I've recently got back from Blizzard's 2008 Worldwide Invitational in Paris, and, well, it was an odd affair. A travel-addled brain-fart on the show in general follows.
There's an inherent sense of disassociation in being a journalist at a fan event. On the one hand, it's all-too-easy to be disparaging about the hordes of long-haired men in black t-shirts, uttering spoken OMGs and LOLs without irony. On the other, I had a constant sense of being an interloper. These people were here from love, or something like it. For them this event was about celebration of Blizzard games, pure and simple. For me, it was about information. Well, and maybe a little swag.
The Invitational had all the superficial trappings of a tradeshow like E3, but that it was for fans and not for the industry gave it an entirely different feel. While clearly there was the big Diablo reveal, this was more about community than info-gathering. I enjoy most Blizzard games, and I've given a suitably unhealthy amount of my life to at least two of them in the past - but journalist or not, there's no way I'd ever have dropped a small wad of my own cash to go to a convention dedicated solely to them. I was horribly concious throughout that I didn't fit in, that if I started a conversation with any of these guys I'd rapidly get out of my depth, and they'd look at me with sadness or contempt.
My sense of displacement was only exacerbated by the surprising number of women, many of whom were painfully super-cute, wandering around, generally on the arm of long-haired blokes in black t-shirts. There really were a lot of couples, and in most cases it was apparent both parties played WoW, rather than one partner having been unwillingly dragged along. The degree to which WoW gets into peoples' lives never ceases to amaze me.
You really don't get that kind of crowd at E3. While cameras would spring up from everywhere should someone in a half-decent costume wander by, it reallly wasn't the same mentality as the hordes of slathering men who pose with bikini-clad booth girls. It was about the costumes, not the exposed flesh - give or take the odd Succubus. Of the sizeable female audience here, a fair few (more of 'em, at a visual estimate, than were the men) were cosplaying to varying degrees - some crap, some incredible, some chaste, some gleefully sluttily - while others were breaking hearts just as effectively with the simple power of glasses and knee-socks or Guild t-shirts and shopping bags full of action figures. The urban myth that every female WoW character is actually a fat bloke playing from his parents' basement was disproved right there. I felt backwards and chauvinistic for gawping, but newly single and sadly devoid of super-cute geek girl acquaintances, it all almost tempted me into taking up WoW again, just in case. God, I can be an idiot.
Of course, there was a huge amount of general happy to be had from being so knee-deep in gaming culture en masse. I thought I'd hate it, as I've got this hideous memory of being at E3 back when the first Halo 2 footage was shown, in a room full of several hundred or thousand FPS-loving men. There was excitement on a level I'd never seen before - the whooping, the cheering, the oh-my-godding. It was an excitement that made me uncomfortable - it was weird and testosteroney, with an uncomfortable edge of almost religious fervour. When dual-wielded weapons were shown, two American chaps in front of me shot up from their seats, bellowing like animals in heat, then repeatedly sat down and stood up again, suffering some hysteric, complete loss of muscle control. Truth be told, it kind of disgusted me - it was because an FPS character was holding two weapons at once. Get a grip.
Come the Diablo III announcement though, the rapture felt somehow more rational, more deserved - not just idiots shouting about guns. The crowd had been waiting eight years for this news. It was the stuff of dreams for them, so they went understandably absolutely nuts for it. Diablo doesn't mean anywhere near as much to me, but it was fantastic to be there when the crowd found out their wish had been granted. If I'd have just read the news on the web, I'd have quietly thought "oh good", but because I was there for the announcement, in the company of people to whom it was the most important thing in the world, I grinned uncontrollably and applauded until my hands ached.
There was a similar sentiment to the costume and /dance competitions. On paper, and even in still photographs, this aspect of fandom can seem ridiculous - we're talking about someone constructing a home-made, real-life version of a warlock's robe, complete with balloon-animal Imp pet, or the bewildering post-modernism of a guy impersonating a Night Elf impersonating Michael Jackson. On stage, in motion, in front of a like-minded audience, it's just pure, unfettered love for these folks' foremost hobby, and it's impossible not to get caught up in it. The crowd treated 'em like celebrities, and so did I.
At one point, a plain, dumpy girl (I don't say that out of unkindness, and indeed a man with my face would have no right to, but wish merely to set the scene) takes the stage, dressed in an elaborate Gnome priest outfit. She looks overwhelmingly nervous, but she immediately launches into a perfect recreation of the booty-wiggling female Gnome dance. She's really not the kind of girl you'd ever expect booty-wiggling from; yes, there's very clearly a strong sexual undercurrent to this whole affair, but mostly she's doing the Gnome dance because her character's a Gnome and she wants to celebrate that. Some people in the crowd inevitably remark on her plainness and dumpiness. The rest of us cheer for our lives. I won't say something vacuous and false like "just for that one moment, she was beautiful" (though I'm sure others in the crowd did indeed feel that way) but she was certainly luminous. She was a star, and the crowd treated her like one.
By that point in the show, I was bored to the back teeth of the wandering, of the queuing, of the permanent semi-darkness and, frankly, of Starcraft 2, but the dance competition left me grinning from ear to jug ear.
I can't imagine myself ever feeling that strongly about a game. I sometimes feel that strongly about games, but I'm either too much of an omnivore or too easily-distracted to give myself so to a single title, or even to a single developer. The show as a whole didn't really work for me, other than as an exercise in journalistic curiosity, but I did find myself very glad it existed, pleased that Blizzard's fans could so cheerfully gather and unite.
Well, with one exception. When the crowd even cheered its lungs out for Blizzard's Vice-President of Human Resources? That was when I knew I had to murder each and every person in that audience. For their own good, you understand.