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  • John Dodd

Evolution of Conventions: In Person


Yesterday I talked about the possibilities and challenges afforded by Virtual environments and Hybrid events, today I’m going to be looking at the other side of the coin, what we do with physical conventions and how the mindset may have shifted since the last time we were in the company of others.


I’ve been to several conventions since the restrictions were lifted, both working and attending, and while all the conventions had the same restrictions in place, I’ve noticed some trends towards what actually happens when you get there.


Did the pandemic change the mindset to the point where it became physical conventions became something that was no longer viable?


Clearly not…


All of the following is based on the premise that the convention has mask mandate and covid pass in place, that there is reasonable airflow in and around the areas where people are going to be, and that those rules are enforced up and down the convention as much as is possible. Before Dragonmeet, I took the time to speak several times to scientists on the frontline of combating the virus, and I asked them all the precautions that could be taken.


Mask, Pass, and Airflow, with those three in place, any convention is doing more than 99% of commercial areas open to the public.


99%...


I questioned that when I heard it, it couldn’t have been that so many places weren’t taking those precautions, but then I looked further, checked the data. Supermarkets, no covid pass required, most major events, no pass being checked, or a tenner to the doorman to look the other way. When you’re in, the mask mandate lasts as long as people are checking it.


I went to one event where the masks were requested at the door, but it was a big event and there was a lot of noise. It wasn’t always possible to hear what was going on even a few feet away, so talking to the traders wasn’t easy at the best of times and it was common to see people asking if each other minded if they removed their masks to talk. When the masks were removed, some people forgot to put them back on, or reasoned that they were only going to take it off again at the next trader, so just kept going.


This is where the restrictions fail, when you’ve done everything possible to make sure that the people who are attending are free of any nasty pathogens, it generates a sense of community, of trust, and that is a good thing, but it’s also the only point where the problem will arise.


I’ve seen three different conventions where a minor outbreak was reported in the aftermath, in each case, the pattern was the same. The outbreak originated from one person who was in close proximity with a number of others, sat down, without masks.


In the company of friends.


In each case, that person had tested negative before they turned up to the convention, often that morning, in each case, that person had followed absolute mask protocol while moving around the convention and in undertaking anything where they were working with others. In each case, as soon as they tested positive, they isolated and left the convention immediately, but if they were positive, it was entirely likely that a number of those around them would soon test positive as well. Herein lies the problem with physical conventions and with in person events in general.


One positive test, at any point of the convention, and if the rules (UK) are followed, then the whole convention ceases, immediately. The positive test may not have been in touch with everyone at the convention, but they will have walked past dozens, possibly hundreds of people, and of those hundreds of people, they will have walked past thousands, and those thousands…


Allow me to draw a gaming analogy here, most people have heard of Warhammer 40,000, and back in the days of Rogue Trader, there were hundreds of grenade types, one of which was Virus.


Virus grenades were lethal.


The grenade is thrown, kills anything without protective gear in the blast radius, then creates a new blast radius over any victims, this kills all the victims in that blast radius without protective gear and so on and so on. Utterly game unbalancing against armies that didn’t have built in respirators (Orks got mullered, Wombles were fine…), but pointless against an army that had protective gear.

But here we all are, wearing protective gear


Here’s where much of the government rules made less sense than usual, instantly go isolate if you get pinged, fine, but by the time the government services catch up to everyone from the weekend, you’ve already gone through the whole convention, and while everyone now gets pinged, it’s too late, you’ve all been exposed. You’re not safe to be anywhere without a mask, unless you’re sitting close to people at a table, enjoying each others company, probably laughing and joking and breathing each others air…


Going to any physical convention requires a conscious decision to be out in public, and moreso, it requires a conscious decision to be around people in close proximity. You can space out theatre halls where panels are taking place, but you can’t socially distance a trade hall, there’s no force in the world that can stop people from crowding in to get bargains (Which is why there was no bring and buy this year…) and there’s no force that can stop people talking in the middle of the aisles, which prevents the 2m distancing rule from being enforced, and that’s if you’re in the middle of an aircraft hangar. If you’re in a smaller convention being run in a hotel, there’s literally nowhere that you can maintain that 2m distance. Particularly at gaming conventions, you can’t socially distance when you’re gaming at a table, and gaming at a table is when you’re allowed to take your mask off and eat and drink, have a good time.


In the company of friends.


I run the RPG section of a number of conventions, in particular, Airecon, Dragonmeet, and UK Games Expo, in each case so far, the number of games submitted for each has dropped by anything from 50% to 80% of the games that would normally be offered. Open gaming is still popular, but then most people only game with people they know, with people they trust.


In the company of friends.


