The State of Geek Culture

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-geek-culture-image21420053It’s March, and we are now weeks away from the beginning of Convention season.

I know that conventions actually go on year-round, but March is often considered the kick-off of convention season with Emerald City Comicon at the end of March and going through New York Comic Con at the beginning of October.

Already, I hear the laments of cosplayers trying to get their costumes done in time. I hear fans complaining that San Diego Comic Con sold out in under an hour, again. I have friends doing panels at conventions who are stressing about what they are going to say. I had one person explain to me how the Gen Con Hotel lottery system is broken and how he wrote a program to fix it, if they would just respond to him.

All in all, pretty normal stuff.

But this year feels different.

There has been a lot of stress lately in geek culture and, with convention season almost here, people have to deal with what is happening in person instead of just online. The concerns about harassment, and even violence, have a lot of people on edge.

Most of what is going on is not new. I have been covering it here for the last few years. A lot of the old factors are still at play: misogyny, gatekeeping, fear mongering, and privilege. What has changed is the level of focus.

It would be easy to say that this is all Gamergate’s fault, but that would be over simplifying the situation. Gamergate is not the cause of what is happening, it has simply provided a rally point for the problematic aspects of geek culture. The old triggers are still at the heart of what is going on, but what has caused things to go ballistic is actually the fact that things have been improving.

Last year we saw several conventions adopt harassment policies that were well worded and comprehensive enough to actually be effective. You have also seen women, minorities, and LGBT come forth and demand representation and a safe place to be geeks with the rest of us. You’ve seen the industries that fuel geek culture start to respond positively to these segments of their audience.

Sadly, for many people, strides made by others are seen not as an expansion of geek culture but as a threat to them. It’s as if even though 95% of everything is still being about them, they begrudge the other 5%.

Thus, we have the atmosphere of fear that now pervades geek culture. The old guard fear that they are losing something, and they use fear to try to drive off those they see as interlopers. And with the escalation of threats, there is a legitimate fear of violence.

But as awful as Gamergate is, it also has a silver lining.

Yes, there are people being driven off, or deciding never to join in geek culture due to this, but others are being galvanized. People who might have just been going along have become activists to show that the harassers are a vocal minority and not representative of our culture.

The escalation of harassment is terrible, but it has caused wider exposure to it, resulting in more discussion on how to deal with it. It has also led to more mainstream media attention, which helps.

I am not saying it is all rainbows and kittens. I know several people who have been targeted. One had to find a new bank, due to repeated hacking attempts at her account. Another deleted her twitter history after receiving a Gamergate education post, so that she could remove any potential information about her daughter.

As a white heterosexual cis male, I doubt I can even begin to imagine what it is like to be a woman, minority, or LGBT on the internet.

I also do not expect any of this to just go away. I have been writing about it since 2012 and I expect I will still be writing about it, on some level, in 2020.

But as long as we still talk about it, and make sure we as a culture strive to be better, I can have hope for the future.

Until then I am still going to several conventions this year, and plan to do my part to make sure they are safe and inviting events for everyone there.

SDCC 2014: The Aftermath

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In years past when I have done my post San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) article, I usually latch onto an issue the show highlighted which I feel affects the entire convention scene. I even had a subject all lined up to cover, the effect of exclusives on the convention scene

And then news started coming out that has changed this from a look at exclusives, to a follow up on a previous column about the SDCC harassment policy. I guess I’ll look at exclusives another time.

You can go here to read my previous column. For quick review there was a petition to have SDCC adopt a more comprehensive anti-harassment policy. SDCC’s director of marketing (Daniel Glanzer) rejected the idea as he said it would suggest to the media that SDCC had a harassment problem.

So how did the event go?

Well there was a major incident that has been reported that suggests that Glanzer will need to rethink his position.

Adrianne Curry, a Model and Actress who is also a well-known cosplayer, was attending the event with friends. One of Curry’s friends was dressed as the Marvel character Tigra. A man approached the friend from behind and tried to put his hands in the bottom of her costume. When that failed he yanked the bottom of the costume down.

Curry, who was dressed as Catwoman complete with a bullwhip, immediately went after the man. Using the whip as a weapon she drove him off. One point to be made here: this incident happened in a crowded area, but not one person stepped forward to help Curry or her friend. In fact, the only thing most did were pull out phones to take pictures

This was, of course, not the only incident reported.

So what now?

It would be easy to say that this would have happened anyway, and maybe it would have, but then again maybe not.

San Diego Comic Con is not just an event, it has its own culture. To fight against harassment, it helps to make that fight part of the culture. We’ve seen other conventions adopt detailed policies that have led to the culture of those shows embracing anti-harassment and helping police themselves.

But step one is that the convention needs to make it clear what is and is not acceptable. The vague policy of SDCC is clearly not cutting it. My hope is the Glanzer and the rest of the governing body of SDCC will wake up to the fact that they need to address this.

Until then, it is our job to keep expressing the need for these changes and doing everything in our power to move the culture in the right direction.

 

The SDCC harassment failure

comiccon-150x150Once again, we find ourselves wading into the issue of harassment in geek culture. This time it hits the big arena that is San Diego Comic Con (SDCC).

The growing awareness of the issue of harassment at conventions has led to many conventions addressing this issue in increasingly clear language. I have written about this several times. We have seen good examples (such as the policies put forth by Emerald City Comicon and The Calgery Expo), bad examples (such as with Fan Expo Canada), and even tragic examples (as was the case with Aki Con).

But unlike these shows, SDCC is well known to mainstream culture. It is THE big show, sells out in 90 minutes, and getting to go is akin to getting the golden ticket.

In light of all these factors, a group called GeeksForCONsent created an online petition to urge SDCC to create a specific anti-harassment policy. Right now, what they have is a broad code of conduct that mentions harassment, but does not define what it means.

