Tool and Dice
For the past 45 years, people have converged in ever-increasing numbers to spend an August weekend celebrating all things game-related. The event is Gen Con (short for “Geneva Convention,” as it was originally held in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in the late sixties), and it’s gamer paradise. These days Gen Con is held in Indianapolis, and boasts an attendance of about 40,000. Miniature-based wargames, board games, tabletop roleplaying games, video games, card games… you name it, it’s represented, along with assorted other hobbies traditionally beloved of gamers.
I’ve been going for years. A chance to hang out with old friends and enjoy all the stuff we used to have much more time for. Plus the event is sort of a pilgrimage, where we can cut loose and get our inner geek on in entirely friendly surroundings. Gen Con is doubtless overwhelming for those who don’t consider themselves part of the gamer culture, while gamers revel in the opportunity to totally immerse in it for a few days. Only at Gen Con are you likely to pass a trio of dudes dressed in Imperial Stormtrooper armor from the waist up and Scottish Highlander kilts from the waist down. In most bars the world over you’ll hear people arguing about politics or professional football; at Gen Con, the table next to yours is probably engaged in discussion about encumbrance rules or whether the D20 system’s statistical shortcomings should be corrected in 5E, or how the abolishment of ThAC0 would make Gygax turn in his grave – assuming, of course, he was subject to magic from an evil-aligned cleric of fifth level or higher.
Any non-gamer standing in the gazillion-square-foot exhibit hall at Gen Con would feel similarly lost. After all, there’s an eight foot statue of a giant spider lady over there (that’s just Lolth, arachno-goddess of the Drow). There’s a gaggle of people dressed in… like… a combination of dusty nineteenth-century eveningwear and gas masks with copper gears on them (it’s Steampunk, it’s a thing). The guy at that booth is selling a playing card for $1,200 (“Time Walk.” Very rare. An extra turn for two Blue mana!).
Honestly, though, I feel as confused when I’m in a meeting with more than one engineer. They’re always talking about “meshing things,” whatever that means. Yesterday on a conference call, four of them got into a rather tense argument about heat exchangers, for crying out loud. To a manufacturer, a “die” is… I’m not sure what it is. To a gamer, a “die” is a plastic polyhedron that you roll to generate a random number. You know, dice.
Since I’ve got a foot in both worlds I can appreciate both cultures, and we should all appreciate that every one has its own idiosyncrasies. Meanwhile, another thing that’s worth considering, should you ever stand near the spider lady in that big exhibit hall: everything there, from the digitally-sculpted Mallifaux miniatures to that Time Walk card, it was all manufactured. Someone designed it and someone built it, and now here it is in Indianapolis, making 40,000 people very happy.
The digital manufacturing transition is as much a cultural shift as a technological one, so there’s something to be said for pausing and taking a look around and thinking about how two different worlds – like the world of gaming and the world of product design – are often more connected than disconnected, despite how they might initially seem. Manufacturers are very used to doing things a certain way, and adopting revolutionary new tools, tools that even require a new way of thinking about how stuff is made, is no simple matter. It’s not just a technical transition. But adopt them they will, just as D&D players migrate between editions every few years, despite the often staggering mechanical changes.
The differences between manufacturing culture and gaming culture, or any two cultures really, are a lot smaller than it might initially seem. It’s true that Lolth the Spider Queen has no place on a factory floor, but she was born on one. And a whole lot of people who spend most days working on factory floors also spend a weekend at Gen Con in her company.