Joy is Infectious: What I Learned at PAX South

I’ve been playing video games my entire life. Most of my earliest memories, as a tubby little kid in the Chicago suburbs, were sitting on the couch of our loft,

watching my brother play the combination Mario/Duckhunt cartridge in our original NES, waiting for my turn. I remember the impossible brick wall that was the second level of Battletoads, the revelation of plugging in the first Game Genie and finally breaking through to the stages beyond. I remember the weeks and weeks of renting Earthbound from Blockbuster, again and again, to crack the codes and see how the story ended. I remember sweating it out for hours in the final battle of Final Fantasy IX, dying again and again, alone in my room on a Friday night, until I finally prevailed, only to feel a little sour that the game was over.

I’m an adult, now, or at least I like to think so, and I know that the images in my head of all the other kids, out, at parties or with friends, that made me feel isolated and lonely were all in my head. But that doesn’t mean the games were any less of an escape. You talk to gamers long enough, they’ll all tell you something similar. Games, for many of us, were what let us get away from those feelings of isolation, even before the rise of multiplayer. It was just entering another world, diving into a story, and just letting it take you over.

So I’ve always loved video games, and when I came on to GameWisp this past summer, I was thrilled beyond words to be working in a space where I’d be able to engage with games and gamers, and talk about that love. I do love to talk, after all.

And yet, when it comes to YouTubers and streamers, I was a bit late to the party. I used to watch Let’s Plays when I wanted to know if a game was worth my time, and I’d chuckle here and there at the antics of the personalities on display, but I wasn’t there for them. It was just about the games.

A moment of honesty, then: I didn’t get it. There are all sorts of reasons why that might have been the case. Minecraft is really the beating heart at the center of the phenomenon, and for the longest time, I hadn’t let myself play it, scared off by the voxel-based art-style and its lack of a narrative. But, more than that, I had that same reaction that you hear so often from outsiders, one that embaresses me, now, as I write it out and make it real.

“People go online and watch other people play video games? But… why?”

Don’t get me wrong. I learned. Over the past year, I’ve engaged, found and watched all kinds of different creators, different games, different content, and the pieces started to fall into place. Like I said, I remember sitting on the couch, five-years-old, just watching my brother play for hours. Those are happy memories, and there’s an element of that in the viewer-creator relationship that very gradually started to make sense to me. Still, I’d bounce around, and I’d see the enormous numbers, the view counts, the subscribers. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Millions. I have to be honest and tell you that there was still a part of me that didn’t understand, that wondered at just how this was happening. Why.

Then we went to PAX South. And I don’t wonder anymore.

This expo was about content creators. Maybe that hasn’t always been the case in the past, it was my first time attending this sort of event, but at PAX South, these big internet personalities and their fans were a focal point. Every day, long lines packed together like sardines outside of theatres, waiting for panels with their favorite YouTubers and streamers. No one got antsy, standing around like that. No one complained. They were simply too excited.

I watched a room full of fans don YouTube capes and raise thier hands in the air like Superman as the panel, big-time personalities with followings in the hundreds of thousands and millions, took their picture, because the event was as much about their fans as it was about them. I attended the live Rooster Teeth podcast, where a fan, a double-amputee, was brought onto the stage, to wild applause, so the assembled panel could sign his prosthetic leg, simply because he asked. I laughed along with a packed hall filled with people as Jesse Cox handed a styrofoam box of Texas barbecue to a fan and forced everyone in line for the Q&A to start their question with a Chicago-style pronunciation of the fabled words “Polish Saahhhsage.” All the while, Twitch streamers were walking the expo floor with name-tags, stopping to take pictures with seemingly every fan who asked.

All of these instances helped push me towards understanding just what this was, this phenomenon that I’d been digging deep into for months but never really clicked in my brain. But there was a simple moment, on Sunday, that really pushed all the pieces into place, and made me go “I understand this.”

We had a booth on the expo floor, and we were lucky enough to host Mindcrack, a group of YouTubers who play together, for an autograph signing. I’d been anxious, to be honest, for days. I wanted everyone to have a good time, for it all to go smoothly, but I also knew how much of mess it could be, lines in the expo hall, waiting as the flow of the conference moved around them, through them. It could be chaos. So I was afraid.

Then it actually happened, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

Joy is infectious. I don’t know when everyone else learns that, but it wasn’t really apparent to me until I saw these fans line up, so patiently, with big smiles on their faces and a hint of awe in their eyes. They’d come up and say hello and have real conversations, and you could just feel the positivity, the energy.

There was a single moment that did it for me. A little girl, she couldn’t have been more than seven years old, standing in front of Aureylian and looking as if she were inches away from tears. For her, this was the ultimate, a supreme thrill. She was meeting her idol. I stood there, imagining how this interaction might have gone if we were at some high-priced meet and greet with Taylor Swift or some other traditional celebrity. The reaction would be the same, and sure, she’d get her autograph and maybe a picture, and then she’d be ushered away so the next person in line could have their turn.

Instead, this little girl got to talk to Aureylian. She got a hug. She got a real genuine moment.

And all at once, I understood.

Human connection is a rare thing, but we all need it. You’re never going to feel that sort of bond with rock star, or a big-time Hollywood actor. But these guys? They’re just gamers, like you. They’re real, and accessible, and, most importantly, the best of them really do seem to care back.

Like I said, Joy is infectious. And I just spent a weekend in a place so full of it I’m fit to burst. So I’m sorry, I suppose. Sorry it took me this long. But let me tell you; now? I couldn’t be more excited. These people are changing what it means to be a celebrity, to be a role model. I’m so happy to be in this space, to be a part of it.

I get it now. Let’s do everything we can to make sure everyone else does, too.

Originally published at Jan 29, 2015.

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