For a lot of us, going to a gaming convention can be a highlight of the year. It’s not just because of the bright and shiny games on the show floor or the chance of free loot. Its something deeper: the sense of understanding and belonging you can get being around so many people who are enjoying the same experience. Sure, the lines can be long and the crowd frustrating, but you deal with it because they are all here for the same reasons you are. There’s a reason why the PAX conventions use the slogan ‘Welcome Home’.
This is why it sucks so much when its time to leave. It's not always bad at first; believe me, I breathe a huge sigh of relief when I get home and collapse into my own bed to get a full night’s sleep. There’s a certain satisfaction when life calms down after the constant stimulation that such a large convention can bring. But after that first night’s rest, most PAX-goers have jobs to return to that aren’t fulfilling. News of the outside world that had been blocked out by so much pomp and circumstance begins to filter back in. The daily grind feels inevitable as the rush of dopamine and serotonin from so many new experiences fades away.
The empty expo hall floor from PAX Unplugged 2019 - A sight that causes anticipation at the start of the weekend, and sadness at the end.
Is there any way to avoid the crash?
This article was originally written on April 4th, 2019 after the end of PAX East. It was been updated and improved for the end of PAX Unplugged 2019 and PAX East 2020, and now been updated after PAX Unplugged 2023.
The Many Types of Post PAX Depression
I should preface the rest of this article by stating clearly I am not a psychologist. I’m not making any claims to being an expert by writing this article. I was simply inspired after seeing a lot of posts from others online about how much leaving on Sunday felt almost painful. I get that, really: after going to PAX East since 2010, I’ve found myself feeling pretty bad for a few days afterward in the past. The effects of melancholy, anxiousness, or frustration can linger for long after.
What I’ve realized over a few years of experience is that sometimes just identifying why you feel terrible is enough to dispel some of the hold it can have over you. With that in mind, here are some of the types of malaise that I know I’ve dealt with in the past.
#1: Sleep Deprivation
This one is probably the most obvious. As someone that’s been slowly trying to fix insomnia patterns for years, I didn’t quite realize how bad lack of sleep can mess with your head. Being tired sucks, but most people under-estimate the effects of exhaustion. For example, did you know that part of your ability to interpret other people’s facial expressions begins to break down? When I get less than five hours of sleep a night or two in a row, I can start thinking everyone with a neutral facial expression is actually angry or disgusted. Paranoia can set in pretty fast – it might be why it seems harder to connect with people on the convention show floor on Sunday.
Even worse, the negative effects have compounding effects; your ability to self-monitor yourself begins to break. Impulse control fades, and parts of your brain stay on instead of having a chance to recharge appropriately, like willpower. Sunday is the day you might find yourself purchasing ‘a few last things’ for multiple reasons. While sleep deprivation is the easiest to identify and deal with, it also is usually a gateway to some of these other bad feelings.
#2: Sickness as a Souvenir
To be fair, this one probably isn’t your fault. Stick thousands of people together, make them so they are all interacting with the same objects – doors, game controllers, dice – and it’s a recipe for good times. It’s been well documented, and lots of people have written about it. Sure, you can bring hand sanitizer or choose to elbow-bump rather than shake hands, but sometimes you just don’t have a choice when you start to sneeze. At least with this issue, you can point to a physical malady and stop blaming yourself for feeling terrible.
If you waited on the queue line at all, then you probably walked into several vectors of flu, colds, fevers...
For PAX East 2020, the spectre of COVID 19 hung over the convention center, with people coming in masks or cancelling last minute. To the credit of the convention center and planners, they did what they could - I have never seen such a coordinated effort to keep surfaces clean and equipment sanitized. Still, lack of sleep alone can weaken your immune system. Returning to this article in 2023, I can safely say I didn't get sick after this convention, and something obviously something was done correctly: a biogen conference that happened practically across the street was a super spreader event of COVID that same weekend, while I found no reports of spread from PAX.
Now in 2023, with this being my first convention since COVID truly began, I can safely say there's a bit of anxiety that comes from these events. I saw many masked faces, and many unmasked faces. The first tests of positive or negative for COVID and other illnesses are being talked about on social media. Even if you did make sure you were vaccinated and stayed protected, there is some weariness that can wear on you from just the health concerns that haven't yet left us after 2020.
#3: Empty Wallet Syndrome
This one is probably one of the most universal. A lot of convention-goers save up for this trip, and even save up responsibly. Still, the cost of travel, the hotel… just seeing that much money leave all at once can hit like a freight train the next week when you go to pay utilities. This one sucks, and I would be lying if I didn’t beat myself up for purchasing some big ‘limited edition’ box of miniatures at events. Then you feel guilty for buying the miniatures, so you don't even use them for months. It creates clutter, which creates more guilt, and so on.
It might be cold comfort now, but at least this issue is one that can be planned for and learned from perhaps the easiest. Still the hype train can cause you to make impulsive choices, with leads me to...
