It’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.
The 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org .
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?”
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.
Author John Scalzi has opened a new chapter in the ongoing debate about harassment at fan conventions. Scalzi is a successful science fiction author, and until very recently he was the president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. A week after his tenure as president ended, Scalzi announced what he refers to as his new hard requirement for any convention that wants him as a panelist, participant, or guest of honor. The convention must have a very clear and readily accessible anti-harassment policy. Said policies must include clear guidelines about what is unacceptable behavior, and where attendees can go for help in those circumstances. The policies have to be made available in places such as the program book or the convention website.
This comes in parallel to another recent incident involving Penny Arcade. You can find more specifics here, but in short Penny Arcade co-founder Mike Krahulik got into a fight on twitter over comments involving transgender issues. The commentary got heated and Krahulik made what many people felt were transphobic comments. Taken on its own it is bad enough, but there was also the specter of the “Dickwolf” controversy from a couple of years ago, which had many people starting to look at Penny Arcade and it’s convention PAX as a hostile environment. The irony here is that PAX has one of the strongest anti-harassment policies of any convention out there. Immediately people started distancing themselves from Penny Arcade, including one game company canceling their booth at the event.
During the Dickwolf issue Krahulik stuck to his guns, which turned a lot of people off. In the time between then and now, he and the people around him clearly learned from the experience. The two days after the transgender argument saw Krahulik issue multiple apologies, admit he has an issue of getting hostile when feeling threatened, and a vow to try to work on these issues. He also made a $20,000 donation to the Trevor Project as a sign of contrition. He also acknowledged that his behavior was damaging to the Penny Arcade brand.
So with these events having just happened, we are once again having the conversation of how welcoming the fan community environment is to people. The positive in both these cases is that there is clear recognition that there are issues and that they need to be dealt with. I also feel they show that progress is being made.
In the Penny Arcade case, in the past this issue would have just festered, but now there is acknowledgement that there was a problem and an actual apology. It is a step in the right direction.
In the case of John Scalzi, you have a prominent author using the cred he has built up over the years to attempt to influence positive change. As of this writing, several 100 people, myself included, have co-signed his pledge.
This does put me in a slightly awkward position, of course. My local convention, Norwescon, is one of the conventions currently lacking in such a policy. However, they aren’t ignoring it. They had a discussion forum that I participated in at this year’s convention about adopting such a policy. Also someone connected with the convention posted in Scalzi’s comment section that they are forwarding the discussion to the convention committee for additional consideration. It is all about getting these important conversations started.
Emerald City Comicon is also in the same boat. I expect they will be addressing this soon as well. At least I hope they do.
It is worth noting that San Diego Comic Con also lacks an adequately published policy. They have one apparently, but it is not where you could find it.
If you are looking for a good listing of which conventions do or do not have policies in place, the site Girl Wonder is compiling a database that can be found here.
While it is clear that we still have a lot of work to do, I feel hopeful that we are seeing positive change, and that geek culture is coming around in regards to how it treats everyone.
I’ll be keeping an eye on all of this and I am sure we will be talking about it again in the future.
It’s time for another look back at the early history of the White Wolf fan organization, The Camarilla. Last time I wrote about the circumstances of its birth as I remember them. This time I want to look at a very specific event, the first Camarilla convention, Courageous/NercoCon.
Again, this is going to be based on my memories of events from over 20 years ago, with as much verification as I have been able to get from other people who were there. I am also going to liberally reference events from my previous Camarilla article, so I recommend going here to read that if you have not already.
I want to specify that this is not about any other Camarilla events, such as the kickoff event at Vikingcon, or any of the other early sanctioned events at various Northwest conventions. This is about the first convention that had a Camarilla focus.
The convention started life as just Courageous Con, named after the chapter of STARFLEET International that I was a member of. As this implies, it was to be a Star Trek convention. The head of our chapter had run successful conventions in Canada and wanted to start one in the Seattle area after moving here. This is all well and good.
However, during the time that the convention was being planned, The Camarilla was coming into being. As I said last time a good number of the original board of directors for the Camarilla were also officers in the Courageous. These same people were also involved in putting together Courageous Con.
So let’s just say enthusiasm over multiple projects started bleeding into each other.
Basically the idea started forming to have a Camarilla convention, but a lot of us were already working on Courageous Con. The solution was to combine the two and have a two–in-one convention. But how would you pull that off?
The answer was to run 24 hour programming.
You read that last sentence right.
Twenty-four hour convention programming. During the daytime hours it would be Courageous Con, and be devoted to Star Trek. At night it would be NecroCon, and be devoted to Vampire and the Camarilla.
I’m pretty sure that I am the first person who started referring to it as the Wereconvention, since it would transform after dark.
