The Saga of Ball

For many, the highlight of last year’s Penny Arcade Expo was entirely unplanned: A crowd of people made the best of their long wait in line by knocking a big, blue ball around. Later, while Gabe drew a strip onstage and Tycho fielded audience questions, someone requested that the ball be included in the strip, and the artist happily obliged him. (See lower left corner, third panel. An old character made it to the second panel by special request, too. I’m blanking on the relevance of the still-beating heart and the crowned hot dog, but those were last-minute additions too.) After the convention, the event apparently became somewhat legendary, with “ball footage” posted around the web and references among my interviewees. One of these people suggested that this illustrates the heart of gamer culture: Geeks just wanna play.

I’m fascinated to see now that Penny Arcade has made an “All hail BALL” t-shirt, announced the week before PAX 2008. This strikes me as a fairly brilliant merchandising/marketing technique. The only ones who will really be interested are those who have fond memories of the ball at last year’s PAX, which drastically limits the market for such a product. That’s okay, though: PA has its own venue where their most fervent fans are sure to appear, and some of those people seemed intent on getting the ball somehow included in the annals of PA history. The reference will be completely opaque to outsiders, so the shirt basically functions like a secret handshake with other fans. And, as I realized at Comic Con this year, some people buy fannish and geeky apparel just to wear at other cons—as a button on one person’s backpack said, “Being a fan means never having to ask, ‘Where would I wear that?'” When I go to PAX next weekend, I’ll be surprised if I don’t see dozens of people wearing this shirt.

This move really helps characterize Penny Arcade as an outfit that takes its cues from its own fans, while still doing projects in their own style. Kudos, too, for having the restraint to let the subject lie dormant awhile and suddenly announce the shirt the week before the next con.