Specifically, the SDCC code of conduct is as follows:  Attendees must respect common sense rules for public behavior, personal interaction, common courtesy, and respect for private property. Harassing or offensive behavior will not be tolerated. Comic-Con reserves the right to revoke, without refund, the membership and badge of any attendee not in compliance with this policy. Persons finding themselves in a situation where they feel their safety is at risk or who become aware of an attendee not in compliance with this policy should immediately locate a member of security, or a staff member, so that the matter can be handled in an expeditious manner.

What GeeksForCONsent is looking for is a more clearly defined process that includes a visible reporting mechanism, signs around the convention outlining the policy, and staff training on how to handle these issues. If this sounds familiar, it is because I wrote about it here detailing Emerald City Comicons anti-harassment effort. These are also the steps that The Calgary Expo and many others adopted this year.

Unfortunately, any hope of this petition having any effect right now is stalled. We know this because the director of marketing for SDCC (Daniel Glanzer) has commented on the petition in an interview stating that he did not favor creating a more explicit and visible policy, because it may send the message that there is a harassment problem at SDCC.

I understand if you need to take a minute after reading that last sentence.

Glanzer’s stance is that he thinks that SDCC has taken sufficient steps to deal with harassment and anything else would just cause bad press. I want to go on record as disagreeing with Glanzer. While I do not think a policy needs to be point by point, I do feel it needs to be specific enough that it points out what harassment is defined as, and what mechanisms are in place for someone to report it and get help. In reading Glanzer’s, response I feel his message was that SDCC marketing and publicity was more important than making the convention a safe space. Not only do I find their position unsettling, I worry that they are sending a message to other convention organizers that they need not worry about their own harassment policies.

We are at a point in geek culture when the issue of inclusion vs harassment is now a major issue. Not every convention has a good policy, but as more incidents are having light shed on them, more organizers are taking steps to address the issue. The effects of these steps are visible. Conventions that make sure they are a safe space are reaping the benefits of good will and strong attendance.  Conventions that ignore the issue are getting bad reputations and are starting to see more people staying away.

My biggest concern is that SDCC does not have as much incentive to change, since it is the big dog of conventions. Even staying with their lack luster policy they are going to sell out. The only thing that might be able to change their position externally is a lot of very bad press, or boycotts from major figures in fandom.

My hope is that someone with clout, either inside or outside the organization, can convince them that updating their policy is in everyone’s best interest.

Until then, it is up to those of us in the trenches to keep pushing this message and demanding better.

 

Fanboy News Network Episode 12

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Fanboy News Network Episode 12

“Emerald City Comicon 2014”

Jeff talks about Emerald City Comicon 2014.

Subjects include:

This year’s sell out.

Crowd Control

The Anti-harassment policy

The guests

Flipon.tv

The Welcome to Night Vale / Thrilling Adventure Hour crossover

The fan meet-ups

The Vendors

Cosplay is not consent: The latest in the fight against harassment at conventions

ECCC Harassment poster

Convention season is upon us now and with it the questions about acceptable behavior have reared their heads again.

Specifically you had Fan Expo Canada, which was March 7th thru March 9th. In an effort to drum up last minute sales, they sent out an email which included the line “escape the deep freeze this weekend – cuddle a cosplayer.”

This obviously caught the attention of several people and eventually was brought to the attention of Jill Pantozzi of the geek news site The Mary Sue. There was concern that the statement could be seen as encouraging the harassment of cosplayers. Pantozzi reached out to Fan Expo Canada to attempt to get a response on their intent with the ad. The response she got was that they had thought about pointing out that consent was implied but felt bringing focus to the rules all the time would hurt the fun of the convention. They did resend the ad but added “with consent” in brackets to the end of the statement. So far, the only official response to this has been to accuse the Mary Sue of being inflammatory and making false statements. As the convention just happened, I expect more news to be coming out about this story, in the coming weeks.

While this was going on, another issue occurred with the Capital City Comic Con in Austin Texas. The convention, which is going to be held this upcoming July, put out several fliers; one of these was a close up of Power Girl’s Breasts with the tag line “Everything is BIGGER in Austin.” When a commenter complained about this on the convention’s Facebook page, the convention replied that the flier was all in fun and questioned if the commenter had ever been to a convention. A couple of days, later the convention responded to the issue as it started going viral. They stated that both the staffer who made the comment and the designer of the flier were no longer with the con staff, and apologized to the fans for what had happened.

Standing in contrast to this is Emerald City Comicon. The same week the two issues above were occurring, ECCC posted an image of the anti-harassment posters that will be going up around their own convention. The title of the posters is “Cosplay is not consent, and it goes on to detail the convention’s anti-harassment policy, including who to go to if you are harassed and the penalties you face if you violate the policy.

The contrast in the above examples illustrates where we stand in geek culture, in regards to dealing with the issues of harassment and making events safe and inclusive.

On one hand, you have people who have not matured in how they deal with these issues but find themselves running conventions. They want to grab people’s attention and fall back on the old adage “sex sells.” Unfortunately, they do not consider the broader message of what they are putting out, nor how it can ultimately promote a hostile environment. It is not from a place of malice, but ignorance. The best way to handle it is to do what was done above and call them out. Make it clear that even if they don’t see the harm in it, harm is still there. The ones that are receptive to the message will thrive, and the ones that aren’t will find their reputation falter and their event suffer. The ones that take steps to make sure their events are promoted as a safe and inclusive space will find more people wanting to go, and can use it as a means to actually promote their event. With all the concerns about hostility in the convention scene,  the ones that make sure you know they will do everything in their power to make sure you are safe will be the ones that ultimately thrive.

In the shadow of events like Aki Con, (where we saw the worst case scenario play out),and other ongoing tales of harassment, this is going to continue to be a hot button issue. I think this year is going to be very interesting in this regard, and I for one am interested to see how conventions actually play out.

I’ll keep an eye on things, and let you know what comes from this.

Convention Safety

ECCClogoThe kickoff for convention season, in the Pacific NorthWest, is just around the corner, which means the people who put on these shows are gearing up with prep for the challenges that go with running an event with potentially thousands of people attending.

