As most of you are no doubt aware, Gen Con begins in a matter of days. I can’t go this year, but it is one of my very favorite times of the year. (I’m not sure if I like it or Christmas more, but Gen Con has a slight edge in that it doesn’t play music that annoys the crap out of me for three months beforehand.) It is the most concentrated unbridled gaming fun I get to have in any given solar year, and I like to strap on my ceremonial fanny pack and let my hair all the way down for four days. That being said, bad things can and do happen to convention-goers. There are people out there who attend conventions and other public events to prey on the unwitting. It behooves all of us to be aware of our surroundings and to make informed, safe choices to protect ourselves.
Don’t Be A Fat, Dumb, Happy, Contented Cow
Have you ever looked at a cow grazing in a field? Cows couldn’t care less about what’s going on around them 99% of the time. They’ve got flies buzzing around them, getting in their eyes, and they barely care enough to flick their tail now and then. They just want to stand there and chew. Cows care sufficiently little about their surroundings that they are in a class of mammal colloquially known as “tippable”. It is not a wonder that they frequently become steaks.
Now think back to how you feel when you first arrive at a gaming convention. It’s freaking euphoric. You see old friends, you do nothing but play awesome games all day and night, sometimes you get drunk. It’s incredible fun. What you don’t realize, though, is that despite having a lot of fun, you’re not in a perfectly safe environment. You’re probably not paying much attention to anything aside from games and your friends, and alcohol and fatigue certainly aren’t going to help your level of awareness. Like it or not, this is a vulnerability that can be exploited.
Know Your Enemy
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these are some potential threats to keep in mind at a convention:
You’re in your favorite place in the world. You’re not paying attention to anything but friends and games. There are tens of thousands of people around you, there’s frequently very little room to move, and sometimes you bump into strangers. I’d be interested to see what the crime statistics are like for Gen Con, because this sounds like easy pickings for someone who picks pockets for a living.
I know it’s a con and you typically carry lots of stuff, but try to take with you only what you need. You’re at one of the few places in the world where the majority of the population knows how valuable a binder of Magic cards can be, and there might be one or two people out there willing to nab it while you’re not paying attention. I recommend keeping your stuff in the hotel room when you’re not using it. Sure, the hotel staff comes in sometimes and there’s the potential for theft, but I’d much rather take that risk with people who have passed background checks and have a job to lose when they look up who was on cleaning duty when my stuff got stolen.
This site gives some excellent tips on some of the ploys pickpockets use and has some excellent tips for keeping your stuff yours.
For my part, I paid for my inattention a couple years back. I had a digital camera stolen while I was sitting on a bench, talking to a friend. It was sitting next to the bench one minute, then it was gone. It can happen that fast.
One last thing about this, because this drives me absolutely insane every time I see it at a con. If you’re at the convention center and you’re beat and you just need to take a quick nap, for the love of Vecna, do not make a little nest of all your gaming gear and doze off. You are basically asking to wake up without your possessions. After all the battles every group in the history of gaming has had over who has first watch when the party sleeps, you would think that would seem a good idea in real life.
There’s two issues to worry about here.
One is using public, unsecured wifi networks. That’s right, the free wifi you enjoy at Starbucks, the convention center (well, most years anyway), and everywhere else come with risks. Be aware that bad things can happen to you, all your accounts everywhere, and your computer if you don’t have your stuff locked down. This article goes into a lot more detail about these bad things. This article gives you some good hints as to how to prevent them from happening.
Another issue is credit card fraud. Know who it is you’re giving your credit card to on the sales floor and everywhere else. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t give them the card. ATM machines aren’t perfectly safe either. There are several known ways to steal money from ATM users.
Once again, if it feels fishy – bail.
You’re carrying around a bunch of money, ready to hit the sales floor. You stop to use the restroom. Next thing you know, some guy has shoved you into one of the stalls and waves a knife in your face, demanding all your cash. In a situation like this, you comply with the mugger’s demands. Period. Give him your wallet and all your money and get out intact. I have over 20 years of experience in karate, and I would hand over my wallet in a heartbeat. Your life is worth more than anything he just stole.
Of course, the best defense against a mugger is to try not to put yourself in a situation where you can be ambushed. Being alone makes you a target, so stick with the crowds when you can.
Think this is an unlikely scenario? About 3 Gen Cons ago, I walked into the restroom near the food court and was almost knocked over by a guy running past me. I thought he was a jerk, but I continued on. When I got through the door, I found another guy leaning over the sinks, blood pouring from his freshly-pounded face. Did that guy just get mugged? Was it just a fight between 2 guys that knew each other? Honestly, I didn’t stick around long enough to find out. I found a cop, and they said they were already aware of the situation (somehow) and said I could go. If nothing else, it showed me that people are still people at Gen Con, and on occasion that means somebody gets violent. It’s good to keep that in the back of your mind.
I know of at least one person that’s been groped at a con. People can and do get raped. You need to make smart choices, especially if you’re small enough that fending off an attacker is difficult.
Wearing a skimpy costume will get you lots of attention. Know this, and know you’re also increasing your risk of attracting unwanted attention. Should you be able to wear whatever costume you want? Sure. (Provided, of course, you follow the convention guidelines!) Just don’t blindly assume that you’re safe because you’re at a con.
If you do find yourself receiving unwanted attention — or worse — the absolute most important thing to do is to get help. Gather as much attention as you possibly can to yourself. Scream bloody murder. If you need to, hit and scratch your attacker in all the soft places on his body (eyes, throat, nose, and temples are a good start), and don’t stop until you’re free. You don’t have to be big or strong to do damage to soft tissue. Use weapons if you have them – car keys make an excellent flail. Self-defense devices like a security whistle, mace, or pepper spray are fantastic to have with you but keep it somewhere easily accessible — not at the bottom of your purse.
As always, prevention is the best protection. Travel with friends, especially if you’re going somewhere unfamiliar. DOUBLE ESPECIALLY if you plan to wear that skimpy costume.
This site has some good rape prevention information for use both at home and in public.
If you see someone else getting victimized, don’t walk past. Make a lot of noise, draw as much attention as you can to the situation, and get the victim out of there. Run interference so she has a chance to escape if you have to. Preferably, bring friends. Big friends. There is an organization called the Open Source Women Back Each Other Up Project dedicated to making sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen to women at conventions. I wholeheartedly suggest joining.
Don’t Be A Victim
Awareness is your best defense against all of these threats. Predators tend to go for easy marks. Walking around confidently with your eyes open and head up will not only help you be aware of your surroundings, but will likely make you less likely to be targeted. Even if you’re not confident, fake it.
Certainly, none of this is to say you shouldn’t relax and have fun at conventions. I don’t hide under my bed every morning because I’m afraid I might get mugged. You can’t live like that, and you shouldn’t let any of this send you into a blind panic. Gen Con is awesome. Go have the time of your life.
Just try to make informed choices, and know what’s going on around you. I hope none of you ever have to worry about anything I just talked about. If you do, though — be ready.