A Tale of Two Conventions: UBCon 2014 and its Academic Cousin
“So I saw some people were wearing cat ears earlier and erm…well…what is that about?”
I’m sitting in an academic conference during a rare sunny Buffalo spring day. Additionally, another conference is going on at the University at Buffalo a few buildings away—less academic, but no less important. UBCon, a gaming convention in its 25th year that has evolved into an all-out nerd throw down, is taking place over the weekend of April 11-13, 2014. As nerds, geeks, fan boys/girl of all shapes and sizes indulge in rounds of Settlers of Catan and Kill La Kill cosplay, I am sitting in a classroom learning about oral history practices and ways of decolonizing Native Lands. It is during lunch that a classmate asks what all the costumed people are doing in the Student Union. Earlier in the day an international student asked me why people were dressed up even though it isn’t Halloween. It seems like they have never turned on the Cartoon Network, though I suppose none of them are an editor of a website with a Masters in Popular Culture, so I give them a pass and try to explain it between discussions of settler-colonialism.
This academic conference is all very interesting, all the theories and speakers are on the up and up, but man do I want to still be at UBCon.
In its silver anniversary, UBCon started as a gaming convention hosted by the Strategist and Role-Players Association in 1990 as they broke from UB’s Realms of Fantasy club. UBCon’s focus has always been on gaming but has incorporated interests and fandoms as varied as Sabres goalies in 2014. Anime, Comics, Whovians, Browncoats, and Furries—everyone is welcome and seen within the space of a local convention.
“With this convention, and other fan-run conventions they are all about the fans,” said SARPA Vice President and UBCon Director Tim Cerny. Cerny mentions Otakon in Baltimore, Maryland as a good example of fans and fandom working to make a space that celebrates popular culture. UBCon is much like Otakon in that sense, as volunteers (both current and former UB students alongside community members from region) build a program of people with diverse interests that can be engaged by novice and veteran fans alike. Speakers this year included voice actor Eric Vale (Trunks in Dragonball Z, Kymblee in Fullmetal Alchemist and Sanji in One Piece) Team Four Star (of Dragonball Z Abridged fame), artists Sarah Wilkinson and Nigel Sade, and professional cosplayers Rikala, Alanaleilani and Duplicitous Dichotomy. Alongside guests UBCon hosts different screenings throughout the day of anime and movies (including the dubious cult classic The Room) and hold a Nerf War during late night sessions at the con. There is a large mixture of interests on display and a lot of coordinating going on between the convention staff and artists, visitors and passers-by.
“It takes a lot of effort for these guys to put this con on every year,” said Charles Waterman, a UB Alum and long-time member of SARPA. Waterman has been involved in tabletop gaming since his teenage years of the late 1970s. In hard copy Dungeons and Dragons Basic, role-playing games on the Apple II E and the base culture of his time in the military Waterman has a long history of gaming before coming to UB. Being a part of the creation of UBCon as an early member of SARPA has not left him as a community member who welcomes the next generation and the changes at the con. “The con has to evolve and it has to change over time,” he says.
It seems that Waterman and his joy of gaming has room for other fandoms and other views of the world. He may not understand it (or the appeal of different cosplay, he says) but sees the need for change in the end. His views speak to the overlap of gaming and other popular culture texts. Like GenCon where fans of Magic: The Gathering fight for domination over fantastical realms next to furry ravers, UBCon mixes people without elitist snobbery of what the con should be “about.” Geek/Nerd/Fan culture in general has evolved over the past four decades. New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic Con are a neo-Sundance Film Festival rather than for the fans. SDCC and NYCC are about being seen rather than anything else—a nerd-centric Coachella if you will. The bigger conventions are a cacophony of popular culture that encourages consumption rather than love. Sure, these spaces are great, but they are the out of the economic reach of many fans living in rust-belt cities of the Midwest and Central United States where popular culture thrives. As much as we rightly bemoan those who shame “girl gamers,” “non-geek-girls” and fans of subcultures that are not male and white (read: furries, amateur cosplay artists, POC comic/anime fans), places like NYCC and SDCC hold rank in developing a culture for the norm rather than the minority. In that way NYCC, SDCC and the like create a bourgeois class of consumers in fan culture. It is more about selling culture than it is about being a fan of popular culture at big conventions. What UBCon does is recenter the important people in popular culture texts: the fans.
