“Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”- Benjamin Disraeli
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. So, a guy walks into the 37th annual Origins Game Fair…
I’ve been going for something like, fifteen years now. It’s become a kind of pilgrimage for me, and I can hardly remember why I do it anymore. Nostalgia is a big part of the draw, I suppose. I remember the first time I went. Discovering, only after years of nerding in small, isolated groups that all this gaming was right beneath my nose.
In the days before the internet had moved beyond its first awkward, wavering steps, concentrated information about gaming was rare and came from local gamestores, rumors and (if you can believe/recall it) print periodicals. The first time I set foot in the dealers hall and I laid my eyes on so many tables of games and gamers felt revelatory and, accordingly, made something of a lasting impression on me. This effect was somewhat magnified by the strange context in which it was set. At 16 I was living with friends of the family and had a degree of freedom that should be enjoyed by absolutely no one at such a tender age. (Though there is neither the need nor the time to recount the many strange tales of those days here, suffice it to say those were heady times, indeed.).
But over the years it’s become something more. I enjoy getting all my gaming gear ready and heading down there for a couple days of urban survival. It always feels like a grand adventure, like I’m about to set out on a quest. And isn’t that what got all of us into these hobbies, that need for adventure?
Maybe not? Maybe, it is a profound sense of unspoken disappointment that binds us together, more than a shared love of games. I think nerds, when we think of ourselves as a group, tend to think of ourselves as happy people that take simple joy in absorbing stories and ideas from a host of universes, as opposed to just this one. I think I disagree with that, though. I think most of us are eager to absorb alternate worlds or counter-factual histories not in the interest of a diversification of possibility, but because we’ve looked at this world and, having found it wanting in way or another, decided that it no longer merits our full attention, and turned away from it. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, etc., etc.
I used the word pilgrimage before because there is an almost spiritual element to it for me these days. Travelling to kneel before a dusty reliquary in which the desiccated corpse of a carefree yesteryear lay interred. And is not ritual, divorced of its original intent, akin to madness? A confluence of things has made Origins important to me over the years, but it seems that each year a little more of the original reason is eroding.
Origins is dying a slow, wasting death. It’s got years to come still before it finally kicks it, and lots to offer until then, but the signs are fairly clear. You could point to a variety of reasons for the decline- the internet, the ground that’s been given by analog games to their digital cousins, sponsorship issues, etc. But I wonder if it’s not because we haven’t paid enough attention to it. Sometimes, I wonder if things, in some larger, mystical sense, aren’t dying from a lack of nourishment; a starvation of the spirit. When we neglect things, do they suffer for want of our love and start to die away?
That’s what’s in my head when I start down the staircase to hit the convention proper. And one of these days, I think to myself, I’m going to stand on this staircase and hear a sickly, gasping death rattle from the con instead of the buzz of people below.
Not today, though. Crowd seems a bit thinner than the heyday, surely, but it’s only Thursday and there are plenty of people here, milling about or queuing up or camped against a wall. So, I set about retrieving my press pass. I’ve taken pains to make sure my credentials are sufficient to justify my tenuous claims of journalistic intent (even if I only get one to save a few bucks and maybe, a little, to feel special).
After collecting them, I am almost immediately at a loss as to what to do. Years past, I would’ve signed up to play in some sort of events (probably Magic tournaments). Though my gaming roots lie in cooperative endeavors like RPGs, I’ve become focused almost exclusively on zero sum games. I wonder at what point winning became so important to me.
I decide to take in the con. Though the layout for the various halls and placement of the exhibit hall has remained fairly static over the years, changes do happen and it’s always nice to see if there’s anything unexpected that’s been added. It’s no GenCon, but Origins is still a behemoth of a convention. After walking it end to end, and poking my nose in a few of the many side rooms, I allow myself to be satisfied that everything is pretty much as it has been, if a bit smaller, and retire to a nearby drinking establishment to plan my weekend. I end up at a bar down of the OSU campus, drinking beer and watching the hipster class engaged in their own strange games of social and cultural dominance.
Thursday night blurs into Friday morning. I head back into the city, tuck my car away on a pleasantly arboreal stretch of road a few miles away that will allow me a pleasant, if somewhat longish, walk across sleepy residential streets and through a large park that leaves me feeling pleasantly stoned by the time the tree tops begin giving way to the humorless glass faces of taller buildings.
I decide to hit the Exhibit Hall. I think the dealer’s hall is everyone’s favorite part of every convention, and I’m no exception. I find walking about in massive groups of people to be oddly liberating. Diving through the jostling field of backpacks to peek at all the booths is an adventure unto itself. I always look forward to it (and am seldom sober when wandering through the throng of people). Maybe it’s a sense of anonymity that accompanies a crowd, the way you have all these tiny pockets of humanity, fully absorbed in their own world and yet blissfully unaware of the world around them. Or maybe it’s the sheer chaos of it all. People in costumes, tiny video game battles erupting on video screens with explosions and music all abound. Large, slick booths from well-funded game companies sit next to booths with pushy dealers hawking their wares under signs proclaiming their willingness to buy your shit. Like some bustling bazaar of a time gone by, the clash of sights and sounds pleases is a feast of stimuli for the brain.