Last year a lot of focus was on creating awareness of some of the pitfalls that exist in the convention scene, with particular focus on harassment at conventions and the associated gate keeper mentality that lead to the idea of the fake nerd girl. A lot of work was done to bring these conversations to the forefront (such as John Scalzi’s call for all conventions to have a clear anti-harassment policy).

With the greater focus on these issues, I think this year is going to be about how these policies are enforced, and in general how we, as a community, can insure that conventions are a safe environment.

I’ve heard some discussion that this is a non-issue and focusing on it is actually a detriment to the convention community. For these people I would like to present the events surrounding a Seattle area convention called Aki Con.

Aki Con is an anime convention, held in the Seattle area, that is going into it’s 7th year. It already had a bad reputation, due to putting it’s artists alley in the parking garage the previous year, but the issue at hand happened this last October. Aki Con had regularly hired a specific DJ to play at the event. It was learned that the DJ was a sex offender who had done prison time in Arizona, but had failed to register in the state of Washington after he moved. The convention was informed of this, but did not remove him. During the convention an 18 year old girl was drugged and assaulted. The DJ was arrested and is awaiting trial. More details about this can be found here.

Aki Con posted a statement about the incident that can be found here. If you look at the statement it has the appearance of a neutral statement, but it is actually siding with the DJ and placing blame on the victim. It is also worth noting that Aki Con has no formal harassment policy.

Of course I was horrified to hear about what had happened, particularly as a member of the Seattle convention community. I am also disturbed by the fact that the Aki Con staff has gone completely silent. The community, however, has not. The story has become a rallying cry for making conventions safe and not allowing something like this to happen again.

And there are people taking this very seriously. The organizers of one of Seattle’s biggest events, Emerald City Comicon, are being proactive in making sure that their convention is as safe as possible. ECCC is conducting training for their volunteer staff, with a heavy focus on harassment prevention. This means that the staff will know exactly what to do if they witness something or an attendee approaches them with an issue. The staff is making sure they are also up to speed in case a volunteer needs to bring them in on something. The anti-harassment policy is going to be very prominent in the program book, and lay out what is and is not acceptable and what the penalties could be, including being booted from the show. It also instructs the attendees on who they can approach if they have an issue. The staff is not only working out a system of dealing with problems, but on recognizing and possibly rewarding good behavior.

I can only hope that this level of proactivity will become the norm for conventions in the future.

Outside of that it is up to those of us who attend to make sure we are keeping up the pressure to make conventions a safe place, both by watching out for each other and not supporting events that do not value the safety of attendees.

Magic: The Gathering Year 1: Epilogue

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When I decided to write about the first year of Magic: The Gathering, it was driven both by a desire to do something for the game’s 20th anniversary, and the fact that I was witness to so much of what happened in the early days. It was also an exercise to see if I could write such a series on short notice and make my deadlines. The process has been eye opening for me, and I’ve learned a lot from it. So much went into it, in fact, that I wanted to do this epilogue to wrap everything up. So, forgive me if this rambles a bit.

First, I want to make the offer I do every time I write about incidents from the past: if you are someone I knew from that time and you either disagree with something I have written, or have your own take that you would like to add, I invite you to write up your position and I will publish here unedited and uncensored. I want to stress that I am only going to accept those from someone I know.

If you are someone unknown to me, and still want to write up something about this period and have it posted here, contact me and we can discuss it, but I will reserve the right to edit those.

Next, I have a lot of people I want to thank. First off are Matt Hamer and Stax Blackmoore who were my Beta Readers/Editors. Their ability to get columns back to me, in time for publishing, is appreciated and invaluable.

I also want to thank the people who were there at the time I was, who were willing to answer questions I had to fill in memory gaps or provide details I was unaware of previously. So thank you to Beverly Marshal Saling, Rick Marshal, Ron Richardson, Kyle Namvar, Matthew Burke, Cathleen Adkison, Pete Venters, Jillian Venters, and Alex.

I also utilized the book Designers and Dragons by Shannon Applecline to fill in other knowledge gaps. This book is a comprehensive history of the gaming industry. Applecline cites her sources in this work so it is the most trustworthy source you are likely to find about the industry. If you are in to the history of the hobby game industry, this is a book I would recommend checking out.

If you are interested in another take on the history of Wizards of the Coast I recommend checking out Rick Marshal’s blog Oaths and Fate where he has been detailing the rise of WotC from a more philosophical perspective. Rick witnessed the very beginnings of the company and has a much different perspective.

One question I have gotten a couple of times, while working on this series, is if I am considering writing a book about the early days of Magic: The Gathering; I find the concept interesting, but do not think my stories alone would be enough to support an entire book. I do think that if I could round up some other old timers, we might be able to put together a nice oral history style book that covers several perspectives. I’m not saying that this is going to happen for sure, just that it is being considered. Is this something people would be interested in, if it were to happen? Let me know.

So with that, I put this project to bed. I am sure that in the future I will cover other tales of WotC’s history, but now it is time to move on to other subjects.

I will be doing a theme month again in October, which will be all about reviewing horror movies.

Until then, I am going to cover other areas which have caught my interest. And I am always willing to take suggestions so feel free to write me at caliban@fanboynewsnetwork.com .

Thanks for your time.

Magic: The Gathering Year 1: Gen Con 1994

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As we conclude our look back at the first year of Magic: the Gathering, and the conventions I went to, we come full circle and return to Gen Con for the one year anniversary.

When we left off last time, I had just returned from England and Euro Gen Con. The next several months saw an insane amount of activity; as Magic: the Gathering exploded into the market, Wizards of the Coast found itself in a constant state of trying to keep up with the growth. That meant we needed a lot more people than we had before, and they were not all going to fit into Peter Atkinson’s basement.

