GenCon 2021: A Successful Return to In-Person Gaming

by Transmute Jun

As cons slowly begin to return, attendees are learning how events in the COVID era operate. Gen Con, held September 16-19, was one of the largest cons to return thus far, hosting 35,000 people at the Indianapolis Convention Center (half of its usual 70,000 person capacity). Gen Con is North America’s largest gaming convention, offering tabletop (board and card) games, role playing games, escape rooms, and LARPs, as well as related panels/seminars and entertainment events.

Gen Con took a balanced approach to health and safety measures. While masks were required for all attendees, vaccinations were not. There was more space to move around (particularly on the exhibit floor), but social distancing was not required (and certainly was not practical  at gaming tables). Enhanced cleaning protocols were in place (shutting down the convention center each night, so sanitizing could occur). All of the attendees who spoke with FoCC Blog felt that this compromised approach was reasonable, and everyone stated that it was as close to a ‘normal’ Gen Con as they could have imagined. Everyone had been well informed as to what was (and was not) required before the con, so there were no surprises to anyone who had been paying attention to Gen Con’s numerous pre-show announcements. 

Of course, it wasn’t a normal year. Large event organizers (notably, True Dungeon and Paizo) decided only to offer virtual events (Gen Con online occurred concurrently with the in-person event, for those who were unable to attend). The show did not make use of the connected Lucas Oil stadium (which was actually being used to host NFL games to sold out crowds). Additionally, some major vendors were missing from the exhibit floor. However, Gen Con staff did an amazing job filling in these holes, providing attendees with good alternatives. For every exhibitor who was not present, new vendors (many of whom had been on a waiting list for years) were accepted, all of them excited to be at their first Gen Con ever.  This being said, there was a small proportion (5%?) of booths on the exhibit floor which had exhibitor signs, but were empty (presumably exhibitors who had decided at the last minute not to attend). 

The attendee base was different this year as well. Due to travel restrictions,  there were very few (if any) international attendees. Additionally, FoCC Blog found that many of the people with whom they spoke were first time attendees (all having a terrific time).

While there were proportionately fewer events, nearly every table was accepting generic tickets, and attendees quickly learned that if they crashed games they wanted, they were likely to be able to join. Additionally, Gen Con provided a massive Open Gaming section in Hall A, where independent game masters (GMs) set up shop. Before the con, many attendees were complaining (online) that there were not enough events, but during the con itself, everyone with whom FoCC Blog spoke was happy.

Gen Con staffer Mike Boozer stated that before the con, the staff had been worried about mask compliance, and conflict that might arise from attendees refusing to follow the masking rules. However, a clear messaging campaign before and during the con apparently worked; as of Saturday afternoon, Gen Con staff had not been informed of any incidents regarding attendees not wearing masks (i.e. nothing escalated to security). While most attendees did not want to wear masks, there seemed to be universal agreement that it was a small price to pay to be able to be at the con. Additionally, while masks were required in the convention center, they were not required in the attached hotels (except in rooms being used for official Gen Con events) or at the Gen Con Block Party (outdoors, on Georgia Street), so there was plenty of opportunity for attendees to take mask breaks if they needed to do so.

The city of Indianapolis was clearly happy to see the return of Gen Con as well, as were the hotel and restaurant staff in the downtown area.

Overall, Gen Con was a successful return to in-person gaming, and attendees are already looking forward to Gen Con 2022, to be held August 4-7.

Did you attend Gen Con 2021? Join the conversation on the FoCC forums!

Transmute Jun

Transmute Jun has an addiction to pop culture conventions, and attends as many as she can each year. When she's not traveling, she likes to stay at home reading a good book, playing a video game, or binge-watching a TV show. She can be bribed with pizza, Coke Zero and Belgian milk chocolate.

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