It was in May of 2013 that I mostly swore off going to conventions. Not permanently or absolutely, but indefinitely, and for health reasons. I have problems with anxiety. In scientific terms anxiety is a sustained activation of the body’s fear response, caused by sustained stress. In my everyday life some days I’m perfectly fine, and other days it becomes a constant thing. Large crowds are a pretty reliable trigger though. I’m also in poor shape physically, which is partly a result of other medical issues I won’t get into here, but partly my own fault too. Between the two, even relatively brief visits to a convention can leave me feeling mentally and physically drained. It was after spending all of six hours at FanimeCon—and subsequently going home, turning my phone off, and climbing into bed—that I finally decided that, for the time being, I’d had enough. Where the fact that I’m alcohol intolerant almost never even comes up, conventions are woven into the fandoms I’m involved in enough that it’s something I feel I legitimately need to make known. Well-meaning friends and coworkers and such assume that as a geek, conventions are a thing I would naturally want to do, and as my role in game publishing has grown I’ve gotten a few fans and business connections proactively asking me to come to cons. I don’t like that things have gone this way, but at this point in my life asking me to go to a place with big crowds of people is rather like inviting a guy with a sprained ankle to Staircase Land. I do need to do something about it, but it’s going to take some time.
This has also made me realize that, while I’ve had a lot of fun at cons over the years, I just don’t seem to get as much out of them as most people. The excellent Gaming As Women blog had an article by Allegra Selzer on mental health for the convention season, and even while advocating taking some extra time to rest, she still made it sound like it was the norm to do about three times as much stuff as I normally do at a con. People throw around the 3-2-1 rule (get a bare minimum of 3 hours of sleep, 2 meals, and 1 shower per day), and I’m reasonably sure I’ve never gone with that little sleep at a con, least of all as a result of having too many things to do there. Where I’ve gotten less sleep than I’d like at a convention, it’s been in the 5-6 hour range as a result of being uncomfortable with hotel bedding. I especially have trouble at gaming conventions, since although RPGs are a major passion of mine, I don’t have the emotional endurance to play them more than once or twice per week. Cramming a bunch of game sessions into one weekend just doesn’t work for me personally, and I end up that much more burned out by the end of a gaming con.
My parents were pretty deep into science fiction fandom when I was young, so I first started going to cons when I was in elementary school. I have hazy memories of a science fiction con called TimeCon, and while I was kind of a little kid along for the ride, I found the overall atmosphere pretty fascinating. I remember seeing the Doctor Who RPG (or I think a module about Cybermen?) at TimeCon, several years before I properly understood what an RPG was. I also went to BayCon (the area’s main science fiction convention) and SiliCon (a smaller SF convention) a few times, and went to the World Science Fiction Convention when it was in San Francisco.
My relationship with FanimeCon has been particularly deep and strange. Today Fanime is one of the biggest anime conventions in the country, with attendance figures pushing 25,000. I was present for the very first FanimeCon in 1994, when it was a combined meetup of three or so local anime clubs at a community college in Hayward. That was where I saw Macross Plus and the Street Fighter II anime movie for the first time. At that time anime was something niche and new and exciting in the U.S., and while I don’t want to sound like a bitter old guy, the anime con scene has definitely changed in that a convention offers a lot less exclusives per se. A lot of anime was impossible to come by apart from screenings at conventions and anime clubs, and most anime merchandise was hard to find outside of a con’s dealers room. Today you can stream or torrent more anime than you’d know what to do with, and there’s a whole cottage industry for selling the merchandise online. In terms of its sheer quality, FanimeCon reached its peak while it was held at Foothill College, where it was big enough to have a lot to do, but small enough to still feel intimate.
I was in fact the person who originally proposed having tabletop gaming at Fanime, which is how I ended up being on staff for a while and going behind the scenes, though I eventually got soured on that as well. The major turning point for Fanime was when it switched to Memorial Day weekend. The four-day weekend is an excellent time to have a con, but it’s such a good time to have a con that in this area there are already two other notable cons going on then, Kubla-Con (a gaming con), and BayCon. The decision to have FanimeCon on the same weekend as BayCon was the big problem. The audiences of the two cons don’t overlap all that much, but a lot of the higher-ranking staff worked both cons, and when forced to choose, most of them went with BayCon. Fanime wasn’t quite the same after the brain drain of losing many of its most experienced staffers, though it seems to have rallied since. Anime was also hitting the mainstream at the same time, with manga going from being hard to find to being sold at every Borders. The anime con scene blew up in a big way, and has since morphed in interesting ways. While there’s a definite core of actual anime stuff, you’re not going to see any shortage of Doctor Who, My Little Pony, Adventure Time, etc. at any given anime con.
