The Gen Con Experience
Tomorrow, the largest tabletop game convention in North America will take place at the Indianapolis Convention center. Gen Con allows people to come together to enjoy their gaming itch ranging from role-playing games, all types of board games, miniatures war games, collectible card games, and strategy games. This is be my third Gen Con, as I’m a little late to the convention scene, I wanted to write something more than just a top ten things I’m looking forward to this year. I wanted to look more into the evolution of Gen Con as it celebrates its 50th year and what makes it such a special convention to me and the over 60,000 people that will be walking into the convention hall this year.
The first unofficial Gen Con started as a group of friends in the Chicago area couldn’t make the trip to another convention in 1967. The place they meet for Gen Con 0 was the house of the father of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax. The next year, he rented a space in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for the first official event. Almost 100 people attended at the expensive price of $1 a ticket to help Gygax pay off the $50 rental fee.
For the next fifteen years, the convention started to grow and moved to different places around Wisconsin. Until it found a home for the next 18 years at the convention center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. During this time, attendance rose from 5,000 to 30,000 and was built as the premier event in the role-playing game industry. As the number of attendees grew, organizers saw the lack of hotel space and the convention center layout were big enough issues that they decided to move Gen Con to its current location at the Indiana Convention Center. The added space quickly allowed Gen Con to double attendance over the last fifteen years. A major factor of attendance change was the increased demand and popularity of board games.
This growth can be a double edged sword. Many businesses and organizations that experience rapid growth are not able to keep the same experience. I think of the San Diego Comic Con, where you can wait for hours, even days, to get into a panel and still not get a seat. This year will mark, what I assume, will be the biggest attendance at Gen Con to date with tickets for all four days having sold out. Even during all this growth, the convention has done one thing well, evolve.
One thing that Gen Con has done so well over the years is adjusting to what is happening in the table top marketplace. Gen Con started well before the first edition of D&D was released and they played war and board games. Eventually they turned to a primarily RPG event, and now with the recent boom of board games, there is a bigger focus there. Gen Con has always been focused on what gamers were into at that moment rather than just sticking to one thing. This doesn’t mean that the abandon those other things as soon as they are out of favor. If you like something in tabletop space, you will find people or at one of the 16,000 events that will match your interest. Gen Con is just a menagerie of different interests that can all congregate in one place remarkably well.
What really makes Gen Con a special place for me is the people. I have been going with the same group for three years and the group have known each other for nine. But we are not all from the same state or gaming group. This group originally got to know each other because they happened to play a game of Battlestar Galactica together after striking up a conversation about another game at a Gen Con years ago. I have had numerous experiences at events and games where I played with people I had never met and had a blast. Now, that doesn’t mean that every experience will be off the charts, but not something that ruins your experience. There is a level of acceptance between everyone that makes it work.
This even extends to people not invested heavily into the hobby. One of my favorite interactions from last year’s Gen Con was while I was waiting for a few friends to finish up a game. I was standing near an open play area when the women next to me just started talking to me about her experience. She explained that her husband was a board gamer from Alaska and that she had begrudgingly taken the trip down with him. She planned to do nothing but the designated spouse events, but wanted to see the exhibit hall the first day. After entering she was awestruck with the sights, the sounds, and that the smell wasn’t too bad. While exploring she was surprised how welcoming other attendees were in booths and in demos even though she wasn’t a gamer. She decided to skip a few of the other events just to spend more time with her husband learning more about games. Amazing what a change of environment will do to a person’s opinions.
I hope that this article gives you just a glimpse of Gen Con’s evolution over the last 50 years and an idea of why it’s a great convention. The good thing is you might not have to travel to Indianapolis to get a similar experience. So many smaller tabletop conventions are around the world that you could test the waters there before making a pilgrimage. I encourage you to try one out.