It’s the heart and soul of not just PAX Australia, but PAX all around the world. It’s the tabletop and freeplay area, the place where gamers from far and wide come to share their passions, discover new ones and relax in an area far away from the merchandise and corporatised nature of the rest of the exhibition hall.
So why does one half of that, the freeplay area, look so uninviting?
PAX can be neatly split into three parts. First is the convention centre, where gamers of all ages, shapes, perspectives and cultures come to talk, to listen and share ideas about gaming, the people who play them and the industry that envelops them.
The second is the flashy exhibition hall, the area that, until PAX made its presence known at the showgrounds in Melbourne’s Flemington, Australians were most familiar with. It’s the least PAX part of PAX, the part where vendors spruik their wares, where publishers display their pet projects and where indies scramble for foot traffic. It’s flashy, in the way major booths often are. It’s colourful. It’s corporate.
The third area, the tabletop and freeplay section, is supposed to be the counterweight. If you want to relax while still enjoying a casual game, it’s the place to do it. There are beanbags. There’s pinball machines. There’s retro consoles. There’s casual tournaments and freeplay sections for PCs. There’s Warhammer. Warmachine. Magic: The Gathering. And then there’s board games; so many board games.
It’s supposedly the heart and soul of PAX — and yet, the visual contrast from the corporate, manic nature of the exhibition hall to walking to the freeplay section is painfully stark.
That’s not true of the people, of course.
But the contrast is impossible not to notice. The plain, caged white barriers of the freeplay area sit a distant second to the warm, vibrant colours of the convention centre and it’s panels. It even feels shut off and unwelcoming juxtaposed against the bright, flashing LEDs of the exhibition hall, with the blaring sounds of AAA trailers and the eye-catching banners of indie games from Australia and abroad.
As you continue further through the hall, however, that clash begins to fade, until you eventually reach the din echoing from the board games and tabletop games. By design, the slightly is more open, albeit a bit crowded. Tables are always in high demand, the area is filled with the sound of dice and plastic figurines being rolled and placed, and the smiles.
So many smiles. It’s warm. It’s friendly. It’s PAX.
Then you walk back towards the freeplay section, past the Magic: The Gathering area and the various board game vendors, and that feeling starts to dissipate. There are still smiles, and still sounds, but the warmth has vanished, replaced with a feeling of emptiness.
It’s not like the enforcers, organisers and players don’t make the best of it. There are children running around playing consoles older than some of their parents. There’s a delight on their faces that screams pure, unbridled joy.
The mass of people queuing up for Fallout 4 trailers, waiting with hands aloft for a free vendor t-shirt, carrying bags of swag from Wargaming or Sony or some other major publisher — they should be in the freeplay area, interacting instead of queuing, smiling instead of hoping.
What the freeplay area is missing is a degree of window-dressing, a dash of colour here and there, a change in design. The first PAX was much maligned, and for good reason: getting to and from the location was a significant problem, particularly when the weather was poor and public transport was limited on the weekends.
Queues for panels began two or three hours in advance, not because of popularity but due to a sheer lack of capacity. And the showgrounds weren’t well equipped to handle the wind and the rain, two things Melbourne is well equipped to supply plenty of.
But those teething issues have now been sorted. PAX organisers are already making plans four years in advance. Perhaps as part of those they should add some colour to the freeplay section, removing the plain walls or at least re-painting or re-imagining them in a way that befits the unbridled pleasure of what happens within.
The freeplay section needs a facelift, and PAX owes it to the enforcers, suppliers and the fans milling around to give it the touch of TLC it deserves.