What We Can Learn from Gen Con

No one place is perfect. No large gathering or event is 100 percent without its troublemakers or people that negatively impact someone else’s good time. But for the 70,000 or so people that attended Gen Con in Indianapolis this past weekend, you’d be hard pressed to find a group that, en masse, found so much peaceful enjoyment in the commission of something that they loved.

A Gen Con sign hangs inside the Indiana Convention Center. (Photo by Troy Brownfield)

For the uninitiated, Gen Con is “the longest-running and best-attended convention for tabletop gaming in North America.” Founded in 1968 by Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, as the “Lake Geneva Wargames Convention,” the original convention was held in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The main location remained in Wisconsin (with “auxiliary” installments occurring in other cities and countries) until 2003, when the regular annual spot switched to Indianapolis. Gen Con celebrates games of all types (board, card, miniature, role-playing, you-name-it), and its attendees are as passionate a group of fans as you’ll find anywhere.

While video, computer, and app-driven games continue to be huge business around the world, so-called “hobby games” have been experiencing a resurgence for the past several years. Pop culture site ICV2 found that the category pulled in over $1.5 billion last year, and the industry sales have doubled since 2013, with crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter helping to drive the discovery and sales of new games.

Fantasy author C.S. Marks at a Gen Con booth
Fantasy author C.S. Marks held a booth during Gen Con 2019. (Photo by Troy Brownfield).

Role-playing games have also been having something of a cultural moment. Whereas TV shows might have used D&D for a joke in the past, popular shows like Stranger Things have made the game a big part of their characters’ lives. Celebrities like Vin Diesel regularly talk about their love of RPGs, too. Perhaps no bigger booster of D&D exists than True Blood/Magic Mike actor Joe Manganiello. After his wife, Modern Family star Sofia Vergara, hilariously outed him as a gamer on the 2017 Emmys red carpet, Manganiello quickly became one of D&D’s biggest ambassadors. In addition to fun appearances on talk shows, the actor started a RPG-related clothing line and created a gaming library and program for kids at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Earlier this year, Manganiello’s character, Arkhan the Cruel, whom he’d played since he was as teen, was made part of official D&D canon by the game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast.

Joe Manganiello and Stephen Colbert talking D&D on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. (Uploaded to YouTube by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.)

Manganiello’s story may be well-known, but it’s by no means unique. Gaming in all of its forms is a community. It encourages people to come together for a common purpose of enjoyment. Gen Con is the ultimate expression of that idea. Instead of several people meeting for game night, it’s thousands congregating for hundreds of games on-site.

Ryan Lybarger, a long-time gamer and co-founder of Utility Games, attributes much of the appeal and happy vibe of Gen Con to the fact that it’s so many things in one. He says, “I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, it’s because I’m surrounded by people doing what they want to do with no concern for what anyone else thinks. Cosplayers rocking obscure characters? Check. [Table-top] RPGers finding the perfect zinc-alloy d20? Check. Learning how to write better at a seminar? Yup. I imagine a lot of folks have to hide who they really are on a daily basis; at Gen Con, you’re never the weirdest person in the room. And everybody is okay with that.”

Fantasy author Hans Cummings at a booth during Gen Con 2019.
Fantasy author and publisher Hans Cummings was also at Gen Con 2019. (Photo by Troy Brownfield)

Lybarger certainly nails the “something for everyone” aura of the event. Tournaments and play-testing for innumerable games run constantly. Fantasy and science-fiction authors like Hans Cummings and C.S. Marks greet their fans. Highly regarded artists, like D&D and Dragonlance legend Larry Elmore, sign their work while producing new material at their booths. Vendors offer everything from medieval gear to Funko Pop figures. The biggest companies on the planet (like Mattel) have booths alongside start-ups that just put out their first game. It’s a swirling panorama of stuff that, for its devotees, is pure enjoyment.

Gen Con also exists as a nexus of different types of fandom. Anime, comics, and film characters are heavily represented in cosplay. Star Wars: Legion, a miniatures game, was very popular on the playing floor. Cryptozoic debuted and sold their DC Rebirth deck-building card game. Media tie-ins abounded.

However, perhaps nothing made as big a splash at the show as the announcement and demos for Marvel: Crisis Protocol, a new Marvel-based miniatures game from Atomic Mass Games. The game combines the hobby aspects of miniatures gaming (like painting the figures yourself) with a comprehensive game involving a wide range of familiar Marvel characters and terrain pieces.

Figures resembling Marvel Comics heroes in a glass display case.
Game pieces for Atomic Mass Games’ Marvel Crisis Protocol, displayed during Gen Con 2019. (Photo by Troy Brownfield.)

As a whole, Gen Con exceeds its stated mission of being the best weekend in gaming. As Lybarger says, “[Gen Con is] greater than the sum of its parts. A trade show, by itself, would be okay. A game auction, by itself, would be fun. Hours of gaming, by itself, would be a blast. Add it all together, throw in seeing friends from far away . . .  it’s bigger on the inside.”

And maybe that’s the most important thing. Over Gen Con weekend, Indianapolis was deep in throes of road construction that had been delayed by a rainy midsummer. As the fans descended on the town, important highways that led into downtown were closed, as was a vital street in the center of the city. It was inconvenient on a number of levels. And almost no one was complaining about it.

Fantasy artist Larry Elmore signing autographs on copies of his illustrations.
Dragonlance artist Larry Elmore signs illustrations for fans during Gen Con 2019. (Photo by Troy Brownfield.)

That’s because the idea and the essence of Gen Con is, simply, fun. How many things in our culture, at this precarious moment, can we say are just . . . fun? The list is, unfortunately, small. For 70,000 people to gather in one place and have a great time for four days isn’t just encouraging; it’s borderline miraculous. Maybe the lesson of Gen Con is that if more people just got together to do what they LOVE, instead of what they’re expected to do or obligated to do or made to do, then more people would have a better time. There’s no judgment at Gen Con. People get to be who they are, dress how they want, and play the games they like. Some people may dismiss that as childlike. That’s fine. We could use a little more childlike. American society lost its supposed innocence a long, long time ago. If we can get back a little bit of that spark of imagination, a little bit of that pure fun, even for just a little while, there’s never a way that can be a bad thing. In fact, that might mean that we’ve all won the game.

Featured Image: A diorama of the game Marvel: Crisis Protocol by Atomic Mass Games. (Photo by Troy Brownfield.)