A Place At The Table

Conventions are a weird place to go if you’re autistic. On the one hand, you’re thrown into a maze of unfamiliar stalls plastered with bright signs, pushed and manhandled and bumped, with voices coming at you from every direction, tinny music from stallholders’ Bluetooth speakers, and announcements thundering out from the speaker system, distorted to the point of complete incomprehensibility. The only way they could make it worse would be forcing you to retrieve your laminated pass by plunging your hand up to the elbow in tepid custard.

On the other, presumably, you’re there because you like what the convention’s about. It will come as no great revelation to the people who know me to say I love boardgames. I love card games. I love tabletop roleplaying games. I love playing them, I love learning about them, I love talking with people about them. If we are talking, and an opportunity arises to turn the conversation towards tabletop games, it requires all my willpower to resist. Games are a subject and a pursuit and a part of life that offers oceans of joy and wonder and rapt engagement for me.

So attending the UK Games Expo, for people like me, is like attempting to retrieve a delicious, steaming apple pie from inside a mile-long tunnel of rotating knives. ‘Just leave it,’ every sane person counsels you. ‘It’s not worth it.’ But you really like pie.

When I first attended in 2021, I didn’t know I was autistic. We were all still figuring out what live events might look like as we tiptoed out of pandemic lockdowns – UKGE had announced, to some controversy, that it wouldn’t be imposing a mask mandate. The con was smaller, with less square footage and fewer attendees. I wandered round, chatting with stall holders.

On subsequent years, it’s grown busier and busier. Not Essen-busy, which is several orders of magnitude more intense and almost can’t be compared, but bad enough that on Friday and Saturday this year getting anywhere meant shuffling tit-to-shoulder blade down narrow aisles while continually performing lightsabre drills to fend off rucksacks to the noggin. But there’s also more stuff – more people to play games with, more live events to go see, more tournaments, and more halls for open gaming.

You can sculpt two opposing narratives out of this. The first is one I used to hear from Glastonbury festival veterans: it isn’t like it was in the old days. It’s too big, too corporate. It’s forgotten its soul. The second is: games are booming in Britain. More and more people feel welcome in ‘the hobby’ – itself a bit of a fiction as an abstract construct; there’s no one hobby, no single scene, but rather lots of adjacent genres and levels of engagement and participation in various communities – and the Expo, building on its reputation, is going from strength to strength.

I’m not a declinist – the oldest boardgame conventions skewed heavily white and male, (we’re talking 95%+) and over the years, largely thanks to marginalised voices standing up to idiots, that has been gradually changing for the better. As more people feel welcome at the table, that naturally opens up a bigger potential audience of attendees. Good.

But I would say that, having observed folks on mobility scooters or in wheelchairs get actively blocked off by pedestrians pushing ahead or standing in the middle of the aisle talking, someone get their walking stick kicked out from under them – albeit accidentally – by the surging crowd, and the general attitude of NEC security that attendees were a problem to be managed, not humans to be helped (this was not true of UK Games Expo staff, who – in my limited experience – were compassionate and amazing), unless UKGE makes some major changes to how it thinks about accessibility, the constant and increasing message is that people with visible and invisible disabilities are not welcome.

If someone in a wheelchair can’t buy a game from Waterstones without running a half-hour gauntlet of backpacks to the face, if certain stall holders make the decision that demoes are first-come, first-served at 9am each day (so if you have mobility issues or can’t handle crowds, you can’t play), if there’s no dedicated, accessible quiet space for gaming, if staff aren’t trained in super basic stuff like what a sunflower lanyard means, if you don’t actively recruit gamers of all backgrounds – including disabled – to participate in your panels and live events, and if accessibility measures aren’t clearly signposted and communicated to all staff, whatever your intention, the instrumental effect of your decision is to exclude many passionate, dedicated members of the community from taking their rightful place at the table.

The Expo does have a boiler plate harassment policy on its website, and I welcome that, though I think it ought to be more prominent. In my experience, the Expo volunteers were great. I’ll give you a specific example. On Sunday, on my way in, I had an autistic meltdown. I was confronted by a security guard to show my pass, and as I stopped and tried to pull it out he kept shouting that he wanted to see it – not angrily, but loudly, and about two feet from my face. I tried to indicate I was trying to retrieve it and he kept shouting. I held my hand up for him to wait and he got closer. I said ‘I’m autistic, please wait’. He kept shouting. I said ‘please stop shouting’. I hadn’t finished my sentence before he shouted ‘I’m not shouting’ and moved closer. I stepped back and said ‘please stop’. He kept shouting until I broke down crying. I was saying ‘I’m autistic, please stop’ over and over. I just wanted him to back away and give me a chance to get my pass out. More security guards had come round. ‘He wasn’t shouting’ another was saying, cornering me from another side.