So, in January of 1994, we moved into a pair of buildings in an industrial park, in Tukwila, Washington. My first role, at this new location, was in facilities (making sure we had drinks, snacks, and all of the sundry office supplies, along with other similar logistic duties). Eventually it became clear I was not really cut out for that kind of work and, when Gen Con rolled around, I was in the process of moving over into customer service, where I was a much better fit. During the first half of 1994, it seemed like we were bringing on new people constantly. More members of the Camarilla board of Directors joined the company, as well as several other club members by association. My sister Jillian was hired during this period to be part of Merchant Relations, our retail-specific customer service department.

Magic: The Gathering continued to sell at an astounding rate. By the time Gen Con rolled around, we were already on the third edition of the game. We also had released 3 expansion sets: Arabian Nights, Antiquities, and Legends. I felt a special connection to Legends, as I had been brought in as part of the team that wrote flavor text for the cards.

We also had two new games to promote. The first was the original game Richard Garfield had approached WotC about publishing, RoboRally. The other was a bit more problematic. It was a Trading Card Game based on Vampire: The Masquerade. At White Wolf’s insistence the game was called Jyhad, as the term was prominent in V:TM. There were several voices speaking out against this name, including Myself and Camarilla founder Matt Burke, who was working at WotC by then.  Needless to say we were not heeded, and a year later we had to sit down and come up with not only a new name but how to implement it due to game play considerations. From here on out I am going to refer to the game as V:TES, because it’s eventual name was Vampire: The Eternal Struggle.

I could go into great detail about other products being produced at that time, and the various things being worked on, but that would take up the too much space.

So let’s get to Gen Con.

The event was held August 18th to the 21st, 1994, again at The Milwaukee Exposition Convention Center and Arena, better known as The MECCA center, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As stated in the first part of this series, in our previous trip we were a little company off in one of the side booths trying to get noticed. Now we were the highest selling company in the industry, so you can be sure that we were not going to be in a little booth off to the side.

TSR had rules for the size of booths at Gen Con. There was a maximum on how much floor space you could have and how tall the booth could be; part of this was to make sure that no booth was as big as the TSR castle. The result was that WotC had a booth constructed that was exactly as big as it could be, under Gen Con rules. It was mostly black, with a central tower that branched out into pylons. Between the pylons were tables that were used alternatingly for sales, game demos, and artist signings. An added bonus was that, due to our size, we were located right next to the TSR castle. Remember that fact, for it is going to be important later.

In the previous parts of this series, I detailed who was on the team for that convention, but this time that would be an impossible task. The reason is that we brought almost the entire company to Gen Con. I believe that final count was 104, including artists, and the team from Night Fall Games, which was now Wizards of the Coast UK. I think only about a dozen people were left back at the office. This included Jillian, as she had just had a very bad break up and her dad, her best friend Alex (who also worked at WotC), and I all convinced her that she was in no condition to go to the convention. In hindsight she agreed with us, although I still get a little glare/pout combo from her when it comes up.

Bringing this many people added several logistic concerns. The first was finding hotel rooms for everyone. We ended up in a hotel about 20 minutes away from the convention center, as it had enough rooms for everyone. This led to our next logistical issue: transportation. Several mini vans were rented, and certain people were designated as van drivers, and I was one of those. This meant we had to enforce a schedule of when people had to be ready for the vans both coming and going. If you missed the van rather than make other people wait for you, the van would leave and you had to catch a cab. Of course, while that was the plan, office hierarchy could mean the reality was much different, but for the most part it worked (not that there wasn’t bitching from some quarters). Specifically there was one person who, already suffering from an overblown ego and out of proportion sense of entitlement, demanded that there be regular shuttle runs between the convention center and the hotel throughout the day. Fortunately the response he got from the top was “you’re being paid to be at the booth, not the hotel.” I say fortunately as he was trying to make me be the shuttle driver, to which he was told “Jeff has enough to do without being a limo driver.”

And to that last point, on site everyone had basic jobs they were expected to do. We had some people who were there to handle sales, others were doing product demos,  PR people for the press, the artists would have scheduled time to do signing, and the executives were talking up the business and taking meetings. We also finally had enough people that there was no problem taking breaks.

I had two jobs to do. Primarily I was there to demo V:TES which had only been released days before the convention. My other job was to be the liaison between the WotC booth and convention facilities. It had been determined that having only one person do that was a good way to make sure we didn’t have crossed connections, and I was still technically part of the WotC facility team. More to the point, at this stage I was one of WotC’s more experienced convention crew members.

The booth had been set up by a separate company, so we did not actually get in to see it until the morning of the first day. As soon as we got there, someone( I think it was Cathleen Adkison) noticed a problem: the way the booth was set up, people were going to naturally form a line that would likely wind its way through the convention floor. We needed to get polls and rope to make some rope lines. So off I went to get rope and polls.

This shouldn’t have been hard.

I went to convention facilities, which was being run by Gen Con, who then worked with the convention center. I introduced myself, and explained our situation.

And I was promptly turned down.

The person I was talking to did not think we needed rope lines. After all, how many people did we honestly expect to show up at our booth? I tried explaining how popular we had been at other conventions, but the guy just blew it off and said we would be fine. I returned to the booth and explained what had happened. Since we could not get the ropes, we just went with it, as is.

And then the hall opened.

I’ve seen animal stampedes depicted on film many times, but this was the first time I saw one in real life. The gaming hordes had been waiting on the other side to be let into the hall, and thanks to the height of our booth and the fact that we were a straight shot from the main doors, we were easily located. As one they thundered down the aisle toward our booth, woe be to any who got in their path. They formed up at the main sales table, but at least sales lead Sue Mohn, using her mommy voice to get them under control, formed a line. This line, as predicted, wound through the convention floor and somehow managed to cut through the TSR castle. Please note that this was not going around the castle, this was cutting through going into one entrance, cutting through the courtyard, and out another entrance.

TSR definitely noticed this. Shortly we got a visit from someone from convention facilities who brought with them ropes, and poles. They informed me that we would have to use these. I took this opportunity to ask why I was not given them when I first asked. The guy’s eyes said “please die in fire,” but his mouth said “I have no idea sir.”

