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Gen Con through the ages

Gen Con, which tickets itself as being “the largest annual consumer fantasy, electronic, sci-fi, and adventure game convention in North America”, is celebrating its 50th convention this year in the summer of 2017. Being held in the Indiana convention center, the “Best Four Days in Gaming!” ™ currently boasts over 16,000 scheduled, ticketed events and more than 500 exhibitors at its 2017 convention in Indianapolis. How did it get to where it is though? Where did this hobbyist gathering start?

Gen Con started humbly as an informal gathering of about a dozen people who all decided to celebrate wargames and other board games in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin instead of making the journey to the official wargames convention being held in Marlvern, Pennsylvania. The gathering was hosted in the house of the founder of the newly formed International Federation of Wargaming, Gary Gygax who would later go on to be known as “The Father of Role-Playing Games” for his role as the creator of the popular tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons.

After hosting the first Gen Con (Lake Geneva Convention), Gygax decided that his house would not make for the best venue if he wanted the event to grow, so he rented out the Lake Geneva Horticultural Hall Where the attendance increased to about 60 people. As the attendance numbers steadily grew, the convention had to eventually move to the Milwaukee Exposition & Convention Center & Arena in 1985.

The convention came to focus on tabletop roleplaying games like Gygax’s own Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as well as other card games and board games. This focus made the event the center of a cultural misunderstanding wherein conservative religious groups claimed that the game corrupted the minds of the youth, turning them into cultists, Satan worshipers, and amoral punks. This view was helped by B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons), a group started by a mother who was convinced that her son committed suicide because he was cursed during a game of D&D. Soon comics were being produced like the now infamous Dark Dungeons depicting how a doe-eyed girl gets ensnared by the occult evils of role-playing games only to be saved by Jesus.

The resultant backlash against Dungeons & Dragons helped to fuel a kind of rebel attitude in the role-playing community, helping to boost attendance from 5,000 in 1985 the year after the above comic was published to 10,000 just four years later in 1989. Gen Con continued to flourish as the hobby gained more traction.  Eventually Gen Con was getting too big for the convention center in Milwaukee, so after 35 years of holding the convention in Wisconsin, the event was moved to Indianapolis, Indiana in 2003.

For a time in 2008, Gen Con LLC. filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after being sued by Lucasfilm. The legal issue was a disagreement about which entity owed which money from the 2006 Celebration IV, a Star Wars convention commemorating the 30th anniversary of the first Star Wars film. Since this incident, Gen Con LLC. has not hosted any third party licensed events since.

In 2015, it was alleged that Gen Con might find a new city to host its gaming event. Embroiled in a national controversy, Indiana Governor Mike Pence was in the process of signing into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which left open the option to businesses to deny service to anyone if the business or business owners had strongly held religious beliefs. The president of Gen Con LLC., the legal entity that has owned and run Gen Con since 2002, issued a public letter to the then governor stating that, “Gen Con proudly welcomes a diverse attendee base, made up of different ethnicities, cultures, beliefs, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds… For more than a decade, Indianapolis has provided tremendous hospitality and accommodation to our attendees, culminating in an estimated annual economic impact of more than $50 million dollars to the city.” The CEO, Adrian Swartout, then went on to say that legislation that discriminates against Gen Con attendees would have a serious effect on where the company would choose to hold the event. After Mike Pence amended the law to forbid discrimination based on religious beliefs, the issue of Gen Con staying in Indianapolis seems to have been put to rest.

Gen Con Indy, as it is now called, drew over 60,000 attendees to the Indianapolis Convention Center in 2016. It has outgrown a convention center that has undergone renovations specifically to accommodate the growing attendance as nerd culture and Dungeons & Dragons grows ever more popular, now taking place in both the Indianapolis Convention Center and the Lucas Oil Stadium, the home field of the Indianapolis Colts.

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