How Do We Know All of This?
The Brief History of Gen Con is all well and good, but how do we know this history? Interviews with the people that were actually there offer invaluable information and feature in Robin Laws' 2007 book 40 Years of Gen Con and the Interviews section on this site. Secondary sources, such as Jon Peterson's 2012 work Playing at the World are also great sources for this information. In fact, the brief history from the previous page was written largely by using both Law's book, Peterson's book, and the interviews conducted for this project. Convention publications offer additional documentation that we can utilize to learn more about Gen Con; this site uses event information that was published in the The Spartan zine, the International Federation of Wargaming Monthly zine, and Gen Con site and pre-registration programs. Using these sources, we can extract information such as event data, which can then be analyzed.
What can we learn from information like event data? Quite a bit! Events are the heart of a gaming convention like Gen Con. While scheduled events cannot capture the diverse interactions at a gathering like this, the information contained in the programs gives us a great sample of the types of activities that brought everyone to the convention in the first place. The programs indicate what people liked to do at the convention that year, give clues to what was popular outside of the convention both in the gaming and pop culture worlds, provide insight into what types of stories or game activities drive people towards certain games and a whole host of other information. Now that we have this information, just what can we do with it?
One of the first things you can do with this kind of data is generate a word cloud. A word cloud is a simple data visualization that shows which words appear most frequently within a corpus. A corpus is a body of texts that we are analyzing, in this case the event sections of the Gen Con programs. These visualizations help us quickly survey a data set, like the Gen Con programs, and give you a sense of the tone of the information it contains. So just what does a word cloud show us about Gen Con?
On our left here are three word clouds generated from the program database. The word cloud on the top includes the terms most frequently used in the description of events field. These are all of the descriptors that are used to articulate what you do at Gen Con. Words like game, adventure, play, combat, fun, tournament, battle, characters and monsters all appear and provide a sample of what to expect if you participate in events at the convention.
The middle word cloud comes from the title of events field. Since titles tend to entice people to read the description, we can think of this cloud as showing us what types of activities people like to participate in. Play, dungeon, draft, catan, heroes, combat, wars, wizards and championship are all words that appear prominently in this visualization. The competitiveness and large dose of fantasy is evident by the frequency of these terms.
Finally, we have a word cloud of the different game systems run at Gen Con. This visualization shows us the most popular (as in most commonly run, not necessarily most loved) games featured at the convention. The words dungeons and dragons are two of the most prominent, with magic right there with them. Pathfinder, cthulhu, catan, battletech and others are not too far behind.
Are you surprised by any of the terms that appear in these word clouds? What questions do they raise for you about the event history of Gen Con? One thing to remember about these visualizations is that they are combining all of the data from their respective fields across all of the program data we have. This is important when you remember that earlier programs had far fewer events than the 19,000 plus in the 2017 program. Naturally, this means the word clouds are going to skew more towards the events of 2000s and 2010s as a result. What, then, would word clouds from only specific time periods look like and what might they tell us? What other ways could we use word frequencies to teach us about Gen Con?