What’s the difference between “fan-cons” and academic conferences?

I took a day off today to go down to Columbus, Ohio to visit a friend of mine who was in town for Origins, which is a very large (10,000-13,000 people) fair/convention/conference about all things “gaming.” Now my friend Chris is heavily invested in this both for fun and for his job, and he made a drive halfway across the country to specifically attend this thing– well, that and travel to some other places. Me, I was doing the drive there/drive back trip solely to see Chris. I will admit that I do have a gaming past– mostly things like Dungeons and Dragons, but generally other role playing games. However, my gaming days were pretty solidly behind me once I left my teens, and in general, I’m not really much of game person. I rarely play computer games or video games, I don’t play poker or many other card games, etc. I probably would play bridge again (a game some friends of mine– including Chris– took up in college) if it didn’t involve sitting around with a bunch of old people, though given that I am rapidly closing the gap age-wise, I might be finding a bridge club sooner than later.

Anyway, I had no plans to go to the “con”; I figured Chris and I would grab some lunch and/or chat about our lives and that’d be about it. But it turns out that I was able to get a “teacher’s pass” based on my EMU faculty ID (membership does have its privileges), so Chris and I toured around a bit. I had a surprisingly good time.

Basically, people do three different but obviously related things at Origins (and I think this is true of most game-oriented conferences). First, they play games– board games (mostly of the war and/or fantasy variety– I don’t think you can play Monopoly at this thing), card games (see above– I don’t think there’s any poker or hearts tables or something), role-playing games, games with miniatures, etc., etc. Second, they go to panels of people talking about games and game related things. And third, people go to the large exhibition area to look at and buy games and game-related things. We just stuck with activity number 3, though we saw plenty of game playing, and there was a program of presentations and other events the size of a small-town phone book.

You see a lot of overlap here with other related geeky cultures/subcultures– people in various kinds of costume and/or “geek appropriate” attire and grooming. There was a lot of stuff on sale that was exactly like the kind of thing you’d see at the RenFest– fake swords and fake armor and stuff like that. Chris and I spent some time talking about the differences between game cons and science fiction cons (Chris, a fan of both, prefers the latter).

But I guess I was was left with two thoughts I’ll post for now before going to bed. First, I really am just not that much of a “fan” of anything, certainly not like the many people who I saw today, people (okay, almost all geeky guys) who travelled half-way across the country to play a simulation game involving armies of tiny figurines of gnomes or card games along the lines of Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering or any number of different games involving pirates. Pirates seem to be a big trend at these things. I don’t really have a favorite favorite sci-fi/fantasy character, and I’m not likely to dress up like one anytime soon. I don’t keep my day job so at night I can meet up with my buddies and the dungeon master and take on my role playing persona of Zandar the Pig Barbarian. These people do, and there’s something about this that strikes an outsider like me as just odd.

Second, I think there’s a lot of similarities between these kinds of conferences– or at least the motivations behind them– and academic conferences. At both, there are presentations, insider lingo, trends, conference badges, and “famous” (for that context) people sightings. People go to both kinds of conferences to attend presentations, to see trends in “the field,” shmooze with people they know only vaguely through email lists and other conferences, and to sell and buy stuff related to the topic of the conference. The outfits at academic conferences tends to be a bit more on the conservative side–not a lot of chain mail at the academic conferences, for example– but there are definitely “outfits/costumes,” and a real insider can spot the differences between the MLA, the CCCCs, and C&W just on the outfits alone– even just the footwear. And let’s face it: most academics treat their work with the same fanatic devotion that most of the people at Origins treat their hobbies.

I dunno, but maybe the organizers of academic conferences ought to see what kinds of tricks they can pick up from these things.

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