Great Geek Debates: Dragon*Con vs. PAX


Dragon Con logoDragon Con logoFor the past three years, convention-going geeks have had to choose: Dragon*Con or PAX. Two conventions on opposite ends of the United States, each with its own unique programming, occurring during the same Labor Day weekend. What’s a geek to do?

Dragon*Con (D*C) began as a get-together for users of a local Atlanta bulletin board system to get together and talk about science fiction and games. It grew to host the 1990 Origins International Game Expo and eventually grew to include guests like Michael Moorcock, Richard “Lord British” Garriott, Gary Gygax, and Anne McCaffrey. Now it plays host to everything from Star Trek and Star Wars alum to GWAR and Adult Swim, with some gaming and cosplay thrown in for good measure. It is a celebration of every possible geek pastime, all stuffed into a few city blocks.

PAX logoPAX logoThe Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) kicked off in 2004 with 1337 pre-registrations and has grown to over 67,000. Its focus: gaming. Music inspired by games, exhibitor booths devoted to new games, after-hours parties centered around games, and entire convention center floors devoted to the playing of games. It’s grown so popular that it can no longer be confined by the west coast, so PAX East and its 52,290 attendees converged on the city of Boston in March, completely overcrowding the Hynes Convention Center. Next year’s venue will, by necessity, be much larger.

Which convention reigns supreme? This year, my wife, Natania Barron, and I decided to split up. Not for good. Just for the weekend. We compared and contrasted. We one-upped each other via text message (when the networks weren’t down). We tried to get to the bottom of the Great Geek Debate: Dragon*Con vs. PAX.

Natania Barron and Colin FergusonNatania Barron and Colin Ferguson

Natania and Colin Ferguson at Dragon*Con. Photo: Natania Barron

Michael Harrison and Wil WheatonMichael Harrison and Wil Wheaton

Michael and Wil Wheaton at PAX. Photo: Michael Harrison

Natania Barron: So here’s the rundown: two cons, one weekend, one couple. Games and glory on one hand, dragons and…

Michael Harrison: B-list celebrities on the other?

NB: Whoa, whoa now. First of all, you have no sense of alliteration. And secondly, Jonathan Frakes might be reading.

This year Michael committed con adultery and, instead of going to Dragon*Con as we’ve done for the last two years, he went to PAX. Now, I couldn’t imagine skipping out on D*C, but Michael has his reasons. So we thought we’d bring this down to a good old fashioned debate, con-vs-con.

MH: It’s just like Dave and Jonathan’s Comic-Con vs. PAX debate, except this time the stakes are even higher. Because PAX and Dragon*Con have, for the past three years, both taken place over Labor Day Weekend. Unless you have a time machine, it’s kind of hard to attend both of them.

NB: I should point out that I have a sense of allegiance to Dragon*Con. It was the first convention I ever attended, and it holds a very special place in my heart. But Michael, you’re not so fond of D*C, if I recall. You had a little freak-out the first time we went.

MH: I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t tell anyone about that.

NB: Well, okay. Let’s just say the magnitude of the event was a little overwhelming for you.

MH: I went to D*C so I could toss some dice. Not make chitchat with the couple in the elevator, one of whom is collared and chained and in diapers.

NB: It does attract a rather enthusiastic costuming crowd, and along the way there are people who are simply there to parade about in odd clothing that may or may not scar you for life.

MH: I believe it was at D*C that I coined the term “popover”, which is… well, a sort of… reverse muffin-top, I guess?

NB: Yes, usually due to a very ill-fitting corset. Note to the ladies: it’s fine to flaunt what you’ve got, but please keep measurements in mind.

MH: At my last D*C, I quietly wandered down into the basement of the Hilton to play games with the other mouthbreathers. And, yes, they put the gamers in the basement. How convenient.

NB: My favorite part of D*C is the costuming. For every horrifying outfit is something utterly magical, something so lovingly and perfectly put together that it really inspires.

MH: There are fewer societal boundaries at cons because you just know: if they’re at PAX, they’re probably cool with the geeky subculture. They’re not going to think twice when I show up dressed as Mega Man, or when I ask if they want to play Zombie Dice.

NB: Dragon*Con has that same zeitgeist as well. There are all sorts of geeks there. Even geeks you didn’t know existed.

MH: Dog-chain-baby dude included.

GeekDads Ken Denmead, Jonathan Liu, Michael Harrison, and Dave Banks, with Wizards of the Coast's Mike MearlsGeekDads Ken Denmead, Jonathan Liu, Michael Harrison, and Dave Banks, with Wizards of the Coast's Mike Mearls

Ken Denmead, Jonathan Liu, Mike Mearls, Michael Harrison, and Dave Banks (L to R), after a rousing session of D&D. Photo: Chris Sims

MH: So, aside from gawking at the cosplayers, what did you do this year at D*C? Wait in many lines?

