was very frustrated when I was unable to go in 2014 due to having just lost my job, and was trying to save shiny, shiny coin for the cruel adult world. For 2015, I had plans to get a 3-day badge and I wasn't going to let anything stop me.
Then, they sold out of 3-day badges in less than an hour, an hour in which I was away from any internet access due to a business meeting. I’m sure that I was not alone in having a few moments of rage due to just bad luck.
While debating paying the price for three individual day passes, or not going to PAX, I stumbled across the hiring sign on the Facebook; an evil plan began to form. I was going to apply simply because it was a way to get in for all three day for the convention without having to pay for a pass! Brilliant!
That wasn't the whole reason I applied, but I need to be honest: part of the allure was a pass into the convention without dishing out over a hundred dollars. But that wasn't the whole reason for my decision to apply. Several years ago, a couple of guys I met in the college's gaming club had this idea of hosting a small gaming convention on campus, called the New Paltz Convention, or NPC. I helped out with it as a general worker (we didn't have any fancy name for the staff at the time). I enjoyed the experience enough to take the position of Master of Inventory and oversee all of the organization of inventory, register and keep general track of ALL the gaming equipment (video and tabletop) at our little convention. This past experience at a humble 200 person convention would obviously prepare me for PAX.
First off, becoming an Enforcer is not a free ticket into the con: you work for that pass, and it's a non stop rush once you check in. Each day, you’re given a schedule of when you are set to work, and you are also assigned a specific section of the convention. In my case, I got to work at what many people consider the heart of the convention: the Exhibition Hall. You're expected to be at your location an hour before the convention starts to get specific details for the day. I had a friend tell me before I departed for the convention that I would probably get time when the floor is closed off to the paying guests to see and try the games myself. I was naive enough to believe this to be the case, and used it as a way to motivate myself as Friday started.
The hall is an oddly vacant space before the show floor opens, a place that you feel should be surging with people: not unlike city streets in a zombie apocalypse movie. Exhibitors are there of course, moving about, making sure the last minute touches are set for their booths and demos. Red shirted enforcers that are assigned to the show floor are there too, popping around doing what can be done to help, an eerie calm before the storm, especially as you see more and more people rushing to get to the queue line.
That was most of the queue line on Friday morning. Imagine all of that rushing at you at once: it's an eye opener seeing it on the other side.
A quick check in with some of the head enforcers and a battle plan is made for the day. There is no false optimism as the morning prep talk goes along the lines of: “This morning is going to suck. Picture a flood gate or rabid zergs coming in to devour everything, and it's your job to make sure they don't trample or consume themselves”. With that inspiring speech, the likes of which William Wallace would share a tear at, you're told to “water up” and sent to stand along the main aisles of the hall to keep an eye on the tide of people coming in, encourage walking in a nice, friendly but LOUD manner and be a general set of eyes in case something happens in the human tide.
Crowd Control Simulator 2015
Enforcers work hard. There isn't any real golden hour, to enjoy the con before or after it show floor closes, and once the con gates opened, I felt like I was starting an MMO raid: all hands on deck to keep the aggro down and coordination required to everyone up and running. The rush of people coming into the hall really is like a tsunami. You might be used to being part of that massive wave of people (like Wyatt and Jon), but it’s a whole other experience when you see it on the other end. It’s something to experience as the first (few thousand) eager gamers race in to get to the booth they most want to see and avoid the hour-long lines that will soon form.
Running is a serious issue: in previous years, I had seen Enforcers calling out loudly to WALK PLEASE, and I thought it was a bit much. I mean, I wasn't running, just very quickly power walking. Now I've been the one saying those words, and in the age of Black-Friday-Walmart-Trample-Deaths, it is a real necessity. It's not that anyone has done anything wrong, just that, in all our barely contained excitement, we tend to move very, very quickly in a running like motion, very close to each other. Trust me, it's not a fun thing to repeat twenty times in 30 seconds, and so you start to figure out different things to say. By Saturday in fact, I figured out how to well, make it a game for myself, both to entertain those around me, and to try and get some funny looks. I had much more positive reactions when I started loudly announcing things such as “Congratulations, you've increased your walking skill by TWO points”, or “You've leveled up your patience skill by waiting in an orderly fashion! Great job!”
"Are they...are they behind me? Are ALL of them behind me?"
This quickly becomes your day as an Exhibition Hall Enforcer: leveling your patience skill, herding humans where they want to go, hoping a stampede doesn't spontaneously form behind you.
Player 2 Ready
When we think of PAX, one thing comes to mind: games. I mean, that’s the point, right? The video games, table top games, card games, all spread out, and hundreds of things to try and experience. While not at the show, it’s sometimes easy to forget that, not only is there a massive amount of games, but there is a massive amount of people being jammed in one place. Okay, so maybe it’s not that hard to forget, especially when you get stuck in the line to try out Oculus Rift.
When part of your duty is to watch and help direct the herd of people, the reality of PAX becomes very clear: it is about people, plain and simple. It’s about the culture that we've collectively built up. Think about it; Many of these exciting games, whether it’s table, video, or card, would be nothing without a few good people to play them with.
