PAX East 2010: A love letter to summer camp

It’s March 28th and the physical me is present in seat 6c of a 737-800 cruising away from PAX East 2010 in Boston at 34,000 feet.  I’m heading back to Seattle along with a number of other attendees.  In theory I am looking forward to being at home with Rochto and the dogs, back at home after the culmination of two weeks of prep and work, ready to take tomorrow off and relax. But if you could scan the mental state of anyone on the plane, there’s just a wormhole in seat 6c.


1982, and Summer camp was the greatest thing ever.  As a kid growing up awkwardly, summer was the thing of fresh beginnings.  A place where the cliques or trials of school were cast aside in favor of the daily romping with the neighborhood kids that you might not share schools with.  During the summer, you weren’t the person you were in school.  Or, more accurately, you could be yourself more freely without any real repercussions of forced time spent with those who didn’t quite understand you.  When school started up again it always felt like every year was a fresh start and would be different from the things that weren’t pleasant about the previous year. 

But the best manifestation of the freedom I always felt during summer was summer camp.

I started going to summer camp around age 10.  In the south most summer camps are usually organized by your local church, but that’s not quite the real point.  The point was for 2 weeks you were away from your parents, away from your normal comfort zones, and most importantly, away from your normal discomfort zones.

At summer camp you were all equal.  You typically only knew a few of the kids you spent time with, and because you were away from home and perhaps missed it, the tolerance level and friendliness level was much higher. Kids who might beat the crap out of you if you went to school with them nine months out of the year were suddenly interested in why you had all those graph paper drawings of dungeons.  In turn, when it came time to pick teams for baseball, no one knew you were always last to be picked in physical education, and by surprise you could find yourself playing shortstop instead of right field. Nobody played games at summer camp like Dodgeball or Wall Ball, instead it was the classics: Soccer, Baseball, Football. Summer camp became a place you went to be among people who might not be like you, but felt the same excitement about being in a new place and being with other kids.


It’s the day before PAX and I’m grumpy. Flying always makes me grumpy. But at least I am on the ground in one of my favorite cities on Earth: Boston.  And I am planning to spend the next 72 hours with people from all over the world who love, as much as I do, the idea that your imagination and a little bit of framework (be it tabletop cards and boards or the vast worlds that consoles create) can fundamentally unite all of us. I feel a charge of excitement.  Beyond a couple of set PAX related events, the recording of the Major Nelson Radio show and my own speech, the next 72 hours hold a kind of promise and mystery that felt familiar, though I can’t place it in the moment. I get off the plane early because I was at the front, and stand for a moment waiting for my friends.  Suddenly a big stupid grin slaps itself on my face before I can even tell you why it’s there.

I am at PAX.  Better yet, I am at PAX East.  The very first Penny Arcade Expo ever held outside of Seattle.  I am with a posse of awesome friends, in a city that has no idea what it is in for, and I am about to encounter a crowd some 70,000 strong that has never experienced anything like they are about to experience.


When you went to summer camp typically you provided your luggage and a variety of other things to your camp guide.  Their job was to make sure any special needs were held by them.  This included medicines or other essentials.  But every kid knew one of the great secrets of summer camp was the backpack you got to bring in yourself.

The idea behind the backpack was that you would fill it with books or perhaps items from home that would keep you from getting homesick.  Invariably any smart kid would certainly pack one or two of these types of things.  But the smartest among us would pack it with anything we couldn’t get away with playing with at home, or if you were really bright and had an entrepreneurial streak: candy.

After a tentative first few nights missing home and hoarding your treasures, the inevitable friendships would develop. Free from the responsibilities of having a set bedtime or having to worry about school, late night sessions were spent teaching the best hitter on the camp baseball team what those weird dice were while everyone shared the rich kids stash of atomic fireballs.  Comics would be pored over and traded. Arguments over the mystery of the girl’s camp across the lake would ensue.

