Actor and geek tribe chieftain Wil Wheaton kicked off the first Penny Arcade Expo East with a keynote address in which he welcomed the assembled throng "home".
Once upon a time, Wil Wheaton was known best for being the lad nerds loved to despise - Wesley Crusher, the boy wonder who could do no wrong in Star Trek: The Next Generation. These days, as a geek icon in his own right (and perfectly aware of how unlikeable his old character was), Wheaton stood before an assembled crowd of geeks, nerds, and gamers and announced that it was his privilege and pleasure to say two words: "Welcome Home."
This wasn't the first time Wheaton had given a PAX keynote - he'd addressed the original Seattle "PAX Prime" back in 2007, and referred back to that keynote. Back then, said Wheaton, he'd disputed the notion that gamers like him (and like us all) were antisocial psychopaths. When he had to defend gamers and their hobbies to ignorant fools, he admitted (half-jokingly), he got "a little stabby." But since that address just three years ago, said Wheaton, 168,000 gamers had attended PAX Prime. Millions had attended conventions all over the world.
The gaming culture had grown so enormously, Wheaton exclaimed, that just one city couldn't hold it anymore. And while he'd planned to open by saying that infamous ex-lawyer Jack Thompson could "suck [his] balls," he'd decided against it - because "the truth is, nobody gives a sh*t about Jack Thompson anymore."
"He and people like him were wrong about us," said Wheaton. "They were wrong about everything. They lost every fight they picked with us in the court of law and public opinion because we refused to be the caricature they claimed we were." So now, he said, he doesn't feel stabby anymore - because there were 50,000 gamers who had come to Boston in March to play gmes together.
Wheaton threw out some gaming references to see how many different generations were in attendance - "It is very dark," "You have died of dysentery," "Roll initiative," I play Dark Ritual and Black Lotus and summon a Sengir vampire," - all of which grew cheers from the crowd. "We may be from different generations, from a generation who never had to calculate Thac0 to a generation who wrote entire systems so our children wouldn't have to... we are all here, all of us, because we are gamers and for the next 72 hours, this is our time."
The actor then discussed how he'd initially turned down Penny Arcade's original request to keynote PAX East '10, and how he didn't know what he would talk about - but then it hit him, unsurprisingly enough, while he was playing a game. "Gaming is the foundation of the best friendships I've ever had, it is the mortar that has held my group of friends together. So we are all here today because we love playing games. Some of the happiest days of our lives would not exist without playing games. Games are important. Games matter. PAX is where we come to celebrate that."
He referred back to his time as Wesley Crusher, saying that he wouldn't have been able to harness his imagination as an actor and writer without growing up playing games. On Star Trek, he said, the big alien menace that audiences saw after the Visual Effects team did their thing was - to the actors - just a piece of red tape in an X if they were lucky. "But it wasn't difficult for me [to imagine something scarier] at all. I'd been using my imagination to create adventurers and monsters, spaceships and aliens since I'd sat on the floor on 1983 on Christmas morning at my Aunt Val's looking at a red box with a big dragon on it."
Though he'd initially been disappointed when he'd opened what was supposedly a game and found only books and charts, Dungeons and Dragons eventually captured the young Wheaton's imagination with its promise that it was a game that "helps you imagine." And within weeks he'd had an "entire Trapper Keeper" filled with people that he'd created with a handful of funny dice and his imagination. Now, almost three decades later, Wheaton admitted he didn't remember the names or how they died (what with 1d4 hit points on the wizards and all) but he just remembers how much fun he had creating them. During an abnormal childhood, he said, those books were his choice - they were his normal. He didn't have the internet or PAX to let him know that there were other kids who carried character sheets around with them too; that it wasn't weird or stupid.
"That red box was the trailhead on the path that led me here today," said Wheaton from his podium. "It rewarded me and countless shy, awkward kids like me for daring to imagine."