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August 19, 2017
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Building convention literacy at the UK Games Expo 2017
by Michael Heron on 06/12/17 12:08:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This is a modified version of a post that first appeared on Meeple Like Us.

You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online.  You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage, or on my profile at Robert Gordon University.

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Literacy comes in a lot of different forms.   We tend to think of literacy as an expression of our ability to read and write but really it just refers to a general degree of competency in a specific sphere of knowledge.     There is such a thing as financial literacy and computer literacy.  There’s media literacy and cultural literacy.  More relevant to our interests, game literacy is a real thing.  You’re employing that when you look at a set of interlocking game mechanics and can understand what job individual parts of the set are accomplishing.   You build up game literacy with familiarity, and that familiarity makes it easier to play and understand games you don’t already know directly.  You build up cultural literacy through exposure to works of art and the critical conversations around them.  You build up financial literacy by assessing income and outgoings and the relationship between them.

I suspect there is such a thing as convention literacy too.

I seem to have caused quite the stir with Saturday’s hot take on the UK Games Expo.  There’s nothing necessarily unusual there – it seems sometimes like I can spark off an argument by simply remarking upon the weather.    I can start a fight in an empty room.  I put a quick edit into that post to say that I had a more upbeat set of observations to make regarding the Sunday experience, and that’s what this post is for.   To clarify, I am not rolling back a single word from my previous post.  It remains an accurate reflection of my experience of the day.  It’s just not the whole picture from the entire weekend.  After going out for dinner and then spending the last slice of the evening gaming with Mrs Meeple (Century: Spice Road is a bit good, everyone) I felt a good deal better about the day.  Gaming has a truly restorative power.

Overall, I think I probably enjoyed UKGE.   Friday was good, Sunday was good, Saturday was abysmal.   That’s broadly a two to one result that skews positive.   I’m still not sure it was a particularly good use of time or money, but I am no longer blood-sworn to avoid attending in the future.   I’m actually leaning more towards going in 2018 than I am towards not.  When the UK Games Expo is good, it’s very good.  When it’s not, it’s very not.  That’s basically the problem.   It is an event that is constrained within too tight a space for its attendance.  It is painfully difficult to actually experience anything on offer when things get going.  But there are (brief) moments of relative calm that can be intensely enjoyable.

We had a discussion early on the Sunday with Nigel Kennington of One Free Elephant and he asked a valuable question.

‘What is it you were hoping you’d get out of this experience?’

And the truth is, I had nothing coherent.   I wanted to see what was new and exciting, and sample it.  I wanted to play old games with new friends and new games with old friends.  I wanted to experience the panels and seminars.  I wanted to pet Quintin Smith like a cat, and capture Paul Dean and keep him in a cage.   But those were all idle desires – they were always going to be based on the serendipity of opportunity.   I didn’t have a plan to make any of these things happen (except for the Paul Dean one), I just hoped events would align in such a way as to permit them.

And then Nigel said something that made the whole thing click.  ‘You need to think of this place as a board game theme park’.  And that was it, really – that was a levelling up moment.  That put a slightly different spin on my experiences.   The problem is that I came to UKGE expecting it to be more interactive – for it to be more about acting than observing.  In truth, like any theme park, you should expect more queuing than doing.

That’s what I mean by ‘convention literacy’ – to be able to see how the different parts of a convention experience mesh together to create the whole.  I had never been to a big convention before, and neither had Mrs Meeple.  I’d been to and presented at plenty of conferences, but while those can often be equally crowded (if somewhat more spatially constrained) they have a distinctively unique rhythm of their own.   My first conference was probably just as baffling as my trip to UKGE, but familiarity built my literacy in those kind of scenarios.  I know how to work a conference even if I don’t particularly enjoy them.

Here are the insights I was permitted from the experience points I gained at the UKGE:

