California Extreme – Looking Back, Looking Forward


Last year I found out about California Extreme, an event in the Bay Area where people get together to show off, discuss, and of course to play old video games and pinball machines over the course of two days. This has been running for 16 years, and its to my shame as a geek that I took so long to discover it.

So needless to say this year I went, if only because I felt a near-moral obligation to do so. This is pure applied geekery – a historical and social event that also contains some people who do or did make a living in involved industries, and a ton of hands-on experiences.

Here’s what I saw. Short form – it was great. But dive in longer – there’s a lot to share.


Hey, I organize for a living, so let me get detailed here.

The event was extremely well planned. I got a bit nervous when I saw the line to get into the main arcade, but that fear faded when I saw how organized things where. Signup was clear, helpful people guided us, and the lines were even re-directed effectively to maximize traffic – even the long one I was in.

Documentation was clear and concise, and I think most interestingly the convention lacked fluff. It was actually precise in its handling and targeting of what it did. It warmed my gantt-chart loving heart.

In fact, let’s talk about the events . . .

The Main Event: The Arcade

So let’s be honest here, a lot of people are here to play games, and the main event is the central arcade. This is where the various collectors set up their games, set them to free play, and let people go at it.

The entire list this year is here –

Yes, these are people who collect games, from actual arcade establishments to individual collectors, providing their machines for play. They’re lovingly maintained (sometimes at the convention as emergency maintenance is needed), some have notes and historical info attached to them, and all are available for free. Just the sheer spirit of sharing here really is inspiring.

Of course also there’s just a ton of games. There are things from my young teens here like Space Invaders or Targ. There’s prototypes and oddball setups like half-cabinets. I can all but guarantee that, no matter how big a gamer you were back in the day you will see something you never knew existed.

This was active history – and very social, well-maintained, well laid-out, and well-run. The convention got maximum amount of machines into the space without messing up foot traffic. It was, again, a giant arcade.

Oh and some games were outside of the arcade, especially the tabletop ones. A good way to keep people waiting amused . . .

The Consoles

There was a small display of old console games taking up one conference room. Not a lot, frankly, but it was nice to have and is something they can build on. At first I wondered if this was a bit outside the conventions core portfolio, but I hope it expands as it is a vital part of gaming.

It seemed to have been sponsored by a few groups of people. This means that other volunteers might be able to help out in the future – which is promising for the con’s continued existence.

This also brings up a point hat the focus of given events may change. Arcades are passing, consoles have been eating into their market for years. The convention could have excluded them, but including the consoles showed their dedication to gaming, and shows a way for the future.

The Panels

Well, I confess I didn’t go to any of the panels – I was there with a group of friends with limited time and didn’t make time for them. Perhaps next year.

However, what was there was serious stuff. Preserving laserdiscs. History of Missile Command. The need for a Pinball museum. This was hardcore serious game enthusiast and history material. The panels, expanded, could have become a separate event.

The events also were, well, respectful of the subject matter. There was a sense of seriousness, of history, and yet there was love and passion. They were well-chosen and personal.

The Dealers

Of course there were dealers, a small but focused group of people, most of them being Pinball enthusiasts. Some of what they had was amazing – catalogues of Pinball historical resources and information, decorative art, and more. These people, like the displays, were hardcore into what they cared about.

Frankly it was a bit hard not to buy something because they reminded me of the Pin-bot series of Pinball machines back in the day and I got all nostalgic . . . then again I wasn’t alone in that.

The Attendees

Finally, the attendees. The people are part of an event like this after all.

It was pretty diverse. Definitely skewed male, but the demographics ranged wider than I expected, and delightfully so.  I saw families and people of all ages. There were kids whose parents were explaining old games to them. There was a lovely young couple in their 20’s I chatted with who had become dedicated pinball culture fans. There were gray-haired folks laughing about the past.

It took me back. To the arcade in the heyday when everyone was having fun. It was almost like some kind of reunion of people who just didn’t know they knew each other.

That was a reminder that this game history culture is just that – a culture – and a friendly one.

Going Back? Hell Yes!

So I’m going back next year. I might even consider being on staff or try and get some friends to help out. This was an event that did exactly what it wanted to do, with passion, with dedication, and with organization.

Yet, in a strange way, despite all the fun, this was a serious event. The people who preserve the machines care with a raging love. The organization was spectacular, tight and working well. It just happened to have games.

Let me know if you go next year, we’ll hook up.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, publishes books on career and culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at