They say that GenCon is “the best four days in gaming.” Based upon sheer volume of sensory inputs for nerds, I can confirm that this boast is true.
Being a life-long nerd, it’s remarkable that I had never been to GenCon before. Yet, here I was, finding myself at my first ever GenCon. So I’ll share some general thoughts and high-level experiences for nerds who undoubtedly have heard so much about GenCon, yet may be like me and have never attended.
First, GenCon is immense. I first typed ‘HUGE’, then hit my delete key and replaced it with ‘immense.’ Huge would have been correct, yet slightly insufficient. The Indianapolis Convention Center is huge, particularly when coupled with the fact that GenCon also engulfs every single adjacent hotel.
There is also an immense numbers of activities offered. GenCon’s online event finder approximately 18,000 events, meaning that even if you injected yourself Pulp Fiction-style with straight adrenaline and sprint 24/7 throughout the entirely of GenCon, you would still be able to devote only a few seconds to each event. You can’t do it all, nerds.
And that is not taking into account the exhibitors of GenCon, which is a yuuuuuge part of the experience. Exhibition Hall featured 520 game companies that released 600+ games, an incredible number to try and consume.
Given the 10am-6pm hours of the Exhibition Hall, a gamer would have about 4 minutes per booth, meaning there is no way in the 9 Hells that a person can make an informed decision about all the games. So–never one to pass up an opportunity to toot my own horn–thank goodness for the board gaming media like Dice Tower, Board Game Geek, Geek Dad, Shut Up & Sit Down, Watch it Played, and yes, Nerds on Earth for providing board game and RPG news and reviews. In short, there is simply too much content out there to sort the signal from the noise, so gaming media plays a Critical Role.
GenCon fired me up. From the moment I stepped into the Exhibition Hall, I had an unquenchable urge to run on a treadmill, despite the fact that I don’t own a treadmill. I plop a bluetooth headset into each ear and scarf down protein bars in between rolling characters. Fully amped up, I continue to run.
GenCon is filled with sub-cultures. Beyond the immense halls like the Exhibition Hall and the Sagamore Ballroom where a thousand nerds are playing Pathfinder or Starfinder at any given time, GenCon also spreads its tentacles into every adjacent hotel in downtown Indianapolis. Indeed, every hallway you venture down, you find a wholly new sub-culture of gamer.
At the end of the long corridor to Lucas Oil Stadium (home of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts), nerds find True Dungeon, a dungeon-crawl-simulation LARP(y) thing that attracts a certain sub-culture of geek. Yet across a different skyway is a large Marriott Hotel ballroom with a different LARPing sub-culture that looks at True Dungeon as if to say, “Oh, child, you think you LARP? This is how you LARP.”
Magic: The Gathering players gather in another hall, OG D&Ders in yet another, and on and on it goes. I can’t emphasize enough the fact that there is a place for every stripe of nerd at GenCon. And you know what? Everyone comes together in full acceptance. It’s a great thing.
I continue to run hard and roll characters until the treadmill begins to overheat. To keep my hands from shaking, I add board game design to my portfolio. Realizing that playtesting would be uncouth on a treadmill, I turn my attention toward building a virtual assistant from old RC car parts, cheese burrito wrappers, and one of Tom Vasel’s old hats. I’m fully amped.
GenCon is designed to separate you from your money. The experience is in no way inexpensive. I budgeted well, yet still ran into several unexpected expenses, down to smaller things like I had assumed the hotel breakfast would be free when it was instead $12.95. Other little things like using Lyft is a great and economical alternative to rental cars plus parking fees, but it still adds up.
Badge Price + Housing + Transportation + Food + 4 million dollars for games = you better budget $1,500 minimum for GenCon.
In just under six minutes, I finish the meeple-shaped virtual assistant, now dripping from sweat as I have increased the treadmill speed eleven clicks past ludicrous. I speak Klingon to to my newly formed AI, having learned the language from the Klingon-cosplaying cover band playing just outside of Hall H.
