My continuing quest to explore all things geek meant jumping right in with both feet; a hazing, if you will, as I explained elsewhere. What better way than a major convention?
Now, as I was a neophyte in the ways of the cons, I didn’t entirely know what to expect. I did some research, sure, but a lot of information out there was specific to some aspect of this or that convention, like the guest line-up, attendance numbers, merchandise, and so forth. A lot of Who and Where and When, but not a lot of What.
The result is that a lot of what I ‘knew’ about conventions was based on portrayals in popular media and some limited hearsay. You can imagine how accurate my mental picture.
So to begin my reporting from my experience at Dragon Con 2013, here is…
5 Top Misconceptions About Cons vs. The Reality Of Cons
The Misconception: Hardcore Geeks Show Up In Costume.
Simple enough. People in costume (also known as cosplay or cosplaying) are a well-known feature of conventions. Most of the pictures you will see accompanying ANY report on cons will be people in costume. If there is one thing people on the ‘outside’ associate with these events it is that a dedicated group of fans will show up in cosplay to the delight (or horror) of the other attendees. They’ll stand in some designated picture-taking spot and pose all day while the rest of the fans go to various exhibits and vendors.
The Reality: Everyone Shows Up In Costume.
A little hyperbolic, but the sheer density of people in costume was one of my bigger surprises. I guess I assumed that people cosplaying are one of the few interesting things that you can photograph at a convention; ergo, people in costume are over-represented in any kind of media coverage.
I figured it was similar to reporting on tornado victims in the South: Tornadoes devastate without regard to socioeconomic status, but without fail the news will interview the thickest-accented person they can find at any affected trailer park, until eventually the two ideas conflate in our minds and we suspect tornadoes actively seek out Confederate flags and unstable structures to vent their wrath.
But I was wrong. Costumes are not just a big deal, they might be the big deal. It was weird for a bit to be sure; outside of specific entertainment fields you probably aren’t surrounded by costumes daily. It doesn’t take long for it to cease being weird, though. The fact that other people don’t treat it that way is probably a big part of this, too. You pick up on social cues without realizing it, and when a certain behavior is not just tolerated but accepted and encouraged it tilts your own perspective on that behavior. At least as long as you are surrounded by those cues; if I go to the bank next week and the guy in front of me is dressed as Spider-Man, it will resume being weird.
I honestly felt a little out of place sometimes by NOT being in a costume. It was not unlike showing up to an event in business casual and finding everyone else in suit and tie. Or like going trick-or-treating in street clothes. I took a lot of pictures of people in costume, and I sometimes felt like I was ripping them off by not being in costume myself; seeing people in normal clothes gets to be a bit of a let-down. Once you adapt to the idea of costumes being this huge outpouring of creativity and humor—rather than some kind of divergent/extreme behavior—the hunt for the next great cosplay or humorous twist or obscure reference becomes a full-time game.
Now I don’t want to misrepresent things; I would bet at least a simple majority of people were not in costume. But you start looking right through them like any faces in a crowd until the costumed people are all that you really ‘see.’ People are excited to see costumes, and those in good ones are constantly chatting with people about how they did this or that, or posing for pictures, or gushing over impressive cosplay that other people are wearing. If you like people-watching, this is your Mecca.
Fittingly, there are a ton of panels on how to do various costuming tasks, whether that’s pulling off a certain style (like Steampunk) or learning how to do some basic leather-working. They’re predictably popular.
The Misconception: Geekdom Is Ruled By The White Loser Male
Of course most of us know this is inaccurate already; we’ve seen enough to the contrary to believe that every attendee fits the old stereotype. But anyone who has been on XBOX Live or heard any of the endless lampoons of it has to assume that geeks (gamers anyway) are as bigoted and misogynistic a group as has ever existed. Even if the social makeup of geekdom is changing, you have to figure that ground is giving slowly, and that social misfit men are still a disproportionately large percent of the con’s populace. Certainly some of the more extreme displays of fandom will be dominated by this demographic. Anyone else will be a bit of an outsider, a novelty. Right?
The Reality: Geekdom Embraces All
It doesn’t take long to realize that convention culture is incredibly accepting. I suppose it has to be. Any public place where Furries can walk around without drawing a second look has pretty much hit critical mass for tolerance, and the demographics bear this out.
No, it’s not a perfect cross-section of the public, but if you think women or minorities or LGBT folks (or all three!) are going to be a rare sight then you will be disappointed. I didn’t conduct a survey that would stand up to scientific rigor or anything, but I’m fairly positive that there were more women in costume than men, an impression my sisters share. The genders actually seemed fairly even, though if it was a 55-45 split I wouldn’t be surprised.