  • For the love of all that is good and pure, you should avoid attending the hall during the Saturday. Even relatively early in the morning, it is uncomfortably crowded and there aren’t enough activities for the people present.  Treat Saturday as your downtime, or use it to book in to the events and seminars.   Make arrangements with people to play games off site.  Set up camp somewhere.  Just don’t expect to enter the hall and do anything of value.
  • Go early. Go very early.   You’ll get a chance to sample widely during the first hour or so of the expo.  You’ll get to do a couple of other things in the second hour.    There will usually be something to do on the Friday and the Sunday but your options tighten up as the day goes on.  They’ll loosen up again as the day winds down, but there’s a lot of time in the middle.
  • If you don’t have a press pass, expect to queue to get into the event.  Expect to be queueing a lot. If you do have a press pass, you should also expect to queue.
  • Don’t expect to be able to effectively network with people running stalls. They might have the time for a five minute chat, but they are rushed off their feet almost constantly.   UKGE is a working convention, but not for attendees unless you have the kind of fame and impact that can demand attention.
  • Put together a triage action list of what you really want to see, and bee-line for it when the convention opens. You won’t get to see everything you want, but you will get to see some things.   Do a bit of mental game theory here – if everyone wants to see First Martians, then perhaps you should move a bit farther down your own list where the competition might be a little less intense.
  • UKGE isn’t really a shopping opportunity. As Mrs Meeple said in her post, it’s mostly a meta-game of just observing what’s on offer.   You might very well come away with bargains on the first day, but don’t count on it unless you know what you’re looking at and for.   The stocks will deplete rapidly, and restocking is (according to a chat we had with one of the people running a stall) erratic and unreliable.    You will find it difficult to even be able to browse the selection.  GamesLore had a massive stand at the UKGE and I never even got to see about 75% of it.   They may have had multiple copies of every game I haven’t been able to buy online.  I would never know.
  • Know the schedule. Not every stall will be there every day.  Not every retailer is present for the entire show.  Triage your desires accordingly.   Know what’s involved in a game demo – sometimes people were at tables for an hour or two at a time.   Be aware of the impact that has on your chances of getting to play.  Two tables set up with a 30m game will move quicker than one table with a 60m game.  Take that into account.
  • If you want to meet up with specific people (and you absolutely should) make concrete arrangements.  Don’t just hope you’ll amble in to each other because you almost certainly won’t.   There were a few people I had wanted to meet up with at the expo but didn’t just because our paths didn’t cross.
  • IT IS OKAY IF YOU DON’T ENJOY THE CROWDS. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  YOU ARE NOT WRONG FOR FINDING IT STRESSFUL.    The fact that the UKGE is less crowded than Gencon or Essen does not mean that it’s not horribly crowded.   There is a spectrum of unpleasantly busy and it doesn’t matter on what end of the spectrum an event falls.  There is a massive selection bias in convention coverage because people often don’t want to go against the grain and admit they maybe didn’t enjoy it as much as they would have liked.   You’re hard-pressed to find someone say ‘Actually, it was a bit shit really’.    There are people out there that will make it their job to tell you that you are wrong for not having fun.   Ignore these people.  You are not alone if you leave the expo feeling disheartened.  There are dozens of us!  DOZENS!
  • Give a bit of support to those that are there pitching their games. The big publishers already have an infrastructure in place to make their attendance a success.  Remember that small exhibitors are often going to make a loss on the event and that they are obligated to give you a lot of their time when you sit down at their table.   Make an effort to check out their Kickstarters or if you enjoyed your session maybe pick up what other games they might have on offer.   Tell a friend about an obscure game you enjoyed.   Basically, make it worth their while to give up their time, because they’re probably paying out of their own pockets to gift it to you.   Most of the smaller stands aren’t going to cause a stir with Shut Up and Sit Down or the Dice Tower but word of mouth in large numbers can be significantly more powerful there.
  • Have an answer to the question ‘what are you hoping to get out of this experience’, and consider how you’re going to structure your weekend to meet your goals.

Some of this is going to be completely obvious to people with convention experience.  Some of it, in hindsight, should have even been obvious to a pair of complete novices.  But the thing is, until you attend an event like this you simply don’t know what to expect.   My answer, in retrospect, to Nigel’s question should have been ‘I’m just here so that I can learn how it works for next time’.

Will we go back?  Well, maybe.   If we do we’ll certainly go back armed with a better plan.   I am mulling over the possibility of running a panel of my own, or perhaps an accessibility seminar.  I’d even consider a stall if I thought I could stomach the constant emotional throughput needed.   I absolutely will not be back to the hall on a Saturday though.   I will do literally anything else including sitting in a hotel room in my underpants watching dubbed episodes of Coronation Street.

The Sunday, as I say, was much better.   We arrived very early – early enough that we had to queue for forty minutes to get in.  We made an instant beeline for the Splendor demonstration table and got to try out one of the new expansion modules.   They seem pretty good, but I was always acutely aware that we’d taken up a table for 45 minutes and there were hungry crowds milling around, waiting for us to just bugger off.   That makes genuine enjoyment a little fraught.  But we got to try it because we had a plan and didn’t dawdle on its execution.  We had to sacrifice a chance to try out First Martians and Barenpark, but that was the calculation we made and I don’t regret it.

We also got to try out Beyond Baker Street, which is a somewhat more thematic version of Hanabi.   However, it has a significant flaw – it’s still basically Hanabi, and Hanabi still sucks.    Beyond Baker Street is to Hanabi as Mysterium is to Dixit.  It takes a core, basic idea and puts a stronger ludic infrastructure around it.  And it still absolutely sucks.

We also got to play Santorini, a game that has been aggressively out of print in the UK since it first landed here.   I liked it a lot, but I think it’s probably one that has a powerful seductive charm derived from its production values.  We played it a couple of times (oh, the luxury) and certainly found it worthwhile.   My appetite for buying it though was somewhat quenched even if it is just a beautiful thing in its own right.  It’s very pretty, but it’s also a fundamentally very simple abstract that I suspect may lose a lot of its charm on repeated play.   I don’t know for sure but I cooled a bit on a game that comes, at least to date, with a £50 price tag in the UK.

