Game Conventions in the Internet Era

A lot of my hobby-oriented thought has gone to conventions over the past couple years: how local cons run, how that compares to other regions’ conventions, how the culture and geography of a region informs the activity of convention-going and how tabletop gaming fits – or doesn’t fit – into the convention model. Mostly all that thought is due to my involvement with conventions in the local gaming scene: first Lorecon, then Northeast Wars and now Carnage. But also, and this is pretty implicit by the time I’ve given to them, I think conventions are pretty neat.

After the storefront of a friendly local game store and whatever actual play may go on there, conventions are the most visible expression of the game-playing hobby. They can get attention from the visual spectacle of displays, costumes and tabletop arrangements. They demonstrate the diversity of personality types and backgrounds of the people who attend them. They’re a solid, concrete focal point of energy and enthusiasm for a hobby that can easily fade into the background of dining tables and basements.

Sometimes it seems like conventions had their heyday in the 1970s and 80s – and I say that purely as speculation, not having been there myself. Long distance travel was sufficiently cheap to be feasible, but electronic communication was still crude enough that people couldn’t just hop on Boardgamegeek or to chat about their hobby. Outside the local hobby shop, game days and conventions were an obvious solution to facilitating interaction among gamers. People converge on a meeting point to gorge themselves over the course of a (possibly extended) weekend on every facet of their chosen pursuit. It’s the modern geek equivalent of Saturnalia, an annual celebration of excessive indulgence. I know people for whom this is still the case: the only games they play in a year are what they find at a convention.

But the internet drastically changed the gaming hobbyist’s life. Discussions that dragged out for months in the letters column of a magazine take place in the span of minutes in a discussion forum. Instead of their engagement with the social elements of the hobby limited to convention weekends or bull sessions at the game store, a gamer can interact with a torrent of opinions, self-published content and play options every day via the internet.

Conventions serve a number of purposes that the internet quite ably provides. Dealers rooms used to be the place to find bargains on games, unfindable videos and oddities. Online shopping options take care of that and nothing has to be out of print anymore, with PDF merchants. Discussions and panels have moved to online forae, where not only can you find game designers talking, but you can talk right back. Software like VASSAL and Skype give prospective players the chance to try out games that aren’t otherwise available to them, all without leaving their homes.

Having said all that, conventions still provide services that the internet cannot, as yet, beat. One of the strengths of the web is serving niche interests: a forum for discussing Frag, a blog celebrating the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, a repository of play aids for Arkham Horror. Even a destination site like Boardgamegeek is hyper-divided; every product has its own page and forum. Conventions specialize in generalizing, offering a buffet of options as diverse as the GMs who take it upon themselves to run games.

I have a friend, Munk, who goes into every convention having no idea what he’s going to play. For him, conventions seem to be a combination of exploration and seizing spontaneous opportunities. He’ll read the convention book while in line to register, looking for interesting games. If he doesn’t get to sign up for something in a particular slot, he figures he’ll find something to jump into. It’s an enviable attitude that I have yet emulate to any appreciable degree.

But that’s one of the strengths of conventions: the ability for a person to jump into a game they didn’t necessarily knew existed, learn it from someone who’s passionate enough to want to run an adventure and come away from the table knowing whether it’s something they’d like to add to their own library of games.

Additionally, conventions have the benefit of reality. VASSAL lets a user push units around a map, but nothing replaces the sensation of being at the table and moving your forces into position, or the whole table sucking in a breath as your barbarian launches an all-out assault against the fiendish necromancer. The internet facilitates long distance communication, but it has yet to reach the point that conversation flows, letting people read physical cues easily.

That said, I think as technology and society change, conventions need to keep up. Travel has become more expensive and time-consuming in the last ten years, creating pressure on the large show circuit. Origins has reportedly dwindled over the years. I can envision a time when gaming industry entities decide to focus solely on Gen Con, so it’s the only mega-convention remaining.

Alternately, I maintain the fond wish that changes in how we travel and consume energy leads to a resurgence in smaller local conventions. I’m in favor of that one myself; the conventions I attend dwell on the smaller end of the spectrum and it’s a comfortable sense to see familiar faces year after year. You can feel the sense of community that ties together a convention like Carnage. Gen Con sounds like a dizzying array of sights and sounds. I’d be interested to hear from long-time Gen Con-goers about the community and continuity they’ve built over the years.

Next time, I’ll write about the paradox of game convention programming.

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