Hail and Well Met: Gaming at Academic Conferences

As we speak, tens of thousands of gamers are gathering in Indianapolis for Gen Con, the country’s largest table-top gaming convention. This seems like the appropriate moment to talk not about conferences on games but rather games at conferences. This is no new idea— gaming has been an increasingly popular topic within academia, as a pedagogical tool and research material. But gaming has a special place at conferences that’s worth diving into.

Gaming as Content

Gaming has always been loved by classicists, but lately games are becoming more frequently the topic of classical presentations and not just hallway discussions. Everything, from games in the ancient world to classical reception in triple-A titles like Assassin’s Creed, has become fair game for scholarly analysis.

Talking about reception in gaming brings such a different flavor to these talks — not only are discussions about modern pop-culture, immediately often more relatable — but now the discussion is about interactive reception and not static depiction and interpretation in e.g. television and movies.

It also draws a crowd. At CAMWS 2018 in Albuquerque, the “Casting Die” panel featured talks on D&D, Civilization, God of War, LARPing, and gaming reception that filled the conference room and delivered some of the most interesting content. Classics in games is a topic that has not been exhausted and that we love to see!

Gaming as Social Event

Gaming can be more than just the subject of talks, however. At a basic level, games are interactive objects, designed not just to be talked about but to be engaged with. So why not bring them down from projector screens to the conference table? Conferences are now including gaming sessions in their programming that allow just that.

At the most recent CAMWS meeting I had the pleasure of playing in a short one-off D&D session. There was so much interest in this activity that they actually ran two groups simultaneously. We played prefabbed characters in a classically-themed quest, and it was such a lovely way to spend an on-brand social evening at a classics conference. The preparation put in to the campaigns meant that we the players could just jump right in, meaning that even new and uncertain players could join.

Games like this provide a structure for social interactions, a set of rules and a plot line that participating parties tacitly agree to by sitting down to play. This type of structure may help mitigate the anxiety that many feel in these sorts of social circumstances, replacing vague motivations like “talk” or “network” with specific goals like “score the most points” or “complete a quest.”

Gaming social events provide a unique alternative to traditional happy-hours and excursions, allowing for bonding over stories and chance instead of (only) location or alcohol. Providing events like this allows conferences to provide relatively inexpensive, inclusive social activities — but gaming doesn’t always have to be scheduled on the programming.

Unscheduled Games

Bringing your own games to conferences may open up a new realm of possible activities. Game-based ad hoc meetups can be a great way to fill gaps of time, interact with new friends, and build up connections. While some games (Catan? Mousetrap?) can be bulky and contain lots of moving parts, many interesting games can be played with little more than a deck of cards (I mean, bridge, if you like, but also Fluxx or even Munchkin). Small, lightweight games and games that can be played in a short amount of time make great spur-of-the-moment activities that can go with you to the bar or the hotel lobby.

If you’re a game-designer as well as a classicist, play-testing your game at conferences is also an option. (As a scholar of the Ancient Near East, I’m especially excited for this upcoming game on Mesopotamia!) But you don’t need to be experienced in games or game design to join these activities. Taking part in games, as a presenter, attendee, or as instigator yourself, can be a great way to stay social and active at conferences while working to reduce the emotional toll.

So, CAMWS attendees, embrace your games! Consider submitting an abstract to our 2020 conference based on classical reception in the games you’ve recently played. Bring your Switch to the meeting to pass the time, or advertise a Gloom meet-up. Participate in CAMWS-sponsored D&D sessions or arrange your own one-shots for the weekend! And let us know if you do — we’d love to help spread the word, and I personally am a guaranteed “yes” to any playthrough of Betrayal at House on the Hill.

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