Like many people of a particular disposition and constellation of anxieties, I grew up on the Internet. When I wasn’t reading doorstopper fantasy novels or digging through my dad’s collections of 1960s science fiction classics, I was hip deep in the dial-up culture of the late 1990s. Dragon Ball Z, role-playing, chat rooms, Neopets, card games, the golden age of Livejournal—I lived more fully and freely in these spaces than I ever did in my “real” life.
My family moved frequently to accommodate my dad’s unusual job—between 1988 and 1998 we moved five times. With every school transferred and every best friend left behind, I burrowed deeper into the internet, plumbing the dank, bottomless passages of the web. Online, I never had to leave friends behind. And if they weren’t always around or passed their daylight hours in far-distant time zones, at least these friends were abundant and the possibilities of digital kinship nearly endless. On the message boards and journal sites of my young adulthood, I met people I still know today, people who will even attend my wedding this October. And sunk throughout the topography my online history is, of course, video games.
The past few years of my life in particular would not have been the exhilarating frustrating experience they were without video games and the people I met who play them. These people dragged me through my Master’s thesis and propped up my floppy, exhausted corpse when I received my diploma. They read my fiction and helped me to make it better. They argued with me, forced me to bend to my better nature and learn, again and again, how to be the very best version of myself. So when a exceptionally kind internet friend presented me with the opportunity to attend the Penny Arcade Expo for the very first time, what could I do? I had to go. Nerd culture—in all its sundry blemishes, in its bad politics, shameless consumerism, my people—were calling to me. So I went.
It’s a 12 hour drive from Oakland, California to Seattle, Washington. I could fly, but I don’t. I hate airplanes. The dry air, the germ-incubating seat back pouch, the person in front of you hellbent on crushing your knees with their chair, and the complete lack of control and possibility (however slim) that some Rube Goldberg machine of human incompetence will accidentally kill you and a couple hundred other people in a moment of unfathomable terror—no, no, thank you, I will drive. And drive I did. The driving isn’t so bad, really. I work in an office, take public transit to work, and live with my fiancé—time spent in complete silence is rare in my life, and as such that solitude is precious to me. I used my time to plot fan fiction, sing along to Neko Case at the top of my lungs, and retroactively win every argument I’ve ever had with everyone I’ve ever known. It was a productive drive. I hit the Washington border just as the sun fell beneath the Columbia River. I rolled down my windows and whooped in triumph as Laura Veirs sang something about the sea. Though I was a long way from Seattle yet, still, I was coming home. I lived in Washington as a kid. Washington is where I discovered Pokémon, tucked away backstage at the children’s repertory theater. I watched surreptitiously from the behind the stage curtains as my more outgoing classmates laughed and fought onstage. Washington was where I began the real business of growing up, where a classmate told me my first dirty joke, where I learned my parent’s marriage wasn’t normal, and where my mother taught me to make blackberry jam. Everything changed in Seattle, and this was the first time I had ever come back. This was the first time I had come home.
I turned onto King Street sometime past 10:00 PM and spent my first forty-five minutes in the city looking for a place to leave my car. The streets were quiet. Small groups of men stood on corners smoking, gesturing with flicked ashes beneath the neon restaurant lights. I trundled through their cloud of ‘Hey’s and ‘Good evening’s and ‘How’s-it-going’s into the American Hostel, the last cheap place within walking distance of the Washington State Convention Center. I took my keys from the tired kid slumped over the front desk and lumbered up the several flights of stairs to my door, where I was greeted with my own personal, particular nightmare: the lights were out, the heat was stifling, everyone was asleep but me, and I carried way too much shit to make a silent entrance. I shoved my pack—clanging with literal bells (a souvenir from a trip to Japan)—into my small locker, hurled myself into the top bunk, and fell asleep fully-clothed, only stopping to make sure my 3DS was charging.
Part Two of Welcome to PAX will appear tomorrow on NerdAppropriate.com
Kate Dollarhyde is a writer, editor, and ruthless Mario Kart opponent in Oakland, California.