The ideal gaming con III: Membership

What is the role of attendees at a con? And how much should they pay for the privilege?

Emphasis on membership

The role of attendees at cons has has been an ongoing, but somewhat subtle, conflict within fandom. When you hand over some money to attend a con, are you buying a ticket? Or a membership?

It may seem like the two terms are just different labels for the same thing. Does it matter what you call it? Aren’t you just forking over money and you get to go to this cool place in exchange and who cares what you call the being at the con?

Well, sort of. Certainly, you can treat them both the same: it’s entirely possible to ignore the conflict and attend cons the same way regardless of what terms they use. But really, there’s a pretty important difference in emphasis.

Cons that emphasize ‘tickets’ tend to be cons where the emphasis is on passive entertainment: sitting in the audience while movies, famous people, game trailers and dancing penguins put fun in your head. When I see that a con sells ‘tickets’, I expect that a big part of it will consist of waiting in long lines to pay for my Shatner autograph or to get into the Firefly panel. Cons that emphasize ‘tickets’ tend to be ones where attendees don’t actually create very much of the schedule. They also tend to emphasize the ‘consumer’ aspect of fandom, with huge halls of commercial displays for the latest, niftiest product. And these kinds of cons tend to emphasize and reinforce geek hierarchies; in these, the place of the average fan is to throw adulation and money at people who are already rich and famous. The further down the hierarchy you are, the more passive and consumerist your role is.

In case it’s not clear, the more tendency there is towards the ‘ticket’ mode, the less interested I am in the con. I go to a con to meet and share with cool people of many sorts — people with whom I have a minimal, or nil, hierarchy gradient. I believe that the fun of a con lies not in the big-name, hierarchy-approved guests of honor; in fact, I sometimes don’t look at a con’s guest of honor list at all. For me, there’s a lot more fun to be had in interacting with my fellow fans.

A lot of smaller cons in the Twin Cities don’t sell ‘tickets’. Instead, they sell ‘memberships’. The idea is that when you’re attending this kind of con, you yourself are contributing meaningfully to the fun of the con. Programming items still tend to have certain people on the panel and certain people in the audience, but not nearly as much; you don’t have to be rich, successful (whatever that means) or famous to get on a panel. There’s a much larger expectation that the audience will also have useful things to add, and the programming becomes richer as a result. There’s an assumption that the fun will lie in hanging out with your fellow fans — that the fans themselves are the main source of the fun.

Obviously, the tendencies I’m describing for ‘ticket’-style and ‘membership’-style cons are not absolute. Lots of cons that sell tickets manage to allow a huge amount of the fun to be interactions with fellow fans. And there are tendencies towards fannish hierarchy at even the coziest of membership-based relaxacons. But it really does seem like the different styles of cons have different emphases. It seems like I often hear people saying that the fun of GenCon lies not in the con-sponsored, con-promoted Big Events, but in just sitting down in the hallway and reconnecting with friends, or in a pickup game of Diaspora, or whatever. And every so often I hear that someone has discovered that GigantoCon has a nifty programming track, but the con has put it in the furthest-away hotel, and the programming schedule is only available from a neglected bulletin board located in a disused lavatory with a sign on it saying “Beware of the Leopard”. Cons that sell memberships tend to put a lot more emphasis on the fan-generated fun, which is by far my preference.

It seems like all this should be even truer for a gaming con. Although recent years have seen the rise of spectator RPG sessions, and even at-con events where people play D&D or whatever in front of a huge audience, the thought of a gaming con where that’s the main focus seems somewhere between silly and abhorrent to me. Broadcast gaming sessions can be fun, for sure; and they’re a good substitute for face-to-face gaming if that isn’t available. (Or even just not your cup of tea.) But I don’t want to go to a gaming con to watch famous people play. I go to a gaming con so I can play.

Without you, we’d have no convention.Con of the North registration website

An ideal gaming con, for me, is one where everyone gets to play in, and contribute meaningfully to, a wide variety of games that they like. That seems, almost necessarily, to mean that a good gaming con should be membership-based.

Pricing memberships

This is a trickier question than whether to sell ‘memberships’ or ‘tickets’, I think. How much do you actually charge for that membership?

Clearly, the con should pay for itself. Unless you happen to have an eternally reliable wealthy benefactor, the price of memberships needs to cover all the function space, printing of program books, computer rentals, water dispensers, free food, bulletin board rental, insurance, supplies, and whatever else your cons supplies to attendees. If your con is supposed to raise money for some cause, that needs to be figured in, too.

Once the basic costs have been paid for, though, there start to be other, tricky considerations. The one most relevant here is, do you incentivize contributions to the running of the con with discounts on memberships?

Free memberships for being on programming or otherwise contributing to the con is a big issue for a lot of cons. If George RR Martin says he’ll come to your con and be on five panels in exchange for a free membership, do you say yes?

If you say yes, you’re effectively knocking all the work that other people put into the con. Someone who volunteers to runs the registration desk for the weekend probably puts in more work, and arguably benefits the con as a whole more, than any given programming participant. Giving discounts for specific kinds of contributions to the con means you either a) have to be okay with giving almost everyone discounts, or b) you suddenly have to start ranking all the work that various people perform. Not only is it difficult as hell to quantify this kind of thing, it is really easy for it to lead to severely hurt feelings (and with good reason), and it also has the effect of reinforcing the fannish hierarchy.

