Daughter of Convention: The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Con

It’s a rarely disputed fact among the geek contingent that conventions, by and large, are a kind of rite of passage. (If you haven’t gotten the convention achievement, you really should get on that, by the way.) And what’s not to love? There are as many conventions these days as there are fandoms, all across the United States and Europe and beyond, of all sizes and flavors. Like gaming? There’s PAX and GenCon. Prefer literature? Try WorldCon or World Fantasy Con. Want to go the fandom route? There’s always Comic-Con (in various incarnations) and Dragon*Con, just to name a few.

For the uninitiated, though, especially those outside the geek world, conventions can be altogether overwhelming and even a little frightening. Heck, they frighten me sometimes. But if by approaching any convention with an open mind and, probably most importantly an open schedule, I’m of a mind that nearly anyone can have a good time. The bigger the convention the less likely you’re going to get everything done as you’d like, so a certain amount of flexibility goes a very long way. Chances are, if you don’t see your favorite author there’s something else going on.

Still, there’s room for criticism and for change. Exhausting and overwhelming as conventions can be, I’m still a big fan. But at the same time I’ve become aware that many of the things I truly love about conventions I also can’t stand. So I’m in a bit of a paradoxical situation here. Let me show you what I mean:

The Crowds

The good: Having recently returned from Dragon*Con, one of the largest east coast conventions, I can speak to this rather well. The crowds are amazing. There is something altogether glorious about that many geeks descending on one city. I love watching regular people espy our Darth Vader costumes and who-the-hell-knows-what costumes, their minds absolutely blown and having no context whatsoever. I love meeting new people and feeling a part of something that has a real impact. It gives me quite the shiny geeky feeling.

The bad: That said, crowds can be managed well and they can be managed badly. I went to three conventions this year, and the best crowd control goes to PAX: East, hands down. Sorry, Dragon*Con, but even with new skyways to different hotels, the crowds were out of control. Not just out of control, but I found people to be generally less courteous. Sure, it might have something to do with the heat and having to wait forever for their pre-registration passes, but still. The excitement of seeing the geek throng really faded away quickly this year in light of the bad crowd control. Not to mention the questionable hygiene and a sense of general unfriendliness in some cases by both attendees and volunteers.

The Costumes

The good: People spending time making costumes that absolutely blow your mind. Getting to walk around in costume feeling like you’re projecting the spirit of Mal Reynolds for the whole convention to see. Watching ensemble costumes come together; enjoying costume contests. These are all good things. Especially at fan conventions, the costumes come with the territory. It just wouldn’t be the same without them, and I look forward to them every year.

The bad: At Dragon*Con this year I noticed two rather curious trends. Now, typically I go around during the day in regular clothes; I cover these conventions for various blogs, and I save the costuming for when I’m not “on the clock” per se. But I noticed a whole lot more people this year at Dragon*Con who were simply not in costume. At any point. In years past I always felt a little out of place in street clothes, especially considering there are folks who practically wake up in their Superman costumes and walk around the Hyatt at 9am looking for coffee. But that just wasn’t the case this time around.

The second trend is simply this: the slutty costume. This is not a fan costume of any sort. It’s simply a person—or group of people—dressed in little else than pasties and bodypaint, parading around the convention trying to get attention. It’s not that I’m opposed to people dressing as they want. That’s their choice, not mine. But this is a science fiction and fantasy convention. It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of slutty character costumes and subcultures to choose from! Walking around half naked doesn’t count.That’s just being cheap.

The Programming

The good: OMG! When else do you ever get to see this kind of programming? Whether it’s live D&D with the Penny Arcade contingent or a panel with Stan Lee, conventions have you covered. That’s sort of the draw: bringing you closer to your heroes than you’ve ever been before. And when you can get in to see them, it can, for some, be as profound as a religious experience (or as disappointing as losing your faith in other cases when that hero of yours just doesn’t measure up in person).

The bad: Bad panels. Long lines. Overbooked rooms. Last minute rescheduling that you just didn’t get. There’s nothing so disappointing as dropping some sincere cash, spending time traveling, organizing everything to the best of your abilities, and not getting to see that panel you wanted to. While some conventions are pretty good about scheduling multiple panels, like Dragon*Con, others aren’t so good. If you miss it, you miss it. Or you’re at the mercy of powers above you and just aren’t informed. That’s not really fair.

All in all there seems to be a trend toward the mainstream in conventions, which I think explains some of these issues. Maybe all of geekdom is going more mainstream; it has been argued as such. But while that will bring along its own set of issues, I think it’s important that people keep in mind what makes conventions successful in the first place. Mutual respect—for fans, for guests, for volunteers—is a great place to start. Then add some common courtesy, a dash of “don’t be a dick”, and stir well with a heap of good fun. See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Tell us about your good and bad convention experiences this year. What conventions can’t you miss? What was your first convention?

[Image CC by vladeb via Flickr]

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