Glamorous, dazzling, imaginative. Steamcon V was a three-day event at the Hyatt Regency in Bellevue, focused entirely on the Steampunk Genre, and it took its theme seriously. Each year, the organizers take great care in having every part of this convention reflect the idea of steampunk - from the vendors in the “mercantile,” to the panels and parties, right down to the games that we had featured in the tabletop library. The people walking around in costumes were wondrous and beautiful. This was my first ever Steamcon, and while I was mostly happily helping out around the games area, I felt like I had gotten to experience a whole new sort of event.
Join me as I explore all the things I loved about Steamcon, and all the things I was critical of!
THE GAMING DEPARTMENT
I went to my first ever Steamcon this weekend, and I had decided I would take it easy compared to Geek Girl Con the weekend before (a good thing, considering I still felt like I had been recovering!) I spent the entire weekend with a good friend of mine, Donna Prior, who has an extensive background in community management and running events. She stepped into the role of running the entire games department at Steamcon about a month before the event happened (after the previous manager had to step down), and with only a couple weeks of planning succeeded in pulling together a decent gaming area from the ground up.
My job over the weekend was basically game room info booth. As people approached
the table to see what it was, I would begin my spiel: This is the game area. These lists here are all our featured games, most of which we have sitting in our games library which you can just grab and play. The ones marked “demo” are set up on reserved tables, with someone there to teach you -
you can either just go in and watch them play, or learn how to play yourself! If you don’t know a game in the library but want to play it, the volunteers here would be happy to teach you, depending on the game.
The emphasis on teaching games here is important. Steamcon, while an event full of nerds, is not a gaming con and therefore full of non-gamers, so we tried to focus on creating a newbie-friendly environment with lots of opportunities to learn new games. The sorts of games we had people demoing where things like Leviathans, War Machine, Iron Kingdoms, Incredible Expeditions, and a new prototype game called Zeppledrome.
The games rooms were quiet most of the time - particularly in the mornings of all three days. Sunday was quiet enough that I felt comfortable enough to sit and learn how to play a nice, pretty game called Tokaido. I also learned how to play the real game of Majong, which I am itching to play
Sunday night, though, our rooms were packed! Donna’s husband Barry later told us that by his calculations we had 5% of the entire attendance of the con in our three little rooms. Leviathans pulled together a giant game that started at 3pm, and went at least until midnight - they had done a great job of promoting it through social media and inviting back every person they demoed the game to since the start of the con. It was impressive!
The other game that really brought people in was Terror of the Skies, which is a game created by Captain Robert of Abney Park. Each day Captain Robert would roll into the games area with a small horde of fans in tow, and set up on several tables to demo. This was one of our only challenges over the weekend --albeit a minor one! We rearranged the reserved table assignments so that Captain Robert’s game demo took up the entirety of one of our three rooms - containing the chaos into their own space. At one point they needed more tables, and without us even realizing it they had borrowed another table from the rooms next to ours, and placed it in there.
That’s something notable that I enjoyed about this venue, by the way. When working in convention centers your actions are constrained by union contracts - there are policies regarding stacking chairs, and moving tables and chairs from one room to another. Because of said contracts you are not supposed to move furniture yourself, but instead ask union workers to do that for you. In a hotel venue, we are able to move and adjust the tables and chairs however we please, with no fear of repercussion! (Note: I am by no means anti-union, unions are awesome. I just appreciate when I, as con staff, have an increased amount of flexibility to adjust things at will!)
At one point the creator of the prototype game Zeppledrome asked if we could move his table out into the hallway so he could coax more people into playing his game (which is going to be kickstarted soon!) I was happy to help him move his table immediately, and it was a great decision for him - there was hardly a time from that point on that I didn’t see anyone playing a game with him at his table. Huzzah!
STEAMCON AS A WHOLE
There were a couple things I noticed that Steamcon did to engage it’s attendees that I really liked. Their program came in two forms - a normal, small booklet, and a version which was designed to be a newspaper. What a fantastic way to disseminate information while staying with a theme! I also noticed that their code of conduct was printed, in full, on the first page when you open up the newspaper program. I definitely approve!
Steamcon really reinforced how great I think official collection activities are. What I mean by that are things like PAX’s Buttoneers, PAX XP, and even the Cards Against Humanity booster decks, which encourage people to explore the different areas of the con and/or to interact with other attendees. Steamcon had two such activities: badge ribbons, and passports. Both of which had attendees and staff making custom stamps and ribbons to add to people’s collections.
