We normally don't think of a video game convention as a family activity, and yet the fact that so many adults brought their children is telling. And whether you agree with it or not, there's something to be learned from the presence of kids at game conventions.
A changing of the guard
We're currently in a weird transition phase when there are plenty of adult gamers but also plenty of adults who really don't get gaming at all. While I was riding the train home after the first day, I had to lug a physical Minecraft pickaxe and sword that my kids begged me to buy. As the train cleared out, a man saw my arsenal lying on the seat and said that his nephew is crazy about "that game" and that he didn't understand the appeal. Another man overheard the comment and also said that his son loves the game but that he didn't get it at all. While these two adults recognized the unique look of the foam pickaxe and sword, they could hardly even recall the name of the game, let alone explain what it's about.
But if my son were to walk down the hallway at school with his Minecraft sword, apart from being instantly expelled, he'd see all the kids race up to him to check it out and then launch into story after story of what they're doing in game. There's a certain chunk of the adult population who don't get video games and never will, but that chunk gets smaller and smaller because games are more a part of life for those growing up (for better or worse!). It's inevitable that "gamers" will no longer be seen as nerdy and odd because video games are becoming more and more mainstream with each generation, and practically every kid right now is a gamer.
You can't really talk about PAX without talking about Wil Wheaton's keynote speeches from previous years. In 2007, he was staunchly defending gamers against negative stereotyping by politicians, lawyers, and society in general. By 2010, he was much more mellow and took on a victorious tone as he celebrated the shared community of gamers that's exploded in just those three short years.
But as it's grown, that community isn't just about "young males" and includes more older gamers, women, and children. And it's hard to reconcile that audience with the traditional sights and sounds at game conventions, which still tend to target that young-male demographic. There's something not right about having young Bobby and Susie walking past scantily clad "booth babes."
PAX East this past year actually looked different from when I was there in 2010 in the cramped Hynes Convention Center. Yes, there were "booth babes," but there was also a LEGO guy walking the floor and posing for pictures at the LEGO booth. Game conventions in general seem to be working toward a more inclusive atmosphere, slowly but surely, especially in the past couple of years. Last year at SOE Live, the organizers held their first-ever children's day, with a full lineup of activities for fans of their kid-friendly titles. (And several of them walked away with some amazing prizes at the banquet by outdoing the adults on Gangnam Style). The Roblox Game Conference and MineCon staff also recognize that their audience includes younger gamers, and so they plan events that appeal to both young and old. It's nice to see the change, and it certainly helps improve the image of the gaming industry as well.
The changing face of panels
Even the panels took on some new and more family-oriented topics. While there were plenty of panels that talked about the games themselves, there also some that considered the larger issue of gaming in general, from video game addiction to games in education to advice on video games and parenting. I want to see even more of these panels and continued research into the effects of video games, and not because of the tiresome accusations of ultraviolence. As video games continue to grow and become a part of life, we need to examine how to fit them in, take advantage of their best qualities, and minimize the negative aspects as much as possible. As gamers begin to start families and grow older, these topics become as important as how to beat a videogame on hardmode.
As a mom of two young gamers, I've always been hesitant to bring them to conventions. Even though they're gamers and are eager to join along and celebrate their shared enthusiasm with other gamers, it just didn't seem like an event that's appropriate for children. And while there were still some scenes at PAX East that the ESRB would label as "M" for mature, there were plenty of booths and activities that appealed to the masses. We need even more of that, especially if we want to see Wheaton's celebration of the gamer community continue to flourish. Less antisocial folks and more LEGO guys, please!
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.