Dice are nice: The growth of gaming as revealed by Gen Con 2010

A few weeks ago I returned from an occasionally annual pilgrimage to the game convention Gen Con, the self-professed “Best Four Days in Gaming.”

I like this kind of hyperbole, and am not inclined to disagree.

Gen Con, held each year in Indianapolis, is a four-color wonderland of dice and decks and divertissements of every nerdi-cultural stripe. In 1968, it was little more than a wargamer’s coffee klatch, but was soon taken over by the 300-lb. gorilla of gaming: Dungeons and Dragons. D&D, the great grandaddy of role-playing games, is still around, still going strong, and while it is still a central pillar of the proceedings, the scope of the Gen Con each year is a far, far bigger thing than it has ever been before.

The convention floor, which is just a fraction of the total real estate devoted to tables and tables and tables of gaming. (Photo by Tim D.)

I love it, and I think I love it a little bit more each time I go. I’m on record as being a pretty big advocate for games, not only as a laugh-filled timekiller but as a way to reconnect with family and friends, and to teach fundamental mental skills to young ones (or buff them up for adults).

My affection for Gen Con itself has taken some time to blossom, though. Gaming used to have a not-entirely-undeserved reputation as the bastion of large, pasty basement-dwellers with bad B.O. That was certainly an impression I got when I visited my first Gen Con in Milwaukee circa 2001. More than once did my nose intake a human scent that can only be described as “ripe.” Odors are a pretty rotten way to make an impression, but a great way to shoot your hobby in the foot.

But look at that image above. The mind boggles. Gaming has gotten so much bigger and more diverse since the days of swine and odors. The crowds are as eclectic as the games and hobbies represented within. It’s a bazaar of nerd culture, a glorious melting pot of people who like using their brains to have fun. My friends are tired of me going on about it, but the hobby really is becoming like comics: a once-marginal pastime seen as mildly toxic to mainstream grown-up types, but which is now enjoyed openly and unironically by a host of humanity. And for good reason. Gaming, like comics, is a fun and rewarding way to spend time, if you take the time to pair yourself with a match that’s right for you.

Let’s be clear about what “gaming” means in the context of this swell of popularity — because no matter how huge this looks, it’s still just a subset of a subset of the global population. This demographic of “gamers” who “game” may suggest all pastimes involving tables, dice and friends, but it’s more specific than that. Like Gen Con, the hobby generally excludes Monopoly, the Game of Life, Jenga and most of the other famous family games of my youth. There are many reasons for this:

* Snobbery. Let’s call a spade a spade. Those big-name games have crossed over into the main mainstream and are no longer cool. Such snobbery is true for fans of indie bands and indie movies, why not for indie games, too? Excluding collectible hobbies like Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering, a game found at Wal-Mart is more than likely going to earn a turned-up nose from a gamer. (Not that gamers wouldn’t mind large retailers selling their favorite games at huge discounts. But those games only appeal to a subset of a subset, remember, and truthfully I think a lot of gamers enjoy the guilty pleasure of geek elitism.) Besides, some of those games already have an insular culture that is so devoted to itself, it doesn’t welcome the outside distraction of more gamers. Take Scrabble, for instance.

* Intellectual rigor. No matter how you slice it, Trouble truly lacks the same mental discipline as, say, a six-hour recreation of the Battle of Smolensk. Risk begins to straddle this gap: approachable enough for a mass audience, while being just on the outer edge of the number of rules and hours the masses are willing to face to play a game. As a result, Risk is sometimes represented on the show floor, if only for nostalgia’s sake; many a gamer would prefer Risk’s super-charged cousin, “Axis & Allies.”

* Tactics. Hard-core gamers favor tactics over luck. Sure, luck (i.e., dice and cards) plays a big part in many gamers’ games, but usually it is balanced in some measure by a player’s planning, turn by turn. (Whereas Monopoly, for example, is 90% about where you land.)

* Strategy. Some games reward forethought as far in advance as the hours and days before you even sit down at the table, from improvements to a D&D character’s power set, drafting the right commanders for your WWII panzer regiment, or making sure Pikachu has an ample supply of support cards to make his ginormous zap attack.

* Story. Not everything at a game convention  weaves a narrative into its gameplay. Often a game is just an abstract series of decisions and lucky breaks that results in a winner — but not always. And what truly great gamers’ games have is an ability to call upon the imagination, and to ask us to invest a little more of ourselves than just a roll of the bones.

I consider myself a gamer because I support all those tenets. (Even, yes, the snobbery one — though not because I want to exclude people. Quite the opposite, I would love it if the rest of the world joined me in my enthusiasm for brainy, time-consuming, chin-stroking games. I just don’t hold out hope for that. Nearly 20% of my fellow countrymen believe our leader is a secret Muslim, despite every verifiable fact to the contrary here in the “Information Age.” So yeah, I’m a little down on how willing we humans are to use the brains God gave us.)

I found a lot to satisfy my gamer requirements at this year’s Gen Con. Next post, I’ll walk through the things I saw and did and bought that make my inner gamer feel like a pair of boxcars.

(If you’re interested in learning more about what makes a gamer tick, visit a community of them at Board Game Geek — be careful, it’s almost impenetrable to a newbie — or sample one of the reviews of gaming guru Tom Vasel, who deconstructs games for a broader audience better than anyone I’ve read.)

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