As a longtime resident of Atlanta, I have experienced Dragon Con in one way or another since I was in high school. From its days being roundly ignored by the majority of the city to the present, when tens of thousands of regular citizens turn out on a humid Saturday morning to see Stormtroopers and Ghostbusters march down Peachtree Street, Dragon Con has been a part of the Atlanta geek landscape. After attending part of this year’s convention as a member of the press representing AiPT, I want to give my thoughts on the Con itself, its failings and successes, and where it could improve to build towards a sustainable future, not just financially, but as an integral part of Atlanta’s diverse culture.
Part I: It is the best of cons, it is the worst of cons.
Over Labor Day weekend, I attended two very different conventions, both held in Atlanta, Georgia. One was fan-driven and centered on the love of nerddom, fandom, pop-culture, and general geekiness, producing some fantastic moments and incredible cosplay. The other was a poorly managed, bloated convention held in multiple hotels and an over-crowded apparel mart, where crowds shoved and sweated as they were forced to wait in lines outside in the Georgia heat while the Fire Marshal closed buildings, and volunteers – all the way up to director positions – gave conflicting information at best.
One showed other conventions how fans can be the best drivers of content and community support, while the other oversold and overpriced everything in sight. One championed inclusivity with Diversity panels and an ever-growing feminist and LGBTQ+ focus, while the other allowed an alt-right GamerGate convention to set up a booth advertising their new con, supposedly focused on “old-school” gaming, “ethics,” and internet meme culture. Dragon Con is a dichotomy, experienced differently by all who attend each year. It can be whatever con-goers want it to be, but it sure isn’t easy.
Before the hate mail, I want to love Dragon Con. It is one of the largest conventions of its kind, in my immediate area, and truly has some of the best that fandom has to offer. This year I attended Saturday and Sunday, both days about 10 am until 5ish pm. I know that I’ll hear about the after hours events, but that’s going to be part of my point, so please read on.
I attended a number of panels, a live podcast recording, a 300-person Hamilton sing-along, and traversed the vendor halls. I didn’t track my mileage, but had to have walked the half mile between my car and the vendor building at least 6-8 times, as well as the walks between hotels and throughout the three floors of vendors/artists. As a high school and college student in the 1990s, I attended quite a few Dragon Cons, never finding it to be overwhelming in scope. After a personal hiatus from the convention in favor of Origins in Columbus, Ohio or GenCon, after its move to Indianapolis, I returned to DragonCon having attended truly well-run, epic scale gaming conventions – an important point in this whole tale. What I found – and continue to find – returning to Dragon Con is a convention that should be unsustainable in its current incarnation. I am speaking from the point of view of a fan desperately wanting to interact with a well-run convention that recognizes how big it is, while also continuing to provide a place for geeks of all stripes to come together.
Stay tuned for Part II where I discuss the beginnings of Dragon Con, its questionable history, the positives that can be seen throughout the weekend, and the convention that is just too big for its britches.