Overcoming Social Anxiety at a Video Game Convention
Let’s get one thing clear, just in case there was any misconception: I’m a nerd. I’ve always been a nerd. I will always be a nerd. I enjoy being a nerd. I’m writing this wearing a Star Wars t-shirt that is just dressy enough I can wear it to work.
I’ve been playing video games since the early days of the NES. I was writing HTML in the late 90’s. At the dawn of the new millennium I was building computers for myself and friends. Obsessing over scifi TV shows and movies for as long as I can remember. I am a nerd.
2008 was a nerd’s paradise. Video game systems allowed immersive and cinematic storylines that rivaled movies. Home internet speeds were strong enough to serve quality video without pause. Most impacting on nerd culture in 2008: the Writer’s Guild strike had just ended. Amazing content that people wrote while being unable to write for their jobs was starting to be produced.
At the time, my friend Mike Wuest and I were also huge fans of Penny Arcade, a digital comic strip that reviews and critique’s video games. Over the summer, we got a novel and entirely geeky idea: let’s fly across the country to Seattle for Penny Arcade’s annual convention: PAX. We were three years removed from college, living fully adult lives, and it seemed like a perfect vacation.
There was just one problem with this whole plan: I’m not a huge fan of people. I mean, most people are fine. I just don’t like being around many of them for extended periods of time. Call it social anxiety. Call it fear of crowds. Call it whatever you want.
At the time, PAX was growing exponentially. There had been something like 20,000 people at the convention the previous year. The university we attended had at least twice that and I survived four years, so a weekend should be no problem. Right?
Mike and I landed in Seattle and checked into our hotel room in the early afternoon on a Thursday. We were cheap, so we stopped at a grocery store to stock up on food and snacks for the week. We then proceeded to fall asleep before dinner because jet lag.
The next day Mike and I went out exploring Seattle for a bit. We went to Pike’s Place Market to see fish thrown through the air. There, I saw crab legs larger than ever before and had to take pictures of them — did I mention I am a nerd? We ate some great fried fish and made a stark realization: Vancouver was a ferry trip away. Had we actually looked at a map prior to traveling, maybe we would have visited Canada on that trip. But, alas, we were young and had a different goal in mind: the video games.
We made our way to the convention center to check in and get our badges. It was us and tens of thousands of our nerdy brethren. There were guys in cargo kilts directing traffic, girls passing out cookies shaped like dicks, and then there was me, right in the middle of it all.
Most of the time it was fine. I stayed quiet and conveyed my best, “I don’t want to engage in conversation” face. Which worked because most of the people there wore the same look. I would stay focused and head toward the panel or stage event I wanted to attend.
The problem was that everywhere Mike and I went, there was a line. And not just an orderly and wide-spaced queue like you’d see at Disney, these were tightly packed herds of people being funneled through holding rooms for an hour or two at a time.
Some people passed the time crammed in playing handheld video games, rolling dice, or talking with their fellow man. For me, this was hell. I sat on the ground reading Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac or playing rudimentary games on my first gen iPhone.
Mike and I were one of the few thousand lucky PAX’ers to be in the room when Bethesda spent 10 minutes demoing Fallout 3 gameplay. This would go on to become my favorite video game of all time. I spent almost 230 hours exploring the Capital Wasteland, playing the game every way possible.
We were also able to attend a panel with the cast of The Guild. There, Felicia Day and co. talked about creating content and self-producing. She talked about her role on Dr. Horrible while Sandeep Parikh talked about creating The Legend of Neil. It was a great hour.
Afterwards, we opted to not be one of the people to flock the table for autographs or pictures. I can’t speak for Mike, but I did not want to be in a crowd anymore, let alone another line. Add to that a fear of approaching the opposite sex and, well, just stick one more feather in my nerd cap.
Saturday afternoon, while waiting for Wil Wheaton to come out and read excerpts from his book, I helped Mike sign up for Twitter. It really was the golden age.
Towards the end of the weekend we found ourselves in the main vendor hall awkwardly asking for pictures of cosplayers. There were dozens, DOZENS!, of Dr. Horrible’s (Horribli?), cardboard samurais, Harley Quinns, and a few terrifying Silent Hill nurses.
While turning a corner, we stumbled onto a hallway with a few exhibit tables just opening, including one for The Guild. There was no line. None. This was the first time we didn’t have to wait in a line for the entire convention. The first time we didn’t have be shovled like cattle. The first time I didn’t have to make small talk with people crammed in around me. And this was for a table to meet Felicia Day.
Mike and I couldn’t pass up a chance to say hello without having to wait. I pushed fear aside and walked up to the table. I awkwardly said hello to Felicia Day and we took a quick picture. Mike and I conveyed our appreciation of her and Sandeep’s shows, and we went on our way.
Today I speak in front of crowds all the time, but interacting with new people in small settings still does not come easy. In 2008, mustering courage to meet Felicia Day was asking me to push a boulder up hill. But I mustered the courage and I did it.
Maybe that moment was pivotal in my social development. Maybe without it I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Maybe I’m just talking out my ass to tell a story. Either way, it was a big deal and I can’t put into words how awkward the moment felt.
The convention ended with the final round of the Omegathon, an elimination tournament that spanned the entire convention. Mike and I, not flying out until midnight, decided to wait in one more line. We were able to stand stage side in front of thousands of people, cheering two guys on as they played Excitebike on a classic Famicom system. PAX was a crazy expeirence.
It would be revealed that nearly 40,000 people attended PAX that year. Spending a weekend literally surrounded on all sides by people wasn’t always ideal, but in the end it was a lot of fun and well worth the trip.