In 1970’s London, things were a bit more rudimentary than they are today: You considered yourself lucky to get through 24 hours without losing your electricity thanks to the latest “industrial action” (strike, to you and me), the trains were invariably late, and my memory is that most people didn’t exactly overdo it when it came to showers. Britain as a whole had reached a state that it’s perhaps now difficult to imagine, as we continue to debate the finer nuances of “gay marriage,” legal pot, and the rights of whales. As a rule, the nation’s concerns tended to be more basic 40 years ago. In the final days of the Heath government, inflation was running at more than 30 percent and rising fast. The pound had lost some 70 percent of its value on the foreign exchanges in just two years. Thanks to a protracted labor dispute in the coal-mining sector, at one point the entire country went on to a three-day work week in order to conserve fuel, and even then we all too often sat up at night in frigid rooms while eating tinned Spam and reading flimsily printed newspapers by candlelight. There may have been no remote village in the High Andes more primitive than London in the hangover years following the Swinging Sixties.
Certainly, if you were looking for the authentic image of Britain’s decline in the 1970’s, the ritual of attending a major metropolitan soccer match like the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium would be it. I speak not of the actual sport of soccer (dire as it was), but of the larger ordeal. I remember the approach to Wembley as a cloaca of rat-infested waste and human filth, a scene enlivened both by the black-clad riot police on horseback and by the frequently spirited interactions between rival gangs of supporters. Think of one of those feral, mutant-rave scenes in a film like Total Recall, with an added touch of Clockwork Orange-like violence, to get the flavor.
I will never forget the sight. In those days there was a single gray road leading onto a narrow, twisting ramp up to the stadium, a crenellated old pile then in the midst of a much-needed refurbishment, with irregular splashes of red and white paint thrown around its upper decks, the whole thing soaring out of the North London gloom like a clumsily iced wedding cake. A sea of young men and women, many adorned with their team’s colors, moved ten abreast toward the main entrance, filling the gutter with cans and bottles as they went. In theory, alcohol would be confiscated at the gate; there was a lot of drinking to be done in the last 400 yards. I looked it up, and can report that the crowd capacity that day was officially set at 72,000. Thanks to gate crashing and ticket forgery, there was probably twice that number on site. At a conservative estimate, half of them were drunk. Once inside, Wembley’s narrow inner perimeter looked like Dunkirk. All around, the public hallways and aisles were thronged with staggering, loudly incoherent figures, a sea of heavily churned mud underfoot where the scores of those destined not to see a ball kicked in anger reclined, casualties of drink, drugs, or a combination thereof. For many of those attending the English national game’s marquee event, it seemed intoxication was the rule, and prolonged consciousness the exception.
Of those who did remain vertical, almost all were smoking. I remember thinking of the potential for a fire and the consequent stampede at the exit, a nightmarish vision that would be realized at more than one English sporting venue that decade. In general, the mood of the crowd veered between merely obscene, intrusive, and excessively jocular, and scary, aggressive, and dangerous. I was simultaneously appalled and fascinated in a morbid, here’s-a-story-I’ll-tell-my-grandkids sort of way. Anything could happen, I felt. I wasn’t conscious of any immediately apparent security provisions, although—in a surreal, Ruritanian touch—a squad of gaudily uniformed sentries was on parade outside the door to the Royal Box, marching smartly to and fro like a shoal of carnivorous fish. The whole thing felt as though one had wandered inadvertently into some bizarre parallel universe such as I gather might be encountered in a particularly vivid hallucinatory drug trip. How I did it I will never know, but I went home unmolested with only a thumping headache to show for it the next morning.
I raise all this in relation to my recent experience of accompanying my teenage son to the annual Penny Arcade Expo (“PAX”) here in Seattle. Possibly, there was less public voiding involved, but in most other respects I found myself in a comparably gaudy netherworld. Perhaps I should have been better prepared for the discovery that a significant number of today’s adolescents appear to dress and behave as if at a psychotically deranged Halloween party, but I admit that it came as something of a shock when, immediately on entering the convention hall, I found myself crushed up against a morbidly obese young woman clad in what appeared to be a bikini bottom, a rather token vest seemingly fashioned of aluminum foil, and topped off by a child’s plastic tiara. She was not unrepresentative of the whole.
