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What a game convention afterparty looks like in the age of COVID

“Anything interesting going on?” one post reads.

“What are people doing tonight,” says another. “Where’s the [go-to] bar for PAX,” another user asks.

These questions, found in the Facebook Group PAX West Parties, are to be expected around the Penny Arcade Expo. PAX Parties are the events that happen when the convention floor closes and the demos are all done for the night. They are PAX-affiliated events, put on at bars and clubs in Seattle and sponsored by brands and studios. The interest in these parties is strong on a normal year, but at PAX West 2021, after a lack of in-person events for over a year, it was more than that. Nineteen months of pandemic left people starved for a chance to meet, and let loose.

But the still-looming specter of COVID-19 shrunk the scale of 2021’s PAX, and variety in nighttime parties shrank with it. Where previous Labor Day weekends in Seattle would have presented attendees with a variety of PAX Parties to choose from with venues rented and decorated by video game companies to celebrate their communities, the events calendar for this year was barren. It was with this in mind that I took the train ride from Portland to Seattle and wondered what PAX Parties were going to look like this year.

Who throws a party in a pandemic?

The long line outside of one of the PAX West parties
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“We’ve been doing PAX for about four years now … and we still did this, and we’re still doing those.” That’s what Patrick Morgan, Community Manager at New Belgium Brewing for the Voodoo Ranger brand, told me when I asked him about his approach to sponsoring PAX events this year. Voodoo Ranger, I quickly discovered, went against the grain. While other companies weren’t ready to plan social events, Voodoo Ranger was committed to returning, with safety precautions in place. Patrick was kind enough to sit down with me, as I explored the last remaining PAX Parties.

Even if you’re not a beer drinker, if you’re an active member of gaming and geek culture events you’ve probably seen Voodoo Ranger. It’s a brand that has been involved in the gaming convention scene for five years, attending events at PAX, RTX, San Diego Comic-Con, and Dragon-Con to name a few. It was the lone name that dotted the event calendar all through PAX weekend. Sure, there were a few small one-off gatherings here and there, like the 8-bit drag show or the tabletop tournament charity event, but those are largely PAX-adjacent. Voodoo Ranger was in the convention hall, and in venues surrounding the action. I wanted to see what that was about.

But first, I had to ask: how did a brewery get involved in gaming?

“It’s what we do in our free time. We have a LAN room. We call it the Voodoo lounge upstairs in the brewery,” Morgan tells Digital Trends. “We have a [World of Warcraft] raid group that’s been going since vanilla, that plays in our all-staff room”. The team has a semipro Halo player, and semiprofessional cosplayers. “In college, we played Mario Kart, and we drank. And we haven’t stopped doing that. And there’s a lot of people out there who haven’t stopped doing that either. And so we went that route, because it’s a genuine route. That’s who we are as a brewery.”

Meeting up with the community

Merchandise celebrating the community meetup is spread on a table
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The gaming credentials of the team at Voodoo Ranger check out. But could they throw a party? On Friday, the start of PAX weekend in Seattle, I decided to find out. This was the night of the Voodoo Ranger Community Meetup. There was no “venue” per se, just an address that didn’t seem to correlate with any known establishment in Seattle. Intrigued, I made the short walk from the convention hall to see what exactly was going on.

The space is best described as a speakeasy. The nondescript door on an unassuming building in Downtown Seattle would have been easy to miss, if not for the pair of Voodoo Ranger flags planted in the ground. Inside, past the greeter/security person, up the staircase, was a surprisingly open space. On one side was a large bar, built from what appeared to be reclaimed wood. To the other was a DJ, preparing for his set. Several couches provided space to sit, while a decorated moose head held watch over the room.

Further inside was a hallway, leading to a large vault door. Behind it was a quiet room, away from the thumping music, with seating for people to spread out. A massive order of burgers and fries from Dick’s Drive-In, a legendary local burger chain, stood piled high on the large center table.

A pile of burgers, from the local food chain Dick's Drive in.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Like many people, I was curious about how COVID-19 safety protocols would factor into the evening.

“…A little extra planning when it comes to safety. So, we have, you know, a different type of security, we have a different like cleaning process, at night and in the day,” Morgan explains. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test had to be shown at the door to gain entry. For most, that meant displaying the black wristbands PAX issued for showing vaccination cards. Masks were mandatory, unless eating or drinking. People were counted coming and going, to keep the venue at a limited capacity.

It seemed to work. Seattle, as a city, has embraced social distancing and masking, and that seemed to extend to the PAX Parties. People wore masks inside and outside the venue. Everyone seemed to take advantage of ample space, and spread out. Each attendee was provided a pair of drink tokens, redeemable at the bar, and raffle tickets. Corsair was partnering with Voodoo Ranger at PAX, and had donated a nice assortment of gear for prizes.