NB: There are a lot of lines, yes, but they do schedule multiple events. So if you miss out one time you are certain to get to see them again. That is, if something isn’t scheduled opposite and you have a few hours to kill waiting in line. At D*C, you must accept that you will miss out on things, even if you try your hardest. The programming is comprehensive and the event schedule is packed. The good news is that if you miss out on one thing, there’s always another place to go.

MH: PAX has great programming but there just aren’t very many panels. This means that every panel is a popular panel. Thankfully, we have the Enforcers to keep joy amongst the line peoples. They wander around, holding contests and giveaways and keeping morale high. What does D*C have that can compare to these stalwart volunteers that keep PAX running like a well-oiled machine?

NB: I think one of the reasons that PAX works so well has to do with the Enforcers, but also with the limited programming. If PAX had as much going on at a given time, would things run so smoothly? Probably not. With D*C, there’s still that dependence on volunteers, but they’re far less visible and spread much thinner. There definitely isn’t that same interaction with the crowd. This year in particular I noticed a lot of tension in the lines.

MH: Regardless of the con, I think everyone who attends should give it up for the volunteers. These people are sacrificing their own enjoyment to help out. Sure, they get in for free, but it’s like the worst of both worlds: they’re at the convention, but they’re missing out on a lot while they work their volunteer magicks.

NB: Absolutely. And this year with the Pre-Registration debacle at D*C, I think a lot of people forgot that. But I’ve been told they’re fixing it next year.

MH: Waiting in lines sucks. At PAX, Get In Line Games was on hand with lots of fun group mobile phone games to keep the queues happy. And if you have to wait, it’s hard to beat doing it at a gaming convention. Break out a Magic: The Gathering deck, trade Pokémon, or draw some wangs on Pictochat. It makes the time pass pretty quickly.

NB: D*C could definitely benefit from something like that.

MH: They just need to bring the gamers out of the basement. We’ll show everyone how to have fun.

NB: I think there’s reasons they’re kept in the basement. It’s a kind of… well, let’s just say it’s a familiar odeur. Something between the smell of newly opened board games, onions and fried chicken.

MH: And Old Spice. Hey, say what you will, but we were out in the open at PAX and it was a lot of fun.

NB: Probably a good idea. Openness, that is.

MH: From my experiences at D*C, the gaming area is smaller than PAX’s, but the concept is mostly the same. You can check out any game you want from a library and find some fellow con-goers to play with you. This is, more or less, my idea of paradise.

NB: I agree with you, there. But I’d already been to PAX East this year and I figured I wanted a bit more variety in my geekerie, y’know? There are authors, actors and friends I don’t get to see anywhere else than Dragon*Con, and I certainly can’t say that for PAX. Which is the point, I know. But I need to diversify every now and again.

MH: Before we prattle on for too much longer, what were the three best things about D*C?

NB: I had more fun this year than ever before, due mostly to actually staying at a local hotel and having fantastic hosts who ended up not only giving me a ride to the con but letting me stay in their rooms (for a great rundown of D*C events you can check out my friend and host Scott Suehle’s post at Functional Nerds).

But I’d say the True Blood panel I went to was one of the highlights. I’ve never been to a con where one of my current TV obsessions was on display. I really enjoyed the banter and seeing how a fandom has grown around this show. I only wish Alexander Skarsgård was there.

MH: Yeah, I’ll bet you do.

NB: Secondly, I got a chance to go to the Steampunk Film Festival. As a steampunk geek myself, it was exciting to see what’s going on in the indie film scene right now. Particular standouts were Nickel Children, Heartless: The Story of the Tin Man, and The Hatter’s Apprentice.

Size is in the eye of the beholder. Photo: Michael Harrison

And then there’s the writer track. Where else can I go to a panel about H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy in literature? Or a panel discussing the merits of zombies vs. werewolves? While D*C certainly isn’t as high profile a literature convention as some, it does have its fair share of great folks. Over the years they had guests from Peter S. Beagle to Mike Mignola, from Jim Butcher to Charlaine Harris. It’s just a thrill for me to get to hear what they have to say, listen to them read their work and feel a part of it. In other writer-related news, I also got a chance to hang out a bit with the ever lovely and brilliant Cherie Priest, who initiated me into the wonders of the Dawn Look-Alike Contest.