Sue and I spent the next ten minutes setting up rope lines, and getting the hoard to form into several orderly lines. The people in line were very understanding and accommodating, especially when I pointed out it was all TSR’s fault.

The rest of the day was a blur. I spent most of my time demonstrating V:TES. There was a lunch break in there somewhere, and I found a nice diner nearby. At the table next to me was Mark Rein*Hegan talking to a potential writer about the next White Wolf game Wraith.

After the day was done we all piled into vans and headed back to the hotel. After that it was figuring out where we were going to dinner. I couldn’t tell you where we went on any given night, but I know that every night, after dinner, about 2 vans full of us ended up at the Safe House (and there will be a full write up about this place in the next few weeks).

On day 2 we were greeted by an interesting sight: traffic barricades had been set up in a few of the aisles (specifically the aisle that led straight to our booth from the main door and the aisles on either side of that, as an attempt to reduce that stampede to our booth that had happened the day before). Apparently there had been a lot of concern amongst Gen Con organizers about that, this was their solution.

Just before the doors to the hall opened, several people with press badges and cameras staked out positions either near the barricades or our booth. They wanted to get photographic evidence of what was to come. The staff at the WotC booth got ready for the onslaught, having learned the hard lessons from the day before. Everyone else cleared the aisles out of a sense of self preservation.

And then the hall opened.

What I saw next reminded me of a scene from Jurassic Park, which I had just seen two months earlier, where the Galliminus are stampeding to get away from the T-Rex and are observed turning as a group like birds do.

The hoard of gamers burst through the doors with the same enthusiasm as they had the day before. When confronted with the Barricade as one they turned left with no decrease in speed and continued on down past the other barricaded aisle until coming to the next opening, where they turned right twice and continued down at us. This did require some of our friends from the press to quickly flee the aisles.

At least this time we had the ropes and polls, and orderly lines were quickly established.

The barricades were removed shortly thereafter and were not seen again the entire weekend.

The rest of day two was pretty much a repeat of day one, outside of the running of the gamers. The night was basically a repeat of the night before, but for one slight hiccup.

Without naming names, in the previous year someone had overindulged one evening and thrown up. As a play on the name of a Magic card, we referred to this individual as the Hurling Minotaur the rest of the convention. Well on the drive back to the hotel after a night at the Safe House another individual earned the Hurling Minotaur title. This would end up happening every year at Gen Con during my time working at WotC. Not a title anyone sought, but hey a lot of us were young.

Day three started out much as the previous two days. At least everyone in the hall knew to get out of the path between our booth and the door prior to the hall opening. However, part way through the day we ran into a problem: we had brought a set amount of stock for each of our products we planned on selling. While we had some limits on purchase, they were on how many deck and booster boxes you could buy, not decks. It turned out that the Legends expansion of Magic: The Gathering was really popular, so popular we were running out. Eventually we decided we needed to make an announcement. We had no PA system so someone was going to have to talk in a loud voice. Normally this duty would fall to either Shawn Carnes or myself, as we both have very naturally loud booming voices. However, we both had been doing game demos the entire convention and our voices were already strained.  The duty of making the announcement fell on the shoulders of Alex who, while not being as tall or burly as Shawn or myself, has a very commanding voice. Alex was another Cam member, who was now working in the finance department. He was also one of a small group wearing costumes based on cards, in his case the Wizard from the Card counter-spell.

Alex got up on a chair to maximize the attention he would draw and loudly proclaimed “We are all out of Legends.”

At which point all the lights in the hall went out.

After a moment of shock we all heard Kyle Namvar say “Damn it Alex, what did we say about only using your powers for good.” After the laughter subsided we heard Alex say “Sorry.”

At which point the lights came back on.

Apparently the gods of comedic timing were smiling on Alex that day.

Eventually my lunch break rolled around and I joined a group that was heading off site to get food, because you should always avoid eating convention hall food whenever possible. I am not going to name any names of who was with me, due to the information that was shared. I don’t think anyone would care anymore, but I can conceive that it could still lead to issues for some people.

Our lunch group was a mix of non-management employees of WotC, White Wolf, and TSR. The TSR employees held the floor during the meal due to the amazing story they had to share. I want to stress that what I am about to write about is the story as they related it. I did have someone else say it was basically true a few years later, but by that time it was hardly the only TSR management horror story going about.  Everyone at the table had to swear not to let this get out too widely until after the convention before we were regaled with this epic tale of workplace terror.

According to them, just a few days before Gen Con, TSR had an all-company meeting. This isn’t surprising, most companies do that, and TSR was running the show after all. The problem was what was announced to the company at the meeting. Instead of being a prep for Gen Con meeting, or a pep rally, it was a come to Jesus meeting and company reorg.

Apparently TSR upper management was not dealing well with not being the sales leader in the hobby game market any more. There was also the fact that the onset of the trading card game market had led to reduced sales of role-playing games overall. TSR had tried to jump on to the TCG band wagon, but their entry was the clearly hastily designed Spellfire, that no one was buying. So clearly the answer was to chew out their staff right before the eyes of the entire industry was going to be on them.

They also decided it was the perfect time to reshuffle their brand management. At the time, TSR had 10 or 11 campaign settings for Dungeons & Dragons, and each one had its own brand manager. During the meeting they asked all the brand managers to come forward. As the managers were doing so, they told one of them to sit back down. He was being demoted right there in front of everyone. I don’t remember if his line was suspended or not. The rest of the brand managers were informed that the company was going to shake things up by reassigning all the remaining managers to new brands. Again this was being done at a companywide meeting in full view of everyone. No one could detect any rhyme or reason for the new assignments, other than change for change’s sake. Later one of the office staff, who was tasked with printing up sheets of the Brands and who was in charge now, brought one of the sheets to one of our dining companions and pointed out something interesting;  they had arranged the sheet alphabetically by the name of the brand, and noticed that it was also alphabetical based on the new brand managers last names.  Of course upper management was not giving any reasons for why they had made the assignments they had, so those left dealing with the changes could only speculate. I know that the folks we were eating with were convinced that the alphabetical match up was the method used as it seemed to be the only thing that made any kind of sense.

