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How Gen Con—the Best Four Days in Gaming—Can Change the World

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When Gary Gygax rented Horticultural Hall in Lake Geneva WI for the first Gen Con in 1968, his goal was pretty simple; gather a handful of friends for some lengthy sessions of historical miniatures and wargame simulations in a venue that had enough space and enough time for exploring the games deeply. The rent for the hall was $50 and Gary charged $1 for admission.

It wasn’t much of a community in terms of numbers—Gary just broke even on the rent—but from the very beginning the original participants knew that something more than games was brewing at what they tongue-in-cheek named the Gen(eva) Con(vention). As Duke Seifried, one of the original attendees in the early 70s puts it, “We were an odd mixture, the science fiction lovers, the early fantasy lovers…and the historical people. We all were a little unusual for the time. The sheer pleasure of finding someone else who liked this stuff was overwhelming.” It was a new type of community, bound by the rules they set out and limited by the technologies available at that time, namely dice, rulebooks, pads of paper, and large maps. Despite advances in gaming technologies over the last half-century, Gen Con is still ruled by cardboard and dice, and the sense that each participant is part of a larger whole. And it has grown, massively.

Over the past 54 years, Gen Con leadership has had to scale the original spirit for audience growth and new technology. This itself is a kind of game, where each round introduces changing gaming tastes and new play formats. The arrival of Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s brought fears that fantasy role playing games (RPG) would take over the convention, so organizers had to accommodate D&D’s burgeoning popularity alongside the more traditional board and miniatures games. The same thing happened when Magic: The Gathering burst onto the scene, inciting fears that the event would be overrun by “card floppers”. Yet for all of these instances, it was simply a matter of creating space and establishing rules. Fifty years later the miniatures guys are happily housed on the field, TCG tournaments are held in the event hall, and role-playing games (including Dungeons & Dragons) sprawl across the convention floor.

Constant evolution plays a huge role in Gen Con’s adherence to the 1968 constitution. Balancing old traditions with new endeavors keeps the experience fresh, while participants appreciate that making time and space for one another comes back to each of us tenfold. The spirit of stewardship is upheld by veterans like Mike Carr—believed to be the only person to have attended every Gen Con—throws an annual game of Dawn Patrol that’s the stuff of legends. Tracy Hickman, co-author of the famous D&D-inspired Dragonlance novels, runs the much-beloved Killer Breakfast, a 300+ person role-playing game that opens with a Broadway-style musical that kicks off a madcap multi-round challenge of participants’ quick wit, improv skills, bribes, and other hilarious acts of desperate strategy. As the Dungeon Master, Hickman shows no mercy and everyone loves it that way.

Hickman’s Killer Breakfast is a metaphor for Gen Con itself; a spontaneous community built around a participatory (albeit wacky) game; one that, in addition to being entertaining, is collaborative, inclusive, and tolerant. This is no accident. Over the years, the leadership has formalized a well-developed Code of Conduct that ensures that everyone can openly express their love for whatever games however they see fit, free of judgment, teasing, and harassment. Why is the Code of Conduct so explicitly upheld? Why does the leadership care so much? Away from the antics of his zany breakfast, Hickman notes, “Dungeons & Dragons, and the convention itself, has a strong call to people who are looking for a better world—and who need to dream of a better world so they know it when they get there.” If the key to Gen Con’s alchemy is that player participation is contribution, then binding our community with a code of ethics is necessary to empower all participants to become contributors.

In a world where participation often means passive attendance, transaction, or even to be taken advantage of, Gen Con’s community is about active contribution. Each participant is responsible for offering something that will enhance their experience, their table’s experience, and the experience of community as a whole. Everyone is a guest AND a host. It’s democracy at its finest. Yes, there is a costume contest, with the prestige of winning an award, but showing up in cosplay is also a massive contribution to the look and feel of the weekend. The “give” of time and energy to make an amazing costume (as well as sweat, and tears, and sometimes blood) is balanced by a powerful “take” of appreciation, admiration, wonder, and praise as cosplayers bring their very best selves to the Gen Con stage and hundreds of fans and onlookers share their wonder, admiration, and amazement.