Both inside and outside the hall, a basic pattern repeated itself. Continuous exposure to the scores of computer games we were there to celebrate would appear to make people uninhibited and happy, but also terrifyingly gregarious, brazen, lewd, and loud, and apparently unemployable at least by conventional standards. At last, I thought, I was seeing the future. So this is how the world will end, in a seething froth of retro-pink ball gowns and exposed flesh. I don’t suppose for a moment that any of these young men and women had ever experimented with the likes of marijuana, which, while now legal in Washington state, is still forbidden for use in public, but it seemed to me that there was a certain glazed-eyed aspect to many of PAX’s patrons, and a halting, torpid quality to their speech that put me in mind of an interminable Grateful Dead concert I attended some 45 years ago.
How can I describe the full enormity of the PAX ordeal? It involved an entirely altered state of consciousness. The congestion and the noise were both impressive, but what really struck me was the thought that I had somehow wandered into a combined pagan ritual and video-game arcade, a voodoo ceremony as sponsored by Xbox. The audience fell in two basic categories: there were younger, more or less conventionally attired teenagers who for the most part sat crouched intently at the levers of the many demonstration devices on display, and there were those—perhaps a majority—who seemed primarily to be on parade, modeling their hideously gaudy costumes and periodically jigging to the aggressively loud rap music blaring from the P.A. system. In some ways the latter were agreeable enough companions for the day—visually comic and relentlessly jolly—but I found that any real attempt at conversation foundered on two immutable facts: They understood nothing I said to them, and nothing they said in return made any sense to me.
I know. It’s often the way with these new popular-entertainment fads, which we’re told are the answer to all our prayers, or at least those of our young people: They spring to earth, fully formed with all their catchphrases and sales slogans, acting as if they’re part of our cultural furniture and always have been; and a year or two later, if not considerably less, it’s as if they never existed.
But PAX is different. Unlike one of those viral YouTube videos involving an androgynous Scandinavian chanteuse and a backing group apparently engaged in a native fertility rite, this is one youth-culture phenomenon apparently here to stay. When the first PAX took place in Bellevue, Washington, in 2004, it attracted roughly 3,500 people. The following year there were 9,800 attendees at the same venue, and over 20,000 in 2006. In 2007 the event moved to the more capacious Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle, where it drew 52,000 paying customers over three days. In September 2014, all 80,000 available tickets at the same venue were sold within 30 minutes of going online, which puts it in the NFL or Paul McCartney class. The PAX organizers fielded 127,000 additional applications that morning, which is more than the total number of men, women, and children who attended the nearby King Tut exhibition over a five-week period in 2012.
Nobody should try the PAX experience who wants to do any work that day, or even has any work the next day that demands great alertness of mind. It was not only overpowering to the senses, but it seemed to be everywhere you looked. Many of the downtown hotels and theaters—as well as the city streets themselves—played host to various ancillary gamer demonstrations, mixers, and rallies, where those prepared to stand in line for an hour or so could meet teenaged industry legends such as CampingRusher and Shady Penguinn (sic). Around Seattle, the going black-market rate for PAX tickets was $100-plus for a face-value $35 one-day pass, and I can confirm from personal experience that there was no shortage of takers. My own quest led me into a half-world of shadowy street rendezvous and muttered transactions like a scene out of an old Cold War film, except that in this case one of the parties involved was wearing not the regulation turned-up raincoat but voluminous jeans and purple sneakers, and had several bits of metal puncturing her skin.
