Finding quiet among the chaos: TakeThis offers a safe space at PAX East

The Expo Hall at PAX East in Boston last year.
The Expo Hall at PAX East in Boston last year.

Before I could even set foot into the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center for this past weekend’s PAX East, one of the world’s biggest gaming conventions, the scene had already overwhelmed my senses. 

Fans of video games and “eSports,” table-top board and card games diehards, online gaming community members, as well as various “Cosplay” (costume play) enthusiasts, filled the plaza and the area right out front of the BCEC.

After passing various eye-opening costumes and a “Weapons Check” for Cosplay fans in the lobby, I finally arrived to the entrance for the Expo Hall. If I thought the lead up was a sensory overload, I was in for a shock.

The hall was filled with, by some accounts, over 70,000 gamers flocking to the massive stages dedicated to their favorite gaming studios with titles including League of Legends and Infinite Crisis, as well as a massive card and board game area that seemed like a football field filled with table after table of competitors involved in Magic tournaments and various other board, card, and table-top Wargames.

Among the craziness, there was one sanctuary of quiet, a place for PAX attendees who were overwhelmed by the cacophony of sounds and lights. Called the AFK Lounge (AFK stands for ‘Away From Keyboard’), the space served as a place for attendees to escape the worlds of fantasy that permeated the convention center.

PAX East’s AFK Lounge was manned by members of Take This, a Raleigh, N.C., based organization that helps gamers with mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Additionally, local mental health professionals, including Mark Kline of The Human Relations Service in Wellesley, were on hand to help anyone needing assistance or just someone to talk to.

There are many issues surrounding the gaming world that organizations like Take This are hoping to help people with. In a world where reality and fiction are often blurred, many gamers can have trouble distinguishing the two. Some who are involved in gaming communities often live very isolated personal lives but can be very social active in gaming communities. Just as in the real world, failures and successes in online gaming can have some serious consequences.

One high profile incident recently involved a pro-gamer from South Korea who attempted to take his life after being involved in a match-fixing scandal for League of Legends.

(Pro gaming is a big deal: Elite players can make millions of dollars partaking in tournaments, while PAX East itself featured a pretty intense Infinite Crisis amateur tournament with $10,000 on the line.)

A representative from Riot Games, the company behind the popular League of Legends, shared with me a recent Facebook post from a pro-gamer who was bullied at school to the point that he was so anxious and depressed that he could no longer attend. The boy, eventually turned to League of Legends as an outlet and became a sort of superstar in the League of Legends’ community. In the Facebook post, he talked about the role that gaming had in his transition from someone who couldn’t leave his own house to standing in front of fans at events like PAX East and feeling happy and confident.

Mark Kline, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes on internet and gaming addiction and the associated problems among children and writes a column addressing video gaming and mental health issues for The Escapist, an online magazine for gamers, connected with TakeThis to help at PAX East.

Kline said the general, non-gamer community, especially the mental health community, is not particularly sympathetic towards gamers, and people tend to pathologize them a great deal whenever there is an atrocity of some kind.

“The community of gamers feels stigmatized because of their interest and feels pathologized by the mental health community as prone to addiction and potentially dangerous people in some way,” Kline said.

“My experience at PAX was that people are terrific, nice, they like to have fun,” he added. “I’m sure a lot fewer people get out of control and kicked out of PAX than at Fenway Park.”

Kline said that many gamers get so much out of being part of the video game universe, “They get community, connections, and mental stimulation,” he said, “There are some good things that can happen from it.”

Having dealt with issues that arise in the gaming world, Kline is aware of some of the real mental health dangers. He explained, “There are some people who are troubled who are drawn into living their lives in a fantasy world. There are others who start playing these games and get so immersed in it and lose perspective and lose balance in their lives that they are unable to control themselves.”

Kline added, “I certainly believe that there is the potential in video games for people to become over involved and to overvalue the games to the exclusion of real life and to do themselves and the people they care about real harm.”

Kline has been involved with TakeThis, which was started by Russ Pitts and his wife Susan Arendt, for a while and happy to help at PAX East. Take This was founded to support mental health awareness and the seeking out of help in the creative technology industries and the gaming community. The organization has an online resource that allows people to share stories and and talk about what can be helpful to individuals when they realize they may have issues.

The break room provided an opportunity for folks to relax, enjoy some piece and quiet, and also to talk to volunteers and mental health professionals about their problems. TakeThis also did a panel about how to be friends to other gamers in need and did some training with PAX staff about how to handle mental health issues that might arise at the convention.

“It was very satisfying and we got a very positive response from a lot of folks,” Kline said. “We wanted to provide people with a place to take a break [from the sensory overload of the Expo Hall], and it also gave us a lot of opportunity to think about what may be helpful for events like PAX in the future.”

“A lot of the people that are involved in the video game culture are isolated,” he said, “and PAX is a gathering where they can come together and see people they know and care about and feel a sense of fellowship and community.”

“While it might seem super competitive or out of control, everyone loves being there and just wants to have fun together.”

Dennis Keohane was a Senior Staff Writer for BetaBoston.
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