I was thinking as we returned from GenCon 2022 that the whole convention is a bit like a board game itself. There’s the press-your-luck element of when to buy a game you’re interested in—snap it up immediately in case they run out? Buy on Sunday morning, when they’re more likely to give you other swag so they don’t have to pack it up? There’s the obvious pick-up-and-deliver that we all say we hate but then dutifully enact as we walk from booth to booth. There’s both coop and competitive strategies at play for finding demos and, honestly, the board is a bit overbuilt—you can’t even see the other side from where you’re sitting. I joke because it’s true, but also because the convention this year was a bit fraught, and a little goofiness helps me take the edge off.
We played a ton of games, natch, many of which weren’t available because of exciting supply chain issues or because they didn’t bring enough copies (I’m looking at you, Framework, though I snagged a copy from my FLGS yesterday). We found:
As usual, Oink Games were pleasingly concise™ and Genius Games remains striking and mysterious to me—are they good? Someone who is a gamer and a scientist, please tell me! Taylor G and I wondered, as well, if there were a way the very small board game publishers could be highlighted somehow—we’d love to see things we haven’t noticed on BGG, things that don’t have the advertising and publishing budgets of Floodgate or IELLO but which are solid games even so. Perhaps a small-press area in the exhibition hall or similar.
We signed up for a couple of shifts in the playtesting room which was a fascinating experience. The first one, we played a party game from the designers of MonsDrawSity, though we didn’t know who they were at the time. It was a sweet and conversational game about exaggerating or underselling your skills. Our second shift, we split up and my group played a lovely train game which lives in the overlap between Great Western Trail, Ceylon, and mancala. We all really enjoyed the playtesting experience and hope our feedback was actually helpful!
I ran several games of For Science! for a hilarious group in the Tabletop Gaymers room, a dedicated room for LGBTQ and ally gamers. It sounds like the BIPOC Lounge was a huge success with lots and lots of congoers across racial identities gaming together and resting from the hectic pace of the con. I saw a number of BIPOC creators (famous and not) and was able to absolutely fangirl over Omari Akil of Rap Godz, Hoop Godz, and Critical Care. I saw almost universal masking at the con itself—literally maybe 10 people the whole time who weren’t masked.
There was much to celebrate at this year’s GenCon, but it turns out, much to lament as well. As I was packing up my stuff Wednesday morning, I popped onto Twitter to see what exciting things designers and exhibitors were talking about. New games I hadn’t heard of? Big name designers rumored to be in attendance? Thrilling discourse about ongoing supply chain issues? No, instead it was a sudden uptick in doxxing, creepy come-ons, and threats claiming to come from GenCon staff. (To be clear, GenCon repudiated these claims of affiliation and publicized their security measures and report line.) A number of medium- to high-profile BIPOC and female-identified attendees reported disgusting texts and DMs from phone numbers and people who should not have been able to message them. I read screenshots that varied from insisting someone have kinky sex with them because “I know you’re into that,” to actual threats against people’s bodies and lives because they were Black or Asian. When confronted, the harassers claimed they not only worked for GenCon, they worked for convention security, and so nothing could be done.
There’s a good piece of reporting at DiceBreaker where you can read more about the details and GenCon’s unequivocal renunciation of anyone sending these horrifying messages. I am not a reporter, I’m a gamer who writes, and what I want to write about is how gross this made me feel. Even though these threats weren’t directed at me, I felt violated. I was shocked. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, since I am a woman who has been catcalled and grabbed by strangers and I am a participant in our society where many men seem to take the mere presence of a woman as a sexual invitation. Perhaps that sounds like hyperbole, but it is not. My convention was mostly fun, but was clouded by unease. These threats have weight because so many of us have experienced their consequences.
We already have a significant imbalance in favor of white men in both who makes up the gaming population and how women and BIPOC are represented in our games. There’s an excellent conversation on a recent Ludology podcast here around that imbalance and what it does to our hobby as a whole. The point behind minority representation is not about taking something away, it’s about adding something. We’re about adding more voices, seeing more experiences. And we’re about destroying patriarchy, not destroying men; about destroying white supremacy, not white people. I say to my students all the time, “Your experience is not universal.” That is, there’s more beauty and possibility in the world than one person or one group of people can contain—let’s add more!
Horrifyingly, the bad news didn’t end here. At the end of the convention, it seems an attendee with some measure of fame was alleged to have sexually assaulted a number of other attendees while drunk. Again, I’m not a reporter, so I am only responding to my experience of reading these reports. It is statistically likely, given the number of people at GenCon over the whole convention, that other perpetrators assaulted people but went unreported, or at least unpublicized. Certainly GenCon can’t be responsible for individual behavior, but this, too, was shocking. My experiences of such things over several years of GenCons have been neutral to positive—one year, while I was waiting in the Will Call line, my husband ran up to me, took my picture, and said something dorky like “Hello pretty lady!” The men behind me immediately asked me if I was ok. There was no way for them to know he was my goofy husband, and I appreciate them, particularly now. Not everyone is looking out for others this way.
My point is, I know my own experiences are not universal and I’m so, so saddened to hear of this apparently serial assault. We continue to allow such things, not because we want them to happen, but because we don’t know how to do the hard work to stop them. Raising our children to understand consent backwards and forwards; stopping ourselves when we make assumptions about people or situations and asking if what we are seeing is the whole picture; stepping up when we are the ones in the room with privilege to cut off white women’s tears or clearly aggressive behavior—these are first steps to steering our collective ship in another direction. There is work to be done and this article can’t cover all the ins and outs. This year’s GenCon made it clear that we’ve got a long way to go: celebration hand-in-hand with lament.