Is Tabletop gaming actually wanted at PAX Aus?

It’s probably time for PAX Aus to finally ditch the Tabletop area. It feels like it has wanted to for years, judging by the comparatively mediocre support the event offers it.

I feel bad saying this because PAX has been very good to me, supporting me in running crazy edible tabletop games every year since it began. But this also means that I’ve seen a pattern in how PAX Aus as an entity has treated the Tabletop area as a sideshow rather than a main attraction. The bone thrown to roleplayers, card gamers, board gamers, and miniature wargamers is a tidbit compared to the catered spread that digital gamers are offered.

In case you quite rightly wonder if I’m prepared to contribute rather than just criticise, here are my volunteer badges from every year of PAX Aus. Yes, there was a 2013 one.

Certainly the tabletop gaming industry doesn’t have the big marketing moneybux that, say, Sony and Nintendo have, so it would be disingenuous to expect anything as lavish as the impressive hi-tech wonderland of the major digital “Expo” area. But even those companies that do have the money to attempt a significant tabletop representation have either stopped trying or never did. Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast pushed Magic: the Gathering (and to a lesser extent Dungeons & Dragons) for a couple of years, but then they pulled the pin. It was no longer worth the effort, and two of the hottest properties in tabletop gaming were suddenly absent from PAX in any corporately-sponsored capacity. It’s a worrying sign if one of the biggest names in roleplaying and CCGs don’t see a point in attending. (Games Workshop have made a token effort at very best, but nobody really expects them to try to appease fans.)

But it isn’t just corporate sponsors that can’t be bothered promoting Tabletop. The Victorian government (tasked with writing the introduction to the PAX Aus booklet) doesn’t even acknowledge Tabletop’s very existence. Every year the relevant State Minister of the time takes pains to specifically state that PAX Aus is a digital gaming convention which is part of Melbourne International Games Week (“Asia Pacific’s largest digital games celebration”) and gushes in admiration for local digital game developers. The term “digital” is overt and infuriating.

Take the introduction to 2017’s PAX Aus booklet by Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley: “Melbourne is Australia’s home of digital games.” Though he encouraged attendees to “look out for the pink Made in Melbourne logo and meet some of our best local developers on the floor of PAX Rising” the area mentioned is purely digital and no such effort was made to support local tabletop developers. (Credit where it is due, the Tabletop games library does mark out Australian-made games and the Enforcers in charge of the library make an effort to showcase them. Thanks, Enforcers; you get a teddy!)

The minister had similar sentiments the following year in the 2018 introduction calling Melbourne “the home of digital games in Australia.” He also mentioned that “Pax Aus embraces all aspects of games culture – from cutting-edge VR to retro arcade games and beyond.” I’m not entirely sure if “beyond” is intended to cover tabletop gaming, but it seems unlikely. 2019 followed the same line, possibly copy-pasted from the previous years, promoting digital games without even a hint that other forms of gaming exist, let alone encouraging them.

Though I expect a politician to be out of touch with the gaming scene, I do expect better of PAX, who could surely point out to the minister’s office that their event caters to more than just digital gaming and get them to be more inclusive. When you neglect to include non-digital fans in your official welcome, the implied message is “You’re not welcome.” It might not be the intention, but that’s the impression it gives.

This year’s PAX Aus has quite sensibly been cancelled due to COVID-19 and rolled into the enormous PAX Online, which is a sad day for tabletop gaming fans. Though virtual tabletops certainly have their advantages (especially for those players who need or preference them) I think it’s fair to say that most people who play board games, card games, miniatures games and the like enjoy them partly because they are non-digital. But for PAX this seems to be optimal. The impression they’ve given is that they’d prefer tabletop games to shift into the digital world.

I remember sitting in the Tabletop area one year with ATGN’s editor, Toby, when 6pm rolled around and a voice came over the PA. “The Expo area is now closing,” it cheerily announced. “But it will be open again tomorrow! In the meantime, there’s more entertainment available in the digital games section at the rear of the venue!” We shook our heads in resignation. Not only did the PAX voice fail to encourage Tabletop, it actively prompted people to actively walk through Tabletop in order to bypass it in favour of more digital gaming; ie. the real games.

Though the digital games aspect is indeed much larger, PAX Aus is nevertheless also the biggest tabletop games convention in the country. Though the volunteer Enforcers and the Tabletop team themselves do put a lot of effort into making the Tabletop area as great as they can, it seems a disservice that the PAX marketing team continually fail to put some effort into promoting the community who invest so much passion into this event.

Maybe some competitions would help. PAX has several digital games contests, so why not one where a group of people are selected to play a series of board games (Dominion, Catan, Jenga, Sushi Go, and a few others) with the person who wins the most games crowned the winner? What about a 40K tournament? A Yu Gi Oh trophy? Get in a local chess Grandmaster and have a “Beat the Grandmaster” exhibit. Have something a little bit flashy which grabs some attention and shows that Tabletop matters.

At least have tabletop gamers included in your official welcome.

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