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What I Did This Weekend, And Why It Mattered

A while ago some friends of mine pointed out to me online that they were involved in a kickstarter that was live, so I went to check it out. And it was a kickstarter for a gaming convention in the Bay Area in October, and a whole bunch of people that I cared a bunch about were going to be involved and wanted it to succeed. And I was a bit flush that month, so I said 'fuck it' and I backed the kickstarter and that got me a ticket to BigBadCon 2018.

And so I had a ticket, and I made reservations, and bought a plane ticket, and everything was looking up. And then I broke my foot. And now I was mobility-limited. And then my mom died. And I had to go out of town and deal with all of that basically the week before the con, which included taking a bunch of unpaid time off from work. And I thought really seriously about not going, but then I was like: no, there are cool people there that you haven't seen in literal-years. And you've already spent the money. So I said 'fuck it' and I went to the goddamned con.

I imagine most of my audience has been to conventions of one sort or another, but a game con is all about the games: boardgames, tabletop RPGs, LARPS, improvised interactions, playtesting of various sorts of games, and one or two panels about stuff related to all of the above items. And because Capital-L-Life was happening to me when signups for the various events went live, I ended up not getting into any of the things I wanted to do. Instead, I signed up for just a couple of things that seemed to sound cool, and I figured I would get into some random pickup stuff while I was there. Both of my scheduled events were on Friday. And both of them were... OK? I guess? Everyone was fine, but I discovered that I really don't have any interest in playing games with random strangers, even when they're perfectly nice people. Games are medium through which I interact with my friends, and when my friends aren't there I have almost no interest in the medium itself. So aside from the AMAZING panel from some veteran industry folks, my Friday was pretty much a bust.

And then on Saturday morning, I wrenched my knee pretty badly, because I was trying to navigate a strange space (a hotel) with a broken foot. And at that point I knew I was going nowhere for a while. And if I'd've had my laptop, I would have retreated to my room and ordered room service and felt sorry for myself and dicked around and been sad and lonely. But I had made the very deliberate decision not to bring my laptop, because I wanted to avoid that particular pattern of behaviour. Instead, I leaned in heavily on the fact that I am both an introvert and that I was unable to go anywhere, and I commandeered a table in the hotel lobby, right between the bar and the dining room. I made up a little "feel free to sit here" sign, indicating that my table was a safe place to come and chill out even if you didn't want to talk to anyone. I wouldn't ignore anyone, but I also wouldn't force anyone to interact with me. Instead, I'd be present. And offer others the chance to be present, too. I dropped a little message to that effect into the Con discord. Basically, I instituted a hallway (well, technically, a lobby) track.

And the thing is, I had a fantastic time. People I did know, people that were already my friends and whom I wanted to see, knew exactly where I was, and so came by in their spare time and sat down and chatted and chilled and ate and drank with me. And then people I didn't know saw my post or my sign and came and sat. Some of them came to be social; frequently these were people like me, who have anxiety issues and so are often unclear or uncomfortable around strangers, and are never particularly confident of the dos and don'ts of interacting with strangers. But I was being explicit, with my sign and my post and my big green "Yes, I would like to friendship" button: this is a safe place to sit down and talk. Some folks wanted a corner to sit and grab a bite, and that was totally fine! I was explicit to everyone who joined me at table. "You're welcome to sit. And if you want to chat, I'm happy to chat. But please don't feel like you must be social; if you need a place to be quiet for a moment, this is also that space." And many people did sit for ten or fifteen minutes or even an hour, eating their food or waiting for a table in the dining room or waiting for a friend to meet up with or even just waiting for the next event to start.

The (analog) gaming industry is so small and insular I'm not sure you can even call it an industry, as opposed to a hobby circle. But BBC18 had some pretty big names despite that. Not Mike-Mearls-big, but these were insider-big named people. And a whole bunch of them came and sat at my table! And talked with me! A little bit about games and gaming, but much more of the time was spent talking about our lives, and our commonalities, and our experiences. I had so, so many conversations with strangers where we talked about the loss of our parents. We were people who had reached an age where it was inevitable; we had lost those pillars or our youths, and what that loss was like, and how we cope with something that will never, ever have any sort of ending or resolution. Talking about our shared experiences, about our shared coping mechanisms, about the things that helped, or didn't, or might, or might not. I quoted my partner a lot, about the temporary nature of everything. I (embarrassingly) managed to quote Meguey Baker to her partner Vincent. While she was sitting next to me.

I also spent a pretty good chunk of the time there listening to others. Prompting them, or more often listening in while they talked to other people who were at the table. After the experience of having myself interrupted and talked over three times at a different table (twice by a guy who later turned out to be my GM for my tabletop game), I made a decision: if someone interrupted me, I was simply going to surrender the conversation; as a white dude, it was my turn to shut up. If someone interrupted someone else, then I was quick to jump in and make sure the original speaker had the "spotlight" back, as it were; but for me, I was just going to step back any time someone else felt engaged enough to jump in. And I learned a couple of things by doing that. First, I learned that my stories aren't nearly as interesting as I think they are, because people often felt free to interrupt me. Second was that the people who interrupted me often wouldn't stick around. They'd drop in, bigfoot me, and then leave once their point was made. (I'll give you three guesses what these folk often looked like.) And third was that the people I wanted to be having the conversation and the spotlight often tried to correct themselves, at which point I actively encouraged them to continue. And those folk would sit and talk for hours. It turns out that when you create a space where people who are otherwise discouraged from talking to take the spotlight and drive the conversation, amazing things happen. Amazing discussions spring forth when people who look like me shut up and sit back.

The most interesting part of this, to me anyway, was what happened when I did it again on Sunday. It was the last day of the con and while there were lots of events still happening, there were also a lot of people who were worn out, both physically and emotionally, and so having a place to come and sit and just be chill was a valuable resource. And having more than one person come by and say "I really appreciate you doing this, it was really valuable" when all I did was sit still and listen was both moving and gratifying. Having a woman say "thank you" with tears in her eyes for me doing very nearly literally the least I could do was an indication that often the things that to other people are big things are quite often small things to us.

Not even the horrible toothache which turned out to be an infected molar could ruin my weekend. And it was made great specifically because I was forced to do nothing, and decided to lean into that. I'm so glad I went. I'm so glad I got to see and meet and sit with so many interesting, engaging, brilliant, broken people. If it were just the games, I don't think I'd go to BigBadCon again. But the chance to "Hold Court", as my friend Vivian called it? The chance to create a space where people can just sit, and talk, or not talk, for as little or as long as they need? Especially when those people are queer, trans, non-conforming, "Non-Compliant"? That feels like a great reason to come back to BBC. (Though dragging my partner to it seems downright cruel and selfish, honestly.)

If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it? -- Dōgen Zenji, founder of the Sōtō school of Zen.

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