A Changing Of The Guard: Gen Con Turns 50
“I’ve never seen this many people in one place.”
My nephew, Chad, stood overlooking the grand hall of the Indianapolis Convention Center. An 11-year-old gamer and self-proclaimed nerd, this was his first Gen Con. His eyes gaped as he watched the sold-out crowd of 61,000 swarm below, pointing out people costumed as his favorite characters. Imagine Frodo leaving the Shire.
We had walked the halls the night before, stopping by will call to get our Saturday passes. A friend explained how events and tickets worked and helped us get our bearings in the massive convention center. We walked the Game Hall, which stays open 24 hours a day throughout the convention. At 11 p.m., thousands of people still filled the tables playing various card, board, tabletop, and miniatures games—many of which you’ve probably never heard of.
A lover of LEGO and Minecraft, Chad jumped at the chance to contribute his own card tower to Card Valhalla, an area where people could escape the rush of the convention and build structures with cards from Pokémon, Magic: The Gathering, and other games. The first thing he did when we returned Saturday morning was check to see if his tower was still standing. It was.
In the electronic games room, I marveled as Chad quickly excelled at games I could hardly make sense of. Having not played video games since the Tony Hawk Pro Skater era, my fingers felt completely foreign on the modern controllers, and my eyes could hardly track what was happening on the screen.
From there, we dove into the bustle of the Exhibit Hall. Chad spent an hour scouring different card-collector booths until he found a coveted Pokémon card. We snagged our commemorative Gen Con 50 six-sided dice and walked the art section where we saw the original paintings for Magic: The Gathering cards that Chad could name off the top of his head. I took him to booths of the role-playing games I played when I was his age: Battletech, Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, and others.
We wrapped up our day with something a little more my speed: an hour in the arcade room where we played “vintage” games like NBA Jam, Area 51, and Revolution X. As we spilled into the sunlight of Georgia Street, Chad raved and recalled all his favorite parts of the day, already talking about what he wants to do next year when we attend Gen Con 51.
I listened and smiled at him, though I felt a bit more pensive. In Chad, I saw myself as I was at 11. I remembered the way video game controllers felt in my hands. I remembered the clatter of dice in my hand as I rolled to see if I hit the troll. It was comforting to see some of those old games still going strong. Having grown up in an era when the reputation of gaming wasn’t so great—Revenge of the Nerds and “D&D is the devil’s playground”—I was amazed to see how a convention like Gen Con could completely consume the convention center.
I tried to imagine the sense of belonging I might have felt back then if I had known something like Gen Con existed—where games and gamers were celebrated, rather than relegated. Having grown up feeling in many ways like an outsider for the games I liked to play and the books I liked to read, I hoped Chad could look around Gen Con and see that there’s a place for everyone and everything in this world to find themselves—if even for only one long, glorious weekend a year.