Gamers unplug at Philly PAX convention

Deep in the dark corners of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, something is stirring. Orcs, elves, and adventurers of all kinds are gathering around their 20-sided die to celebrate an ancient tradition.

The decades-old role playing game Dungeons and Dragons, first published in 1974, was released long before today’s high-end gaming consoles, cell phones and the digital revolution. That hardly means the days of sitting across from someone for a friendly game are dead. In fact, there’s been quite a resurgence.

Enter PAX Unplugged, a three-day gaming convention dedicated to all things analog. You can find just about anything, including tournaments for the popular card game Magic: The Gathering or the classic whodunnit, Clue.

Painting workshops guide participants on bringing their miniatures to life, and panels cover every topic imaginable including several on how to make your games more inclusive — or at least less offensive.

Ben Martin drove up from Falls Church, Virginia, for the second year in a row to attend the Philadelphia convention, so he could try out the newest games. Martin visits a lot of tabletop conventions — GenCon, SHUXCon and WashingCon — and feels there’s something separating these types of games from hundreds of thousands available for your phone, console or computer.

“It’s good to get together with friends, and it’s face-to-face interaction,” said Martin. “By its nature, the people you sit down with have to be nice, friendly people.”

That’s in stark contrast to online social media, which was supposed to connect the world but now seems to exaggerate our differences. Quality time spent face to face can leave that toxic environment behind.

Still, it might seem unusual for people to stick with cardboard when we can hold a computer in our hands. For many, it connects them with their past.

Cassie Silverman, a student of animation and game art at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, spends a lot of her time in front of screens, but she still has a passion for old-school gaming.

“I’ve always been into video games and cartoons and other stuff like that,” said Silverman. “I would like to go to [Boston video game convention] PAX East at some point.”

At the beginning of the semester, she had to design her own board game. With PAX Unplugged in town, she saw a perfect opportunity to explore the foundations of gaming.

“When I was a little kid, I played Dungeons and Dragons with my cousins and brothers, and other board games,” said Silverman. “When I [heard about PAX Unplugged], I was like, ‘Perfect!’”

In a digital-first culture, imagination is in short supply, and we’re often left feeling more distant from one another. So how do we get back to creating deeper connections?

Martin sums it up: “It’s nice to sit down with people.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.