Different panels attracted different demographic makeups, though, and I will say that it did seem like white males made up a noticeable majority of the various guest speakers. This may simply be a reflection of the industry professionals being out of sync with the fandom and the larger population, a hold-over from decades past. After all, most of them are invited because they are experts or long members of the community; it would make sense if they reflected an earlier demographic composition. Am I wrong?
What was under-represented were certain age ranges. There were scattered younger children (6 and under was free), but understandably not a lot of parents wanted to brave the madness with young ones. However, children almost disappear from age 6 up until probably about 14 or 15, which seemed really odd. Maybe they were all somewhere else and I just never saw them. Also under-represented were the elderly (but certainly not UNrepresented), who may also not have the desire to wade through the madness.
The only thing I never saw represented at all? The ‘group’ that I fall into: photographers. Or, rather, photographers with pro gear who are likely pros. Not once the whole weekend did I see a single female with pro gear; it was always males, and—interestingly—always people in street clothes. Now lots of people had cameras, and of course everyone has a phone that can take pictures (and they did), but people willing to carry 10+ pounds of ‘real’ gear around? Only guys. Strange.
Now, somewhat related to misconceptions about demographics…
The Misconception: Geekdom Is The Refuge Of The Ugly Or Awkward
Okay, fine, geeks come in every shape and color, so long as those color-shapes are offensive to the eyes and good society. Geekdom is what you fall back on if you fail at being popular. All that fantasy and sci-fi is really just an escape from your own disappointing existence, where you can’t get the attention of your crush, get skipped over for promotions at work, and are the person everyone regrets sitting next to on the plane. If you aren’t the acne-riddled guy who’s twice his recommended weight, then you’re the girl who is so far out of the in-crowd that the aforementioned guy is the best you can hope for and you geek it up just to get his attention.
I realize that this is a superficial thing all told, but it is certainly one of the most pervasive impressions of geeks and geekery. I would even go so far as to suspect that it is fear of being associated with this stereotype that keeps a lot of people from trying out pastimes or entertainment considered to be the domain of geeks. Just go enter ‘geek’ into a stock photo website if you are unclear. If you are a self-confessed geek, yet look like you belong in the in-crowd or the sorority or a model spread, then the next assumption is that there must be something weird going on with your personality.
The Reality: Geekdom Is Beating The Curve
Spending 5 minutes in the Marriott Marquis (Dragon Con’s epicenter) might change your concept of what a geek ‘looks like’ forever. I’m not trying to say that geeks are all models or anything (but yes, there were plenty who would qualify), but I guarantee they’re beating the pants off your local Wal-Mart. Yeah, okay, that’s setting the bar low, but in most places I’d wager they’d beat the pants off the local mall, too.
Sure, there are the people you are ‘expecting’ to see that conform to the stereotype. But this is the South, where the obesity rate is around 30% in nearly every state; the obesity rate of Dragon Con was certainly less than that. If you brought aliens down and showed them Dragon Con’s population and then a cross-section of the general population, they would insist we somehow got the stereotypes backward.
Perhaps this is nothing more than a result of socioeconomic class. This is not a cheap event, and I daresay Dragon Con’s population as a whole is also on the high side of the economic bell curve (as well as the looks and intelligence curves…holy crap, why are people avoiding geek??). Wealth and health correlate strongly, after all.
As to how con-goers comported themselves socially? I guess we’d suspect that even if they are wall-flowers in social situations with more popular types they might relax a bit in the presence of their own kind. That may be, and there certainly is a sense that people are being themselves more than they usually can. But you don’t grow social skills overnight, nor do you forget how they work the day after. Not once did I have a situation where someone couldn’t make conversation, or wasn’t engaging or personable or pleasant. And full disclosure: I am NOT the easiest person to talk to or the most conversationally savvy, so I wasn’t picking up anyone’s slack. The only communication break-downs I experienced at all were with the some of the staff of the hotels (only some, most were excellent and professional), who should be more ‘normal’ than us geeks, right?
Again, I don’t mean to misrepresent; there are some downright quirky folks at this thing. But you will have difficulty naming any gathering at any level of society that doesn’t have its own eccentrics. Heck, Hollywood is the gold standard for popularity and trends, and they’ve got more weird personalities per capita than a traveling circus.
The Misconception: Major Events Price-Gouge With Impunity
I’ve been to football games. I’ve been to concerts. I’ve been to Disney World. I know how it works. You have a captive audience, they paid to get in, and they aren’t going to waste the time they paid for by leaving for food or drinks or other necessities. So you sell that stuff at prices that would make a movie theater blush, gleefully humming “Master Of The House” from Les Mis as you line your cat’s litterbox with Benjamins and nerd-tears.