However, with a gaming con, while there shouldn’t be a gradient of fannish ‘worth’, there is most definitely a gradient of fannish work. People who run games usually end up putting in more work than people who don’t, and if you don’t somehow incentivize people for running games, you’re effectively discouraging the variety of gaming that you’re working towards.

There are some perverse incentives at work here. If you give big membership discounts for running a game, there’s an incentive to register to run games with the minimum prep possible, and then maybe even to forget to run it. I have certainly experienced both those things, though it’s hard to say whether the GMs were canceling or prepping poorly out of desire to do the minimum work possible.

If, on the other hand and as I said above, you don’t give any membership discount for running games, there’s no incentive to actually run anything. You could argue that the people who want to run games only if they get a free membership in return are not necessarily the people you want running games. But that doesn’t really deal with the fact that running a game can be a lot of work: designing a scenario, creating maps, doing pre-gen PCs, creating other handouts, maybe painting minis or finding props… Not every game calls for all that prep, and not everyone does that much prep. But some games do get that much, or need that much. If person A puts in more time preparing for the con than they do actually attending it, while person B puts in zero time, yet A and B both pay the same amount for their memberships, then A may feel, regardless of their commitment and enthusiasm, that the con is quietly discouraging their dedication.

You clearly can’t use fine gradations of pricing for memberships based on the amount of prep done. Some GMs can prepare an amazing game with 15 minutes’ work, while another GM might spend days of labor only to end up with something disjointed and bland. And trying to do something like ‘discounted membership based on how fun games were’ is clearly a recipe for headaches and hurt.

Still, it’s good to have some kind of gradation for how much work people have done in running games or playing them. This is one thing I think Con of the North is probably doing just about right. They have three basic membership types:

  • Players: These folks only play in games and don’t run anything. This kind of membership costs the most.
  • Judges: These folks both run and play in games. There’s no differentiation by number of games run. There’s a slight discount on a Referee membership as opposed to a Player membership.
  • Referees: These folks only run games. They get a completely free membership, but can’t play in anyone else’s games.

Overall, I think the rates are right about what they should be. I’ve never felt like there’s much of a fannish hierarchy to the different membership types. It mostly just feels like the appropriate level of reward for doing different amounts of work to help the games happen. And while there is still some slight perverse incentive to, say, register as a Judge and then not prep well or to cancel events, the incentive is pretty small.

If I ran the circus con, I think I’d price memberships just about as Con of the North does.

Not too expensive, or charged per game

There are a few other issues that are worth considering in the same breath as memberships and pricing of them.

First is that the con shouldn’t be too expensive. If the only way you can make it work is to charge everyone US$500 for a weekend of gaming, it’s probably time to look at a different hotel, or a different city altogether. And even US$50 may be too much if it’s for a single day of gaming.

I also tend to strongly dislike cons where specific events cost extra to enter. I suppose that some things, like Magic tournaments or whatever, don’t work if participants don’t pay. But the idea of having to pay extra to get into the ultra-exclusive Sunday afternoon D&D game strikes me as wrong in a whole bunch of different ways. Hopefully, all games get treated equally. And hopefully, actually getting into games doesn’t cost more than registering for the con itself.

I suppose that some people might just want to wander the dealers’ room or whatever. Should they have to pay extra for games they’re not going to actually play in?

I like how Con of the North handles this. There isn’t much badging, except for people getting into games; at the beginning of a game, the Referee or Judge is supposed to collect tickets from everyone, and also to make sure that everyone is a correctly-registered member of the con. It’s pretty possible to just wander in off the street and look at the dealers room, though, if that’s what you want to do. The con doesn’t point this out as an option, because of course they hope that everyone will be full attending members. But it is possible to do.

Also, different games don’t cost different amounts. Registering for an eight-hour Civ game or a 15-minute Guillotine session costs the same, because membership includes any number of games you want to register for. There’s no feeling of being punished for registering for multiple games. Con of the North is effectively encouraging people to register for lots of games, and try lots of things, and contribute to the fun as players.

Encouraging membership by those who can’t afford it

Something cons have started doing recently (or at least something I’ve noticed recently) is putting together assistance funds. The fact is, even in the best of times, there are people who can’t monetarily afford to attend a con. It’s not just the price of membership; there can often be additional effectively-required costs, like a hotel room, dining at restaurants, parking fees or transport costs, airfare, childcare, etc. etc. Often, the membership is actually the cheapest part of attending the con. And taking the attitude that attending your con is a privilege, not a right, tends to enforce fannish hierarchies and social injustice. It cuts people off from amazing communities that they should be able to access. And it makes the con more boring, because it limits the pool of amazing people from which to draw members.

I think the Carl Brandon Society may have been the first group to create assistance funds for fans to attend cons (in their case, to help fans of color to attend cons, writing workshops, etc.). WisCon also has an assistance fund. Other cons are starting to do likewise.

It would be nice to see this happen for gaming cons, too. There’s no reason that attendance at a gaming con should be different from attendance at any other kind of con. The con benefits by having a diverse group of members, and many folks otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience the amazingness that is a gaming con. Clearly, the ideal gaming con should have such a fund.

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