#4: The Big Let Down
Sometimes, expectations are dashed. There’s no getting around it; not everything can live up to the hype that builds as the event draws closer and closer. You rush to wait on the queue-line for an hour, only to find out that the deluxe board game that was premiering this show has already sold out. Your favorite cosplayer or streamer was going to host a panel, but had to cancel last minute. You have been waiting for months to try a game you’ve pre-ordered… and only now do you find out you don’t like it at all. Hype is a double-edged sword, and it cuts deeply.
#5: Fear Of Missing Out
This is an issue that probably hits me the hardest out of this list. As a reviewer who is trying to at least give a cursory look at hundreds of different booths, you just can’t see it all. Even with a full four days and scheduling appointments ahead of time, there’s just no way to make it everywhere. I put eight panels on my schedule for this last weekend. Do you want to know how many I got to? Two. I had signed up to join a Dungeons and Dragons event to play with my friend, logging into the PAX Nav app right at 8 am. I found out later that there was a fluke in the program that affected Apple/older devices and not android phones. My friend got in within 2 minutes. I was on the waitlist and couldn't get in at all.
One of the big highlights of PAX East 2019 was the Borderlands 3 announcement at 2pm. People started lining up for it at 10am - it was impossible to get into.
This malaise is a tricky one to avoid, especially if you combine it with “The Big Let Down”. Even if you get to the booths you wanted, maybe one of them disappointed you. As the day ends, you check social media and find out that the booth right next door was giving away free T-shirts and you had no idea… not only that, people were raving about the demos they played. Did you just waste an afternoon?
#6: The Dopamine Crash
As someone that’s been going to therapy for ADHD and studying how brain chemicals do all sorts of fun things, this one was a bit of a recent surprise. While this is an older article, it does a good job of explaining how it can build up to the point of addiction when you become focused on a singular activity or reward.
While going to PAX isn’t drug addiction, there is still a chemical drop that can happen when its over. Your mind has become used to a constant influx of happy chemicals as it saw new game after new experience after new friend. Now that its over, the dopamine drops. What’s so insidious about this is that your mind likes to make up stories; maybe you are handling yourself just fine after PAX, but if your mind can’t figure out a reason why it isn’t happy anymore, it can try to make up reasons why you should feel sad.
#7: Grief That It’s Over
Finally, the harsh truth. For most of us, our daily lives leave something to be desired. Maybe you are dealing with a tough job environment, or there’s an argument with a friend or loved one that’s not yet resolved. Any large convention can become a pause button for reality. News of the real world drops away under the sounds and lights of the show floor. Concerns that plague you daily become something that feels like it exists as part of a previous life.
There's nothing quite like spinning beats on a stage made from a giant angellic statue. Fuser had an amazing booth at PAX East 2020. Do you see this stuff out in the real world? No, but you should.
When the party stops, all those issues come back. That temporary reprieve of what felt like a better life is over, and suddenly the problems of daily life return. If you aren’t prepared for it, that drop back into reality can hurt.
Ways To Handle The Drop
Life is either a party, or life is something that you just endure. It can be very easy to see things that binary, especially when you have gone from an overwhelmingly positive experience back to a negative one. Going back to work sleep deprived can make you feel like you’ve been dealt a terrible deck of cards where everyone that you met at PAX is living their best life all the time. Your brain is lying to you, and its important to get ahead of those negative stories before they get out of control.
I loved watching the MTG: Arena invitational at PAX East, but I have to admit that I always feel a weird remorse during some of these events. Why couldn't I be playing Magic for thousands of dollars? Why did I give up a card game in high school instead of making it big? The mind can be an irrational place, and lead you into some unfortunate mental traps.
Hopefully, some of these tips might help you deal with the mood drop after a convention, letting you get back to remembering all the awesome things you experienced and that life isn’t so boring without a massive expo floor.
#1: Accept That You Feel Bad
One reason why I put that massive list of reasons above this section is because sometimes you just need to accept that you feel kind of down, and that it is okay if you don't feel great at this moment. If you just had a fantastic experience that lasted a full day or weekend, normal life is going to feel a bit more grey for a while. That’s fine, and that’s normal; you aren’t alone in that experience.
Checking in with friends after the event can really help ground you back to reality. If you took pictures with them, take a little time enjoying looking at that gallery of images and feel connected again.
Oftentimes, people who feel depressed, anxious, or are just feeling down have their minds trick them into thinking they are separate from everyone else. Acknowledging that you don’t feel great can do two important things: make you remember that you might not be alone in the experience, and also remind you that this too shall pass. It’s just an emotion, and emotions change.
Probably the most obvious tip, but remembering self-care is incredibly important. Did you only get four hours of sleep a night? Then it might take you a week to feel your head to clear from its fog by regularly getting enough sleep. Did you get an upset stomach from having too many energy drinks or alcohol? Then make sure you are chugging water deliberately for the next few days, taking time to eat healthier to replenish your system.
See that line? That's the line to get into PAX East 2019 Saturday morning before it opened! If you were getting up before 7am to get in and going to sleep after midnight, you need some rest.
Also remember that some of your normal boring routines can actually be your friend here. While PAX is great for seeing lots of new and shiny things, maybe you spent a lot of time waiting on line or hearing about games without actually playing them. Taking some time to relax on your own and play a game that you know you enjoy can help ground you back into normalcy.
