If you have read my previous piece regarding my experience at PAX South, you’ll know that I am a convention newbie. It’s only until this year that I have really started to attend conventions, and being a baby blogger and contributor, it has opened up a whole new world of possibilities in what to look for and consider. So when I found out that a regional convention was in my own backyard, I was excited to attend.
Let me give y’all a little background of AggieCon. Started in 1969 by the Texas A&M University student organization Cepheid Variable, AggieCon is the oldest and largest student-run geek genre convention in the United States. Originally focused on science fiction, it has since grown to accommodate many facets of geek culture, including anime, gaming, fantasy, comic, and even a Rocky Horror showing during the evening hours. Typically, it was hosted out of Texas A&M University’s Student Union, but the convention has gotten so big that it now holds the convention at a large hotel in College Station. Over it’s 46 years, numerous prestigious guests have attended and spoke as Guests of Honor, including Harlan Ellison, Walter Koenig, George R.R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman.
Finally, AggieCon is a philanthropic organization, donating $1,500 every year to Scotty’s House Child Advocacy Center, a local non-profit center, which provides support for abused children and families. I had students who were members of Cepheid Variable, and a good friend who sat next door from my office working tirelessly to make sure the schedule and program were ready. So naturally, I had to put on my TARDIS convention top hat and see what this was all about!
Attending AggieCon was another first for me in that it was smaller in size than I was used to. Tekko was a giant convention (which has grown since I attended in 2006), and PAX South was so overwhelming, at some points I had no idea what to do (and apparently, it was significantly smaller compared to East and Prime). Moreover, many of the panels presented were not necessarily what I was interested in, so I was a little worried that I would be done with AggieCon before I got started. However, by the end of the convention, my fear was assuaged and I really got to appreciate what AggieCon had to offer in ways that a big convention like PAX South couldn’t. So instead of doing a review of AggieCon itself, this post will hopefully persuade you into attending smaller, regional geek and gaming conferences versus waiting for PAX or Comic-Con to come around.
Perhaps your bigger convention will have more people, and will connect you with more illustrious names, but when you starting out in the world of gaming and geekery, you want to meet lots of new people. Smaller, regional conferences offer a good space to meet not only with lots of people, but also ones that live in your area (more friends for gaming—fine by me). Also, because there aren’t more illustrious guests attending the event, that doesn’t mean the guests of honor are not willing to mingle! In fact, I’d say they are probably more out and about at the smaller conventions then at the big ones.
For example, one of the guests of honor this year was Lewis Lovhaug, better known as Linkara, who is part of the Channel Awesome network. Not only did he present on his own panel, he was a panelist for two others as well (one of my favorites was “A Career in Geekery.”) For someone interested in starting a web series, smaller conventions like this are a great opportunity to connect and network with those who are successful in a more personal construct than, say, Comic-Con, where everybody wants a person’s time. Therefore, if you are trying to make some basic connections, go to the regional conferences first. Those connections might be what you lead you to the figures at the big name conventions.
Many have heard my threat of bringing a camping chair to PAX South next year (which I still intend to do), but whereas big conventions need all the room for their stuff, regional conferences do not have to worry so much. At AggieCon, there were lots of spaces to sit, relax, and enjoy the atmosphere. In fact, AggieCon promotes itself as having a lot of seating space, which, in my opinion, is fantastic PR. This may not seem like a big deal, but trust me, once you go to a convention where you stand in line for at least an hour to play 5-10 minutes of a game, you will appreciate having comfortable seating space.
One of my favorite parts of any convention is the EXPO room (although I feel like ‘room’ does not give it justice) where you can look and/or sample new video games, look at people’s artwork, and buy some goodies. The benefit of bigger conventions is you have more vendors to choose from. The bad news is, you don’t really get a chance to see all of them because you’re standing in line most of time to even see what a vendor has. The EXPO room at AggieCon was not only as diverse as the big conventions, but I actually had time to talk with the vendors (and purchase ALL of the things). For example, one of the vendors I had a great conversation with was Michael Van Slyke of Archangel Arts, who makes and sells cigar box guitars. According to the Speal’s Tavern Cigar Box Guitar Museum:
“Cigar box guitars are the first instruments played by many blues and rock legends such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Carl Perkins and even Jimi Hendrix. The legend is told when poor folk wanted to play guitar but could afford an instrument, they would craft one from an empty wooden cigar box, a discarded stick and baling wire for strings. This poverty instrument is witnessing resurgence in modern times with the success of old time music such as O Brother Where Art Thou and the do-it-yourself spirit brought on by the Recession.”
Let me tell you, what this individual could do with just a cigar box and a broomstick is amazing, and it has become my DIY project for the summer. Moreover, Archangel Arts is a supporter of music programs in schools and asks its buyers (if possible) to make a donation when buying a guitar (or if you cannot afford a guitar, making a donation). Fortunately, I got a change to do both, and not only is my guitar a lot of fun to play even though it’s only one-string, it makes an excellent decoration in my house. I also got an excellent print of Chell from my favorite game series Portal, which is now framed and hanging in my apartment, done by Foolish Mortal. Needless to say, I enjoyed my time in the EXPO Room, but it was made better because of the last reason you should attending a smaller, regional convention.
I am such a bad financial person that I really do not know how much I spent all together at PAX South, but I would not be shocked if it were upwards of $1,500 to $1,800 after hotel, gas, registration, food—let alone what I bought at the EXPO Room. And I was lucky that I lived close enough to San Antonio so I could drive! At AggieCon, since it took place at the University, I only had to pay the registration fee, which was $25 … FOR THE WHOLE WEEKEND! I didn’t have to pay for parking, or a hotel, and I could go back to my apartment to eat food if I wanted. This left me with a lot more funds to play with.
I get it, bigger conventions are going to cost more, and that’s understandable. But for those of us who cannot afford to attend every big convention, these smaller conventions offer us a lot of variety while not breaking the bank. Moreover, it leaves me a lot more money for HavenCon, for which I was able to buy an awesome VIP pass and have enough money for gas and a hotel (previously I was just going to drive to Austin that morning and drive back that night because I couldn’t afford a hotel).
Don’t get me wrong, I love going to big conventions! I had a blast at PAX South and a convention high that did not go away for days. I met some great people there—some of them I really get a chance to network with at HavenCon. But I think in our anticipation for the bigger conventions, we sometimes forget that all we are looking is available closer than we think. I am really stoked to have a regional conference that is so awesome and so close. I am already talking with members of Cepheid Variable on doing a panel next year regarding Game Studies. But don’t take my word for it … look up to see gaming conventions in your area and check it out. This is especially important for indie game developers who may be in the very beginning phases of their game. Maybe they won’t be as organized as AggieCon (after all, they do have over forty years of experience), but perhaps you can be the person or organization that could make it awesome.
Until then, my TARDIS convention top hat eagerly waits for the next gaming and geek convention.