As an Enforcer, I found myself talking with a lot more attendees and exhibitors than I do as a regular attendee. While standing at the end of lines to ‘cap’ them when they got too long, I was able to strike up a lot of conversations with people already waiting in line and with people hoping to join that line (This is an extremely effective tactic when trying to pop into a line once it becomes uncapped, I’ve learned). I would get into random discussions with people who just needed quick directions, but then we got distracted as one of us noticed a pin, or some awesome swag needing to be shown off. While patrolling the aisles to make sure no lines were spilling out to block traffic, I was able to speak with exhibitors and developers waiting for someone to ask them about the title, and not just grab the free swag or pop on the demo a few moments.
It's great to feel connected to others: even if you have to shout at each other over the noisiness of the expo hall
It actually was my favorite experience about PAX. Meeting so many very different people, and being able to talk with them about the culture we all love. Even during those times I got to switch into civilian mode and wander the building, people seemed more apt to strike up a conversation with me. I got greeted more than once with the intro of “Hey, you're the Orcs Must Die Enforcer”. Maybe it was the being tall and wearing an Irish cap… or maybe the Orcs scarf I wore every chance I got from that same booth.
Because of this, even when I was off shift, I found myself shying away from all the shiny video games, and checking out the tabletop portions of the convention, looking at and trying out non-electronic games. These areas promoted more direct personal interactions and were easier to sit down with friends to grab food and try something together. Or, it could be because the lines were smaller, the crowds less dense, and a nice alternative to the hustle and bustle of the video game section.
Everybody who has ever gone to a convention, expo, or general large gathering has experienced the crash: The long stretches of time standing around in massive crowds, the menagerie of sounds and bright lights taking their toll on your attention span. It can leave you feeling depleted, and as an Enforcer on the show floor, I got hit with that in a big way. There was a lot of energy to working in the middle of it all, but you have to be prepped for the crash.
Fortunately, having a set schedule, and getting the first shift of the day, let me prepare for it, after the shock of the Friday rush was over. It was nice to find a quiet spot to sit, throwing down games I had discovered with a group of friends: every year, I make it a routine to find a good simple card game like that, and so Friday night, we broke out Superfight, probably one of the surprise hits of the convention this year. It was great to return to my friends, find a quiet spot to sit and give our legs a break and just play an actual game together while sharing our stories and experiences of the day. I might not have gotten all the time trying out new things on the show floor thanks to working, but it didn’t matter as long as we had a chance to share our own findings.
The camaraderie between Enforcers can be seen everywhere, even if a lot of them only see each other a few times a year.
Every once in a while, while getting a quick fifteen minute break to recover and re-hydrate in the enforcer areas, that same experience came from fellow Enforcers. Sitting around, playing a quick game recently discovered, talking about what booths you were stationed at, and the sharing of new inside jokes on different weird questions asked by attendees. Comrades-in-Arms, there was a definite feeling of cooperation and friendship that I could appreciate: some have been doing it for years, and that’s part of the reason why they continue to.
Expo Over…Press Start to Continue...?
Hours of standing around and working on your feet, sacrificing the chance to experience large portions of the con (wait, there were panels?!?!) and seeing the same game trailer at a booth again (and again…and again…) while you can’t play yourself were some of the drawbacks. Would I do it again? It’s a good question. To answer it, I’d like to give some advice to any thinking of becoming an Enforcer at next year’s Penny Arcade Expos: It’s not just a way to get a free pass. At the beginning of this article, I had said part of my motivation for applying to be an enforcer was a free way into the convention. While in a sense this is true, it is by no means a free ride. There is going to be a large section of your day where you will be in the same area working, never to know of the far corners of the convention except in hushed legends. There can be long, draining hours with only windows of freedom to explore without responsibility.
But, the rewards are worth it. In this year as an Enforcer, PAX became a very different thing for me. Sure, it’s still a place with awesome games to see and experience, with a treasure trove of swag to get, but the nature of it as a massive, social gathering of the culture seemed enhanced. Meeting Enforcers from around the country with various experiences and backgrounds, having some real person to person conversations with exhibitors and just really noticing the people pressing tight together for a chance to get their hands on the controller made the convention a bit more real for me.
Even with all the hard work, I still had time to see friends and goof off.
So yes, I think I would apply as an enforcer next year, and make it an even greater year with the lessons I learned from this first experience. Here’s a few for anyone to keep in mind:
- Dr. Scholls are lifesavers for your feet. You might be saving money on tickets, but invest in these.
- Striking up a conversation early can help the time, and the masses fade into the background. It’s half the fun, getting to know the people around you when you have the chance.
- Time management is even more essential to balance the roles of being an Enforcer and a regular con-goer.
- Always make sure to have your phone charged and a blue tooth earpiece handy: it makes sure you can stay connected, so you can know what your crew of friends is doing over the loud hall.
With that said, if you've experienced PAX on a few different occasions and want a whole new experience, try being an Enforcer. It will make you appreciate the convention that much more in future years, and if nothing else, there’s the bright red t-shirt you keep as a reminder for your service.