What Can We Learn from Cons and Faires?

6 Sep

This weekend was a mixture of events in my own corner of the world. While I watched as Facebook slowly filtered in up-dates from my handful of friends and friended celebrities who were attending Dragon*Con in Atlanta, GA; I myself got to attend Holly, Michigan’s Renaissance Fair.

Between the two events, I’ve been thinking a lot about why it is we enjoy going to events like these.

Part of this, I realized, was a little bit of detective work of identifying what “kinds” of people are attending.

Ultimately, the first group I always identify are geeks. As a self-identified geek I don’t use this term as a derogatory judgment, instead I have come to think of geeks as those of us who are passionate (sometimes obsessive) in some corner of the world deemed “geeky.” This ranges from Science Fiction and Fantasy, the worlds often explored in the Con circuit, to reliving history, the realm of Ren Faires; and so much more.

But among the geeks come the tourists, the gawkers, the less-than-devoted sometimes fans and it’s their interaction that has come to be more interesting to me.

Anyone who has attended a Ren Faire knows that there are many people who choose to attend in costume. To continue to draw parallels to the Con experience, we could refer to this as Cosplay. When you attend a Ren Faire in costume, there seems to be an unsaid acknowledgment that you are signing on to become part of the spectacle.

For some geeks, this means living in another era as they produce as Period Accurate a costume as possible. Attending the Faires means sometimes adding one costly piece (be it handmade leather boots and hats or hand-worked metals) per year. This is both obsession and love, a hobby and a proud skill.

For others, this means escaping into a fantasy role. As many Jack Sparrows and belly-bearing gypsies who feel a kinship despite their fictionality, join this community as a sense of living for a day as they might one to live every day.

There are just as easily identified roles at Cons. I have seen painstakingly replicated costumes of movie and video game characters, handmade leather armor alongside carved and painted foam, as well as generic sexy fairies.

For me, the amazing thing about Faires and Cons alike is that no matter the quality or the kind, the kinship built within costuming welcomes all. There are always snobs, and sometimes geek snobs can be the harshest critics, but for the most part all are welcome, appreciated, and supported. If costumed, you automatically sign on to become part of the spectacle of the event. Whether this means going to Dragon*Con expecting to be cornered to get your picture taken or going to a Renaissance Faire expecting to get cat-called and in-joked by other in-character Faire workers and attendees.

Enter the non-costumed.

The role of the non-costumed now seems to be more interesting for me. Why? Because I used to be an always at least semi-costumed individual and have recently moved into the non-costumed group.

Which begs the question, why go traipse around in this world without dressing up and, more importantly, how does this change the general experience you have?

Obviously, there is still a lot of enjoyment to be had as a tourist within the world. The shopping and eating experiences are the same and you are constantly on the edge of involvement. In other words, you can pick and choose how you interact with the Created World of the Fair or Con whereas, if you costume you sign on whole-hog.

At the Faire you might drink a few beers and buy some horns and suddenly feel like getting more involved: sit down for a show that calls for audience participation or pay $3.00 to get your spouse “arrested”. Better yet? Do your best at faking some Medieval wit and just about anybody in costume, working or playing, is up for a bawdy joke.

Similarly at a Con there are opportunities to purchase your way into more involvement as well as cost-free roles to fill.

There is a business to buying and selling geekdom within these communities and the money transacted also buys a license into belonging.

I say this without meaning to judge.

But ultimately there is some judgment because there is an ongoing struggle within geeks communities, within all communities really, to develop a level of ownership of identities, and thus ownership of those communities.

For example: have you ever been frustrated when you liked something “before it was cool,” or better yet, when you liked something that you were openly criticized for liking before there was a tidal change of opinion?

Feeling encroached upon can leave people feeling defensive but for some reason, most of this melts away at Cons and Faires. While there are levels of engagement to these communities that the majority of attendees may not even guess to know the extent, they exist within the gatherings as they do within daily life, sometimes secret or just quiet and below the radar.

And all this musing has left me more curious than ever because, for the most part, these events are growing. Just look at the San Diego Comic Con. As this Con has grown the general understanding of these events has changed. What once started as gatherings for geeks of like interest, it’s as though they’ve now become temporary theme parks.

So what do you think? What role do you play within these communities, if you play one at all? What do you seek to experience through this role?

I’m not sure I’ve come to any real conclusions except that I’m certain there’s something to be learned from these communities and the kind of interactions they foster. Let me know what you think that is!

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