Friday, May 10, 2013

Nerd Bread and Butter: Conventions

Nerd Bread and Butter: There are a lot of things that go into making a nerd. Nerd bread describes things that are absolutely necessary to qualify for the title. The corollary, nerd butter, deepens the nerd experience to something much more profound, much like butter does to bread.

So today marks another "should've blogged this a long time ago" entry in my current sprint of posts: conventions. Now, a convention (or "con" as they are invariably known) straddles the dividing line between Nerd Bread and Nerd Butter. On the one hand, cons are still an alien and intimidating thing to a lot of long-standing nerds. I myself didn't go to my first (sorta) con until 2005, and after that it was years until I went to another (which ended up being my trip to Fire and Ice last year). But cons are definitely an integral part of any nerd experience, and there are such a wealth of them in America (and elsewhere) today that you can find a con catering to just about any particular interest--many without traveling that far, either.

But there is an element of Nerd Butter, to be sure. Cons are still seen as a niche or elite event for a particular classification of nerd. For instance, I can have a Sideshow Collectibles Smeagol statue on my desk flanked by 3D printed ODSTs at three different scales, but once I mention I'm going to a convention over the weekend, I get the raised eyebrows and chin-nod:

"Oh, you're one of those guys."

"That's right, I'm that kind of nerd. I'll wear it on my work badge until I can get it tattooed on my forehead."

A large part of this is probably the slanted coverage of conventions in popular media. To most people, cons are places for nerd-kinky cosplay (because that's practically the only kind that gets shown) and insanely awkward over-enthused smelly fanboys gushing over genre celebrities. As you might guess, this isn't particularly accurate, and it doesn't even come close to capturing the spirit of a lot of cons out there.

What are Conventions?

Conventions at their core are about social interactions. There are a number of shows and/or conferences out there that masquerade as conventions and vice versa, but for the purpose of this article a con is an event where a minority tries to pool resources and interests into one event at a singular time so that they can be the majority in one small sphere. If a con is more about mere commercial previews, sales, and formal showmanship than it is about connecting nerds together, it might as well be a show. Or a Games Day--ouch! burn heretic, burn! And if a con is more about events and panels, it might as well be a school workshop. No, the core and highest aspiration of a true con is to be a distillery of local nerds, letting them ferment just long enough to make a truly lasting impact on each other through networking and shared enthusiasm.

Did that last metaphor circle around to the stinky fanboys stereotype?

Types of Conventions:

There are several types of conventions. There are commercially organized ones that revolve around the products of the organizers. Some of the big hobby game companies are starting to do this a lot more. Mantic Games, Games Workshop, and Fantasy Flight Games all have several conventions a year focused on their products' demos and tournaments. Now, since these commercially-run conventions are about getting more players buying more of their stuff, I considered these sorts of conventions the most watered-down experience for cons. And, for me, the only con of this sort I ever went to I found to be the most unsatisfying. Then again that was Games Day and so it might have just been the start of my anti-Games Workshop roots finding their soil.

There are also commercially sponsored conventions, and since this is what San Diego Comic Con falls under, it's probably the most recognizable category of con. These ones are organized and run independently, but with a good number of sponsors behind various panels, events, and guests they bring to the con. Other cons I'd put in this category are C2E2 (Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo) and Gen Con. Any one of these cons offer a large array of activities and opportunities to explore different hobbies. There's also a large commercial presence at any con like this, but the diversity usually means that you don't have to notice it unless you want to.

Finally, there are the hobby-scale conventions. These are conventions without any high-profile sponsors, often organized as much as a community event as anything else, and they normally feature groups from the scores to hundreds rather than the big commercial cons' which often have thousands of guests. This sort of con really lends itself towards open gaming sorts of conventions--such as Fire and Ice, or dozens of other small cons going on all across the country every month. They usually sport a few local vendors for sponsors, and since they are more localized events you're a lot more likely to meet people in your immediate sphere than the larger cons which tend to pull people from all over.

Conventions I've been to...

As I said earlier, conventions are a relatively new part of the nerdery. Way back in the day I took my future wife to Games Workshop's Games Day, and while I enjoyed it quite a bit, I didn't feel compelled to attend any of their future events. This was kind of nailed to the ground for me by the fact that Games Workshop has pretty consistently ground my bag the wrong way with nearly every decision they've made for the past ten years, but I digress. If you're into only one or two of Games Workshop's products, I imagine that Games Day could easily be a let down. But if, like I was, you're into multiple games and love seeing new models and have lots of available product thrown in your face like a bad alley in Las Vegas, then by all means, it is a blast.

Then last year I began attending Fire and Ice, and with my family attending Fire and Ice 2013 this year as well it is officially an annual family tradition. It's small compared to what you expect from cons based on popular representation--filling up a warehouse-sized room with tables of specific games, open game tables, and local hobby shop vendors. But in a con of that size it's still amazingly easy to find yourself lost in all the options if you've got an appetite for playing a large variety of games (board games, miniature games, role-playing games, and even the occasional video game gets brought in). For a lot of people who enjoy playing epic, involved board games like Twilight Imperium, it's probably one of the only places you'll get a chance to play a full eight-player game.

This past month I attended C2E2 for the first time. I've long been out of the active comic-reading loop (a long and heart-rending story I'm sure I'll blog about eventually), but my wife won two weekend passes and, though reticent, I couldn't pass up the chance when I found out Ron Perlman would be a celebrity guest for the weekend. Now, while saving a few details for my upcoming Con Roundup of C2E2 2013, let me just say that it was awesome. Like a cross between New Year's Eve and a good first date, there's lots of elation, awkwardness, pledges to do more, and at least a little willful denial regarding embarrassing moments that totally never happened. I'm going to make C2E2 an annual thing.

Conventions I'm going to (someday)...

At the top of my list of conventions I need to attend is SDCC, the San Diego Comic Convention. It is the closest thing to prestigious when it comes to this topic, and if every half-baked Youtube channel and television network in the country is going to cover it in some degree, then I need to go to there to vet it myself. Wow, that sounds pathetically pliant and puerile, doesn't it? Oh well, hopefully my frakkin' awesome alliteration will ameliorate that assertion. Alright, seriously, I'm done now.

Gen Con is another one I've been meaning to go to for some time now, and with it being so close to where I've lived the past quarter-century, I really have no excuse to have not gone already. Other than being a homebody. And cheap. Okay, so I've had some excuses in the past, but these days they're starting to thin out in the face of getting old. Old, I say. Old. But yeah, it sounds like a lot of gaming fun that might be too much for the kids, which means that if I go in the next year or two I can make the wife stay at home sitting on the nest while I nerd-it-up in Indiana. Hmmm, I really am running out of excuses not to go...

There are others, but the long and short of it is that I lean towards the cons that promise more chances to dive into hobbies that I find it difficult to indulge in on a week-to-week basis. Video game heavy conventions appeal to me, since I am a big video game fan, but they don't seduce me the way a chance to play four role-playing games in one weekend does. Or the glittering opportunity to meet Ron Perlman and totally make a jackanape of myself. That kind of stuff I can't resist. And, with a new hobby of mine on the horizon, I foresee a whole new level of nerdiness drawing me out to more conventions in the future. Filmatleven.

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