Even remembering it now makes me feel lightheaded and shaky. If I sound like I was overreacting, yes, obviously. That’s what autism is. Our sensory processing differences can manifest differently – some autistic people thrive in extraordinarily visually and/or aurally stimulating environments, especially where the sensory input is pleasant, consensual and related to a special interest – but eventually it can reach such a crescendo that you just break down. Lots of people were staring. I felt ridiculous, like I was being difficult, histrionic and entitled.

But an Expo volunteer came over. They got the security guards to step away. They asked if I’d like to come to the quiet room. They took me over to a small room away from the main hall, asked if I’d like some water, brought me some, and then stayed with me and talked to me. They were really kind.

I think some aspects of big conventions are just inevitably challenging for autistic people. That’s okay and I don’t expect, for example, for a big gathering of people not to have lots of people at it. But you need to understand what a difference it makes to receive small messages, both explicit and through structural choices made around an event, that say: you are welcome. You are part of this community too.

When I was browsing a stall, one of the guys behind it glanced at me for a moment, then said: ‘I love your lanyard. My daughter has one just like it.’ At first, I thought he was teasing me, saying that his daughter wore flowery necklaces too. Then I realised he meant she is autistic. He raised his fist and gave me a fist bump. It was such a lovely, well-judged gesture of solidarity.

When I first came to the Expo, I had just decided I wanted to write a book about games, why they matter to me, and how they bring people together. I’ve finished that book now, and it meant, when I attended the Expo this year, I had an odd, new feeling. I write some reviews for Tabletop Gaming magazine – though not as many as I used to – but, with my book finished, my professional connection to boardgames and tabletop might be, if not coming to an end, certainly diminishing.

I realised I was a bit afraid.

Like anyone, I want to belong. Maybe our culture of hyperconsumerism and hyper-segmentation of identities is partly to blame. I’m often trying to find ‘my people’ amongst a constellation of thinly-julienned compound identities, a drop-down list of labels, rather than recognising our deep connections, the inalienable truth of our mutual humanity, wherever we come from and whatever we like.

Parts of the gaming community unwittingly encourage hyperconsumerism’s buy-to-belong culture – after the Expo, the most common posts were photos sharing ‘my Expo haul’, with dozens of boardgames spread across hotel beds. Look, I’m one of you. I deserve to be here.

It’s possible that, in writing, as the Americans might put it, a ‘whole ass’ book about how much I love games, I’ve fallen into a similar ontological trap. I’m trying to perform my identity, to professionalise and thus concretise it through observable economic events, in the hope it’s enough to be accepted. Look at me, I’m an author. Look at me, I’m a journalist. Surely now I’m safe.

I want to continue to participate in the tabletop community, not just as a player, but also as someone who hopefully contributes interesting and valuable writing or other media. Part of that desire might stem from insecurity, for sure – a feeling that ‘Tim Clare, the civilian’ isn’t enough, isn’t worthy of people’s time – but also, as I’ve said, I love games. They are part of my one, temporary, unrepeatable human life.

I could tell you all about the many wonderful games I played, and the lovely, interesting, funny, generous, occasionally ruthless folk I played them with, but I don’t think that’s what this post is about today. I had some fantastic games of Cosmic Encounter that felt electric and silly and rewarding. I had a lovely session of Sea Salt & Paper with other neurodivergent gamers where we spontaneously just started a little group therapy session, sharing some challenges, some traumas, offering peer support and advice. I taught Joraku to two different, lovely, enthusiastic groups, continuing my campaign to get a copy into every home.

For me – forgive me if this is creepy – to take my seat at the table is to be granted the rare privilege of just sitting and admiring my fellow human beings – how they think and feel, plot and commiserate, joke and create and collaborate with me in a piece of performance art that, like a song, vanishes upon its completion. It’s not the only reason I play, but it’s a big one. I really, really hope I can continue.

My new book about tabletop games, THE GAME CHANGERS, is out in November ’24. Preorder here.

1 thought on “A Place At The Table”

  1. This is absolutely lovely Tim. I agree, cons can do a lot better for neurodiversity (I think Airecon is better than UKGE by the way) and if you ever want to chat about it, I have some relevant professional background.

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