One of my earliest Gen Con traditions was roaming the exhibit hall for free stuff. As a middle schooler, I had already made a sizable investment getting into the con. Anything I could grab on top of that was gravy, from T-shirts to giant Magic: the Gathering cards, to overstock novels and rulebooks. As I learned the realities of RPG-publishing, the true price of promotional items became clear: there's no such thing as a free lunch. If the swag wasn't driving sales, someone was paying the price.
Despite my belated lesson in economics, it's always fun to see what kind of free stuff is available. If enough people are wearing ridiculous paper crowns, it divorces the weekend even further from everyday life.
There were fewer freebies than in past years. The dearth of swag started at the badge line, where the goodie bags of years past were replaced with a coupon book. Most of the coupons were for discounts rather than truly free loot. Crystal Caste's free dice were a fine gesture, but not enough to fill the void left by the lack of stickers, trinkets, and starter decks for unpopular CCGs.
The freebie drought continued in the dealer's hall. The days of goodies piled up to entice the shy consumer are over. Now, budget gamers need to play demos and enter contests for a chance at prizes. The Cheese Weasel ConQuest program brings much-needed traffic to the smaller booths, rewarding those willing to make the trek and listen to pitches. Mayfair Games offered a similar program, where gamers received a Settlers of Catan-themed ribbon after completing each demo. A full crop of ribbons resulted in a prize.
The real winner for freebies this year didn't provide traditional swag, but high-quality food. Rio Grande Games ran demos in their own room, away from the madness of the exhibit hall. There, gamers could partake in games like Power Grid and Dominion (including the new Dark Ages expansion) while partaking in zucchini, green beans, and mashed sweet potatoes. Even the most red-toothed carnivore benefits from a break from convention hall pizza, hot dogs, and $3 bottled water.
One possible reason for the shift in the swagenomic currents is cost. The aforementioned unpopular CCGs often found their way to Cardhalla as construction materials. Even the smallest booth costs a great deal of money for a company seeking to break into the RPG market. Adding additional expenses on top incurs more debt, with uncertain results
The industry giants have the money to deluge con-goers with novelties, but they're biding their time. Although there were many popular games this year, there was no single must-have item. AEG's Smashup, Fantasy Flight Games' Netrunner, and Fantasy Flight Games' X-Wing Miniatures Game all generated a lot of attention, but none of their companies went for big theatrics.
Finding a free Gen Con memento isn't impossible, but it's a more time-consuming task than in years past. It's enough to encourage this gamer to have a good, long sit. Maybe the best free Gen Con swag isn't the dice, the bibles, or the True Dungeon tokens. Maybe it's the photos and the memories of walking the con in search of treasure.
Exploring every corner of Gen Con is impossible. There are too many hidden corridors, up-and-coming games, and interesting people for just one weekend. Even after a decade of attendance, I'm able to find surprising sections of the convention. Trade Day was one such surprise.
In my defense, Trade Day isn't really advertised: it's not meant for the general gamer. Educators, librarians, and exhibitors hold panels to discuss game stores and the educational possibilities of gaming.
Each of the three panels I observed on the educator track consisted of one speaker and 20-25 observers. "Bringing Games to Life" explored how 5th and 6th graders learned historical context (among other skills) by adopting the roles of Ancient Egyptians and Spanish Floridians for several hours a week. By journaling in character, trading resources with one another, and responding to group scenarios introduced by their instructor, they were able to experience classroom topics from a different angle than reading about it.
"Building a Gaming Community" provided practical tips on how to set up a gaming club at a public library. Networking and partnerships formed the key elements. Game companies and hobby stores are constantly looking for new markets, and game clubs need games and snacks. The speaker was adamant about using club members to provide scaffolding: even though the library staff was in charge of the club, they donít necessarily have the social clout to sell it as "cool." For that, they need student leaders and opportunities for club members to follow their gaming passions.
"The Mysterious Library" was a case study of a library scavenger hunt held at Ferris State University. Instructors could use this example as a chance to introduce fun, game-like elements (as opposed to tedious, game-like elements) into library tours. More inventive minds could use the talk as inspiration for weaving Alternate Reality Game-like elements into their general instruction.
It was reassuring to see so many educators interested in trying new techniques to get in touch with gamers. Most were gamers and gamer allies, working to unite their personal interests with the demands of professional life. The message of the event seemed to be education plus entertainment doesnít have to equal edutainment. Enough examples of more equitable games and learning systems exist that the real challenge is adapting them to the needs of a specific learning community.
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