Needless to say, the moral at TSR was not at an all-time high anyway, and this pre Gen Con reorg and dress down had not done it any favors.

After again reaffirming we would not share this beyond the table until after we were home, our little inter-industry group broke up. Those of us at WotC were glad that our management was not going anywhere near that level of crazy. Even years later, when WotC did make some unpopular business decisions at least there was a core of logic to them.

The last odd event of day three occurred at the booth. As I said, there were a group of employees who were at the booth in costume as characters from Magic art. People would have pictures taken with them and it helped add color to the booth. We were far from the only booth doing that. One notable costume to be seen, was a guy walking the floor dressed as Batman; DC comics had a small presence at the con and he was part of their booth. Batman was followed around the floor, by what I assume was a PR guy from DC and a kid with a sign stating that Batman was a trademarked charter of DC comics. Any person who wanted a picture with Batman either had to hold the sign, or the kid had to be in the picture holding the sign. When Batman passed by our booth, one of our people in costume wanted to have their picture taken with him. The PR guy would not allow it, because she was in an official costume of a character whose copyright was held by another company.

Yeah, I don’t get it either.

Other than that, the rest of the day ran pretty standard. And the night was a repeat of that previous two.

The final day of the show had arrived. Everyone checked out of their rooms and, since we had vans, just brought their luggage with them.

It was a slower pace, as Sundays often are at conventions. There was no thundering hoard that morning, as we had already sold out of Legends. We still had people coming to the booth, and elsewhere in the building the first ever Magic: The Gathering World Championship tournament was being held. As the show wound to a close we started clean up and then it was off to the airport, and home.

The Gen Con experience in 1994 was a unique one, due to the sheer number of people we brought. It was commented on in trade magazines. The intention was to give anyone who wanted to go to Gen Con the chance to go, but it was looked upon as arrogant by the industry. It was also a huge logistical headache. Due to this, it was the last time you had a convention team of that size go to any convention.

It was also my last Gen Con ever. Basically, they had to decide who would go to what conventions and I lobbied to go to San Diego Comic Con every year, so that meant I was never on the Gen Con team again. For me, it was a fair trade off as I was better with the comic con crowd (being more a part of that fandom than a lot of people in the company).

And with this we come to the end of my tale of five conventions attended during the first year of Magic: The Gathering. But be back in a couple of days, as I provide some wrap up to this series.

Magic: the Gathering year 1: Comicfest

Comicfest program cover

Comicfest program cover

A lot happen at Wizards of the Coast in the month following our return from Worldcon. As recent events had shown, Magic: the Gathering was proving to be popular, in fact more popular than had anticipated. When the original print run of approximately 10 million cards had been set, Peter Adkison had figured that would last a bit over six months. What happened instead was that the entire print run was sold out in less than six weeks.

This led to another problem. We were having the cards printed by a company out of Belgium called Cartamundi. This was the best possible printer we could have gone with, as they also print Bicycle poker cards. But we ran into a problem based on their business practices. After they had printed around 2.6 million of the cards they shut the equipment down for maintenance. This by itself would not have been that big a deal. No, the other problem was that in accordance with European tradition they then shut the company down for a month so that the entire staff could take holiday.

If Magic: the Gathering had simply had the popularity that Peter and Richard Garfield had anticipated this would not have been a big deal. But no, it had to go off and be a mega hit. So people were demanding cards, and we were still waiting on the remainder of the first print run.

Finally in October we got the remaining cards in that print run, and learned that we had one final issue to address. During the maintenance, Cartamundi had apparently fixed something in the card cutting process that was out of alignment. The result was that the corners of the cards were visibly different than those pre-maintenance. To Cartamundi this seemed to be no big deal; after all, with poker cards who cares if the corners of one deck are slightly different from another. But with Magic cards you are mixing together cards bought from many different decks. This was bad, because in game play you could tell the difference just by looking at the deck, and then you could put certain cards in with the different corners and know when you were going to get that card. Make it a game-changer card, and you have a strategic edge.

This is what led to the two parts of the print run coming to be known as Alpha and Beta. Rules had to be made for tournament play that if your deck had Alpha cards they all had to be Alpha. In later years card sleeves would be introduced that masked the corners and would allow Alphas in regular decks.

But coming into October we were still figuring this all out. And with these discussions we headed off to another convention. This time it was a comic book convention in Philadelphia, Comicfest, which was held October 8-11. As far as I can tell it was a onetime event, as I have found no other reference to a show called Comicfest in Philadelphia outside of 1993.

The crew for this this show was led by Peter Adkison and Lisa Stevens, who were there mostly to talk to industry people. Jesper Myrfors was there to look for new artists. A new addition to the company named Vic Wertz was with us; he did operations work for the company, and was going to work the booth mostly. Steve Bishop was with us as well, as by this time he had settled into the role of WotC tournament coordinator. And then there was me, and my job was to work the both and demo Magic.

Several people had shown up early to meet with people. In fact I think when I flew it was just Steve and I the night before the convention, so we did not have to deal with the preshow set up. Getting there we were greeted by Jesper with a warning not to eat at our hotel’s restaurant. He described it as a great place to eat if you wanted to learn all the different ways to serve botulism. So it was off to Denny’s we went.

Unlike the previous two conventions we had attended, it was decided that we could now afford to book enough rooms so that no one had to sleep on the floor. This was a great relief to everyone. Steve was additionally pleased to learn that our room was set up so that there was a main bedroom with its own door and a fold out in the main room. This meant he did not have to deal with my snoring, which, thanks to Ron Richardson, had gained legendary status.

