One summer day when I was about 10 years old, my grandma was driving us down to catch an old movie in the blessedly cool interior of the old Oriental Theater. We came to stop at an intersection, not far from the MECCA Arena.
And a man in full plate mail and medieval tabard walked over the crosswalk, right in front of our car.
I was in the front seat (it was the ’80s–seat belts, wha?), and my jaw dropped to my lap, where it remained for the rest of the car ride. When I finally achieved intelligible thought, my one focus was: “Wherever he was going, I have got to get there too.”
When I was 16, I finally got there: Gen Con. I’d been playing AD&D in our church library on Sunday afternoons for a few years, and tabletop strategic wargames for a few more years than that. So when some of the guys said, “Let’s go to the big game convention in Milwaukee,” I was all in. Of course, I didn’t know that’s where the guys in plate mail were from, but I found out fast enough.
I was too uncertain to assert myself at the big tables, full of miniature mecha-robots and World War I dogfighting planes, surrounded by very intense, slightly malodorous young men. And I wasn’t ready to ask questions, to invite myself into the pick-up roleplaying groups scattered throughout the convention center and the labyrinthine guts of the arena building. I was a young woman, and there weren’t many of us there.
Instead, I just took it all in. Dice, in numbers and colors and polyhedrons and sizes I’d never dreamt existed. Men, like carnival hucksters, hawking their models or settings or must-have game accessories. T-shirts with slogans and jokes I mostly didn’t get (though I loved the Douglas Adams references; I’d never seen those in America before). And enthusiasm–so much enthusiasm, everywhere.
I came again the next year, and the whole world had changed. TSR was under siege, in their four-story castle in the center of the dealer’s hall, but there were sappers among us in the crowds, skulking around in clown white and satin capes. Vampire: The Masquerade had arrived, and with it, a small but palpable influx of female gamers, drawn to a game that made strengths of drama and emotion and relationships.
I didn’t get to all the Gen Cons during my college years, but I kept my foot in the pool. I looked at the new games, lurked and watched, occasionally sat down when invited. One year, I waited all night in the lobby of the Hyatt for someone from a scheduled AmberMUSH get-together to recognize me. Only after about three hours of waiting did it occur to me that nobody knew what anyone else looked like in real life.
I’d been married for about three years before I went again. It was a homecoming, but it was also the Darling Husband’s first trip. He’d read about Gen Con in magazines and rulebooks, half a world away, never dreaming he’d not only ever have the chance to go, but to go for the purpose of meeting his heroes. He’d earned a place on the (volunteer, but still nerd-prestigious) Whitestone Council, the organizers and fact-checkers-par-excellence of the online Dragonlance Nexus, and as a result, was invited to meet Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, authors of the groundbreaking Dragonlance novels. He was gobsmacked at every turn, and I basked in his excitement and some better-planned meetups with Amber friends.
Gen Con became an every-year thing for a while there. I mourned through the last one in Milwaukee, but did so with good friends, good (Persian) food, and hours-long sessions of a pirate RPG that cleared a good section of the under-arena area and left me hoarse for days afterward.
That was also Connor’s first trip to Gen Con, when he was six weeks old. I didn’t see another mother with an infant in arms the whole time, and I had to crouch in stairwells and on bathroom floors to nurse him. I asked Warwick Davis (Willow, Professor Flitwick, etc.) to hold him for a picture. Surprised and nervous, he acceded. (I cannot find the digital file of this picture, which is driving me crazy, and my scanner won’t work. Trust me, it’s adorable.)
Next year, I watched the con breathe and unfurl its wings in Indianapolis, expanding into the vast new spaces with a sigh of both sorrow and relief. And it grew and grew, every year–every year, more of a reunion and a blessed, brief respite from the Mommyverse. At Gen Con, I was just Jess again, not Mommy. I needed that.
But Griffin came to his first Gen Con when he was three months old, and though I still needed to find secluded corners to breastfeed, at least I no longer felt like I was the weird woman with one tit at time on display for interested passers-by. Sure, there were still jerks who thought families didn’t belong at the convention. One of them said, behind me in the crowded dealer hall, “I can’t BELIEVE someone would bring a FREAKING STROLLER in here. This isn’t the place for that. How selfish.”
To which I turned around and replied, “At least I can park the extra forty pounds I’m pushing around in here and walk away from it.”
I hear there are nursing rooms, changing stations, and child care providers now. It makes me so happy. It says to me, “Gen Con belongs to all of us, and I don’t have to grow up and give it away if I don’t want to. I’ll keep coming, I’ll keep gaming, and I’ll raise my family here.” The Gen Con community is aging, yes, but it’s maturing and diversifying too.
I hoped this would be the year I brought my boys back to Gen Con and let them get dizzy and overwhelmed and excited and exhausted by the people, the choices, the magic. But it didn’t happen. I haven’t gone for four years, and I miss the friends (family, really) I’ve made like I would miss a limb. But I know that, when the stars are right, I’ll come back, and I’ll tell my boys, “Here’s where you belong. You’ve belonged here since before you can remember.”
And Gen Con will be waiting for us with open arms.