MH: Tabletop gaming has a huge presence at PAX, so it’s not surprising that my top moment was spent around a table, rolling dice. We were lucky enough to have Mike Mearls, one of the designers of the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, run us through an encounter with the new D&D Essentials Red Box set. It was a lot of fun to hang out on the D&D Party Bus and combat horrible monsters with the other GeekDads, and playing games with Mike was kind of a gamer’s dream come true. Plus, there was a life-size beholder, Natania. I’m not going to lie to you. It was kind of scary.

NB: Dude, I saw a life-sized Despair costume. On a person. Anatomically correct… yeah, talk about scary.


NB: Go on. You can do it.

Wil Wheaton: Aeofel Lives!Wil Wheaton: Aeofel Lives!

Aeofel Lives! Photo: Michael Harrison

MH: Happy thoughts. Ok. Our panel was awesome but the best event of the weekend was the Acquisitions, Inc. Dungeons & Dragons game. I don’t know if this has ever happened in the history of all time, but there were hundreds upon hundreds of people lined up to watch people play D&D. It made me all warm and fuzzy inside. The session itself was just a blast to be a part of–we actually got to vote on the events that were unfolding–and made me miss our own D&D group.

And the third best thing? Is it ok for me to say that it was the people? All the attendees and Enforcers and speakers and VIPs and everyone?

NB: I think that works.

MH: It’s totally true. I’m not normally an outgoing person, but I felt like I could talk with anyone. I got to hang out with Dave and Jonathan and Ken, and play games, and there were always people coming by and saying hello, asking us about GeekDad or the game we were playing. That kind of environment is rare for a lot of geeks, and I think it helps to know that there are others out there just like us.

NB: Very cool, indeed. Shall we continue with the worsts? All quick-like?

MH: Sure. I’d say that PAX could benefit from some additional programming, but then again, I like that it’s very focused on gaming. Maybe some more panels so that the lines are a little less congested.

I’ll also admit that I didn’t wait in a single line to play a video game. They were insane. Two hours waits on the big ones, like Duke Nukem and Portal 2. These are games that are coming out relatively soon. I’m not going to waste two hours of valuable PAX time on that!

And, compared to D*C, I wish PAX took advantage of the holiday weekend. It won’t matter next year, so it’s not a big deal, but I was genuinely bummed out when they kicked us out of the convention center on Sunday. An extra day would have made me a very happy GeekDad.

What about D*C?

NB: Well, I mentioned the lines for pre-registration badges. I’ve heard they’re changing the whole process for next year, which is great. But I felt terrible for the people waiting for literally half a day in some cases. Especially in the heat. Especially when there’s so much anticipation.

And in spite of the fact that they opened up a new hotel, it was still majorly cramped this year. The elevators were a nightmare and it really puts a damper on trying to enjoy yourself when you can’t even get to the place you want to go!

There were also some major mixups with programming. Some events were changed but there was no good way to get the info out to the attendees. A page of the pocket program was missing. Signs were not changed to let people know where to go. The wifi is a nightmare and general connectivity is impossible. They’ve got to figure out a way to keep people better informed.

MH: Ok, well, here’s the good news: next year, we don’t have to make this decision. We can actually go to both, right? PAX Prime 2011 is August 26-28 and D*C is sticking to Labor Day. Plus, there’s always PAX East in March. But if we had to pick one convention to rule them all…

NB: In regard to organization and friendliness, I think PAX has the upper hand. But for geek diversity, it’s got to go to D*C. So… maybe this is a draw?

MH: It’s a bit of a cop-out, but I think you’re right. If you want to hang out, roll some dice and meet new people, go to PAX. If you want to see awesome cosplay, comics and television and movie stars and authors, then your best bet is D*C. They’re both conventions for geeks, but they appeal to different geek interests. Go to whichever one pushes your buttons most effectively. Or go to both!

NB: I think we can all get along. In the end, we all roll dice at the same table, right?

MH: Hell yeah. Dave made a good point in comparing PAX with SDCC: PAX is for active geek pursuits, like gaming. SDCC and, to a lesser extent, D*C, are more focused on the passive geek pursuits: television, books, movies, fandom. Would you agree?

NB: No, I actually don’t. Costuming is far from passive, and that’s really the highlight of Dragon*Con. The stuff just blows me away, and it’s as active a community as you could ask for. Sure, much of it is media-inspired, but much of it is plain creativity in action. And tons of talent.

MH: That’s awesome. People involved in active fandom for the things that they enjoy. It’s not just about passively sitting and watching a show. It’s about getting excited about it and making it a part of their own lives.

NB: Absolutely, and that’s a point that the heart of both PAX and D*C have in common: it’s about redefining our own realities. It’s about celebrating the worlds we want to live and play in with thousands of other like-minded people. And that’s pretty spectacular.

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