Coming into the convention itself we were once again in a new position. This was a comic book convention, so as a game company we were a side item and so we had a booth that was a bit off to the side. It was slightly bigger than the ones we had at the previous conventions, but our neighbors were a video tape seller, a table promoting a comic book featuring a heroine based on a Playboy Playmate, and a group selling an independently produced parody of Spider-Man set in Jamaica.

Unlike Gen Con or Worldcon we were now becoming a known commodity; even in comic circles, since many comic shops who otherwise didn’t carry games were selling Magic: the Gathering.  Other game companies were at the show, most notably TSR and White Wolf. At this point in time we were still considered a lower tier than either of these. But we were still drawing enough traffic to make the other tables around us a little jealous.

In the industry we were getting a bigger reputation as well, especially amongst artists. Jesper had made it his mission to not only make the art in Magic: the Gathering iconic, but to raise the status of the artists to superstar level. His goal was to make artists who worked in the industry stars and improve their overall position. He also wanted to make sure they were well-compensated for their work, and thus WotC had one of the best deals for artists signed to work on Magic, including retaining ownership of the original art. So naturally, at a comic book show, we had a lot of artists stop by to show Jesper their portfolios and see if they could get work. Not only would they come to our table, but Jesper would go out to seek out artists to see if he could find good ones that had not heard of us.

At one point during the first day, while only Vic and I were at the booth, one such aspiring artist approached.

“Hello,” he said with a British accent. “Who do I talk to about showing my art?”

I responded that Jesper was our art director but was away from the booth, and would be back in a while.

“Ok, can I leave a sample with you?”

“Sure.”

With that he handed me a comic book for which he had done the art. Remembering that I should be professional and personal, I figured I should make a proper introduction.

“I’m Jeff Harris by the way.”

“Hi, I’m Pete Venters.”

If you are a Magic: the Gathering fan you probably recognized his name right away, as Pete is the second most prolific artist in Magic, having illustrated 272 cards.

But if you have read this site for a while you will remember that I have made mention of my sister (again, not by blood, but my sister none the less) who runs the site Gothic Charm School. If you follow that site you know her name is Jillian Venters.

So not only was this how WotC came into contact with one of its most celebrated artists ever, it was the first meeting with my future brother-in-law, and one of my oldest friends.

At the time he was a guy I just met who handed me a vampire comic to show one of the bosses. I also took a card. We saw each other a couple of times throughout the show, and became at least acquaintances. He was around a lot at the end, as Jesper did like his art and was interested in using him.

There was another thing that separated this convention from the previous ones, Adkison had rented a car. So we were able to venture forth and see more of the city than just the area around the convention. This led to Lisa for some reason constantly doing a Rain Man impression that mostly consisted of her saying, “Excellent driver, Pete’s an excellent driver.” I have no idea how it started. The only reason I even remember it is that Pete took a wrong turn at one point onto a short one way street just as a cop passed us. This resulted in everyone in the car, myself included, doing the impression.

Overall the convention was a good one. We made good contacts and the response to the game in the comics market looked strong.

Due to the way the flights had been booked, Pete Adkison, Steve, and I ended up having an extra day in Philadelphia. Pete had arranged some meetings, but Steve and I really had nothing to do.

Well, nothing official. Steve had a plan.

All weekend Steve had been talking about wanting to visit The Mütter Museum. This is a museum of medical oddities. It includes a collection of skulls used to prove there is no racial predisposition in brain development, a nine foot long human colon, the conjoined livers of the Siamese twins the condition is named after, and many others points of interest, most of them gruesome.

After that, we went to a place we were both interested in, Independence National Historical Park. This is where Independence Hall is located, as well as the Liberty Bell. I have a great love of the history surrounding the Founding Fathers, so I was very interested in visiting. Steve on the other hand, while also interested, was a dedicated smart ass. When the one of the park rangers was giving us a history of the Liberty Bell and took questions, Steve asked, “How many slaves died during its construction?” His logic was that this is how you rated any monument. I made it clear that I had no idea who he was or why he was standing with me.

It was a great time.

And thus concludes my third convention for WotC.

Next time, in the wake of an unprecedented event I find myself overseas and without pajamas.

Magic: The Gathering Year 1: World Con 51

confran93logo

ConFrancisco Logo

I had just gotten back from Gen Con in 1993 and managed to land a job at Wizards of the Coast. The week following Gen Con was a busy one. Magic: The Gathering had taken off like a rocket, and the interest had led to a lot of activity at the WotC office. My job in those early days was basically being the office gopher. Mainly I answered the phones, sorted the mail, and ran any errands that needed to be done.

It was a flurry of activity as a lot of people wanted a piece of the Magic: the Gathering pie. And that was just the first week. At the end of that week I was asked to go to yet another convention. This time it was Worldcon, or more specifically ConFrancisco, the 51st World Science Fiction Convention.

For those not familiar with it, Worldcon is the annual convention of the World Science Fiction Society, the same group that runs the Hugo Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy works. Worldcon is a traveling event, with a different site every year. Every Worldcon has an election for where the convention will be held two years later; this way the following year’s show can be hyped secure in knowing where it is set. A bid is submitted by a group, and if they win, they will be the primary convention organizers for that event. Each year has its own name, as they are separate events with separate organizers.

In 1993 the event was in San Francisco on the weekend of September 2-6. While Worldcon was a general Science Fiction convention with a focus on literature, it did have representation of the wider range of geek culture, including gaming. We had a small booth on the dealers’ floor and unlike Gen Con, we were not sending all the company leaders; mostly because everyone was busy and a lot of them could not be spared to go. This trip was being led by head editor Beverly Marshall Saling. The only other actual employees on the trip were myself and Dave Howell, who, as the lay out person, was also our liaison to the art department. Ron Richardson was also with us. At the time Ron was just a friend of a lot of the original staff, but would later officially join the company, first as a brand manager, and ultimately as director of logistics. There were two other people there with us, but having recently spoken with Beverly and Ron, none of us can remember who they were.