Each morning we gathered in front of a central area for breakfast.  And they would let you choose your own breakfast!  You could have anything there, and more if you wanted.  There was cereal of all kinds, pancakes with syrup, eggs and bacon! At home you got what was delivered to you.  But here!  Here for the first time you could mix and match, have whatever you wanted!  Each child chattered excitedly in line: “what are you going to have?”  Kids who never had time for each other elsewhere were  awash in the freedom of a place where being yourself among a common thread like being away from home was opening everyone up.

Away from everything else, you reset expectations.  We recharged that part of all of us that saw kindred spirits and then bonded with them. 


It’s one day into PAX East.  I walk through the lobby of the Sheraton hotel on my way to record the Major Nelson Radio show.  Across all the tables of the lobby, cards and games are spread out.  I spot Munchkin, Magic the Gathering; several people had spread out a Settlers of Catan game on the huge hotel lobby main table. The Sheraton staff seem perturbed, this was a business hotel.  A nice hotel.  What are all these people doing playing games everywhere?

I hear an argument break out as I pass a table game, an arcane rule argued.  It was argued politely and is resolved just as I exit earshot. I move out into the main hall, again a grin I cannot control on my face.  I spend a lot of time like that, smiling just at the charge of being around so many diverse people all in one place. People of common purpose and passion.  This as much was the main message of the opening keynote of the event, delivered by Wil Wheaton: “Welcome Home.”

I move through the main hall to spot the line of people waiting to get into our talk and I balk for a moment.  They are turning people away, so many people wanted to hear our talk.  Each week we sit in a small conference room and record the show for tons of people to listen to.  This is the first time we are going to record it live in front of an audience.  And there are so many people who want to see that, they don’t have a big enough room for us and the audience.

I pass some people who recognize me and said they can’t make the talk, and I offer them some Xbox LIVE Avatar codes for PAX East Hoodies as I apologize.  They are beaming with excitement as if they never tried to get in; this is their very first gamer event and they are going to the expo floor, where they would be able to play games that would not be out for months. Their energy is infectious and banishes my nervousness at the talk.  They are so grateful for the event, and so excited to be amongst gamers. That silly grin hits me again.


I was holding a gold spray painted rock in my hand.  It was the middle of summer camp, and this was the “Gold Rush.”  Overnight, the adult camp guides had scattered gold spray-painted rocks across the camp. On this particular morning, we had all been told that overnight the local (nonexistent) gold mine had exploded, scattering gold nuggets everywhere. Of course this was preposterous but the 10 year olds in us couldn’t help but want to believe.

The goal was to gather the most gold nuggets, then whichever kid had the most would win a prize when they “turned them in.”  It didn’t take long for this to seem fishy to us.  “If these are real gold nuggets, why would we give them away to the camp guides?”

The rocks were pretty convincing.  As we began to spot them and gather them we could see that only certain parts of the rocks had gold on them, roughly looking like the types of gold rocks we’d seen in the occasional western film. Most adults would have spray painted the whole thing.  Still, we knew the unlikelihood of actual gold being scattered around the area from an explosion in the night we had not heard from a gold mine we’d never known about was extremely high. We then began to inquire as to the prize for the nuggets. It was, essentially, a ribbon plus anything you wanted for dinner that night for the top five kids who got the most rocks.

Quickly we began trading fake gold rocks for candy.  Each of us knew that the prize did not equal the hunt unless there was a market.  Thus unified,  We gathered rocks for those who wanted the ribbons and special dinner, and in return we got candy.  No one lost.  If anything, we bonded more closely together because we became united against the one influence from our outside world that was present: grownups.


I am sitting in a bean bag, amongst all my friends, watching Paul and Storm perform Frogger: The Musical, mere feet from me. The chorus at the end is a bit of a play on the end of the video game, with the refrain “And Now I’m Home”.  The soul of PAX, and there is a soul of this event, is a unique mixture of sense of camaraderie and place of comfort.  The song speaks to that very deeply, all through the lens of a decades old video game, a funny parody, and a finale that melds all of those aspects so well that an auditorium filled with geeks and nerds and gamers are all singing along loudly while waving thousands of cell phones and Nintendo DS handhelds back in forth as they sing “And now I’m home” as loud as they can.  I stand up from my coveted VIP spot at the front of the stage and I look back behind me and I see everything that PAX means to all of us, wrapped up in one magnificent moment of song and light and singing and unity. Silly? Sure, a lot of people might say.  But when you’re there and you see it, you kind of realize just how fucking outstanding it is to be in a room filled with thousands that you can be pretty sure you would like to spend at least some time with them.

