Gen Con, the nation’s largest tabletop gaming convention, celebrated its 55th year last Wednesday. Attendance at “the best four days in gaming” topped 50,000, effectively returning the event to pre-pandemic levels. The convention has taken place in Indianapolis, Indiana, for the last 19 years, but the Seattle-based company recently signaled that it might be looking to move. The stated reason? Indiana’s near-total ban on abortions, which was passed into law on Aug. 5.
“We at Gen Con believe in the right to autonomy over our bodies and the right to choose,” the company said in a statement on Aug. 3 — two days before the abortion ban was passed. “Reproductive rights are human rights. Like many of you, we are hurt, angry and frustrated by recent events, including the recent advancement of SB1 by the Indiana General Assembly. These actions have a direct impact on our team and our community, and we are committed to fighting for safety, tolerance, and justice in all places we operate.”
Gen Con was not alone in its condemnation of the state’s conservative legislature. At least one publisher canceled its booth at the show, while several others made statements of protest.
“We are heartbroken and furious at this latest decision which will rob those who can become pregnant of their bodily autonomy,” wrote Lone Shark Games in a statement on social media. “Lone Shark Games and its staff are not comfortable supporting the state of Indiana with our presence, so we have made the decision not to attend this year’s Gen Con.”
Coyote & Crow Games, a role-playing game publisher that did not have a booth at this year’s Gen Con, also came out strongly against Indiana’s decision. In a statement on Twitter, founder Connor Alexander said his company would no longer “participate in events in states where abortion is illegal.”
“There are those that believe that what happens away from the table should stay separate from gamers and their hobby,” Alexander told Polygon in an email. “But that is a position of privilege. An essential part of the mission of Coyote & Crow Games is making clear what we believe in and why we believe it is important. Most days that’s about Indigenous representation in hobby gaming. But we also firmly believe in bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom.
“We cannot in good conscience participate in direct sales at conventions where our taxes at those shows would go toward blocking essential reproductive healthcare,” he continued. “Coyote & Crow Games is committed to not having a booth or booth sales at any gaming convention where access to abortion is illegal. In addition, we will use any panel or event appearances in those states to voice our objection to those laws and support the reversal of those laws in any way we can. While we may not be in a strong position to affect direct change in those states, we will not add to the harm being caused. Reproductive rights are human rights and we stand firmly behind all of our sisters and brothers in Indiana who are having to face difficult days ahead.”
We at Gen Con believe in the right to autonomy over our bodies and the right to choose. Reproductive rights are human rights. Like many of you, we are hurt, angry, and frustrated by recent events, including the recent advancement of SB1 by the Indiana General Assembly. 1/2— Gen Con (@Gen_Con) August 3, 2022
This is not the first time that Gen Con has been at odds with Indiana over the state’s history of conservative legislation. In 2015, the convention threatened to leave over a controversial “religious freedom bill.” The thinly-veiled attack on LGBTQ+ people was championed by then-governor Mike Pence; the bill would have allowed business owners to refuse service to same-sex couples. When threatened with the loss in revenue that Gen Con would represent, the bill was heavily modified. Nevertheless, the affair enhanced Pence’s standing with conservative voters, catapulting him into the vice presidency.
Gen Con has been held in Indiana since 2003, and both it and the city of Indianapolis have grown together. The event is currently the Indianapolis Convention Center’s (ICC) largest annual convention, and the ICC has invested heavily in expansions and improvements to cater to the marquee event. Moving Gen Con to a new location would cause a significant disruption for attendees. It could also increase the out-of-pocket cost for those attendees. Indiana’s depressed service economy makes it an inexpensive travel destination compared to other locations in the U.S., while its central location makes travel more affordable no matter which coast attendees happen to be traveling from.
How big a loss would Gen Con’s departure represent? Visit Indy, the for-profit tourism company that bills itself as “the official host of Indianapolis,” tracks data on conventions in Indiana. It measures the relative size and value of those conventions based on their “economic impact” for the state, which it defines as income for restaurants, hotels, and other local businesses. Internal data produced by Visit Indy and disclosed to Polygon shows that Gen Con ranked as the single largest annual event in the city of Indianapolis based on economic impact in 2019, exceeding an estimated $74.6 million. Visit Indy’s data also shows that Gen Con has ranked in the top three slots for economic impact for each of the last 19 years — or since the convention moved there from its previous home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Visit Indy estimates that the city earned $779 million in economic impact from 660 events in 2019. Based on those figures, if Gen Con were to depart Indianapolis, the economic impact of conventions to the state would be reduced by 10%.
In making its statement of support for reproductive rights, Gen Con is following the lead of many other companies in exercising its voice in favor of progressive ideals. Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says that voice is more powerful — and more important — than ever before.
“Right now, businesses large and small play a pivotal role in the protection of reproductive rights and access,” McGill Johnson said in a statement to Polygon. “Employees, consumers, and communities care about business’ stances on abortion rights and the benefits and policies they provide. People may not want to work in a state where their access to sexual and reproductive health care is restricted. Companies may have trouble recruiting workers to move to these health care deserts, and some companies may not want to do business or host events in a state where reproductive rights are limited. There is no one-size-fits-all response to this unprecedented moment in history. But at a minimum, companies should support their workers’ health; speak to and understand the needs of their workforce; and act quickly to reflect corporate commitments to equitable health care and human rights. If corporate brands and business leaders speak up and exercise their power, they can stop a state from enacting an abortion ban, like the one recently passed in Indiana.”
Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact that fewer conventions are being held in Indianapolis, and competition between cities is fierce. Reporting by Indianapolis Business Journal indicates that though annual events like Gen Con generate more economic impact than they have in years past, “the number of actual events is still short of what has been [...] normal” for the city. Gen Con has also made clear that it needs more room — in the form of both convention space and hotel space — for its continued health and growth.
“They are locked in through 2026,” Mickey Shuey, a reporter for Indianapolis Business Journal, told Polygon on Tuesday. “Whether they can get out of that I genuinely don’t know. [However,] their commitment to Indianapolis is such that it’s also contingent on the city bringing a new 800-room hotel downtown, right across from the existing convention center, along with a 120,000 square-foot expansion [to the convention center itself].”
Shuey says that while the city has agreed to make those expansions, the timeline is unclear. Conventions typically lock in venues years in advance, and Gen Con is no exception, but if the planned expansion isn’t going to happen until after 2026, Gen Con has a clause in their contract that would allow them to move to another location.
Polygon reached out to both Indiana governor Eric Holcomb and Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett, but neither responded in time for publication.