The crowd at anime cons has been skewing younger and louder though, so that I end up feeling a bit out of place, and unlike before, it doesn’t really feel like I’m quite in the same fandom as the people around me. Part of it is that I’ve largely lost any need to feel like I belong to a particular tribe or label. I don’t think of myself as an otaku or anime fan or even really as a “gamer” per se. I watch anime very sporadically and without paying much attention to what’s popular, and my tastes in games are even more eccentric than that. I mostly think of myself as Ewen, and maybe a bit as a game designer lately. I’m lucky to have some really great friends, and while we do have common interests, I mostly relate to them as people rather than co-hobbyists. When we hang out, we talk about life a lot more than anime. If I’m going to fly across the country I’d much rather go visit my sister and brother-in-law in D.C., where I can spend time with family and take in sights and tastes I can’t get back home.
I went to Gen Con Indy in 2007 and 2008. The first time it was because my online friend Guy Shalev (who has since become a pretty dedicated anime blogger) was looking for people to share a hotel room and I decided to go for it. I got to run two sessions of Maid RPG, meet Andy K in person for the first time, and some other cool stuff. On the other hand between the long journey, time zone differences, and general burnout, I got into the habit of not even leaving the hotel until around noon. In 2008 I went again because we were launching Maid RPG, plus a couple friends wanted to go. Andy had arranged for us to share a booth with Khepera Publishing. I think I did a bit better than the previous year, but I was still incredibly burned out by the end. I’ve also been to Comic-Con twice, and the second time I went was the only time I’ve ever just outright skipped a day of an out of town convention and stayed in the hotel room, from sheer burnout.
In 2010 I received an invitation to be a guest of honor at A-Kon, an anime convention in Dallas, TX. They offered a free exhibitor booth (which it turns out is different from a dealers room booth), so my friend Mike came along to help man the booth. I also ended up doing something like seven panels, which went actually really well overall. People supposedly rank public speaking as one of their biggest fears, but for whatever reason it doesn’t actually bother me, though some days the results are better than others. The booth was a problem though. It seems like an awful lot of cons manage to be in a space that’s too small for them. The San Diego Convention Center and downtown San Diego can’t really properly handle the massive crowds at Comic-Con, and similarly A-Kon is squeezed into a too-small hotel. As a result the crowding was actually more intense that at Comic-Con, and sometimes gave me full-blown panic attacks. I spent quite a bit of the con alone in my hotel room, which was about the only thing I could do to stay sane there.
Another con I really like is APE, the Alternative Press Expo, held in San Francisco around October or November. It’s a con for independent comics and such, though it basically consists of a single panel track and a huge dealers room. While the internet has made it so that there’s not much stuff you technically can’t find without going to a convention, APE has a huge amount of stuff you’re unlikely to have heard of underneath one roof, so there’s invariably stuff to discover there. One year I teamed up with Ben Lehman to do a booth with a mixture of RPGs and Neko Machi stuff, which is how we found out that while the APE crowd is all kinds of awesome for comics, selling RPGs there just isn’t worth your time. As much as I like APE, lately I find I can’t stay there for more than a few hours, though APE is a con where that’s enough to take in pretty much everything.
Anyway, aside from laying the cards on the table so more people know what I’m about, I guess I wrote this because I wanted to say some stuff about conventions that’s not often said. There can be an opportunity cost to not going to conventions, but when all is said and done it’s okay. It certainly helps that for Star Line Publishing I have a business partner who’s pretty much tireless for that kind of thing. I do think people should give conventions a chance, but I also know they’re not for everyone. I got inspired to finally finish this post because I tried to go to FanimeCon for a day again this year, and it was somehow even worse than last year. I lasted about five hours, and didn’t really even do all that much there. I’m thinking I want to use this experience as an impetus to take better care of myself if nothing else, since I could stand to be living a better life even if it remains a convention-free one.
For a long time I never tried drinking alcohol because the whole concept just seemed dumb to me. Eventually I did give it a chance, and found that I actually liked, say, the sweeter varieties of sake. (I still don’t get why people think beer is even remotely palatable, to say nothing of tequila, which I’m pretty sure tastes how death tastes.) But any time I have enough alcohol to actually feel it, I start feeling pretty intensely sick and have trouble walking, as well as getting the “red flush” effect that is a clear sign of alcohol intolerance. I stopped trying alcohol when I figured that out, and was glad I did when I found out that for people like me doing so greatly increases the risk of esophageal cancer.
Which does make me wish that Gen Con had more robust panel programming, though that may have improved since the last time I went.
My internal clock doesn’t do well at adjusting to time zone differences, so my body was telling me that I was sleeping all the way until 9 a.m. Also at breakfast time (by EST) the smell of the hotel’s breakfast buffet made me nauseous.