A 100-plus crowd watched as Brittany Aubert tapped each Jenga block, looking for one to pull out of the tower without knocking it down. This was no ordinary game of Jenga. This was the opening round of the Omegathon, the Penny Arcade Expo’s premier gaming competition, and Brittany Aubert was one of 20 randomly selected Omeganauts competing for a trip for two to the Tokyo Game Show and $5000 in spending money. But alas, for Aubert, it was not to be. She never found her magic block, and when the tower fell, her Omegathon was over.
“When my turn came, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep the tower from falling,” says Aubert, 20, of Bellevue. “My only regret is that I didn’t just punch it and go out in style.” Despite her first round exit, Aubert says she had fun in the Omegathon and at the Penny Arcade Expo in general. And fun is what the Penny Arcade Expo (known as PAX to insiders) is all about, according to volunteer Kären Engelbrecht.
PAX was created in 2004 as a festival for the gaming community by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the creators of a popular internet-based comic named Penny Arcade. “The idea is to get together and have a party for gamers, by gamers,” Engelbrecht says.
And party they do. At last count, over 37,400 attendees, up from 19,500 last year, transformed the Washington State Convention Center into a gamer’s paradise. At the heart of the madness was the main exhibition hall, where booth after booth demonstrated the newest video games, board games, and card games for eager gamers. Costumed figures stalked the aisles, including an Orc covered from head to toe in green body paint and a bearded, baseball cap clad Princess Peach from Super Mario Brothers.
But not everyone at PAX is there purely for entertainment. For Randy Greenback, director of electronic gaming company Red Storm Entertainment, PAX is a chance to demonstrate his company’s newest game, America’s Army. The game, Greenback says, is “the closest one can get to the U.S. Special Forces experience without enlisting.” While they neither commissioned the game nor provided funding, Greenback says, the Army aided in the development by granting game designers access to specialized equipment and allowing them to train alongside the forces themselves.
“It got to the point where our developers were participating in simulated combat, firing blanks at each other, just like the real Special Forces do,” he says.
Accompanying several flat-screen monitors where attendees could play the game were actual members of the military. A soldier in full fatigues and combat boots stood rigid in front of the game console, a controller in his hands, blurring the lines between video game and reality.
But for most attendees, PAX is just an opportunity to hang out and take in all that the gaming world has to offer. Such was the case for Jake, a student optician from Seattle. “I go to PAX to see previews and play games, for the free stuff and to get new stuff,” Jake said, as he sat behind hundreds of meticulously painted metal figures that were participating in a fantasy battle set in the 40th millennia. Jake, who is 22, plans to be a gamer for life, or as he says, “At least until my eyes go.”
As for Brittany Aubert, video games are a lifelong passion that she says she hopes to turn into a profession. “My whole family is into games,” Aubert says. “We used to get the newest game console every year, wrap it up, and put it under the tree.” Currently, Aubert is enrolled in DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond and says she plans to enter a career in video games.
Regardless of her future plans, Aubert will carry a reminder of her love for video games for life. She has the tri-force, an emblem from the legendary Zelda video game series, tattooed on her left hip.