on alcohol and game conventions

The nurse asked, “Do you drink alcohol?”
I said, “Sure.”
“More than five drinks a day?”
I laughed. “Ha! God, no! I haven’t had five drinks all year.”

That was true, by the way. In the last 12 months, I can count my drinks on one hand. My rules for drinking are:

  1. Never drink alone.
  2. Never drink before bed.

My wife doesn’t drink. I haven’t seen anyone else for a year. I’ve been within ten feet of my bed all year. Consequently, my alcohol consumption since my last convention (PAX East, March 2020) has plummeted to near zero. Drinking in public is one of the many behaviors that I abandoned in the pandemic and will have to decide whether to resume. Right now it’s not looking good for Team Alcohol.

You might’ve had a different relationship with alcohol during the Gap Year. You might’ve found it a delightful friend, or a way to get through the dark times. This is me saying that if you can safely drink, then you do you. I have drank enough to know that alcohol is great for all sorts of situations, and if those are your situations, have at it.

But I also say that “Alcohol’s job is to replace all other problems with alcohol.” Relationship issues? Alcohol can replace those with alcohol problems. Job issues? Alcohol can make sure you don’t have to worry about those. Self-confidence issues? Oh, alcohol’s got a whole series of TED Talks on those. (Spoiler: Its solution is “alcohol.”)

Whatever you have to do, alcohol’s always happy to come along. Especially if there are games involved. As games became not just for kids, alcohol became a critical component of game culture.

I’m absolutely an enabler of that culture. I have had hundreds of meetings and played hundreds of games in bars. I’ve hosted podcasts that revolved around getting our guests drinks. (Not “drunk,” drinks. We would never intentionally put an impaired person on the air, though a couple have crashed the show.)

My company is an event management company as well as a game design studio. Before the pandemic, we hosted many dozens of events in the game industry: game launches, costume parties, charity game nights, and so on. We made and raised a lot of money creating experiences that could be solved or played with a drink in hand. I have made up oodles of twee names for custom drink menus. If you ever had a drink with a name like Kobold Blood at a con, odds were reasonable that I helped concoct it.

In Milwaukee, my LIVE/WIRE crew ran live-action events for hundreds of Gen Con attendees in the Safe House, the coolest bar in the world. It’s a spy-themed club with hidden doors and wall puzzles and everything. I first kissed my wife there, on the first day I met her, and then we got married there a few years later. (I’ll bet you can guess that alcohol was involved in that story too. But it’s a good one, and we’ve been happily married for a quarter century.)

When I haven’t had a bar, I’ve made one. When Gen Con moved to Indy, there wasn’t a place everyone wanted to gather. So, with Gen Con’s financial backing, I opened the House, a bar underneath a cathedral-like train station where you could play poker, drink, and pretend you were a spy. It’s still there, lurking.

The hotel, restaurant, and convention industry has been tremendously encouraging of these efforts of mine. Alcohol is the great markup item on any menu. The more of it you can guarantee will be bought—or you pre-buy—the cheaper everything else at your party will be. The pressure to include it is high.

I have no reason to say all this is bad. Alcohol’s legal, gamers like fun, and game conventions want gamers to have fun. For decades, I helped churn this engine. In fact, there was one responsibility of mine that became a tradition. For many years, if you were at one of our events, I was the person with the drink tickets.

That’s a powerful position. The person with the drink tickets controls the behavior of the entire room. Give out a bunch and the place will turn rowdy. Be more conservative and the crowd will be more docile. My goal was always to aim for the latter. Usually our events involved solving or conversing or treasure hunting or auctioning. A drunken fistfight in the middle of that would be counterproductive. If I was your drink ticket man, you were not getting any from me if you showed any signs of inebriation.

Flash forward to last year. A string of my game industry friends got accused of sexual offenses. Everybody was rightly focused on that, but I noticed a different thing.

Every single one of those people had handed me a drink ticket in recent years.

This is where I got one of those epiphanies you hear so much about. I finally started to see the link between creating environments where bad things tend to occur and being responsible for those very things occurring. Hosting is an act of grave responsibility; not taking that seriously means you might not take other boundaries seriously either. This is why you will often see me at one of my events with a drink in my hand, but you very rarely see me drinking from it. It’s almost certainly the same drink I started the night with.

I have seen many people take a very different approach to drink tickets. The party bought those drinks, so it was their job to get them in the hands of the partygoers. Everyone likes that kind of drink ticket person! For some people, being the drink ticket person is a way to get validation. You can satisfy all your friends with your generosity. Stuff them in pockets, reward someone for a great joke, hand someone twenty and tell them to be the rainmaker. This is both dangerous and commonplace.

I’m not drawing a direct line here. Some people can be suppliers of alcohol without being or encouraging predators. But it’s not a safe assumption, is it? It certainly doesn’t feel like one any more, if it ever did.

