I’ve been thinking hard about how I want to approach this subject. It’s extremely important, but it’s also a little touchy, because I’m going to be talking about not enjoying things that my friends continue to enjoy. The last thing I want to do is come across as trying to persuade people to dislike something they love. I’ve explained in other contexts in the past that that’s never a useful approach.
Instead, I want to examine how expectations and priorities change how we view something – in this case conventions – and why that’s important for organizers, participants, and attendees in how they communicate about them.
I’ve been to a lot of conventions. Mostly I go to gaming conventions, but I’ve been to a few other types as well – education trade shows, anime conventions, comic conventions, and so on. Mostly I feel like I get out of it what I came for, but I have had a couple of experiences in the last few years where I definitely did not. And a lot of that was about mismanaged expectations.
Before I get into my two personal case studies, I want to talk quickly about what I see as the different types of conventions. It’s important to note that most shows have all of these things in some mixture, but the focus tends to shift towards one or two primary aspects.
This is the straight-up trade show. You’re here to buy things, often focused on a specific category or subject matter. The exhibitor hall is large, and other activities are secondary. Sometimes (as with E3), you might not necessarily be able to buy the things quite yet, but you will, and you’re here to plan your purchases.
This is the social con. The activities for the convention itself are less of a draw than the parties that surround it. This can include room parties, networking, cosplay meet-ups, and so forth. If you spend most of your time hanging out with people with little consideration for the con schedule, that’s a Gathering
This is the convention full of activities: games, panels, movies, contests, whatever. Most of the activities are on the official schedule, because everyone wants to plan their attendance and make sure they can get to the ones they want. People do the other things only when they need a break from the activities.
The Theme Park
This is the convention where you’re there to see the sights. Wondrous events or objects abound, and you just want to witness them. They might include samples of the latest video games, famous people giving autographs, or even costumed cast members performing scenes in the hallway. But you are also free to wander, because something different will probably be happening elsewhere.
The Case Studies
As I said, most conventions are a mix of these things, and that works great if a) they provide what you’re looking for and b) you know what to expect. Metatopia, for instance, is very much a Gathering wrapped around a Playground, and I knew to expect that the first time I went. I’m not normally into the Gathering part as a convention focus, but it works well in that environment. For me, the problem has arisen when the con was very specifically the opposite of what I expected. Interestingly, the expectation and reveal was similar in both cases:
Pax Unplugged (2017)
I didn’t go to the most recent PAX-U, mostly because of my experiences with the first one. There’s plenty of documentation and discussion about the issues with game and table scheduling, the problems of trying to sell RPGs to a newer audience without the ability to run consistent demo events, and the many ways that PAX’s “line culture” fails to work with RPGs. But really what it comes down to is that PAX-U did not manage audience expectations, at least not where I was concerned.
Ultimately, PAX conventions are Gatherings as their primary aspect. You’re there with a bunch of other people with a similar set of interests (mostly video games, Penny Arcade, and anything adjacent to those things). Collecting and trading pins is fun because it’s on theme. You don’t mind waiting in line for the big panels, because you can chat with other fans. The time you actually spend on officially scheduled activities is relatively low, and you’re not going to drop a ton of money on non-PA merch, but you’re hanging out with new and old friends, so it’s cool.
But for me, PAX-U tried to present itself differently. In the lead-up to the con, it seemed to be claiming it was going to be a Playground with a side of Marketplace. There was a promise that the show was devoting a ton of space to playing games. But in its scheduling, staffing, and organization, it reinforced the Gathering aspect. In comparison to other PAX shows, it’s probably accurate to say that PAX-U had more of a Playground than the others, but in comparison to other gaming conventions, it had way less. Even the people who I’ve heard talk about enjoying it (either year) did not “play a bunch of games” like they would at Origins or Gen Con. It was all about who they hung out with. And for me, that was not valuable enough to make it worthwhile.
It’s been a few years since I went to this con, but it comes up regularly in my feed because several of my friends attend, and some of them are even on the cast. TeslaCon bills itself as the “only immersion-themed steampunk convention in North America,” but the problem with that is that it sets very different expectations in my mind than it does in others.
You see, I have spent a large part of my adult life LARPing. So when you tell me that over 98% of attendees are in costume and there is an “immersive” story, I very much expect a Playground experience. I expect to be able to participate personally. But TeslaCon is actually a Theme Park. There are amazing sights and sounds (and tastes), but most of what you do is watch. Mostly, I watched other people being in character, but I could not get other attendees to engage in character with me. I even gave a panel on notable Black and Latinx figures of the American West, but the panels were sparsely attended. I had friends who were running games, but no one was playing. Most people were just there to sit passively while steampunk happened to them. For my friends in the cast, TeslaCon is a Playground, but it isn’t for me. And it isn’t for most attendees. So hearing about it in those terms always makes me uncomfortable, because I feel like other people are missing out on truly participatory experiences because they have been told that this is the most immersive a convention can get.
In both these cases, I would have had a better time even with no changes at all as long as I had known what I was getting into. I’m going to my first Star Wars Celebration this year, and I absolutely expect it to be mostly Theme Park, Gathering, and probably some Marketplace. There’s not going to be a lot of Playground. But I know that going in, and I’m prepared for it. When the discussion surrounding your event is misleading – whether intentionally or not – some people are going to be disappointed.
So be clear and intentional – What is the primary experience you want people to have, and how do you make that happen with every part of your staffing, scheduling, and space allotment? How are you serving attendees who want other aspects (or how are you accounting for their absence, if that’s on purpose)? And, most importantly, how are you communicating to people with widely different expectations so that they know exactly what you mean?
I’d love to see more conventions and other events consider these or similar elements so that they can really communicate the things that make them great. Conventions are important, and I want them to thrive, and that means finding the right audience and serving them well.