Not one of these people typically gets the chance to sing this song, in this way, and in this time. It is a celebration as much of where we are mentally in addition to where we are physically. I look around at my friends who are with me. I probably don’t need to tell you about the smile again.


We’re all clustered around a bush beside a wooden bridge that overlooked the dry creekbed below.  There were four of us and for all we knew we’re the last four going to be left if we screwed up. Our flag football belts were brightly colored and might have given us away, but it was a moonless night and the bush provided enough to hide behind.  We whispered amongst ourselves. It’d been 10 minutes since the game of Jail had started.  The counselors had yet to show themselves.  One quick grab of the belts around us meant we were out of the game if it broke away unless we could be rescued by our team mates.

It was the second week of camp, near the end.  The excitement is high.  Not only were we out late at night by permission, we were playing a game against our camp guides that we had a decent chance of winning.  The goal was to reach the safe house with your flag belt intact.  If enough kids reached it to equal or better the number of camp guides, we would win.

My team was the scouting party.  Behind us were another 30 kids spread out in groups of three or four, set to scatter if we gave the call.  We couldn’t see anything across the bridge at all.  Beyond it on the other side, in plain view of lantern lights, was the safe house.  So far we had eluded the adults! One of our scouting party wheezed a bit from the dash to the bush.  He was scrawny and even more of a typical nerd than I was, but we had learned already from late night fooling around the camp he had superior night vision.

“I don’t like this” he said.

We argued briefly that it was possible that the adults had gone to the other side from the figure eight pattern that the play field represented. Therefore a mad dash was our only chance.  After brief consultation we gave the go ahead signal for the first few groups to come up.  Carefully they crossed the bridge and then waited.  Nothing. 

Perfect!  The adults had obviously come around the opposite side where we had just left.  Our scout party gave the all clear.

When about half of us were across the bridge and enormous roar arose from the dried creek bed below us.  On both banks camp guides poured out from below the bridge screaming loudly and began yanking belts as fast as they could.  Terrified and exhilarated and chagrined at the same time, my scout party bolted into the woods with the intent to circle around to the safe house in the confusion.  Upon reaching the trees I was grabbed roughly by the waist from a guide hiding behind the tree and my flag belt stripped off.  I lay there for a moment dazed and only slightly disappointed.  That was one of the most thrilling 15 minutes of my childhood.


My PAX East panel is beginning, it’s the moment I had traveled to deliver.  The theater I am delivering the talk in is full, and I note with some amusement the enormous 75 foot arched ceiling of the room.  Fitting for my plan to open my talk with a pseudo-religious reading from the Xbox LIVE “Book of Enforcement”

I take a deep breath and say:

Ladies and Gentlemen welcome to the cathedral of enforcement!

The following presentation is rated T for teen. It is presented under a Creative Commons non-commercial non-derivative attribution license.

A note here, I have been made aware there are some users of Foursquare in the audience is that correct? [applause] I have been instructed to tell you to cut that crap out. There’s only one mayor in this room, and it’s me. And let me be clear, I’m not getting ousted by no one, no how.

Another public service announcement I have been made aware that there are a lot of geeks out there taking some doses of airborne to avoid conSARS. Apparently there is some bad airborne being passed around out there. I want to urge you all to avoid the brown airborne. hey man, it’s your trip do what you want to but be careful with the brown airborne.

That’s right, I just made a Woodstock joke at PAX.

All right now that the announcements are out of the way ladies and gentlemen my name is Stephen Toulouse and I am the director of policy and enforcement for Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE service. I am commonly referred to alternatively as “Stepto” after my Gamertag, or “That stupid bastard” after the effect I tend to have on your online gaming experience if you violate our terms of use and draw the ire of the banhammer. Which is named Chaucy, by the way.

