The 44th annual GenCon kicked off Thursday morning with the usual cultural shock: Imperial Stormtroopers in line at Starbucks, InuYasha waiting at a crosswalk and assorted elves, orcs and Knights of the Round Table checking in at various downtown hotels.
It’s easy for those on the outside to look on in disbelief or make snide remarks and feel superior to the costumed “gamers” that have flocked to the city. But it is so easy to attack what one doesn’t understand.
GenCon, now in its ninth year in Indianapolis, began humbly in the living room of Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, in 1967. Gygax (whose name sounds ironically like that of D&D or Doctor Who character) culled and cultivated a fanatical following of role-playing enthusiasts out of the relatively tame wargames scene. Over the years, his GenCon would grow exponentially along with his role as the father of the role-playing movement.
After outgrowing Lake Geneva and Milwaukee, GenCon finally settled in Indianapolis in 2003. It’s apparent by the amount of “Welcome GenCon!” signs at downtown restaurants this year that the Circle City (or its Chamber of Commerce) has finally warmed up to the massive event. With upwards of 30,000 attendees at last year’s GenCon, there’s no denying the massive and positive impact of the convention on the city (or, again, its Chamber of Commerce).
As I entered the main showroom, I was, once again, overwhelmed by the gaming spectacle within. Tables of devotees played tedious rounds of slow-moving RPGs in designated gaming zones while throwing with witty banter. Nearby, on what resembled poker tables, stone-faced strategists faced off in serious Settlers of Catan tournaments.
Aside from Mayfair Games, which distributes Settlers of Catan, and companies such as Eagle Games that produce some fantastic, intelligent and original board games, most of the vendors at GenCon were hawking products that seemed more like money pits than entertainment.
One of the more popular gaming genres featured at GenCon, miniatures wargames, revolves around amassing bigger and bigger armies of two-inch plastic figurines for battle. Unfortunately, the only way to expand one’s army is to buy more and more figurines at fairly outrageous prices. For more popular brands like Warhammer or Mage Knight, maintaining and expanding an army can be downright expensive. A package of five Warhammer 40K Space Marines, for example, cost $30 dollars. Considering that standard Warhammer armies consist of upwards of 50 “soldiers” — not to mention even more expensive pieces of artillery and other, bigger vehicles — accumulating all the required pieces is an expensive endeavor. And don’t even get me started on Magic: The Gathering! It seems that the hypnotic marketing mantra of “Gotta catch ’em all!” employed by the Pokemon empire (itself a gateway ‘drug’ for many at GenCon) was intended to condition young gamers-to-be to a culture of never-ending spending .
Despite some questionable materialistic overtones, the true focus of GenCon was on unity. Throughout the massive showroom and sprawling convention center, groups of gamers from all over the country connected with each other over their shared love of escapism. Like Shriners or Marines, the camaraderie between gamers seems to run deeper than most would assume.