Nor is PAX one of those peculiar regional phenomena so prevalent in the United States, the source of intense youthful frenzy in one part of the country and complete indifference elsewhere. Like the ubiquitous smiley-face logo and grunge music before it, PAX has left Seattle and truly gone global. In 2010, it launched on the East Coast with a sold-out, three-day event at the downtown convention center in Boston, where organizers recently announced it will return each spring until at least 2023. In January 2015, a PAX South convention made its debut in San Antonio, where it, too, is set to become an annual fixture. Meanwhile, PAX Australia has done a brisk business in Melbourne each year since 2012, and I’m reliably told that on the last such occasion several young fans lined up for 14 hours outside the box office just in the hope of buying a returned ticket. There are plans now under way for similar PAX events in Los Angeles, London, and Paris.
“It’s like Woodstock for gamers,” says Guy “Yug” Blomberg, one of the PAX organizers, and based on the most recent Seattle extravaganza I can see what he means. With spectacular video projections and rock-concert lighting, this wasn’t computer gaming as you may have known it in the 1980’s or early 90’s, when it was still largely confined to a basement subculture populated by teenagers batting a ball back and forth over a static vertical line while arguing over trading cards. But if the technology has moved on, the old-fashioned joystick apparently having gone the way of the buggy whip, to be replaced by smartphones and tablets, it’s not the hardware per se that is the truly arresting part of today’s PAX experience. It’s the people. As I pushed my way through, it was as though a Star Wars convention had somehow merged with a postmodern beauty pageant—there were several luxuriantly bearded individuals parading around the room in cheerleader getup, though even they seemed to possess Edwardian gravitas compared with the so-called Booth Babes on hand to demonstrate products running the gamut from the family-friendly, like Bananagrams, up (or down) to those whose basic plot device would seem to involve variants of one teenaged gang interacting violently with another, pausing only to express their mutual disdain for the police. As a rule, these Babes were dressed in primary-toned garments of the most sparing cut, though with many individual accessories and options. Some had distinct stage personas: “Now we can make it more realistic by adding in potholes and shooters in the windows,” one young woman explained cheerfully of a game that simulates high-speed bicycles racing each other while under sniper fire on the streets of New York. “In this version you actually feel like you’re dodging the bullets,” she added, her eyes twinkling beneath her real-life biking helmet.
I knew that the development of computer games had quickened and come of age sometime around the turn of the century, but what I hadn’t realized was quite how far gone the mainstream gaming industry was; that is, until I entered the looking-glass world of PAX. There may have been honorable exceptions to the rule, but I have to say that most of the fare on show failed to lift my spirits when contemplating the future of Western civilization. The busy Chronicles reader may not wish to dwell on the details, but as a whole it would be fair to say that for most of the games’ plot lines, brutality and violent death were the mainstream, and subtlety of thought the exception. I lingered briefly at one enclave of rapt devotees of the latest version of Planetary Annihilation, passed by the likes of State of Decay and Severed, and took in some of the intricate narrative of Medal of Honor: Warfighter. Set in and around the bustling docks of Karachi, the last named is an unapologetic crowd pleaser, with plenty of car crashes and explosions, a crew of evil Somali pirates, several muscle-bound U.S. Rangers, and an alluring heroine in the form of a scantily clad teenager with unfeasibly large breasts.
I add this last detail only to illustrate a curious paradox of so much of our modern pop culture. Social revolution might be bursting forth on every level, but apparently it has yet to disturb the age-old entertainment convention of females being depicted as decorative playthings. In this case, the young Pakistani woman in question, named Bella, existed purely to gratify her male American military rescuers, if I understood the program correctly. It was sometimes hard to follow with complete precision, because watching it was like being at a fanatically partisan Super Bowl party in somebody’s overcrowded basement. Occasionally, there would be a relative lull in the action, but the essence of the scene involved several dozen people screaming at the top of their lungs while shaking their fists aloft in unison. One of the teenagers I later spoke to came up with the day’s most telling quotation: “The real world is just so boring. I don’t like it, and most of my friends don’t like it.” Perhaps that was the most jolting insight of the whole PAX experience: Young people are essentially uninterested in daily life.