Mayfair games owns Origins ass this year, and it shows. I wander down “Catan Strasse” (as one of the main thoroughfares is named) as I look endlessly for something to invest some time in, but find little that compels my attention for more than a few seconds. I get trapped in an unpleasantly protracted conversation with an enthusiastic (though perhaps a touch unbalanced) older gentleman after making the mistake of lingering a few moments too long looking at his series of WWII, chit-based board games. I think I manage to escape him graciously, even without making a purchase.
Finally, on one of the edges of the hall, I find a table set up with pictures of long-dead scientists (Newton, Leibniz and, I think, Pasteur stick in my memory) that are accompanied by what seem to be player sheets and some sort of scientific discovery chart. I’m intrigued. The table is unmanned, and there are no rules or anything immediately visible, so I linger for a moment. After waiting around for awhile and asking some of the nearby vendors if they know anything about it (nope), I reluctantly depart and make a note to return later (though, obviously, I never do), striking out to seek some new adventure.
I end up standing in front of a huge booth of dead CCGs. My eyes linger on boxes of the Highlander card game (wasn’t that supposed to get rebooted?) and Legend of the Burning Sands, but there are countless names among the fallen and if we were to read them off like a list of departed friends, it would take no small amount of time. More things we just didn’t love quite dearly enough to keep them alive? I fight back the guilty urge to buy something as some sort of misguided act of remembrance, and look at my phone and realize it’s high time for a drink.
S- meets me in the hotel bar, and we sit and watch the people flowing by trailing their suitcases or tails for awhile before leaving for a friend’s gallery showing. Walks down crowded sidewalks and complimentary glasses of wine swindle the rest of the night away from me.
Saturday morning I was back, bright and early, slogging across the convention center and the surrounding arts district, coffee in hand and already out of sorts all over again. I popped my head into a room and watched a bit of a National Security Decision Making game, which has always fascinated me. I wonder for a moment what Disraeli would think of the “Great Game” recast on a pettier scale. That afternoon, I leave to attend an informal wedding reception.
The reception is at a lovely house in the newish crop of suburbs sprawling angrily north of the city; farmland swallowed up for middle-class mini-mansions. The lack of trees in these newer places bothers me. I’m not one to find change disagreeable, but I feel… exposed on the oversize lawns of largish houses with high-vaulted ceilings (built, no doubt, to evoke some shade of the grandeur of the great homes of the affluent but producing, on this smaller scale, only a surfeit of echoes), with the sun beating down. There’s sod underfoot, and a tent overhead, but it feels like a desert. I need tall buildings or tall trees, something to loom above me, to feel at ease. I assume this inclination to be some sinister byproduct of evolutionary biology.
The event itself is pleasant enough. I know hardly anyone there beyond S-, but I’m good at small talk and like to drink, so I feel at home enough. Not really, maybe, but close. It’s interesting that I still always think of myself apart in these situations where the social expectation is to adhere to a sort of beer and football banality. I always feel like a wolf in sheepskin, creating mnemonic implements to make sure I know everyone’s name by the end of the night. Social dexterity is a game of sorts, even if they hold it in low esteem in the suburbs. Maybe someone else here is playing games in their head to pass the time, too. But if they are I can’t detect it.
I wake up Sunday disoriented, but not hungover. It’s the last day of the convention. I head down to the convention, S- in tow, and meet up with some friends who are playing in a Magic tournament. She’s never seen a gaming convention so, after a Jedi mind trick or two to get around buying a badge for her twenty minute tour, we go check stuff out. But neither of our hearts are in it. We decide instead to go for a walk.
The convention center lies on a fault line of sorts where our arts district and our business district meet, and there’s a clear demarcation of the place where one ends and the other begins. On one side, a landscape of art galleries, coffee shops and the odd vegan bistro terminates in the convention center and its playful (garish) appearance. But the convention center is linked to a somber Hyatt that connects, via a series of breezeways and tunnels, across the surrounding streets in several directions. These lead into a series of parking garages, off into office buildings, down escalators or up stairs, etc. Normally a-bustle with office workers going to and fro, today they were largely empty and silent as we made our way through all those strange, connective spaces-in-between. Climbing through the cracks in the skyscrapers, lingering here or there when it opened up into a courtyard that contained some well-maintained corporate garden, so oddly beautiful on a sunny day, secure in the knowledge that we had subverted them from their purpose of glorifying some entrepreneurial endeavor or another, and turned them to our own ends, if only for a little while.
When we went back into the convention center, late in the afternoon, my friends were gone. Lacking any more purpose, and feeling the natural tide of the population ebbing away, I decided Origins was done with me for another year and I turned to leave. On the way out, above the stairs that lead out of the convention center proper, I turned and looked back, and listened. No death rattle yet. Next year, maybe I’ll even play games at Origins.