I attended Dragon Con in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, fully aware that the convention would be different than in non-pandemic years and that attending a large event was still risky. All attendees had to show proof of vaccination or a negative test from the last 72 hours before picking up a badge. Masks were required everywhere inside the con. You couldn’t buy a badge onsite, Saturday-only badges weren’t available at all. Capacity was halved compared to 2019, but 40,000 people are still a lot no matter how you slice it.
So how was it?
I thought I’d be running back home an hour after arriving, ready to hide for the rest of the weekend from my roommate (who skipped out on the con altogether) and the friends staying with me and attending the con. The knowledge that I could do that instead of retreating to a hotel room finally led me to attend, at least for awhile.
You could feel the lack of crowds at the con, and while the con had a different energy than usual, I loved the lack of crowds. I didn’t have to push through crowds in hotel lobbies. I could sit on the floor. I had to wait for the bathroom once the entire weekend. (This is an accomplishment in itself.) I wasn’t squeezed up against people during panels. I could walk on the sidewalk instead of the road. There were fewer elaborate costumes that took up a lot of space, even at night when more of them come out, but never fear: the inflatable dinosaurs were there as always, and the Loki variants were everywhere.
To my great surprise, con attendees were good about keeping their masks on when they weren’t actively eating or drinking. Most of the panels I attended were small in number, with seats further apart than usual (although the exact spacing varied by hotel). In fact, I didn’t go to any of the huge panels–partly because I wasn’t interested in any of the big name guests, partly in an attempt to avoid bigger crowds. Sure, mask use became less consistent in the food court and late at night when more booze came out. But even at the late night dance party I went to, mask use was surprisingly high even on the dance floor.
The desire to stay masked while indoors brought to light my habit of snacking and staying hydrated during the day. In the past I’d eat a snack and have some water during a panel so I could grab a meal when friends were going to the food court or when I had a two-hour break between events. The half-hour block between events, combined with the walk to get food, lines, and of course eating the food, required at least an hour break to grab a meal, and that’s just for going to the food court.
This year, I started to feel my lack of snacking and drinking around Saturday. Finding a place outside to have a snack or drink started to feel like a surreptitious smoke break. Every time I did take a break outside to drink some water, I found myself drinking most of my bottle in a single sitting and wondering why my throat was so sore, as if yelling through a mask and only drinking water during these sneaky breaks all weekend had nothing to do with it. It’s a good thing I had prepared big breakfasts at home before heading to the con because I found myself eating lunch around 2pm most days, sometimes later.
All of these circumstances led to this con being the least social Dragon Con to date. We’ve been trained to think in bubbles over the past year and a half, and that thinking is hard to undo. My social anxiety nightmare is being the lone person in a group where everyone else already knows each other. This is hard enough to handle during regular cons; it takes only twenty attempts to ask if I can sit with a group in the food court only to be told “We’re saving this seat for our friend” before giving up and walking around for half an hour, searching for a place to sit and eat my sad fast food alone. This year breaking out and talking to others was hell, partly because everyone was in their bubbles and partly because there were fewer people remaining to talk to if a conversation ended.
As someone who normally bounces between tracks alone and avoids most of the big panels, making line friends was next to impossible. I carried around a Pokemon Go sign on Friday stating what I wanted to trade, and while this gained only a few trades, it led to a lot of conversations. I was actually sad when a local player took me up on a lot of those trades but couldn’t meet until Sunday because it meant I had no reason to carry that sign around anymore; after all, she was receiving all the things on that sign. I liked having a reason for people to talk to little old me without a costume, just a NaNo shirt and bag with a few nerdy pins on it.
The less social nature of the pandemic con made this year the least fun one to date. Everyone else had their bubbles. Yes, I had friends and acquaintances around the con, and I hung out with some of them throughout. I showed one group of Pokemon Go players the hell I put my brother through in Super Smash while playing as Kirby (and then to be fair, I played as someone else the rest of the time and died pretty early because how do the other players work when you can’t just smash them). I hung out and people watched with a couple of other friends throughout the con. I traded and talked with a local trainer on Sunday. I ran into several Wrimos, both local and from afar. Honestly, the most fun I had at this con was at a queer dance party on Saturday night; if everything is less crowded, may as well check out a party or two and keep my mask on. As a balloon came out and a few of us thwapped the balloon to another group, I laughed so hard I almost cried.
These social frustrations aren’t unique to this year. The social frustrations over the past few years and the sheer size of the convention have started to outweigh the fun I’ve had. So many of my friends and acquaintances love this convention because they’ve found their people. I don’t love it because these people do not feel like my people. I am an alien among the con attendees, an impostor geek who barely recognizes the costumes and isn’t there for most of the media stuff.
All this makes going back next year hard to justify, even though I am local and don’t have to plan a year in advance. I go through this struggle every year. Why continually put myself through the social grinder? I think back to where I have found my place at events, and the answer is always in more niche events. Night of Writing Dangerously. The board game area at other conventions. Pokemon Go Fest. Places where we definitely have something in common or have an immediate reason to interact. The sheer number of tracks at Dragon Con and my interests mean I’m always bouncing between tracks, making it hard to see the same people over and over and connect with them. There’s rarely enough time to settle down for a nice game, even this year when the gaming area would have been less crowded than usual.
If I go next year, I need to approach the con differently. Dragon Con has a writers track (which I already visit) and some additional paid writing workshops that I’ve never attended before. I’ve never been in the con’s board gaming area because I’m so busy trying to do everything else. And most of my attending friends are into completely different things from me so we’re usually off doing our own thing throughout the weekend, hence why I try and fail to make new friends all the time.
I’m not sure what a different approach entails, but it’s time to rethink the Dragon Con experience before burning out and giving up altogether.