There are other GenCon related expenses beyond the cost of the badge that gets you through the door. (Speaking of badges, the final attendance tally showed that the 2018 convention was the most attended ever, propelled by a record number of 4-Day badge sales, a 16% year-over-year increase in Saturday badge holders, and astounding 60% jump in year-over-year growth for both Sunday badge holders and children attending with wristbands.)
GenCon uses a ticketing system wherein you pay for events. While many of the thousands of panels and seminars are free, you still need to get a ticket as proof of your registration. But other events like game play will set you back what is effectively $2 per hour of play. So a 4-hour Pathfinder session, for example, might set you back $8.
What on the surface might feel like a nickel and dime effort works pretty well in practice. Not only does it pull in a little revenue to offset the cost of events (accommodations for DMs and printing up pre-gen characters and what have you), but it also ensures a nice flow to events, as it eliminates folks that might spam free events to snatch a spot, yet no little intention of showing up.
With tens of thousands of nerds trying to get into thousands upon thousands of events, a layer of organization and buy-in is important. But the Will Call line you use to pick up your tickets? Hoo-boy, that puppy wraps around the convention center.
My Meeple Assistant® chirps and I reach into a compartment in the back, from which I produce a 3D printed Paizo goblin. I could tell you how I did it, but in the time it would take to vocalize it, I would have sold the prototype for 1.5 billion and cannot discuss it without violating an NDA. I am fully in my zone, poised to reach peak nerdery. Universal neural mapping is now mine.
The city of Indianapolis clearly embraces GenCon, even down to the little things. The airport sat out some extra card tables with a sign that read, “Continue Your Gaming.” I don’t want to overplay this into something mushier than it needs to be, but nerds aren’t used to being so fully accepted, so it feels good even if you take the cynical route and say it’s only because Indy wants the tax revenue.
Because, to be clear, Indianapolis’ engagement with GenCon is a financial one, but in fairness, the city works hard for it. The infrastructure is well-prepared and orderly, right down to blocking off adjacent streets to allow a block party with 65 food trucks.
The Indianapolis Convention Center is clean, well air-conditioned, and almost always has paper towels in the restrooms. GenCon is HUGE (again, see point #1) and the convention center groans a bit from the immense traffic of tens of thousands of sweaty nerds, but far and away the city and the convention staff do a bang-up job of running things smoothly.
The convention plans to continue its development of Lucas Oil Stadium as a new hub of convention growth. Gen Con will return to Indianapolis August 1-4, 2019.
I continue to run, the treadmill smoking and sparking as I do so. I pop another protein bar, this one chased by a Jolt Cola, the official soft drink of OG nerds. I cannot say the last time I have blinked.
You have to put yourself out there at GenCon. It’s too crowded to see the same people multiple times, unless you spend time in a distinct sub-genre. So you have have to utilize “5 seconds of courage” and simply introduce yourself to folks. Sometimes they’ll talk back to you, sometimes they won’t.
It’s not a celebrity con. Sure, there are some twitchy streamers and celebritubers, but it’s not like San Diego Comic Con or similar shows where all the money is spent on the Marquee. I don’t tend to get starstruck so I don’t know if there was a lot of buzzing around Critical Role players or whatever, but it certainly didn’t seem to me like there was.
I’m a shy introvert, so I always wish I’d put myself out there more, but the interactions I did have were wonderful and pleasant. Sure, there are exceptions, but I think we can all agree that nerds are by and large the greatest people. This wholly comes through at GenCon.
I am now fully woke, and not in the Twitter way. I think it is getting late, but what is ‘late’? Is that what mortals refer to as the dark half of the clock? My feet come off the treadmill and I ascend.
“Goodbye,” I say from somewhere, the voice is all around us. In four days I have achieved peak nerdness, and now my exhausted life-force flows upward from my keyboard where it only briefly coalesces before dispersing into nothingness…
GenCon really is the best four days in gaming. There are cardboard and pen and pencil options for literally every flavor of nerd. It is organized and extremely well ran. There isn’t a greater collection of energy around new games anywhere else. So start saving your nickels now, GenCon returns to Indy on August 1-4, 2019.