The Reality: So Reasonable It’s Not Even Interesting To Write About
But I will. Our tickets for the whole 4-day event cost $115; it’s a bit more at the door. If I bought my ticket for next year right now, it would be $65. Our rate on the hotel was $60/night LESS than the normal rate, using a hotel affiliated with the convention. It’s the hotels themselves selling the food/drinks, so it’s certainly more than a grocery store price, but quite reasonable considering. $2 for a coke. $4 for a hamburger. Alcohol was a bit more but duh.
Even the vendors got in on the action, many of them offering their online prices rather than their storefront prices. This in spite of them having to pay a good bit to have vendor space at all. It’s really the hotel stay for out-of-towners that ramps the cost up. Atlanta is still a major city, and parking anywhere near the place would be nightmarish and waste valuable time, so you bite the bullet on a centrally located hotel, and walk or take public transit. After that it comes down to how much self-restraint you have when faced with all the goodies the vendors are hawking. Or to what extent you get your drink on.
The Misconception: Geeks Are A Quiet, Reserved, Bookish Lot
The most excitement you can hope for out of 50,000 nerds and geeks is some well-mannered frivolity. Perhaps a spirited debate over the merits of the captaining styles of one Kirk versus one Picard might raise some voices and blood pressure. Listening to lectures and calmly viewing film screenings are the order of the day, and the only increased heart rates come from those eagerly clutching some new piece of memorabilia they just liquidated a CD to purchase. If there’s any music playing–wait, do nerds even like music? Is there a stereotype for this? Both thrash-metal and string concertos seem like they could apply…somehow.
Well, the main thing is that whatever else their merits, geeks stay home on Friday night for a reason.
The Reality: Geeks Can Frakking Party
Yeah, so, if you’ve ever been to a Halloween party as an adult or—better yet—a dance club on any costume night, then you might already have a sense of what kind of atmosphere the con turns into as evening draws on. During each of the three nights of the con there are several themed parties going on, from as early as 8:30pm to as late as 4am. There’s usually several simultaneous ones, so you can hop between them for a change of scene. The ‘theme’ part really just seems to attract more costumers of that particular property’s aesthetic. For example, the ‘Last Night On Alderaan’ party is Star Wars themed, so it was a dance floor packed full of Stormtroopers and Slave Leias, and instead of the glow-sticks of a usual rave people simply had lightsabers, and so forth.
I don’t know whether it’s that people cut loose more easily when they’re in the ultra-accepting atmosphere of the con, or if it’s the fantasy-like addition of costuming that ramps the temperature up, but the energy of the parties and indeed the whole con is quite palpable. The parties can be dense with people (some hit their fire code limit of 2,200 repeatedly, for reference), and body heat and pounding music and costumes that are various state of undress and low light and bartenders close at hand and…you get the idea. Did I mention that all this is taking place inside hotels, too? Under hundreds of handy hotel rooms? Okay then.
Dance circles will also break out spontaneously all over the place, and several people make it part of their schtick to carry around a boom box and try to get ad hoc parties going wherever they wander. Even if it’s outside on the street between buildings, to the chagrin of the constabulary.
Truthfully, the intensity of the con itself is like its own force, and it’s addicting. Believe me, I am usually quite allergic to crowds. We were in a constant state of being too tired to think straight, and yet struggled to ever break away for the evening. Only the fear of missing the last train would overwrite our hesitancy to depart. Then we would shower, crash, and get up 5 hours later to do it all again.
To say that experiencing a thing is far different than merely studying it is so obvious I cringe to write it, but there it is. When we learn any aspect of an event through the lens of others we trust their account only as much as we trust them. When you remove the filter of another, though, there is no skepticism about the veracity of the experience. Witnessing with all five senses makes an impression that cannot otherwise be replicated. Or, to put it another way:
A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.
I can’t speak for every convention, but I don’t think my experience was singular. If you—like me—like some geeky things but think that a convention is ‘too far,’ then I suggest trying it out for at least a day. It’s not like they are going to reject you, which for a lot of us is more than we can say about the relationships that we do place value on.
I look forward to continuing to unpack my mind and relate my first convention experiences over the coming weeks. It’s not the same as being there yourself obviously, but if you’ve never been to anything like this, then maybe I’ll be something of a window into an unknown realm that you can view at a safe distance.
Final thought: Less than 24 hours into our experience, my sisters and I ceased using the word “if” to refer to any future attendance.