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Gen Con’s day-one crowd left attendees and online onlookers worried despite safety guidelines

The board game and TTRPG convention proved unable to enforce vaccination cards, relying on masks and best safety practices.
John Stanifer / Facebook.com

Gen Con, the largest board game convention in the US, held its first day of events and exhibition on September 16th amid an ongoing global pandemic and rise in COVID-19 Delta variant cases. While reports from the show floor paint a sedated scene and general following of guidelines, the initial crowd gathered outside the doors of the main hall sparked concern and frustration from both attendees and those watching from their homes.

Much of the online buzz springs from a photo posted to Twitter by Lone Shark Games’ Mike Selinker (photo credit to Green Ronin Publishing president Chris Pramas), showing a crowd of attendees waiting outside the main exhibit hall in a disorganized - and in many places tightly packed - crowd. “This is terrible crowd management in a pandemic,” Selinker wrote. “Too many folks in one place, no rope discipline, and no separated walkways.”

A video uploaded to the Fans of Gen Con Facebook group showed the same crowd as it flowed through the open doors. Titled “The Running of the Nerds, 2021 edition”, it shows typical behavior for bottlenecked crowds - everyone pressed as close to the front of the mass as possible, any semblance of keeping a six-foot distance forgotten. Several alarmed commenters pointed out how many passersby were grabbing the handrails on the escalator in the foreground on their way in.

The Indiana-based Gen Con updated its initial safety guidelines for the convention on August 6th, mandating masks for all attendees and exhibitors for the duration of the convention while indoors or in crowded outdoor spaces. President David Hoppe said at the time the organisation was continuing to push local health officials to make vaccinations mandatory for attendance, but that goal seemingly never coalesced as attendees were not asked to show vaccination records prior to entering the Indiana Convention Center. Gen Con dropped any mask-optional provisions in the safety update referenced above.

Industry veteran Jim Crocker, who was aiding the Indie Press Revolution booth, tweeted on September 16th that the convention doors opened “10 minutes early with no warning to retailers.” Other attendees and retailers remarked that once the initial crowd outside the main exhibition hall had dispersed, the smaller-than-normal crowd spaced out, remaining masked and generally abiding by social distancing etiquette.

The empty hall was further caused by the notable absence of several larger publishers and retailers this year. Cyberpunk’s R. Talsorian Games announced its decision to forego attendance in early September, joining board game publishing giant Asmodee and Paizo, steward of tabletop RPGs Pathfinder and Starfinder in abstaining from a physical presence at the convention. Several of these companies instead opted to contribute to the return of Gen Con Online, a digital-only counterpart to the main event.

Regardless of the generally safe conditions inside the halls and reported diligence of Gen Con staff in enforcing its policies, many online continue to criticise the organisation for failing to secure a vaccination mandate. Essen Spiel, which will be held in October, announced earlier this year it would require proof of vaccination or at least a negative test from attendees. Other prominent conventions have followed suit. The US Center for Disease Control lists Indiana’s vaccine rate at 47% of its total population, and the state is recording a seven-day average of 3,973 cases at time of writing.

Dicebreaker has reached out to Gen Con for comment on continued enforcement and an update on vaccination requirement in the future but did not hear back before publication.

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