The predatory culture at conventions can’t exist without plentiful supplies of alcohol. The louder the laughter (and the louder the music and the darker the room), the more micro-transgressions are laughed away, even when they shouldn’t be. Micro-transgressions have a tendency to just become transgressions, the kind you can never laugh away. Some of them are of exactly the horrible type you think. I have done what I can to prevent that, as has everyone on my team. But the bad things continue to occur.

I’ve been harassed by drunk people of all types at cons, but since I’m a privileged white heterosexual man, I’ve never felt afraid for my safety. Well, maybe one time. I was at an Origins hotel room party when a drunk guy told me he loved my games and insisted that I take two of the hunting knives his company made. There were dozens of openly displayed knives around the room and hardly a sober person in sight. Drinks and knives. I thought about saying no to the drunk guy with the knives. I did not say that.

Other people are not so lucky. Pretty much every woman I’ve worked with has had bad experiences centered around alcohol at cons. We’ve created signal systems that can be seen across a room, the first instituted after a female colleague was hit on by a famous drunk author and I needed to be her exit strategy. I’ve had to be dragged aside to be told that person is doing this thing to make your friends uncomfortable. One PAX, a drunk guest of honor at our party made unwelcome advances on three of my female colleagues in one night. I was obviously not paying enough attention to what was going on to stop it.

The certainty that my friends have used alcohol to abuse trust came hammering home to me last year. They have done that at my events, on my watch. It reminded me more that when I’m in control, I had better be clicking on every cylinder. The gatekeeper has to be vigilant. If the gatekeeper is hoping for the party that is the most off the hook, chain, and wall, they may be covering up behavior that is the most toxic.

This is not to say that alcohol is an excuse for this kind of terrible behavior. A predator is a predator regardless of whether the circumstances enable it. But the circumstances do enable it. By forcing our industry’s social functions into those circumstances, we make predatory behavior more likely to succeed.

And I definitely mean “force.” If you are a part of this industry, and you choose to avoid drink culture, it’s very likely to have ramifications for your career. I’ve had many people tell me that not drinking set their career back years. So, by calling meetings in bars, by execs taking staffers out for rounds of shots, by throwing corporate functions at nightclubs, the industry is saying “Be here or miss out.”

I also had another revelation around the same time as the drink ticket thing. If all these people were giving me drink tickets, what did that say about my convention behavior? How many bars and parties was I at every convention night? The answer would likely astound you. Because I was an event manager, I talked myself into believing I needed to observe what everyone else was doing. That was a lie, of course. I just wanted to hop from party to party to look like one of the cool kids.

People appreciated my appearance. I’ve only been drunk maybe five times in my life. I don’t like me drunk. But I have been occasionally, and one of those times was onstage, for a charity event called “Drunk Game Designers.” The goal was to liquor up some famous designers and see what happened when they had no governor switches. I got there late, so, for maximum humor value, I downed three mini-bottles of alcohol in single swigs and polished it off with a beer. And then I took audience questions. Hooboy. The poor guy who asked how he could make games as good as the people onstage got unfiltered mean-drunk Mike.

“You can’t,” I said. “You know how hard these people have worked to get as good as we are? And you just think you can step up here and—”

Wow, no, that’s no good. But people ate it up. We raised a lot of money for charity by being out of control. I needed to be helped back to my hotel room that night by our event manager Shane and two other people. You would not have liked to see the hotel room.

Did you notice something in these stories? I didn’t pay for my drinks. At a con, I rarely do. Every time I walked into one of those places, somebody would buy me a drink—sometimes using a drink ticket, but more often just gleefully putting it on their tab. If I hit six of those bars and parties in a night, I…

The nurse asked, “More than five drinks a day?”

I laughed. But now I’m thinking about it.

Alcohol is one thing more than anything else: a toxin. Its greatest skill is to make things more toxic. So, when we see instances of toxic behavior, it should not surprise when there is an actual toxin in the room.

Now that conventions are on their way back, we’re having a conversation about alcohol that’s way overdue. We could just recreate the unsafe culture of unbridled drinking that we had before. If we do, we’re going to hurt a bunch of people who don’t deserve it. Maybe, as a community, we’re okay with that. Maybe I’m learning I’m not.

Instead of going back to the way it was, we could create a new culture, where we carve meeting spaces outside of bars, we limit free drinks at parties, we turn down the blasting music so people can be heard when they are being harassed, and we commit ourselves to safety among the fun we’re having. That sounds like a lot of work. It’s a lot easier to just take advantage of the spaces that exist. But it’d be worth the work, because people are taking advantage of other people in those spaces.

For 30 years, I’ve been on Team Alcohol. It’s got enough members that it can do with one less. I’m not going to become a teetotaler tomorrow, but I think I’m done with meetings in bars, “Drunk Game Designers” panels, serving my podcast guests drinks on air, and doling out drink tickets.

When we get back to these conventions, I’m not saying I’m not going to have a beer with you. Just don’t be shocked if it’s a beer of the root variety.

Thanks for reading.

Mike

P.S. As I was writing this last week, my former design partner Bruno Faidutti posted a shockingly bad take on alcohol and dealmaking, which he doubled down on this week. It definitely made posting this piece more important.