The flight to San Francisco stands out in my memory as one of the most interesting I have ever taken. Please know that it was literally the third time I had ever gotten on an airplane. I was seated next to Beverly, who was a bit of a white knuckle flyer. About an hour into the flight, we experienced what is known as wake turbulence, which is when two airplanes get too close to each other and one gets caught in the wake of the other. This caused the plane to drop several feet, and by drop I mean like going on Tower of Terror at Disneyland. For just a moment we were all weightless.

Remember how I said that Beverly was a bit of a white knuckle flyer? Do you want to take a guess how she reacted to that?

If your guess was that she nearly dislocated my shoulder grabbing onto my arm than you would be correct.

This event did verify that I myself have no problem flying, as I was over it very quickly.

There is one other thing I want to mention about the flight. Getting a booth for this convention was a last minute thing and there had not been time to arrange for shipping cards to the convention center. Everyone who went had to take boxes of cards as their carry-on.

Once we arrived it was time to settle into the hotel room and head over to the hotel for set up. And when I say hotel room, I mean that we had just one room. WotC was still on a budget, and to save on costs they had all six of us sharing one room. We had a rotation on who got the beds. Beverly had an advantage in that her husband Rick was in town for unrelated reasons and she was able to stay with him a couple of nights. Her motivation for this was not just the cramped quarters. Several of us snored. The worst one was myself. At the time I had not yet been diagnosed with sleep apnea. If you have never heard an apnea sufferer snore, let me assure you it is epic. It was so bad that one morning I woke up to find that Ron had covered each ear with a rolled up pair of socks and tied a t-shirt around his head in an effort to block out the noise. Ron made it a point of never sharing a room with me again when we were both at a convention.

The only other challenge we faced was relatively minor – our hotel was four blocks from the convention center. We didn’t have a car, and even if we did, parking would not have been worth the hassle.  So we had to walk each day. This wasn’t horrible, except that at the end of each day we were already tired, but that just meant we got food after the day was done and then usually crashed.

Since we were a small crew, we had jobs to do, so there was not a lot of time for going to panels or other not–WotC-related activities. Beverly set up a schedule for us. She made sure that she, Ron, or I were present at the booth at all times, as we were the only ones she trusted with the cashbox. She also had us use the same basic strategy we used at Gen Con. We limited sales to two decks and four booster packs, and we had people go to the gaming area and the hospitality suite to play Magic in order to get people interested.

As for the convention itself, what I saw of it was fun. The guests of honor was Larry Niven, who was carried around the convention in a sedan chair by fans, so that made an impression. The convention also had two people portraying Mark Twain and Emperor Norton. Twain was listed as a guest, and Norton may have been the con chairman based on some of his proclamations. I had to explain who Emperor Norton was to my booth mates. Like the Safe House mentioned in the last article, it would take too long to explain him here, so I will do an article on him later.

The spot we had on the floor was near a stage that was set up as some kind of town square where people could sign up and talk about whatever they wanted to. This led to some interesting individuals saying some interesting things in our earshot.

The sales of Magic was much like it was at Gen Con, just on a smaller scale. Thursday started nearly dead, with just a few people sort of looking at our booth but not stopping by. Once we had people playing the game out in other areas it started picking up. By Friday Sales had picked up considerably. By Saturday, Magic: The Gathering had been declared “The Game that Ate ConFrancisco.” People were playing it everywhere and Dave and Ron were lamenting that we did not have enough leftover product to use as a prize to set up an impromptu tournament.

By Sunday we had actually sold out of Magic. We still had plenty of WotC’s other products available, but no one was interested in them. Working the booth had slowed down to a relaxed pace that was mostly about answering questions about the game and taking information from people interested in getting it for their stores or artists interested in working on the game. Sunday would have just been a footnote to the convention except for one thing. During a point in the day where I was the only person at the booth I was approached by two individuals who were part of the convention staff. After brief introductions they got to the issue they had come to talk to me about.

“We are getting complaints from local game stores.”

If they had said they were getting complaints from con goers about all the people playing Magic everywhere, taking up all available table space, I would have sort of understood that. This of course was not the complaint that prompted their visit.

“We’ve been getting calls from local game stores.”

Ok this had me intrigued. So the problem was, as I said earlier, that we had run out of Magic cards to sell. What we did not understand in the early days was the specific addictive nature of Magic card collecting. WotC had merely mimicked the card sorting used by baseball cards. What we failed to realize was that this specific sorting pattern had been designed to appeal to a specific reward behavior wired into the brain. As a result, people really wanted to collect new cards. Add the reinforcing environment of the convention, and people had a serious jones going on. So we had basically whetted their appetites, and then run out of cards.  Several groups hit on the idea of piling into cars and going to the local game stores to see if they had any. Using the local phonebook (this was 1993, webpages weren’t a thing yet), they had hit every store in the San Francisco area. The problem here was that the first group, or “raiding party” as the convention representatives described them, would get to a store and buy up their entire stock of Magic cards. The next group, and all groups after them, would arrive at the store only to be told that they were sold out. Not every person in the second category was gracious upon learning that someone had beat them there. The stores had quickly learned that these Magic Card Marauders had come from the convention, and called the convention center to ask them to do something about it. The convention in turn had sent these two representatives down to our both.

Of course I said the only logical thing I could.

“I’m not sure what I can do about it.”

“Oh we just want you to pass this along to anyone asking about getting more cards. If they know the stores are out they should stop bothering them. We just wanted to let you know before we have Emperor Norton make an announcement. “

With that we all had a good chuckle, chatted for a bit about how crazy it had been during the convention, and they headed off to tell the guy playing Norton that we were in, and he could make his announcement.

When everyone else got back I told them the tale of the raiding parties. Everyone was amused; especially Ron, who thought it was hilarious.

And that was that. The rest of the day was uneventful. We packed up our booth, collected our luggage and headed home.

And once we got home everyone had a good laugh about the raiding parties.

Next time we will go over my first big comic book convention, and my first meeting with a person who remains a very important part of my life.