To my side is Boris “Boom Boom” Erickson. [applause]

To his side is Andreas Holbrook [applause]

Coincidentally Andreas is also known as “Boom Boom” but he often insists that the B’s in “boom boom” be inverted when spelling it, because that’s how he rolls.

I would like to ask by show of applause how many of you have heard my speech from “PAX Prime” [applause]

I would further like to ask how many of you by show of applause have come here having heard that talk to witness a new chapter read from the Xbox LIVE “Book of enforcement” [applause]

[I turned to Boris and Andreas]

Wow Boom Boom…and…Boom Boom. I’m disappointed. This crowd doesn’t appear to muster up the energy for a reading. How many of you are hung over?

[loud applause]

[Andreas]: I think you have to ask for thunderous applause?

Thanks boom boom. Ladies and Gentlemen I was remiss in my query. By show of thunderous applause and also making the Arsenio hall show crowd noise, how many of you showed up today to hear a new chapter read from the Xbox LIVE book of enforcement.

[Thunderous applause and hoots from the crowd.  I wait for crowd, then slowly pull out the book of enforcement, a large leatherbound metal studded book.]

[I pause for effect]

And a voice spoke out among the heavens and said, let there be a vast void! And it was so, and it was good.

And a voice spoke out among the heavens and said, let there be light! And there was light! And it was good.

And a voice spoke out again and said “let there be an Xbox LIVE vision camera!” and there was an Xbox LIVE vision camera! And it was good!

And the voice spoke out once again and said “Let there be more light!” and…and…and the camera needed more light so…

And the voice cried out again saying “seriously bring in some lamps and stuff from the other room and open up the blinds and hey I think there are some flood lamp bulbs downstairs” and finally there was more light!

And it was good.

And a voice cried out “Let there be games that use the camera to its fullest extent online!” and it was so! and it was…

[I pause]

Well I mean it started out as good?

But there was merriment! And people did use the vision camera to wave and say hi to other users in games. And there was a glorious detailing of tells in Texas Hold’em. And the righteous did use the camera to smirk and gloat on slapping a draw four on that smart ass punk who did just proclaim Uno…

[I pause again, take a look at the book, turn it over, etc.]

Ladies and gentlemen I apologize, whichever apostle who wrote this gospel was clearly really into Uno [cough THE PRO cough]

But yea, verily! There was a dark shadow on the heart of the Xbox LIVE service. That shadow did take the form of males aged 35 to 55 who allowed the camera to broadcast their iniquity to their fellow players. Their behavior defied the rules and the very foundation of decency. Players were exposed to such atrocities as “the flaccid ‘All in’”, the “my girlfriend will [hrmasfdjhasdkjh] for Microsoft points,” and on at least one occasion the dreaded, the feared “Helicopter.”

Ladies and gentlemen I must pause to let my team recover from the very mention of “the helicopter”

[Boris and Dre put their heads in their hands]

You guys ok?

[Boris and Dre nod]

I mean surely that guy had to hurt himself even doing it right?

Let me proceed.

And a great cry came up from the users saying “Why! Why would anyone do this? Why is there something EVEN CALLED THE HELICOPTER?”

But the service was designed to be vigilant. And my children, the service heard the cries and swept into action. There was a righteous punishment that came down from the heavens. It blocked the offending accounts and banned consoles and was heard all the way to the very halls of the [Hans Gruber voice] F. B….I.

And there was a wailing and gnashing of teeth! And the service did smite them directly upon their camera exposed bits and parts and…stuff and things. And they were filled with punishment.

And the service looked upon the fires of the work they had done, and it was good.

Can I get an amen?

I’m reaching the heart of my speech, the part I cared most about delivering. I had just ran through briefly how the enforcement team operates, and I continue:

But more importantly I think is why we do what we do. And I think there are two levels to that. The first is a personal investment and the second is the investment we as a company bring to the service.

I grew up in the world of arcades, and a local park by my house. For those of us who were children in the 70’s, computers and games weren’t quite as ubiquitous and pervasive as they are today, mainly because of cost. And of course the number of people using the Internet back then was heavily outnumbered by HAM radio operators. So I learned my concepts of gaming and sportsmanship in the physical world. If you cheated, there were repercussions. If you were a jerk, there was a reaction to that which was immediate, and sometimes tactile. I admit it, there were times when I violated Wheaton’s law. And either through correction by my parents, or correction by a swift punch to the throat, I learned the boundaries of behavior.

