Clay Wallace (right) and James Ulinski (left) dressed up as Ketchup and mustard for the PAX South convention. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
Clay Wallace (right) and James Ulinski (left) dressed up as Ketchup and mustard for the PAX South convention. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

Gamers, developers, and some of the best known exhibitors in the world kicked off PAX South, a three-day conference dedicated to all things gaming, on Friday at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

The event, which runs Jan. 29- 31, offers participants a chance to see some of the biggest names and games around.San Antonio held its first PAX South last year, and if Friday was any indication of what’s in store for the weekend, the 2016 event will be a huge success. By Friday afternoon, PAX South attendees were waiting in long lines for panels, tournaments, and demos.

Many attendees reflected the event’s fun spirit, wearing costumes similar to those worn by notable game characters. Groups, both large and small, were eager to play and enjoy new games, or to spot video games of decades past.

Born from the late 1990s webcomic Penny Arcade was the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in the mid 2000s, a series of conventions that sought to bring to the masses all that had to do with gaming.

Walking around the convention, one thing is clear: the face of gaming is no longer a lonely, middle-aged man. Yes, those gamers still exist, but gaming culture has expanded over the years to include a wide range of cultural backgrounds and ages. In fact, many of the event’s attendees, developers and presenters were women.

That should come as no surprise to those who have seen the statistics. According to the Entertainment Software Association, adult women are the biggest segment of America’s gaming population at 36%, while adult men make up 35% of the gaming population.

The first day alone brought thousands of people to PAX South. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

Jessica Bautista, 26, entered her first PAX South on Friday night, along with the continuing influx of attendees ready for games, cosplay and panels at the convention center. She recalled playing a number of Nintendo games, starting at age six.

“I’m more often on my computer. I play Fallout a lot,” Bautista said. “I’m pretty much addicted to it. I tell myself, ‘I don’t want to go to sleep, I just wanna keep killing.’”

Her friends convinced her that PAX South was a cannot-miss proposition.

“I heard it was a little bigger,” said Bautista, who added that even her mother, grandmother and aunts have played some games in recent years. “My grandma really likes Dr. Mario. She and my grandpa are really good at that,” she added.

Gaming knows no bounds with socio-economic backgrounds.

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In 2013, Gary Carr, creative director of Lionhead Studios, predicted that women would make up the game development workforce within the next 10 years. Victoria Sertich, along with Joe Guerra, leads 3D Generation, a local independent game development studio founded in 2013.

Sertich said the fact that developing and learning to play today’s video and computer games takes a large skill set. She explained that more women than ever before are encouraged to take on the challenge of growing their own technical skill set and apply it creatively in the gaming industry.

“Because I’m young, I’m used to seeing more women playing and developing games. It’s emphasized more in companies and in school,” she said. She recalled seeing a significant number of women students in her collegiate capstone class that focused on 3D animation and game development.

“It’s always good to see more women being encouraged to do this kind of thing. You have to talk about it more, and get it out there that it’s widespread,” Sertich said.

In some cases, like hers, Sertich said it would behoove women–or anyone with the ability– to initiate their own business in animation/game development/graphic design if they are unable to land a job in an existing company.

“Independent development is helpful. It’s really easy to create your own game nowadays. There are lots of do-it-yourselfers,” she said. She added that the higher the number of women creating their own games, with characters and storylines more appealing to women gamers, existing game companies will take notice.

Sertich explained it the challenges that face women gamers and programmers mostly are generational, but things are changing for the better.

“It takes more time, but it’s getting easier for people who’ve never had a chance in the industry to take advantage of opportunities that are out there,” she added.

Regardless of the individual behind the controller, the American gaming industry and  population is expected to grow. According to Entertainment Software, more than 155 million Americans are playing games in an industry that was reported to be worth $22 billion by 2014.

For some gamers and developers, PAX South is a huge opportunity for San Antonio to develop as a city and business center. One such individual is Rick Stemm, a Geekdom member, educator and playwright, who is active in the local game development community. He is debuting at PAX South Heroes Must Die, a role-playing video game from his Heroic Games company. The game even is being accompanied by a live-action theater show that is being developed with help from students at Northwest Vista College.

Stemm enthusiastically spoke to out-of-town visitors about his fledgling company, game, and about San Antonio. But he feels San Antonio, it’s private sector and local gaming community together could accomplish so much more with the PAX spotlight. Stemm will be part of a PAX panel discussion with Victoria Sertich on Sunday, discussing how the local gaming community– aspiring and active game developers included– can get more involved on the business side of their creations.

“I’m leading a group of city leaders to talk with the PAX convention leaders about how we could better foster cooperation,” Stemm said on an active convention center floor. “I want to be an evangelist for our city. It’s important and incumbent on us we make (PAX South) successful because it’s huge.”

Stemm called PAX the country’s largest consumer gaming convention, in terms of attendance of consumers and the number of participating exhibitors. According to PAX officials, the 2015 PAX South broke a record for first-year PAX convention attendance.

“It’s a big win for our city to have this. I am interested in (PAX) staying. Frankly, our city could do a better job promoting it,” Stemm said. He suggested a few ideas in that regard, such as downtown restaurants and hotels getting together to offer more specials for attendees.

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A wider promotion of  PAX South informs potential attendees about the established and lesser known hot spots in and around downtown San Antonio.

“Let them know you can get up to Pearl, Southtown or to all the great food trucks we have,” Stemm added. He said he was surprised that more local gamers were not applying to participate in PAX South to some extent.

“There are some people I know who haven’t heard of it, developers I know who didn’t apply to exhibit. We need to do a better job of supporting them,” Stemm said. But he also hopes PAX in the future will send representatives to San Antonio more often to inform he local gaming community and engage those individuals long before the next PAX South rolls into town.

*Top Image: Clay Wallace (right) and James Ulinski (left) dressed up as Ketchup and mustard for the PAX South convention.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.