We didn’t get much of a chance to play anything else but that’s not because there were no opportunities but rather that we were all booked up.  We had an hour long meeting with one of the publishers present at the event, and discussed game accessibility in all its forms.  I won’t mention the company because I didn’t ask for their permission, and I’m a little leery of naming names here.   The thing is, at least for now, companies can ignore board game accessibility and it won’t really have much of an impact on them.  It’s just not on anyone’s radar to the extent it needs to be.    There’s little risk, for now, to a company ignoring the issue and indeed that’s what most of them do when I contact them about it.

That changes a little if you’re a publisher that expresses an interest in accessibility and then does nothing about it.   You’ve shown in that scenario that you know there’s a problem but decided, for whatever reason, that you’re fine with inaction.  That is a potential PR disaster because you may be seen to be formally saying ‘we don’t consider it important to make games accessible for people with disabilities’.   That’s not true, of course – there are all kinds of complications that mean companies can be well meaning but still unable to meaningfully act.   It’s certainly a risk though some organisations may not feel comfortable in taking.

As a result, I operate under an immediate veil of confidentiality when dealing with those companies that have approached me (or that I have approached).   I want it to be a zero risk proposition for designers and publishers to come forward and contact Meeple Like Us about this topic.   That’s not the case if they have to worry about the risks of their involvement with the site being casually disclosed.   I’ll happily support and praise any company that makes efforts in this area, but I won’t assume they’re keen to be singled out unless they say it’s okay.

Anyway, it was a great discussion and I hope it will lead to Good Things happening for them and for us.

We had to cut the meeting abruptly short though because we’d bought tickets to go see two of the live events at the expo.  The first of these was ‘A Dark Room’ which was brilliant – an interactive text adventure with audience participation and a thoroughly entertaining host.   If you get a chance to check out John Robertson at any point, I thoroughly recommend it.   I won’t spoil what A Dark Room involves, but it really was marvelous.  A genuine highlight of the weekend.  I suspect that the quality of any given performance varies a bit with the audience, but from my perspective I really thought Darren’s contributions were the highlight of the show.  That was of course until HE DIED HE DIED HE DIED HE DIED…

Then we went off to have lunch, and… OH WAIT I THOUGHT OF ANOTHER INSIGHT.

  • Know where the quiet areas of the convention are, and know how to get to them. At UKGE the shops that surround the hall are jam packed.  If you want to pick up a sandwich from Subway you’d be quicker writing to them about setting up your own franchise.   BUT a mere 5 minute walk away, next to the Genting Arena (where the gents fight to the death for the amusement of local Brummies) is the Resort Centre.   It’s basically a fancy shopping mall, but virtually no-one was there.   Instead of standing for twenty minutes in a queue for whatever scrapings of sandwich filling were left in the serving tins we were able to just saunter into a Costa and have a leisurely Panini in relaxingly sterile surroundings.

After lunch, and as our last act of the Expo, we went to see Knightmare Live.   Man, I loved Knightmare – along with Press Gang and Gamesmaster it was the highlight of my after-school television watching as a child.   For those that never had the pleasure, it was basically a computer driven LARP adventure where children were brought on screen to die in horribly comic circumstances.   It was a show that absolutely treated its young participants with complete respect for their maturity.  Nobody got an easy ride on Knightmare.  Some teams were dead within minutes.   One of the team would wear a hat that made them completely oblivious to their surroundings, and the rest of the team would issue instructions to guide them through the poorly rendered computer environments.  ‘GO LEFT’ they’d scream as a digitised axe swung by their hapless hero, only for the hero to take a step right and be cleft in twain.   OoooOoOo nasty.

Knightmare Live is the theatre version of this, and it’s – well, it’s fine.   The problem at the UKGE is that you can’t take a lot of enjoyment out of a live action recreation if you can’t see anything happening.  There was a lot of activity directed to props on the floor and neither myself nor Mrs Meeple could make out anything there.   It’s also about twenty minutes too long for what is essentially a massively niche nostalgic in-joke.   It wasn’t bad, I was just ready for it to be over a fair bit before it actually was.   Still, I got a shiver all the way up my spine when I heard the theme music come over the speakers.   For one brief moment it was 1989 and I was watching Knightmare on the tiny upstairs portable TV in my parents bedroom.  I was eleven years old again, thinking about who from school I’d ask to be on the show with me if I ever had the bottle to apply.   That powerful sense of temporal dislocation was enough of a reason to attend the show.    It’s like hearing the orchestral score of a new Star Wars movie – regardless of the quality of the film to follow, that one aspect will always send me hurtling back to a less complicated time in my life.

I left UKGE on the Sunday in a much more positive frame of mind than I left it on the Saturday.   I don’t know if we’ll be back, but I do feel that if we do return we’ll get a lot more out of the experience than we did the first time.   I feel like I’ve gained a degree of convention literacy that I simply didn’t have before.    I didn’t accomplish nearly as much as I wanted, didn’t get to play nearly as much as I’d like, and I didn’t meet nearly as many people as I had planned.   But next time – ah, next time, maybe I’d know a bit better.


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