Now, there is a subset of all humanity known as jerks. And the Internet has connected all of humanity. The ability for all of us to interact wherever we are in the world in real time and in a variety of ways is almost…almost making up for not having our damn flying cars that our childhood said we would have by now. But somewhere between the arrival of 500 million America Online CD’s and now, something happened to some of the basic ideas of sportsmanship. Not just trash talk, but also the fundamental underpinnings of fair play and accomplishment. Yes there were always jerks on earth before, but now they had a conduit. And of course Xbox LIVE is simply a subset of the Internet so like everyone else we have jerks too.

There are times when I hear someone saying something online and I think “really?” When did that enter their heads that that was ok? I’m not talking a random off color joke or funny exclamation here. I’m talking violent speech. Hate speech. Sexist speech. Homophobic speech. Racist speech. It being over the Internet doesn’t make it ok. In fact, nothing makes it ok.

A second thing I’ve noticed a bit more of lately is somewhere with the application of anonymity came not just the idea you could be a jerk and get away with it, but also the idea that people have a right to something they have not earned. Not just because they want something they didn’t earn, but because they feel entitled to it.

When I was a child, the most competitive thing I ever did was participating in Swim meets. I’ll pause for a moment so you can make your orca jokes mentally right now trying to imagine me swimming.

I only did it for a couple of years and I wasn’t very good. My number of green "participant" ribbons severely outnumbered any other ribbons I had on my achievements board. But one meet I really trained, and I really practiced and through that hard work I ended up taking home a red second place ribbon. That ribbon meant more to me than just about anything in my childhood at that time, even most treasured possession, a large size Optimus Prime that had Roller in the truck trailer and had an actual plastic chrome truck grill instead of a sticker. For a long while that red ribbon made me really happy.

So I learned behavior and I learned accomplishment. And those things became important to me.

I look at those Gamerscore cheaters out there, or those people trying to hack up fake 10th prestige ranks in Modern Warfare and I wonder…why? What world do they live in that that became not just ok, but something they demand? Someone asked me once after I gamer score reset them why I did it? They actually tried to explain to me that their fiddling with some hex values in a tool on their PC to make everyone think they had played hundreds of games was their right, and we shouldn’t do anything about it. They laid claim to an accolade they did not earn and, in a bizarre perversion, were proud of that.

It was as if instead of one bright red ribbon standing out amidst a deep field of green ones, I simply stole the box of ribbons and filled my board with blue first place ones then asked my mom to be proud of me. I would have gotten a smacking like no other. I’m serious she would have popped me so hard my head would have left a red shift.

I get that there will always be cheating, and I get that I’m probably not the person who’s going to be the first person ever to understand all the aspects of it and make it go away. It is actually because of that fact that I am very proud of my company, Microsoft, for not turning our backs on bad behavior and cheating on the online service. We may not be able to get them all, but we will get them eventually. We don’t Gamerscore reset people so much to punish them, as to show you that we believe in the value of the experience we provide.

I’m so proud of my Little Rocket Man achievement in Half Life 2 Episode 2. I carried that Gnome all the way across Episode 2 even on the car level with the helicopter chasing me. I can’t imagine flipping a bit somewhere and granting myself that just to brag that I had it. Or 10th prestige in Modern Warfare 2, which takes many days of continuous play to earn. We want the people on our platform to not just feel a sense of pride in their legitimate accomplishments, but also know that there are people like my team out there working to help protect that.

I know there’s ways that we can improve, and that’s why we’re here today at PAX to hear from you. I believe strongly in the work that my team does around safety and behavior and around fairness. I believe we are the check against the lack of some real world consequences that govern behavior. But more important, Microsoft believes hat to. We believe that we need to invest in helping to govern bad behavior on the service.

