Updated Sept 5th, 2010 at 7:02pm – thanks to all of you who have contributed to the discussion!
It’s the Sunday morning of Dragon*Con 2010 and I’m spending my morning recuperating from having walked 5 or 6 miles around the East Coast’s fan-driven answer to Comic-Con yesterday. I woke up thinking about how much my beloved nerdfest has changed over the past five years and thought that I’d jot down some notes for later discussions with my friends who are also attending this year.
Truth is, I suppose the old girl has been changing ever since I first started going in the late 1980s, but lately it’s becoming hard to see what first made me fall in love with Dragon*Con. During a stopover at Trader Vic’s I participated in an impromptu panel called “Dragon*Con Might Just Suck” regarding how this year’s convention has been particularly lackluster. My fellow panelists Carl, Joseph and Timmy made some very good points and I’m distilling that conversation into the following five points:
- Invasion by Non-Fans
- Economy & Events
- Social Networks
Before I elaborate on what the ‘con has become, let me say that I’ve come to know a lot of the people who volunteer at the convention. These people have become my friends and without them the event would collapse under its own weight. I’ve known the convention’s Director, Pat Henry, since the mid 1980s (it was at Pat’s comic book shop that I found the contest flier for the Batman competition that I won back in 1988) and I have nothing untoward to say about him or the Dragon*Con staff. They all bust their asses to make this thing happen and I appreciate it. What follows is simply an evaluation of the experience of the event from a long-time attendee’s perspective.
Invasion by Non-Fans
Is the “social order” of the convention in jeopardy?
The “invasion” of the convention by non-fans is the most obvious challenge the event is facing and it has drastically diminished the quality of my own experiences there. The thing that made Dragon*Con so special, that makes any science fiction/fantasy convention so special, is that the rest of the “real” world goes away for a weekend; you’re in a safe habitat, surrounded by your fellow Fans. Even if you’re not fans of the same comicbook/movie/book/game/etc, there’s still a very special language that all true nerds share, be they gamer, costumer, Trekkie, comicbook geek, horror fan, etc, etc
Over the last five years the rest of Atlanta (the non-fan element) has discovered that the best party of Labor Day weekend is at Dragon*Con and as a result they’ve invaded the convention in sufficiently large numbers as to make the costume-to-person ratio ridiculously low. I can’t tell you how many young punks and urban hipsters I saw running around like they were in Disneyland, eyes agog, drinks in hand. Joseph remarked that: “At least 50% of the people I see here at DragonCon dont even have a badge.”
It looked like most of East Atlanta Village had crashed the party (I personally knew more than 10 people who were there without badges). Added to the mix were a bunch of drunken football fans who were in town to see the game between LSU and North Carolina… Dragon*Con costumers became playthings for them. I was personally accosted by a drunken brunette who kept grabbing at my costumed face and yelling farm-bred hoots which must pass for verbal communication at her chosen “college”.
So how did we get here?
From around 2005 onward I began hearing longtime con-attendees openly asking why the convention continued to advertise on local radio and television. The feeling was that every fan within 500 miles had the ‘con noted on their calendars and circled in their hearts. The crowds were already getting too big, the hotel security staffs were becoming militant, the Fire Marshal was coming off like a bully and as a result the event was suffering.
Bigger, it was felt, was only better for the convention’s coffers, not the for fan’s experience.
The Dragon*Con Parade
I love the Dragon*Con parade. Our cardboard troopers became celebrities because of the parade and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a great big high to have thousands of people screaming and taking your picture. But this celebration of Dragon*Con’s famed costume element is a double-edged sword. As word of the parade spread throughout Atlanta the crowds grew larger every year. Where those crowds once dispersed back to whence they came after the parade had ended, leaving the convention to the “true fans”, we now find the convention hotels loaded to the gills with aggressive suburbanites armed with cameras and ready to party down while making relentless fun of all the “nerds”.
This isn’t the convention I was looking for.
Another factor which must certainly have affected this year’s convention is the documentary “Four Days at Dragon*Con” which has been running in what passes for heavy rotation on WPBA, Atlanta’s local public broadcasting station. I think a lot of Dragon*Con attendees were excited to see this presentation because it allowed us to say “Look, Comic-Con, we’re as important as you guys.”
Unfortunately, I believe that this documentary may have bolstered the “outsider” interest in our convention, at least in the short run.
In the end, regardless of what brought them to Dragon*Con, non-fans don’t understand or appreciate what really happens at the convention. They have no understanding of the programming that occurs in the bowels of the Hyatt. They don’t know what filking is. They don’t know about The Masquerade. They don’t know who Dawn is, or of the subtle irony that her talented creator is an overweight male version of his own goddess character. They don’t know about Pie. They haven’t watched Trek fandom wane as the Star Wars fandom grew, or that the steampunk movement is beginning to overshadow both of those franchises. These “outsiders” have no idea that the dealer’s room exists or why it is made of awesome for so many fans.
The gatecrashers just come to drink and gawk and enjoy “Nerdi Gras”.
With as many badgeless attendees as I encountered yesterday I can’t help but think that Dragon*Con (the company) might be experiencing a sag in revenue this year, which takes me to our next point….
Economy & Events
Fans face many events with limited resources
While queuing up for this year’s parade it was quite apparent that there was a significantly-reduced turnout for the 501st, the Imperial Stormtroopers from Star Wars. The reason for this was that the Lucasfilm-sponsored convention called Celebration was held in Orlando, Florida, two weeks prior to Dragon*Con, shredding the bankroll of a good many Star Wars fans.
