Penny Arcade exposes geek culture

Thousands watch Holkins, Krahulik 'Rock' out

Around 9 p.m. on Aug. 30 thousands of fans screamed and snapped photos as the stars of a weekend-long extravaganza took the stage to play. But these weren’t musicians and they weren’t playing instruments.

The crowd was cheering Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, creators of Penny Arcade, the popular Web comic about videogames, as they started playing “Rock Band 2.” Better known by their animated monikers Gabe and Tycho, the two were on hand to preside over Penny Arcade Expo, an annual gamer confab that brought 58,500 hardcore fans to downtown Seattle.

Many in Hollywood think of Comic-Con as the ultimate fanboy mecca, but to truly get a sense of modern geek culture, Penny Arcade Expo (known as “PAX” to attendees) is the place to be.

Sure, there are booths and panels and fans dressed up as their favorite characters, just as at Comic-Con. But there are no movies or TV shows being promoted, no stars with their publicists, no agency-sponsored parties, and no out-of-control lines. It’s the people who play games and the people who make them.

“Movie studios, comicbook companies and other pop culture folks have all tried to get into the show, but our philosophy behind that has always been that the show is about games,” says Robert Khoo, operations and biz dev prexy for Penny Arcade.

At PAX, fans sit peacefully in line while playing with a Nintendo DS or rolling the dice for a board game laid out on the floor. And when they’re not checking out upcoming titles in the main hall, they can retire to one of the dozens of gaming lounges where new and classic videogames are available for free, or watch the latest round of the “Omegathon,” an epic competition in which 20 players compete in six different videogames to see who emerges as the last “Omeganaut” standing.

In a nutshell, it’s pure gamer bliss.

“Comic-Con is more about people who have a love of certain things in common, but PAX feels like a community that grew around that comic,” says Pete Hines, VP of marketing for publisher Bethesda Softworks.

Like Bethesda, most publishers were on hand to give the hardcore audience demos of the fall titles they hope attendees will not only buy but buzz about on blogs and message boards.

“It’s the end of the summer as we’re entering our busiest season,” says Jeff Dandurand, associate director of promotions for Ubisoft. “From a consumer standpoint, going to PAX is our best approach.”

Organizers say the confab shows no signs of slowing down, which is why they’re planning to expand next year’s show by 20%-30% and launch an East Coast version in 2010 (which will be operated by Reed Exhibitions, a sibling company of Variety). But Holkins has even bigger aspirations.

“Things went well,” he wrote in a satiric blog post, “but we’ll never be satisfied until the year that every con-goer fuses into a single, omnipotent digital entity.”

Out-geek that, Comic-Con.