I’m always intimidated by the idea of attending a massive convention like PAX Australia1. However, with PAX going online this year2, and having a ‘serious’ cash money game accepted for the tabletop collaboratory testing-lab, I got my best pyjama pants ready for some solid convention-ing. I’m not much of a gamer, so I was excited to learn as much as I could to improve our game  And learn I did from this useful link – but not what I’d expected.

After logging in, I was immediately overwhelmed by the many channels of people talking furiously about things I didn’t understand. In the welcome channel I found some simple instructions: “Type !look in this channel”. 

*Ding! Ding!* – You received a DM from PAX Explorer

“Welcome! PAX Explorer is a way for you to explore all the little nooks and crannies of the PAX Discord server. All it takes is exactly what you just did! Go into a channel and type !look, and see if you get a DM with hidden content…” 

Suddenly, I’m in a conversation with a bot that’s telling me what I can ‘see’ around me and how to interact with it. The long list of ‘chat channels’ was transformed into engaging digital spaces I was actively interacting with and exploring. 

“On the stage you see two tables each with speakers that appear to be talking about the development of a recent game…”

Each channel had a different flavour and story, some more detailed than others. All passing on some sense of what it might have been like in the real world. And full of humour, heart and a clear passion for games. This private tour was very helpful as someone who is not up with gamer acronyms and jargon and not willing to ask (TTRPG, anyone?). The bot even sent pictures and links to games, making it more immersive.

While exploring, I could also find and collect emojis. These were added to your name as a badge of honour for a task completed. This seemed a bit silly at first – until I saw someone with a llama emoji. I HAD to have one. I was hooked.

Now I could see many of the conversations in the chat channels started off discussing the text-based adventure of that room. Interacting seemed less intimidating. The sport of emoji collecting created an instant conversation starter and leveller. I cheered with my fellow digi-participants when I found the elusive llama emoji. There was a comradery. And conversation could easily shift onto the other game-related topics visitors were passionate to share and learn about.

When we deliver events, it’s common to hear from attendees that the real gold was in the interactions with others between the formal session, and the connections they made. Those interactions are usually sparked by chatting with a stranger over the quality of the food, the length of the queue or a funny moment in a presentation. These seemingly unimportant ‘edge’ spaces are actually very important for overcoming social awkwardness, brokering connection and ultimately are more likely to determine the perceived success of your event than the quality of your speakers or activities. 

Naturally, when designing real-world events, the breaks, food, music and the space itself are something we put a lot of time and effort into thinking through. But translating this wholly to a virtual space has never really been nailed (in my experience anyway). Not for lack of trying: All kinds of different virtual event technology has been created – from live-streaming speakers to enabling yourself as a digital character walking around a virtual conference hall using a video game like Second Life. But getting strangers to talk to each other – is a tough nut to crack.

As an experience designer, the whole thing blew me away. From the treasure hunt that taught me more about gamer culture than any panel discussion could, to the virtual line simulator where virtual ball games were played, I felt like part of a community and much more connected to the event and gamer culture than I could have ever expected.

At Collabforge we have been striding strongly into online experience design (see 5 Tips for a Great Online Workshop). We know there’s a great deal more that can be done to make online experiences stronger and create opportunities for forming relationships and building community. 

The experience of PAX Online left me with a lot of food for thought for how to bring those edge moments into our online workshops and events. When we leave COVID behind us, the creativity and thought being brought to online events will hopefully leave an enduring and meaningful legacy. One that enables people who live regionally, have a disability or need to wrangle small children, to attend events which they would have missed in the past. I’m excited about the opportunities COVID has brought to online events and what technologies may emerge from this year to better support them into the future.

1 PAX is an international gaming conference which brings people who play digital and tabletop games together to see what’s new, compete against each other and get a photo with other enthusiasts who dress up as their favourite characters.

2 For some tech background, PAX Online was run using two third-party platforms, Discord and Twitch. For those of you who aren’t gamers and don’t have teenage kids, Discord is the younger-person’s Slack, with dedicated voice channels. Twitch is an all-live youtube enabling people to stream what they are doing around the world – which is mostly playing games or talking about games.)