#3: Take Responsibility For Your Health
This is the part of the list added since COVID reared its ugly head in 2020. It might feel a little out of place, but I do feel it is important to at least mention. Conventions are a place of community, and it absolutely felt awful when they were cancelled or postponed. This last weekend, PAX Unplugged 2023, was my first big event since everything shut down for a bunch of reasons, including COVID, concerns about my wife's health, and becoming a dad. It was my first event because I knew I finally felt comfortable with the health risks; my family was fully vaccinated, rates had been down for multiple months, and I was going to mask at the event.
Everyone has their own sense of safety and security around this issue, but I do think that post-convention, its important to take some steps for your own sake and those around you. First, give yourself at least one post-COVID test. I've seen that since 2020, attendees to a big event often self-test and if they unfortunately come up positive, tell those they were on contact with so they can get checked up as well. It helps stop the spread of at least one illness. On top of that, I'll refer back to point #2 - give yourself a little extra sleep, a little extra nutritional food, and a little more time to rest. Whether its COVID or another illness like a cold or flu, letting your body heal in peace after a marathon of an event can really help everyone.
#4: Talk It Out
Part of #1 on this list is to remind yourself that you aren’t alone in this sort of experience. Part #4 is reminding you that it’s okay to talk out those feelings too. This is easy when you went to a convention with a friend, but it might be harder if you went in solo. Acknowledging that you need a little morale support to get back to a stable frame of mind can help.
Just remember, its important to talk out these feelings, but don't sulk in those feelings either. It can be an easy trap to start talking about how terrible it is to be back in the normal world and start phrases with “I just wish I could be-“. Unfortunately, that can keep reminding yourself and your thoughts how much better things used to be, rather than trying to get back into the present. Whether it’s a friend, a loved one, or a therapist, getting a chance to have a conversation to work out what you want next can be really beneficial.
#5: Remember The Good Times
One of the most insidious traps your thoughts can attack you with is always wishing for something that’s in the far future or in the distant past. Note that I’m using the word wishing here, because there’s an important distinction between just wishing for something you can’t have and happily remembering something in the past.
Getting to talk with game developers directly is one of the best things about a major convention. Getting a chance to do that outweighs a lot of the negatives. PAX East 2019.
This is an important step if you are part of the ‘fear of missing out’ crowd. It’s so easy to start thinking “If I had just purchased the limited edition of that game, THEN I would be happy”. Try to break that habit by asking yourself what you did see that you enjoyed. What experiences did you manage to have that you couldn’t have gotten back home? What made the convention special to you?
#6: Plan For Next Year
Finally, this is some advice that I find really useful for shutting up the analytical side of my brain. Let’s be honest: this last PAX is probably not your last gaming convention. A lot of regret comes from feeling like you missed the mark on a vacation that you looked forward to for so long; I remember being at my second PAX and only then realizing how many awesome opportunities could be found at after parties. I was so angry at the missed opportunities!
Take some time this week to write down what worked and what didn’t this year. Make a plan. Maybe you can get a better hotel by figuring out a group of friends to split it. Maybe you can avoid some of that empty wallet syndrome by only bringing cash to the show floor or checking out reviews of games before you arrive. Maybe you caught wind that Bethesda loves doing fan meet ups outside the convention center, and so you mark down to look into that for next time.
A gaming convention is a celebration that is cyclical. Most follow the same patterns, building on traditions and panels rather than changing dramatically; with that in mind, you can prepare to make sure you can avoid some of the pitfalls the next time around. Being pro-active is one of the best ways to avoid those helpless feelings of misery.
Experience Is The Reward, Not Just Happiness
I love every year that I’ve gone to PAX East or PAX Unplugged. Some events I remember more fondly than others. Some years feel life-changing: I remember the first time I walked into an expo hall floor and realized just how much in common I shared with so many people. Seeing the joy and jubilation on so many people’s faces enjoying the same hobby I was made me feel connected in ways I don't often experience. Unfortunately, it’s hard to ever recapture that spark of your first massive gaming convention, and I nearly lost enjoying one whole weekend to frustration. A new job kept me from traveling so I missed a day, and the sleeping arrangements had been so bad barely any sleep was had.
When else are you going to get a chance to see Video Game Orchestra, or meet up with friends from the other side of the country? Remember the good times that you can't get anywhere else.
Even during the worst convention experience I’ve had, I’m still happy I went. Part of the benefit that PAX gives isn’t just that it’s a massive party, but a break from the normalcy of life. Part of its value is a chance to try new things, even if not all of them work out. If I remember a particular convention and ask “but was it the best time of my life?” I am always going to find something that I had been disappointed in.
When I think of PAX Unplugged 2020, I'll make sure I remember the buzz of activity and all the new experiences I had instead of how it's gone.
If I look back fondly over the years and just let myself be thankful that I was able to experience such a strange and massive event? Well, then I can smile and be content. The time spent at my day job speeds by just a little bit faster. That gratitude that helps me get just that little bit closer to the next time I can pack my car, ready for another trip to a convention.