Every year, I join an incredible sociological experiment. I travel to a far off land, and see sights not often seen by mortal man. What started as a pilgrimage has now become a yearly ritual, a return to roots. Wandering the sacred spaces, my path will cross that of a fellow seeker from time to time.
"Dude, I got chainmail-bikini-chick and studly-guy-with-no-shirt! A double!"
"I got the Magic game in the bathroom. I win."
Founded in 1968, Gen Con has never strayed from its original formula: get a bunch of guys get together to play games. Over the years, it moved about its home state of Wisconsin, and finally moved to Indianapolis when it had exhausted the ability for anywhere in the badger state to host the teaming hordes of geekdom--some 25,000 men, boys, women (few) and girls (very very few).
When I was but a lad, Gen Con's Siren song rang out from the advertisements in Dragon magazine, wedged in a quarter-page next to the epic comic panels of Fineous Fingers. "Lake Geneva," sang those naidian voices, "is the promised land. Come. Join us." Of course, to the 13 year old son of an alcoholic English teacher, such an extravagance was not to be. For two decades, that dream hung there in the wind--a specter of grace--until finally a dear friend twisted my arm and assisted in my continued denial of 1 Corinthians 13:11.
I'm lucky enough to have been to most of the major geek-gatherings in my time on earth. I've seen the costume ball at the World Science Fiction Convention. I've wandered Tron-like through the Consumer Electronics Show for 3 days, never once crossing my own path. I've been to the insanity that was once E3.
But Gen Con is different. Whereas E3, CES, and their ilk are about selling things to people, Gen Con is about the people who show up. And unlike a traditional "fan" convention -- Comic-Con, Wizard World, Star Wars Celebrations, Trek conventions--Gen Con isn't about showing up simply to say "I like this stuff" and then buy the evidence to prove it. It's about actually doing something. I don't go to Gen Con to ogle booth babes. I don't go to Gen Con to listen to panel discussions. I go to Gen Con to play games.
It also differs from the many small game conventions that grace college campuses and b-list conurbations of the countryside. Gen Con is Mecca. Thousands of people get to go once, and only once. They save their pennies, they make their Hajj. What they see and do when they get there is entirely up to them. There are gamers who spend 12 hours a day locked in small windowless rooms, huddled around 8-tops, playing Dungeons and Dragons non-stop. There are gamers who are, in every waking moment, playing Magic: the Gathering tourneys. There are the "grognards", craning their necks over miniature battlefields so huge you actually have to take a walk to take a turn. Increasingly, there are renegade video-gamers who will live on the sponsored LAN, engrossed in pixelated violence. Gen Con is simply so big that any marginalized subculture of gamers ceases to be a village of wierdos, and becomes a mighty city.
This focus on the doing, not the selling, makes it worlds apart from that other icon of gamer gatherings: E3. At E3, I've waited an hour for a 2 minute shot at the new hotness. At Gen Con it's highly likely that I will learn new games not from a demonstrator, but from the games' designers, over a period of hours. Gen Con is an in-your-face, tactile experience. And if I do buy something, it will matter; 10,000 copies of a new game is success. It's personal.
Of course, getting personal with 25,000 like-minded weirdos engenders the bizarre, which leads us to Gen Con bingo (a game that is actually played among my friends). So grab a piece of paper, mark it off five by five, and start filling in squares. Here's a sampling of my card before I pack up.
The Sad Booth Babe
There are no real booth babes at Gen Con. Instead there is an archetypal "daughter ashamed of her geeky dad and why did I have to come to Gen Con this year" babe. She's 16, freckled, annoyed, and dressed in Jeans and a T-shirt. The fact that she merits such individual attention on this list is also evidence of another unfortunate Gen Con peculiarity: there are hardly any women there. Oh sure, there's the occasional stereotypical Live Action Roleplayer with vampire teeth and an attitude. There are various couples who married in college because of their shared love of Dungeons and Dragons. But average, every day "hey, I just like games" gamer girls? Very very rare.
I keep promising to come loaded with an baker's dozen of deodorant sticks to hand out as door prizes, but the martini shaker always seems more important. Gamer funk has become such a part of Gen Con that there are T-shirts about it. All of the online Gen Con guides talk about it, and implore attendees to bathe. But I believe there is a counter-revolution of gamers who deliberately cultivate a stench simply for the challenge. We call these people "pigpens."
The Inappropriate Card Game
Ever see 12 year old boys playing Magic in a public bathroom? It's not pretty. Ever since I've been going to Gen Con (not forever, but long enough that I consider myself a veteran) there has been an entire subculture of teenage boys who will play Magic, or whatever the collectible card game of the moment is, anywhere, anytime. Their therapists say they have "boundary issues."
Chainmail Bikini, Klingon, Vulcan ears, Vampire Teeth, Storm Trooper, Darth Vader, Browncoat
I can never figure out whether these adornments are simply self-expression or some bizarre mating ritual: "Dude, that chick is SO checking out your ears!" But Gen Con (like all collections of subversive subcultures) represents an opportunity for freedom of expression not often found in daily life. I personally don't own a perfect Han Solo replica blaster, but if I did, Gen Con would be one of those few places I could get away with wearing it. Each excentricity leads to a world of untold personal stories, and somehow this makes me happy.
The Porn Star
There's always one sad woman whose publicist convinced her that Gen Con was her target audience. Unlike your average visitor to E3, most of the Gen Con attendees will be embarrassed and give her a wide berth. She's usually located next to "Bob's House of Recycled Lead." She's the more interesting avatar of a trade show subculture all her own: the misguided. Like the Porn Star, there are dozens of booth denizens who have saved up all they can just to come tell the world about their (board game, card game, fuzzy Cthulhu puppet) only to look discouraged by Saturday, and suicidal by Sunday morning.
Giant Lego Thing
Gamers are cheap bastards. Inevitably somebody decides "Heck, I ain't paying for no hand painted pirate ship when I can just build one." $1,200 in Lego pieces later, he's successful. Casual gamers just play games. But there's a species of hardcore gamer who invest their heart and soul into the games: painting miniatures, building terrain, laminating every bit of their favorite game, searching endlessly for that missing card from the 1999 print run of Ebola Monkey Hunt.
Of course, there's no doubt in my mind that I am on someone's bingo card. 40 years old is rapidly approaching that age where upstart youth will begin referring to me as "beardy"--an old guy who thinks he knows everything. There's a 16 year old kid out there somewhere who has a square labeled "Balding Guy in Black T-shirt."
I just hope I'm the center square.