So we had to come up with 24 hours’ worth of programming, as well as guests for both genres. It turns out the programming wasn’t as hard, since both were different enough. The trick was getting panelists who were willing to stay up late for the NecroCon side, but even that wasn’t that daunting.
As for guests, we actually did pretty well. For Star Trek we secured George Takei, and for Vampire we had Mark Rein*Hagan and Wes Harris from White Wolf.
Everything looked like it was going well. But frankly, I would not be taking the time to write this down if that was how it ended.
The first hurdle came a couple of months before the convention. George Takei had to pull out of the con. George, like almost all Star Trek actors, had a contract with a company that put on Star Trek conventions around the country. The nature of that contract obligated him to go to a convention they were setting up and cancel his appearance at ours. The kicker is that this last minute convention was being held in Seattle, at a hotel only ten minutes away from where we were holding our con, on the exact same weekend.
Yeah, you are probably thinking the same thing I was, but I have no proof.
So there was a scramble to find a replacement Star Trek guest. The new guest ended up being Jonathan Del Arco. These days, you might know him as Dr. Morales from The Closer and its spin off Major Crimes. Back in 1993, he was best known as Hugh the Borg, from Star Trek: the Next Generation.
So we lost the Major Guest and had a competing convention down the road. But we still had the draw of the White Wolf guys, and the Camarilla was up and running at this point, and growing in popularity. So we were going to be fine.
Ok, let’s be honest, this was a pretty ambitious plan, running programming continuously for an entire weekend. Add to that the fact that it was the first time running a convention for a lot of the organizers.
And with that in mind, looking back I can honestly say, it could have been much worse.
When I think back on Courageous/ NercoCon, the first thing that comes to mind is why did the hotel think it was a good idea to book a Star Trek/ Vampire convention the same weekend they were also hosting a gathering of nuns? Not that this caused any real conflict, or led to any problems, it just added to an overall feeling of oddness that permeated the hotel the whole weekend. Okay, there was the one instance where someone who had over indulged saw them and yelled out “penguins!” Fortunately he was prevented from approaching them, and was carted off by friends quickly.
One problem that was just beyond anyone’s control was that the volunteer coordinator came down with the flu and was running a decent fever. This was on top of the lack of sleep we were all already operating under.
The biggest problem was just attendee behavior. To this day I am not sure what the hell was up with this. I have been to some rowdy conventions before, but there was just something in the air at this one, and all evidence points to it being the vampire fans at the heart of it.
First was just out and out damage to the hotel. There was a hole in one of the walls, which who knows, it could have been anyone on that. The graffiti on the walls on the other hand was pretty clearly put there by someone into Vampire.
But really it was the beer slip-and-slide on the 3rd floor that really took the cake. The hole and the graffiti could have been the result of spur of the moment passion or alcohol-fueled bad decision making. On the other hand, someone had to bring the slip and slide to the con, indicating a degree of premeditation. It was also dealt with pretty quickly and quietly, as the perpetrators managed to convince the hotel not to kick them, and basically the convention, out. I’m sure it being 3 AM on Sunday helped, as by this point the hotel was already fed up with us, so they just wanted to get it over with without any added drama. I didn’t even know that this had happened until a month later. The convention chairman didn’t know about it until last month when I went online to confirm details for this article and someone who was there confirmed it.
Needless to say, in light of these events, the convention was a one-time only thing.
But I don’t want to leave you with the idea that it was all bad.
Jonathan Del Arco turned out to be a very engaging guest and everyone who interacted with him really like him. Likewise Mark Rein*Hagan and Wes Harris had a great time hanging out with the Camarilla crowd and the LARP with them went extremely well. I will always cherish the look on Mark’s face when I led the Camarilla members in a rendition of the It’s a Small World After All parody I had written for the World of Darkness. It was a fascinating combination of pride and shame.
For me personally it was the first time I met the White Wolf guys, who in turn introduced me to the Wizards of the Coast crew. Within a week of the convention I started hanging out at the WotC offices at their invite, leading to my 5 year stint working there. That in turn led to my current job and, really, my life in general now.
I think looking back on it that the two-in-one convention was just too much. What we should have done was drop the Star Trek part after losing Takei and just focused on Vampire. We had a competing Trek convention down the road that siphoned off most of that audience anyway. If we had done that we would have had tighter focus, and I believe less chaos.
So that was the first Camarilla convention. There was not another specific Camarilla Con during the rest of the time the Board of Directors was located in Seattle. After the BoD was transferred to Salt Lake City it was attempted again, this time with a proper focus. Since then there have been many Camarilla Cons, and some of them have had memorable stories, such as the time they were in the same hotel as a Players ball, and a drive by shooting (for info on that check out this video). But none were as out there in concept as Courageous/ NecroCon.
As with my previous Camarilla story, if anyone from the original Board of Directors, or the Courageous/ NecroCon staff want to write their point of view of what happened, I will publish it here unedited.