Our friend Bob, known in Star Wars circles as Vader Painter, told me that like many of his fellow Star Wars fans, his Dragon*Con budget for this year had been made razor thin in the wake of Star Wars Celebration, and that he wasn’t alone in that. You needn’t be a financial genius to realize that the fragile personal economies of many of our hardcore sci-fi/fantasy fans continue to suffer in this relentless recession.
And like Celebration, there are other events that clamor for the discretionary dollars of fandom: gaming conventions, renaissance festivals, comic book conventions, animation conventions, pirate festivals (I host one called PiratePalooza every year and recently started up Cardboard*Con this past March), toy fairs, horror conventions, the list goes on and on… and a dollar only stretches so far.
Social networks are ruling our actions
Carl and Foe asserted that Social Networks, specifically Facebook, have played a role in diminishing the excitement of the convention. Prior to Facebook our convention friends’ lives remained a bit of a mystery to us and so part of the fun of ‘con would be spent catching up on what had changed in their lives since the year before. Familiarity via Facebook isn’t necessarily breeding contempt, but it is certainly robbing us of the need for face-to-face communication and that’s at least worth a smack on the forehead.
Maybe we’ve seen so much of each other online that we have no patience left for each other in person?
To that point, Timmy pointed out that a lot of people have their noses buried in their smartphones now, walking past super heroes and vikings and cardboard troopers so that they can post things on their friends’ walls or send a text message. My friend Juliana railed at fellow fans who were live-tweeting a panel, their faces buried in their screens, instead of being there in the moment to listen to the actors discuss the show. It’s like going to a concert and then watching the video screen the entire time.
That’s how addicted to our social networks we’ve become… and I’m as guilty as the next person in this regard.
I suppose our new reality is unavoidably augmented these days?
Remember when you were a teenager? Transitions can be ugly.
As Joseph said, “Dragon*Con is a large con that’s operated as if it’s a small con.”
If you get to thinking about it, it’s a miracle that Dragon*Con has been able to handle 30,000+ people per day without a major incident during this decade’s growth spurt. This unlauded success required boatloads of dedication and energy from a volunteer workforce. Now increase the size of the crowd you’re trying to control and try to anticipate the problems that you’re going to encounter.
With a volunteer staff numbering less than 200 and a guesstimated 2010 crowd size of well over 50,000 people you’re looking at an assignment of at least 250 attendees to every volunteer (some of whom grab their staff badges and then go AWOL).
[NOTE this article has attracted a lot of conversation today and several people who work on staff were kind enough to post replies and send messages correcting my understanding of staffing numbers cited in the previous paragraph. The main point is that my numbers were far too low in regard to the number of people working staff. BrundelFly commented that “I’m a 7th year staffer at D*Con, and it’s important to know that there is significantly more than 200 folks on staff. 200 individuals compose the volunteer staff of our technical operations department alone. In total there’s over 1,250 folks on staff. I know this still might seem low, but a 1/50 ratio is MUCh better than a 1/1000!”. So, my apologies to the staff for my ignorance (I blame the fatigue I was experiencing from the previous day of tromping through hotels in cardboard armor). My suggestion to folks just arriving to this conversation is to make sure to read the comments for more viewpoints on this topic…. now back to the article…]
Looking westward, a question hangs heavy in the air: “When will Dragon*Con put on her big girl panties?”
When will the convention ramp up their staffing and hire professionals to operate the ticket lines? When will it hire crowd control experts and maximize the experience for its patrons. Notice that I’m not asking IF, I’m asking WHEN. This would seem to be the only logical step an event of this size could make to wrest control back from the situation it’s in.
The question is whether the con should, as my friend Tony suggested, move the blasted thing to the Georgia World Congress Center, away from the lookie-loos and gate crashers. This scenario would put the con into an entry-controlled space where only badgeholders would be allowed, but in the process it would likely diminish the party atmosphere that the convention has enjoyed for the past decade, forcing many mobility-impaired fans to endure countless shuttle trips or long walks between the hotels and the convention spaces. It’s certainly not a favored option, and it smacks too much of Comic-Con which is the soulless, Hollywood-shilling black sheep cousin of Dragon*Con.
Wouldn’t it be a better experience to stay put and identify then resolve the problems experienced this year? (maybe we could ask the entire floor of gamers to strategize the potential issues the con might face, from actresses storming out of panels to attendees falling off of balconies, to Mecha-Godzilla eating the Hyatt)
I don’t know if a paid army will fight with the heart of a volunteer army, but this change does seem inevitable.
Been there, done that
We humans are funny beasties: without change we get bored, with too much change we’re beset by nostalgia.
I’ve been going to science fiction conventions since the mid 1980s (shout out to DixieTrek!) and in that time I’ve witnessed and participated in more crazy and wonderfully hysterical antics than I could ever hope to remember or set down to paper. I’ve been astonished at people’s costuming creativity, been blown away by the unexpected (like the animated film AKIRA in its original Japanese, sans English subtitles), reduced to tears of laughter by the inventive heckling that used to happen in the Masquerade, delighted by late night video shows and unexpected role playing situations. Over the years I’ve met so many bright and shiny minds and made so many new and creative friends.
This year was different. I didn’t have a “zoo crew” to hang out with and that was good, I needed a break and a chance to stand back and experience the convention on my own again. My first thought going into this year’s convention was that I was becoming like the character Louis in Interview with the Vampire; tired of life, tired of Dragon*Con. But, even with the systemic problems the convention is experiencing, and my feeling that there’s nothing new under the ‘Con, in the clear light of day I remembered that the experience of Dragon*Con isn’t made up of the events or the guests or the hotels, but of the people who are there.
The best memories of the convention are the ones that you make with your friends.
Now let’s get out there and be weird.