I keep coming back to that, because that’s at the heart of this, when we go to a convention, most of us go because we want to get in the trade hall and we want to see everyone that we haven’t seen in the last two years, and that prolonged absence has been far more acute, that need for human contact, for reassurance that the world has not, in fact, ended. With that, comes a disregard for the orders that have been given, as bonds of friendship and love easily defeat the caution that we should have, and the irrational side of us that knows our friends would never hurt us, throws caution to the wind as we sit down and laugh and joke with them and just enjoy each others company.


I’m guilty of this. I’m so delighted when I see a friend I haven’t seen in two years, and they’re alive and well, I’ll break two metres, I’ll break one metre, hell, I’ll break one centimetre if they want a hug. I’ve been tested negative, so have they, we’re as safe as we’re likely to be.


Would I see it this way in a hospital ward? No, but we’re not in hospital wards, and that’s an important distinction to make, context is everything.


Do you walk everywhere with your head under the parapets? You would if you were in a warzone.


But you’re not in a warzone…


At many times, it does feel like we’ve been in a warzone, many have been scarred for life by this, many more carry the emotional scars that can’t be seen, and none of us really remember what life was like back in late 2019. Be honest, dear reader, you have a Camelot of the heart where you lived free and without fear, where you saw your friends when you wanted to and you didn’t worry that you hadn’t brought a hazmat suit to the playgroup.


You think that as this starts to wind down, as revelations emerge that Omicron (Not Unicron) isn’t anywhere near as severe as it could have been, but it’s far more infectious, and so you’ll probably catch it, but you won’t die of it. You think that things will one day return to what they were.


And then someone coughs behind you…


It will take years for things to return to life as it was, even when people are following the rules and being careful, the spectre of what we’ve all gone through remains. Physical numbers at conventions last year were half of what they were in the years before the pandemic. Expo was one week after the releasing of the full restrictions, Dragonmeet happened one week after the Omicron variant was announced, these are not normal circumstances, even though restrictions were lifted, many people are still (rightly) concerned.


What I’m seeing now though, is that numbers are returning, and in greater levels than they were before. With the news that testing is being wound down, people become less cautious, with each restriction removed, people become less cautious, and now it’s not about those who came to the conventions last year.


It’s about everyone who missed out for a whole two years…


As the government (and I’m talking about Britain here) begins the campaign to say that everything wasn’t that bad and please vote for us next election, there’ll be less mentioning of daily deaths, less mention of infections, victory will be proclaimed, and then nothing more will be said of it.


At that point, conventions will be back, bigger than they ever were with more events than there ever were. Humanity craves what it cannot have, and for two years, it hasn’t had other humans, and for many conventions, that will be the point that brings people back to the fore. If you didn’t have open gaming space before, you need it now, if you didn’t have drop in games, you need them now, if you didn’t have a real ale bar, well…


You get the picture…


What I don’t think will recover at the same speed are the RPG’s, sitting in very close proximity to several other people, all of whom are leaning over the table and talking, is a step too far for many. There’s been a steady build of online events, playing games over zoom calls, and enjoying roleplaying whilst having none of the risk associated with them. I don’t think that will change any time soon. I think that several of the larger conventions will be asked to have virtual games on offer, but as I said in the previous article, that requires that you have monitoring going on, and that increases costs for the convention, and if all you’re doing it for is so that people who aren’t coming to the convention can have a good time without contributing to the convention, why would you spend the extra time to do it?


What I do know is that conventions will now have to diversify in what they offer to the community, where previously a convention was mainly for RPG’s or Board games, now there will be a period of time when all conventions will be all things to all people. We have to be, there’s no way around that, until we know how the landscape has changed, till we see what’s actually happened, how people are actually going to react, we can’t take the chance that the thing we specialised in for so long is the thing that people will want to do after what’s happened.


Above all, we have to watch our own reaction to what goes on. At the top of the page is a picture of the Dragonmeet Choir, this is the team of people who have run that event since I took over the running of it. You’ll notice that several of us aren’t wearing masks.


The internet noticed that as well.


“Doesn’t seem very Covid Safe” came the comment.


I was expecting that, and in my gentle and unassuming way, went back to the person with a half page monologue on the fact that every one of us had been tested prior to coming, had a covid pass, had been masked the whole time, and were likely the people who had adhered to the rules more than anyone else in the convention.


“Oh, well, I wouldn’t have said that if I’d known that” came the reply.


But you didn't check before you spoke, you just spoke...


“Be Kind, Be Caring, Be Careful” should be the watchword of the day, because if not, it’s likely to turn into “Be Pure, Be Vigilant, Behave,” and we all know where that ended up. This will be the challenge going forwards, to not judge things, to make your own decisions, and not to be led by information, not media, to make those decisions


The world changed, we changed with it, and now we have to adapt to that change.


In the company of Friends.


Tomorrow: Doing what you were made to.

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