I’d love to one day put me out of business. (I would still like to get paid however for achieving that, but we can negotiate that…) So I have some requests to make of you. Chances are if you’re listening to this you’re not part of the problem, but we can all be part of the solutions.

Because please know this, If there’s one last bastion of ignorance out there that still questions the integrity and honor of us as gamers, it due to the behavior of that small subset of people online, not just on Xbox LIVE but any online gaming service, that makes people feel unsafe or disgusted or just plan sad for the future of our world and our species. That’s why it’s important to have a team like mine, and that’s why it’s important that people on Xbox LIVE help us as well by filing those complaints and muting players that are bad and letting us know.

If you’re a parent, please please talk to your children about sportsmanship and fair play, and online safety. I don’t just mean watch them and make sure they don’t cheat in a game or game with unsavory people, I mean please talk to them about the importance of those things as concepts. Why they matter. We have an entire web site that we have made in partnership with child and parent groups across the world called There you will find all sorts of educational materials that can help you teach your child not just about safety and good behavior online, but also about how to integrate gaming into a healthy lifestyle that, like my childhood, integrates the awesome world of games into a lifestyle that mixes in play time outside, schoolwork, and family time too.

Please be involved in your child’s gaming even past the age where you feel they must be doing ok, because hey they’re smart kids and surely couldn’t be causing any problems. I promise you some of the worst behavior we sometimes see occurs right around that age group when a parent might feel more confident in not being as involved, in the 15 to 17 year old range especially. But also please make use of our parental controls as well for younger gamers to help enable and restrict their activities as you see fit. If you’ve given a console to a child and they set it up, I can promise you they or their friends will occasionally do or say some pretty bad stuff. Some of the hardest discussions I have to have in my role at Xbox start with "Actually, I’m afraid little Jimmy did indeed threaten to rape one of my employee’s grandmothers till she flies across the room"

And if you’re an adolescent or college student or young adult, first off, please obey Wheaton’s law, and don’t be a dick. But more importantly, it’s ok to point it out to your friends who are breaking it, that that just isn’t cool. We need more of you to let that buddy who’s screwing up the entire battlefield match by continually taking the only Blackhawk, waiting until it’s filled with teammates then smashing it into that lighthouse out near the ocean that that type of behavior is Not Approved. I know there are fantastic people all over our service and that the bad guys are a tiny fraction. But I know how youth and anonymity can lead to ….questionable choices. Please be an example to your friends where you can.

My team has a lot of power to take action on the system. But it is nothing compared to the power you guys have as parents and players to affect change. Let us know how we can help you.

Thank you so much for allowing me the opportunity tell you all this today. I hope this, your last day at PAX East, is even more awesome than your first day was.


I always felt deeply depressed the last day of camp.  Not even the breakfast could cheer me up.  People packed bags and generally started half heartedly making goodbyes they realized they didn’t want to make. We were friends under very specific circumstances and it was the magic of taking us out of the normally cloistered circumstances of our lives, combined with being in a unique place where as kids we could do unique things that bonded us so strongly.

Some of us continue on as pen pals, and some of us might go on to see each other next year at the same camp if we were lucky.  But the sadness was always overcome by the great memories and knowledge that those times were amazing and among some of the best you could have as a kid.

Then the busses would come and we’d return to tearful mom’s who’d missed us terribly throughout the whole time we were gone, just as much as we’d missed them the first day.  And you realized once you got home to your parents and your toys and your own bed that things in the normal world were pretty good too.


I’m back in 6c.  There’s turbulence over the Rockies which is par for the course. I think briefly about whipping out my phone and looking at some of the pictures I took over the course of the event.  But I don’t.  Earlier in the airport bar enjoying a beer I did that and suddenly that same sadness from so long ago came welling up and I realized I didn’t want the weekend, that soul of PAX, to end.

So I sit and think instead.  I think about landing, and that reminds me that I’m coming home to my dogs and my wife, who I wish were with me all the time.  I have some great games to play and some important work to get done.  And there’s PAX Prime in Seattle coming up soon. And I met some amazing new people and can talk to them and all my old friends too over the Internet or LIVE.

And I think about how awesome it is to live in the future, and that smile comes back again.

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