I felt a little bit uncomfortable at the Heartland Gaming Expo.
That, in itself, isn’t that remarkable. I’m generally an uncomfortable person. If you see me walking around campus, I’m probably walking without comfort. That having been said, there’s something about being roped into an extended conversation with an anime merch vendor that takes my level of comfort from the typical low all the way down to a “hearing an argument through a thin wall,” level.
The Heartland Gaming Expo was held at the Reynolds Center this weekend. When you walk up, the first thing you notice are several inflatable obstacle courses, which are pretty cool. There was also a table where a group of zombie-themed LARPers were apparently recruiting.
They were wearing some mix of military and post-apocalyptic costumes, and, in what you may be noticing as a theme, I was too shy to talk to them and ask them the things that I wanted to, such as “why?,” “who would win in a fight, you or a zombie version of me,” and “where do you experience the most chafing while wearing that costume?”
I paid $15 to get into the Expo proper, which seemed a little steep for what it offered. To be fair, that was for two days of admission, and I was only there for a fairly quiet hour or two, but it seemed strange that there wasn’t a way to just buy admission for a day, or at least a student discount.
The outer hallway of the Reynolds Center was used for competitive gaming. With no context as to what good competitive gaming is supposed to look like, I decided that it looked pretty much like regular gaming, only slightly faster, more intense, and with a significant portion of the players wearing fedoras. As I passed the wargamers who were stuck all the way in the back, I realized that this was not the place for me.
Maybe the actual floor of the expo would be more me-friendly, I foolishly thought. The basketball court was covered in long tables, where different exhibitors were sparsely scattered, showing off their self-made games. Most of the exhibitors that were there had pretty polished-looking games, which was very impressive considering that most of them were working on games solo. I was told that I missed most of the many high schoolers, and while it’s great that high schoolers are into programming things – go STEM education! – I was also told that many of their games were pretty bad.
Surrounding the floor of the expo were the vendor tables, where I got roped into a conversation about anime merch. I’m really not interested in anime trading cards, but to the vendor’s credit, his enthusiasm about them was a little bit infectious. The other tables ranged from a local game store showing off their inventory to someone apparently just selling some of their old WarCraft stuff.
There was also a section for exhibitors who didn’t have games, but only art, story ideas, and sound design. These ranged from a laminated binder outlining maybe the most generic fantasy story I’ve ever read, to some legitimately impressive concept art, including art for a Zodiac-themed fighting game and a game about very well-drawn witches fighting something.
At this point, you, being an astute reader, might point out that my reluctance to actually talk to the people exhibiting their hard work, who are there for the sole purpose of being talked to, got in the way of both enjoying this expo and writing about it. To that, I’d like to respond by saying that I’m a journalistic maverick, like a latter day Hunter S. Thompson. However, not only am I not nearly high enough to be realistically compared to Thompson, you’re also right.
I want to know more about that zodiac fighting game, and that generic fantasy story, and even those crappy high school games – if only because there are so many people at the expo, there have to be some good stories there. To be fair, I was at the expo too late to see many of the exhibitors, and too early to see the games that came out of the Code Jam, a 24-hour contest to see who can build the best game from scratch.
Ultimately, the Expo wasn’t worth the admission fee, at least if you experienced it like I did – walk around with a few friends and quietly judge everyone else there. If you’re really into games, or really into talking to people about the games they made, $15 is still pretty steep – that’s like a few days worth of food from New Hong Kong – but it might have been worth more. Heartland has been held annually for a few years now, so check it out next year, but maybe only if you’re more into video games than I am.