The Escapist Expo, a three-day gaming-culture convention, brought more than 7,000 enthusiasts to Durham over the weekend,  putting a different – and often striking – face on the historic Bull City.

Nearly every third person – adults, teenagers, and families – checked in at registration in a costume. The costumes were often as simple as a zombie for one of the event’s main cultural attractions, Humans vs. Zombies, that pits Nerf-gun wielding “human” participants in a Nerf-gun battle against “brain-eating zombies,” or far more complex, including a four-person team in full Halo garb.

Though the event was centered at the Carolina Theater and Marriott Convention Center, participants often took to the streets to enjoy downtown Durham. 

“We want to help Durham be cool,” said Alexander Macris, publisher of The Escapist website, which calls itself “the mouthpiece of the gaming generation.” “For a long time it’s had a bad rap.”

The Escapist Expo was first discussed in 2005, as the company first launched the publication (Themis was founded in 2001 by Macris), but said Macris: “Ot just turned out to be a bit harder than we thought.”

In early 2012, at a company strategy meeting, Macris and his team decided to go for it. With no one employee in charge of planning the first Expo, held last year, said Macris, it was an extremely collaborative effort on top of each individual employee’s responsibility. This year, the company employed someone whose sole job was planning the event, which helped streamline the event and enabled it to attract a wider audience, said Macris.

Panel discussions, with topics ranging from “Most Wonderful Games We’ve Never Made,” “How to Start a Gaming Channel on YouTube,” and “Dating for Geeks Q&A,” were filled with lively discussion from more than 100 participants. A popular panel, “Hour of Love,” gave audience members the opportunity to raise a single topic in gaming culture to some of the industry’s harshest critics, and required that the critics describe its positive attributes.

“We’ve managed to avoid the idea that participants are just in a conference center all day,” said Macris “people are immersed in a cityscape – not stuck in a civic center.”

The Expo took over the Durham Armory, as well, running hourly Magic: the Gathering competitions and “learn-to-play” clinics for newbies. The featured event, a sealed tournament with the latest M:tG set, Theros, pitted 62 expert players in a complex tournament that lasted for more than six hours, with the winner receiving an iPad mini, and the glory of being crowned champion.

Another key reason the event attendance increased from 5,600 in the event’s first year to 7,500 in its second year is due to the increased traffic that The Escapist received in advance of the event.

Alloy Digital, a large web-media conglomerate, acquired The Escapist and Themis Media, for an undisclosed amount in November 2012.

Since the acquisition, said Macris, the publication has doubled the reach of its video content to 12 million monthly views, and increased unique monthly visits to the website from 2 million to 4.1 million.

“The Escapist has never been all about gaming – it’s about all of the things that go into the gaming culture,” said Macris, who compared The Escapist to The Rolling Stone, “but gaming is at the core.”

“We really changed how gaming journalism was done,” said Macris, “taking the industry seriously, but still being consumer facing.”

The company has taken the business-side of their Expo seriously, as well, generating positive revenue in each of its first two years, while keeping it affordable for attendees – a one-day pass was $20 and a three-day pass was $40.

With convention attendees dressed to the nines in gaming-related costumes until the wee hours of the morning, playing board games, attending the featured concert on Saturday night, and gaming at all hours of the day, the event clearly achieved a cultural success, as well.

The Expo really seeks to provide “a three-day escape from the everyday,” Macris said, “and it’s done with a lot of sweat and love.”