JOHN MELLENCAMP SINGS the praises of small towns because “people let me be just what I want to be.“ Good for him, but that’s hardly the norm—at least it wasn’t when he wrote it. He got the idea right, though. We all just want to be ourselves, if we can find out who that is. If it’s not the ultimate freedom, it’s up there.
Indianapolis makes good on Mellencamp’s promise whenever Gen Con comes to our big town. This weekend, in and around the Indiana Convention Center, anyone can be as weird they want to be—in public. Want to walk the Circle with a stuffed animal on your shoulder? Cool. Dress like a famous wizard? Love it. Spend days painting miniature Dungeons & Dragons figures? No judgment. Actually, we’re kind of fascinated.
How cool is this, especially for self-conscious teenagers? Indianapolis is the place where (pre-COVID-19) 70,000 people can rely on letting their freak flags fly. We’re not a refuge—geek culture is too popular now for cosplayers to need a safe haven, and there’s always the Internet. Instead of Hogwarts (which was awfully dangerous as refuges go, come to think about it), we’re party zone Diagon Alley—the muggle-world place where wizards can live it up as themselves, even if that means looking like someone (or something) else.
Other cities could do the same and would frag to have Gen Con’s estimated $70 million economic impact over a long weekend (again, pre-COVID, as badge sales sit at 35,000 this year, partly for safety). Who wouldn’t lavish some love on a group waving cash like that around? Surely many cities have tried to lure Gen Con away. Yet we’ve been home to the tabletop-gaming show since 2003, and in this case, “home” fits. When gamers and cosplayers come here to simultaneously pretend and find themselves, it must feel like being at home, where they can be just what they want to be with their squads, in hotel hallways and on the Circle and at Starbucks. These four days in Indianapolis, there’s no such thing as a misfit.
At first, we gawked a lot. Gen Con media consultant Stacia Kirby, who has been on the ground here since 2004, remembers a lot of headlines about geeks and nerds. “They were like, ‘Who are these people wearing fur ears?’ They didn’t quite understand us,” she says. But those days are gone. “Now, the city of Indianapolis very much embraces Gen Con and realizes these gamers are fun, they’re good people, they don’t wreck your city.”
Indy’s hospitality community keeps the competition at bay year after year as the event has grown and spread its tentacles all around downtown. Gaming events take place everywhere in hotels (pre-COVID, they were sanctioned around the clock), and hotels and bars get in on the fun by creating gaming-related menu items. Harry & Izzy’s has a Dragon’s Breath burger, and Sun King releases a Gen Con–exclusive beer each year. This weekend, HotBox Pizza is serving a LARP pie, twisting the acronym for “live-action role play” into “live-action ranch pickle”—it has bacon and dill pickles on a ranch base. Visit Indy arranged a wedding on Georgia Street today and even made sure the Seahawks beat the Colts on Sunday, when Gen Con’s Seattle-based leadership team went to the game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The efforts have brought Dan Roth and his son, Eric, closer together. Eric is a 32-year-old gamer who was born disabled and lives at home in a wheelchair with his parents in Ohio. Role-playing games, Dan says, let Eric be the person who’s strong and can run, lift things, and carry a sword. Accompanying Eric to Gen Con for a few years to volunteer while his son teaches other attendees has helped Dan understand his son’s world and speak his language. “Before, I had no understanding of it at all,” he says. “Now he’s teaching me to do D&D and deck-building. He has lifelong friends from gaming. He has lifelong friends on the internet he has met (with) here and they talk everyday. He’s got a real community that supports him. It’s amazing.”
Whether or not gamers express themselves through cosplay, the role-playing games that are a Gen Con staple can help teens and young adults overcome social anxiety. Drew Lightfoot is the clinical director of Thriveworks, a Philadelphia-based provider of mental-health services, and uses the role-playing modality to help gamers learn real-world social skills.
“When you play these games, you get to create a character with certain attributes. People put a little of themselves in it, and it creates a safe environment that lets people express themselves in a way that they might not if their name was attached to it,” Lightfoot says. If one of the chosen character traits is “charisma,” it’s easier to try and say something charismatic at a party when everything is filtered through their character or avatar. “It’s almost the same experience we have online. It’s easier to say something behind a screen name,” Lightfoot says.
While there are plenty of ways to do this online now, most people still crave real-life togetherness, too. Plus, some games use sprawling physical sets. As a result, Indy has become the mecca for entering a new world and transforming into someone different, or being yourself through pretending to be someone else.
Whatever gamers come here for, we’re here for it.