Gen Con was a great break for me.   Almost all of the activity centers around games that don’t involve movement of electrons through wire.  Beautifully designed card games, intricate miniatures, carefully laid out maps, huge tomes full of arcane D & D rules,  and elaborate costumes all harken back to the days when a good story teller and a sharp pencil ruled the gaming world.  While I don’t yearn for the days when a single battle took a hour to complete, I did enjoy going back to my college days and being tempted by all the new sets and new games.  I restrained myself, mostly because I am working on the dissertation, a task on par with creating and running a second “me” in a virtual world.  (Using “virtual world” here in the old sense, where it all exists in my imagination, the imagination of my friends, and a stats sheet.)

As an educator, I had a few “take aways” from the event.  Some were reminders, and some insights were, to me , new.

1) This is an incredible expression of creativity – on the part of the organizers, vendors, and attendees.  On Saturday, I stopped taking pictures of all the remarkable costumes.  There were too many to document, all ready for the parade and the costume contest.  And creativity is not only planned out but also can be very spontaneous.  Any game master knows you have to be good at improv.  My friend Tristan Zimmerman caught one of the most fun, premiere event at Gen Gon, the Killer Breakfast  – during which players come up on stage to role play and survive as long as possible.  It is a hilarious event, as you can hear from Tristan’s podcast for the Dragonlance Canticle.  I even got involved, explaining to TJ VanHelsing on stage why he needed to give me a Gaia Online hat.  (He did.)

2) This is a very educational event.  Seriously.  Because I had not planned well (had really not planned at all), I did not get into any organized games, so I hung out in the trade show hall a lot, watching people test play games.  I looked over the shoulders of people learning to play D & D version 4.  And I learned to play Dominion … eventually, I helped teach other people to play Dominion.

For days, I watched the same tactics used very successfully by different people.  You give a quick overview of the game and objectives and then you jump right in.  The newbie starts doing authentic tasks in context immediately, with one or more experienced players scaffolding for a while in a supportive, less competitive environment.  You use just-in-time learning methods, and warn the new player of a mistake before it is committed – or you point out a particularly good move and explain why it would be good to do right then.  Gradually, as the player becomes more confident, you help less and shift to increasingly competitive play. New players would be up and running inside of 10 or 20 minutes for most games.  They might not win, and they’d be sure to make plenty of mistakes, but they would be involved in legitimate participation fairly quickly.

If we compared this strategy to how we would teach a game in high school, I doubt anyone would ever successfully play Dungeons and Dragons.

3) It was a far more diverse group of people than I expected.  Ages ranged from young children through people well past middle-age.  I saw many more women than expected, even at the serious gaming tables.  The group still seemed predominantly white, however.  (I was not keeping a close account of the demographics … maybe that can be my next research topic?)  My take a way from this, as an educator, is that we need to be careful about our assumptions about who is involved in the gaming community.  We tend to think of this being a past-time of young people, but many adults are obviously making room for this hobby in their successful lives.

Friends are already asking me if I’ll go next year.  I do hope to be able to swing the time off in early August 2011!