When each participant feels responsible for not just their experience, but the entire convention, it leads to endless possibilities for evolution. One arena where that can be observed is in the broader hobby surrounding tabletop gaming, for which the convention has grown to include offshoots that share a kindred spirit. Recent years have seen the rise of new activities like pin trading, Pokémon Go meetups, and escape rooms. As a result, the official convention floor space has expanded to over one million square feet, and, as organizers, we act on behalf of our community in order to enable our community as it grows. In 2005, after passage of Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Gen Con, along with several other high-profile businesses, threatened to leave Indianapolis as a consequence of the law, as we saw that it had the potential to target members of Gen Con’s LGBTQ+ community. Our values specifically include inclusive community-building, and in 2020 we began a years-long effort to increase the racial diversity of Gen Con as the richness we were seeing in tabletop games—especially in live-streamed RPG and watch-it-played events—was not being reflected in our convention.

Empowering participants to contribute also optimizes the fun factor, with such attendee-driven innovations as Cardhalla. The event began spontaneously in 1999, when a few people who were waiting for friends to finish games began building little towers out of cards. A sign was left out; “Add on if you wish, but do not destroy.” It has grown every year since. By Saturday night, the combined construction spans an area the size of two tennis courts, and attendees sign up to make a charitable donation and be the first participants in the “destruction” of Cardhalla by throwing coins and bringing the entire structure down (the coins are donated too). Hundreds show up for the denouement, which gets underway after 10pm on Saturday night. “Build, Donate, Destroy,” is the motto. Over $5,000 is raised. This is peak Gen Con.

Emerging technology could be seen as a threat to the analog pastime of tabletop gaming. Thanks to encouragement and active participation from Gen Con attendees, the convention has integrated advances in technology to our mutual benefit. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Gen Con had no choice but to go online, creating a virtual event that knit together Twitch streaming, thousands of Zoom gaming rooms, an online marketplace, and a vibrant Discord server. Many doubted that a tabletop gaming convention could be replicated without a physical gathering, and yet over 40,000 people showed up to give Gen Con Online a try. More importantly, the sense of community and the Gen Con alchemy were both there. “You know, it felt a lot like Gen Con,” was a refrain stated over and over again. In our post-lockdown world, Gen Con Online continues to thrive alongside the event in Indy, and likely will for years to come. The success of Gen Con Online engenders a sense of excitement in our community about how much more is possible as new technologies and social platforms emerge. So much more of the experience and the community can scale to reach new players, new fans, new members, with cards, cardboard, and dice at the core.

It takes a lot to participate in Gen Con; travel, time, energy, and, of course, money. But if you add and don’t destroy, it gives much in return. Players report being both exhausted and rejuvenated by a week at Gen Con, and are always full of amazing stories. There’s an energy that comes not just from seeing so many games, but also from seeing so many good people sharing a common purpose and celebrating a passion together. Tanks are refilled, new ideas and creativity are sparked, and this energy is carried back to “civilian” life.

After four days of madcap hijinks, Gen Con is over. Newly minted best friends huddle in the hotel lobby, hugging and laughing and making plans for next year. The conference spaces—so recently brimming with buoyant joy—echo with emptiness. While many lament that Gen Con happens only once a year and express wishes that it could exist in more places, I say it already does. Gen Con manifests in corporeal form in August, but it lives on in the hearts of our community in every game night members host, in every Discord, or streamed conversation they follow for the rest of the year.

Are there ways to spread some of that spirit to broader audiences, to have the life-changing effects of Gen Con touch more lives and improve more communities? I don’t just believe so; I know it. Each member of the Gen Con community—including we, the organizing body—shares a sense of ownership that is contagious. We are all stewards. It is both the contributions to and the withdrawals from the community that create the whole—one which is indeed much greater than the sum of its parts.

As games of all types continue to emerge, evolve, and grow, the opportunity to build fresh, participatory communities multiplies, and it becomes incumbent upon each of us to play our part.

“Add but do not destroy.”


Historical references and quotes from 40 Years of Gen Con, by Robin D. Laws. 2007. Atlas Games, pub.