The Community Meetup was open to anyone, but was focused on content creators. According to Morgan, they partner with around 40 individuals, including streamers such as TheOnlyRyann, Nelstar15, and CaptainRoB, who were invited to meet friends and fans at the small gathering.

Conversations were lively, as they tend to be with influencers. The DJ played his set while people danced and mingled. Anyone interested in food or conversation congregated in the vault, discussing PAX, gaming, Twitch, and making more than a few jokes about what’s in the bags labeled “Dick’s.” It was a quality first gathering to start the weekend.

Dancing and a dominatrix

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Saturday is, unsurprisingly, the marquee night of PAX Parties. Seattle still has a busy nightlife, so there was plenty of activity around, but the PAX-specific options were still limited. First on my list for the night was another Voodoo Ranger sponsored community meetup, this time for the Queer Women of Esports, for an inclusive, and surprisingly educational, get-together.

When asked what they had in store for Saturday night, Morgan had this to say:

We approach them, we’re like, what do you want? And they’re like, well, we kind of want to make it educational. And we were like, well, can we also kind of make it a party? And they’re like, hell yeah. So they came up with the idea that they would like a dominatrix educator. And so, throughout the night up on the small stage, we have music … you could go up there and talk to a dominatrix and ask questions.

For this event, they returned to the same speakeasy location as the Community Meetup. True to their word, Voodoo Ranger brought in a dominatrix educator. There were talks about safety, consent, and explanation and examples of different restraints. The crowd was welcoming and inclusive, and seemed to have a genuine interest in the discussion.

“So that’s a big aspect for us. Joining up with Queer Women of esports is to make those kinds of things, whether it is a dominatrix, or bondage education, or just that community as a whole. To show that like, no, it’s not something behind the door, like this is normal. And so that was our event last night.”

From there, I made my way a few blocks away to the big party of the evening, the Sonicboombox PAX Afterparty. Voodoo Ranger was sponsoring this event too, but Sonicboombox was in the driver’s seat. Where the other events focused on smaller gatherings and community, this event was all about letting loose.

A mural of bruce lee, painted on the wall of a seattle bar.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Sonicboombox afterparty was at Spin, an underground ping-pong venue near the convention center. The line stretched down the block, as people waited for doors to open. The small entryway lead directly to a descending staircase, which switched back as I made my way down.

A bathtub full of ping-pong balls greeted me as I reached the bottom of the stairs. Spin is a colorful venue, and surprisingly spacious. The first third of the locale is home to a large bar top (everyone was given a single drink token, then purchased additional beverages), staffed by a team of masked bartenders. A dance floor occupied the center of the space, while the final section is a mix of ping-pong tables, and dining areas.

A group of PAX attendees, dancing the night away.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Spin was the most prototypical PAX Party of the weekend. It began simple enough, as I ate some decent bar food with a stranger who was visiting from Toronto, and a man dressed in full Gears of War armor. Lively ping pong games picked up around us, and I found myself dodging the occasional errant hit from an overenthusiastic Goku.

As Spin reached its COVID-capacity, the action moved on to the dance floor. Groups of people who came together tended to cluster close together, but overall, people seemed to observe some distance between one another, with surprisingly diligent observation of mask guidelines.

People danced in groups, on their own, and in some combination of both. A typical club DJ mix was interspersed with loud sing-alongs to PAX favorites like the Pokémon theme song. At one point the crowd made a large circle for a dance battle between a man in street clothes, and a fully costumed Spider-Man (a clear defeat for Spidey). Between drinks I found myself dancing with my unnamed Gears of War marine, and an unknown person fully covered by a Cthulhu onesie. In other words, it was a typical PAX Party, and seemed to scratch a long unattended itch for so many attendees.

PAX Parties are alive and well

A gears of war cosplayer is taking a picture with two people at PAX West.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

PAX is, and always has been, much more than a convention hall full of video games. There’s a special comradery when you bring together so many people, connected by their shared enthusiasm for gaming. A community, known for being largely introverts, has an appetite for gathering and socializing together. That’s true any year, but even more so at the first in-person PAX since 2019.

Putting together these parties required people, organizations, and businesses to take on the challenge of connecting and building community, despite the ongoing pandemic. It’s a carefully managed risk, requiring meticulous planning and a belief that if you build the PAX Party, people will come.

“We want everyone to feel safe, feel comfortable,” says Morgan. “We don’t try to be the big after-party, we just tried to have these like, great little meetups. And it tends to be with small communities or smaller brand partners, or nonprofit organizations. And the success there is literally if they’re happy. We’re always happy because we get to give beer people like beer fairies.”

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Justin Koreis
Justin is a freelance writer with a lifelong love of video games and technology. He loves writing about games, especially…
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