The Fandom Explosion - Part One

The Polygedral Universe The Fandom Explosion
Part One

zur deutschen Übersetzung Table top games as we know them today originated as family games meant to be played at home, usually around the dinner table.  Aside from strategic or tactical games, such as chess or Avalon Hill’s Diplomacy, their content mirrored the society or culture in which they were created.  Parker Brothers’ Monopoly, for example, was created during the Depression in the 1930’s and reflected America’s struggle to cope with the financial woes and fears and reflected people’s desire for a better life.

As economic times improved, the range of the games also grew to include the changes in post-World War II America.  Park and Shop was popular in the 1950’s and taught children how to be good consumers.  Clue gave everyone a chance to be a murder investigator as they gathered information to help them solve the crime.  In the 1960’s, short-lived games like Drug Dealer and Grass played up our obsession with recreational drugs.

Before long the games expanded their scope to include popular movies, books, and television shows.  TV game shows all had table top games so that people could enjoy playing in the games that they watched during the week, such as The Price is Right, Jeopardy, Hollywood Squares, and Family Feud.

In the mid 1970’s a new form of game emerged, the fantasy role-playing game.  Soon kids (and some adults) were spending six to eight hours a day – sometimes whole weekends – gathered in a friend’s living room, family room, kitchen, or basement playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, Villains & Vigilantes, or Traveler.  Often parents had no idea of where their children were or what they were doing.  This inattention on the parent’s part sometimes led to role play games being blamed for a host of family issues, from drug use to Satanism; from teen-age suicide to murders.  The mid-to-late 1980’s were hard times for these games and some of their manufacturers and supporters were vilified and attacked in the print media.  Some in the motion picture and television industry took advantage of the sensationalism to produce lurid programs and films that played upon these allegations without a vestige of research to support what they presented.

The game companies persevered, fortunately, and gaming continued to grow, with yet another new expansion, the miniatures game.  Games using die cast metals and wooden markers to represent armies or fleets have existed for hundreds of years.  As role play games increased in popularity, companies like Ral Partha and Game Designer’s Workshop and others like them began to produce lead – and later pewter as people grew more aware of lead’s dangers – figures to represent characters and monsters and an assortment of items like treasure and furniture all meant to enhance the player’s role playing experience (and their own profits as well).  Soon companies saw an opportunity to merge the existing miniatures-based war games with the role playing games and the miniatures game was born, with games like Battletech and Warhammer Fantasy Battle and later Warhammer 40,000 leading the charge.

One cannot ignore the explosion of collectible card games such as Magic: the Gathering, or Vampire – the Masquerade.  Anime (Japanese animation) fans were not ignored as games like Pokemon and Digemon burst into the gaming world.

Toward the end of the 1930’s, much to the chagrin of parents and educators, pulp fiction started to grow in popularity.  Authors such as H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Robert A. Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov were filling the news kiosks and bookstores with their short stories and novels.  Magazines such as Amazing Stories and Strange Tales occupied the racks alongside their more staid and traditional brethren like The Saturday Evening Post and Life Magazine.  Despite being viewed as trash and of little literary value, these books and periodicals mushroomed as more and more readers – mostly adolescents and young adults – handed over their dimes and nickels for each week’s or month’s latest installment.  Ironically, many of those same pulp fiction books and magazines are now worth hundreds and even thousands of dollars depending upon their condition.

With the growth of pulp fiction – in particular science fiction – a new phenomenon emerged:  the fan convention, or con, in the late 1930’s.  The first World Science Fiction Convention took place in Chicago in 1939 and featured emerging writers Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp among others.  In the early years, most conventions were what are now called literary cons – shows dedicated to favorite writers and, later, illustrators and artists.  As the convention scene flourished and spread, gaming conventions – mostly catering to military games such as Napoleonic Wars – added their themes to the mix.  Shortly after the glut of “B” movies from the mid-1950’s evolved into more sophisticated films and television brought science fiction into homes nationwide, conventions began to diversify.  Soon, shows dedicated to a particular movie or TV series appeared alongside the literary and gaming conventions.

Game manufacturers soon grasped the marketing potential of holding trade shows as gaming conventions where current and potential customers could come and play their games in an organized format.  The various companies set up booths and tables and elaborate displays so that the gamers – when they were between sessions – could browse their latest and greatest offerings.  And, buy them, of course.  The two largest of these were TSR’s (later Wizards of the Coast and now Hasbro) GenCon and Origins.  GenCon is held in a recurring venue – originally Milwaukee, but now in Indianapolis – while Origins rotates among cities. (May of 2012 it will be in Columbus, Ohio). In 1991, the Milwaukee GenCon hosted more than 25,000 attendees.

Despite the growth and high attendance of gaming conventions, especially at the national level, gaming was slow to catch on in regional or local conventions.  Part of this was due to the specific nature of most shows.  There was a plethora of cons dedicated to science fiction, horror, fantasy, literature, movies, TV shows, multi-media shows, comics, and, most recently, Japanese animation.  Most of the organizers were so narrow of focus that they could not see the value of having an organized gaming program as part of their offering to the fans.  Those that did merely set aside a room with a number of tables where fans who wanted to game could set up and play with their friends.

I cannot speak to other parts of the country, but in Dallas in July 1986 organized gaming appeared at the Dallas Fantasy Fair.  The idea caught on as other organizers realized that having organized gaming added to their attendance and to the show’s revenues.  By 1989 nearly every major show – and by then it was possible to attend one or two conventions a month in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex – had some form of organized gaming.

Unfortunately, the person who set this change in motion had to withdraw from the world of convention gaming in 1992 and organized gaming, as well as the number of conventions in the area, declined.  Fortunately, it has not died out altogether and while there are nowhere near as many shows as there used to be, most of the ones taking place have organized gaming and it seems to be on an upsurge.  AnimeFest, Project A-Kon, YuleCon, and FenCon have a significant portion of their programming dedicated to organized gaming.

In part two, I will take you behind the scenes at FenCon, a multi-media convention that supports a growing gamer attendance.  I will include photos and a commentary of the exciting world of fandom and fan conventions.

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