“The one thing I like about UBCon is that it is a con for the people by the people,” says Dave Schwartz—another longtime member of SARPA and UB alum. “ I’ve seen cons at their best and I’ve seen them at their worst. UBCon for better or worse will always be here to stay. I hope I am around for another 17 years and be able to bring my own kids here someday.” UBCon, Animarathon at Bowling Green State University, Genericon at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a million other college-based anime, gaming and comic book conventions across the country are not done to promote popular brands, rather they are about the love of popular culture. The consumption of popular texts is not about blind consumption nor is it about kitsch—at least entirely. It is not about high versus low culture either—a debate that is as dead as the dodo at this point. Popular culture is about what the individual does with a mass text after it is out in the world—and how beautiful that is.
I have written before about my introduction to BDSM through popular culture texts, and in many ways fandom intersect with both popular and unpopular ideas of gender, sexuality and social identity in general. Popular culture and the cosplay, fanfiction, fan art and podcasts that are created open up new ways of being that many people would be unaware of otherwise. Gblazewear sells collars, straps and latex outfits in the artist alley that would never look out of place with any catboy/girl. The cuffs and straps are signifiers of fetish culture that are incorporated in a different way for the needs of anime fans. A generation ago the con-goers of today would buy the same gear influenced by goth or punk subcultures, maybe even learning about BDSM through their first interactions with obscure anime titles—like your humble author. Fuzzy tails and ears adorn in this safe space may relate to a roleplaying characters but may also lead to someone engaging their own gender and sexuality.
Games, comics and the imported popular culture of different countries are able to introduce new ideas onto open minds. Praise be the nerd, the geek, the con-goer—for they will lead in the progressive worldviews of the next generation if you give these small fan conventions a chance. They are the lifeblood of popular culture and without fans and their quirky attitudes a text is only a dusty text. An anime an artifact of childhood. The consumption and creation of something new by fans leads to innovation in popular culture and popular ideas of what it means to be a citizen in the contemporary, globalized, world.
“So what is that all about?”
I continue to hear that phrase multiple times among my peers at the academic conference a few buildings over from UBCon. I show pictures of cosplayers and attendees playing games to my classmates, my “colleagues” (blah) and wonder if they have ever watched television or surfed away from academic journal databases online. I broke fandom down again and again, and when it sounded like I was getting nowhere I came to a realization.
My classmates were the other side of convention culture. They were fans also. Different fandom, more academic, more research-oriented, but fans none-the-less. We sat listening to a great guest speaker that evoked a sense of wonder and excitement as he name-checked my classmates during his keynote. They wore outfits that defined theoretical and departmental backgrounds. Made inside jokes about Foucault. Yet they were lost about the people with the cat ears walking around in the sunny spring day. It made me think about how different this conference was from the people shuffling decks and posing for pictures with cosplayers dressed as Aeris or Captain Hammer. It made me think that there must be a way to bridge a gap between the two groups. A way to bring academics from traditionally radical or dusty or dangerously rigid departments into conversation with the guest speakers and nerf-war enthusiasts down the hallway.
Academics are fans of learning and our fandom must overlay with the others at UBCon this weekend. Ignorance is the greatest enemy of everyone. I know I am not asking for the destruction of racism or colonial domination of native lands—but I know popular culture can teach in ways others (especially in the ivory tower of the academy) take for granted. It was an awesome conference of smart minded people, people who wanted to make the world a better place, but maybe next time we should invite the geeks, freaks and romantics with the 12-sided die and fuzzy tails to the conversation.
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Sean X. Ahern (VulgarGenius) is a graduate of the Popular Culture Department at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. Claiming Kenilworth, New Jersey as his hometown, he has moved across the United States for most of his life, attempting to return to The Garden State. Likes: Hockey, Football, Devils, Giants, Chargers, Yankees, Superhero Comics, The Bouncing Souls. Dislikes: Basketball, Cowboys, Kings, Flyers, Rangers, Raiders, Temco Bowl Ronnie Lott, and the artistic works of Rob Liefeld. These are his musings.