The theme for steamcon this year was “world travels,” so passports fit right in. The passports had a place to put your personal information and photo, and had multiple pages of grids to place stamps. You could go around to the various departments and vendors to collect them. On the other hand, the ribbons have happened every year of Steamcon. They are what feels most like PAX’s buttoneers - many people would make them, and attendees would trade them around. Instead of directly trading, though, attendees would often create little games and tasks to get people to collect their ribbons. By the end of the weekend, people’s ribbon collections where extensive! It was fantastic to see people excited about getting as many stamps and ribbons as possible.
Now, lets switch tracks a little, because I have a few words to say about the volunteer program. I volunteered at Steamcon by responding to Donna’s tweet requesting help, and therefore bypassed the volunteer program entirely. The actual volunteer program at Steamcon is different then most other cons I have worked at.
The volunteers pay for their own badges for that year, and can work any number of hours they wish. After working a certain threshold of hours, they are eligible to get next year’s badge for free. There are other incentives as well: if you fill out a log sheet and have a staff member sign off on your hours, you can trade them in to redeem them for prizes - small items or vouchers from the merchants in the vendor room. I really liked that - I think that's a neat idea! But, the idea of running a volunteer program like this myself makes me cringe a little bit.
So I understand why you would want to give volunteers the opportunity to be more flexible with their schedules, and it would save the event money by having the volunteers pay for their own badges, but man would running an event with this system be stressful! They were still recruiting volunteers at Steamcon itself, and anyone could stop in, volunteer for a couple hours, and then leave. I felt like they were missing an opportunity to build a great community of volunteers, like the Enforcers of PAX or the Conference Associates of GDC.
The structure of it also wouldn’t guarantee that you have enough coverage for all of the events, and there is a chance you would be scrambling to find someone to respond to an issue that arose. After five years of successfully running a con, they MUST have ways of mitigating such things - but unfortunately I didn’t think to take the opportunity to learn more about it. Still, this structure is an option to consider when I get opportunities to design new event-based volunteer programs, and I am glad I came across it!
I’ll admit that I didn’t learn as much in this convention as I did GeekGirlCon, at least not in the same way. I felt that the experience was very worthwhile, though, mostly (and I’m slightly gushing, here) because I got to spend a good amount of time with Donna Prior, who has been doing this sort of thing for years. I was able to soak up a lot of news about different people in the local pop culture events circuit, and hear of great projects in the works! This weekend has, for me, been more about making great connections with people rather then filling my times solving problems, and I am really satisfied with that.
And the award for prettiest convention goes to...
Now, I’m going to take a bit of time to blather on about the things I saw at Steamcon. Everything was SO PRETTY. People would walk by our little info desk and the volunteers there would just oo and ahh over the great outfits people have put together. I saw a Steampunk Velma, a steampunk Chel, and a steampunk character from Journey. There were a ton of other, amazingly creative costumes - the photos I have here don't even do them justice of how awesome they looked in person.
On Saturday I gave myself some time to go look around the vendors room (or the “Marcantile,” as it is called here.) Normally I dont spend a ton of money on show floors - the exception being Comic conventions, where my money will just fly out of my wallet so I can by all of the comics from my favorite webcomic artists. Here, though, I couldn't help but buy a few new things. I picked up a
canvas belt with pouches, matching arm warmers, and a USB drive from SephiaChord, containing the 2013 “almanac,” a collection of around 30 songs from stumpunk musicians.
I also checked out the art room. There were amazing pieces of artwork - many of them up for auction. There were both fantastic prints and paintings, and also jewelry and sculptures. Tucked away in the back, encountered what was possibly my favorite sight all weekend. It was a bronze, mechanical Parrot. I just couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it - it really moved and talked. While I was
recording it and gushing about how cool it was to another attendee, the parrot
and I had this conversation:
One of two things must have happened there: either it was a complete coincedence that his sound clip for, “I love you, too” happened just then, or it’s was remote controlled and it’s hidden creator was messing with me. was probably being totally messed with, but I was far too dazzled to care.
This environment really reinforced the reason Steampunk is so popular - the aesthetics are gorgeous. Steampunk has really captured people’s imaginations, and they run with that inspiration and create beautiful, awe-inspiring things. And while the show itself has some workable flaws, it ends up being a fantastic
celebration of creativity and imagination.
Here is to Steamcon 2014.