Archives For conventions

What’s the deal with all this moss? asks the new hydroponics expert. He had heard things about the weirdos from the first Mars colony – the ones that called themselves “The Seeds” – but he figured that had all just been rumors. But now that he’s actually in their habitat, seeing thick layers of vegetation instead of sterile metal sheets lining the walls, his perceptions have begun to change. This can’t be sanitary.

Please calm down, says a voice, buried deep within the foliage. You’re making my plants feel windy.

I don’t even know what that means, says the expert, trying to figure out the source of the voice – whether it belongs to a human or, somehow, emanates from each of the plants in unison.

Of course you don’t, says the voice. A human figure rustles from deep within the web of vines. Nobody understands our language but us.

Dialect, A Game About Language and How It Dies, by Thorny Games.

Dialect, A Game About Language and How It Dies, by Thorny Games.

This scene came from near the end of an unusual roleplaying game called Dialect, which I had the chance to play at this past weekend’s GenCon. GenCon, for the uninitiated, is the premier convention for hobby gaming: there are a few video game events, but for the most part, it caters to those who love games with boards, cards, and dice. I’ve been twice, and both times I’ve spent the majority of my time chasing after new roleplaying games. While there are plenty of opportunities to play Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder at the convention, it’s also the best place I know of to learn about more arcane RPGs; at last year’s con, for instance, I picked up Gregor Vuga’s Sagas of the Icelanders, which I have written about before.

What I liked best about Sagas of the Icelanders was how it invited players to play with the social concerns of a historical moment: unlike a purely fantastic RPG, the theme of Sagas was to imagine oneself as a medieval Icelander, facing not only the stereotypical challenges of Viking warfare, but also resource scarcity, social pressures, and gender anxieties. (In D&D, one chooses her religion to determine what spells she can cast. In Sagas, one chooses her religion to make sure her neighbors won’t cause trouble for her at the Althing.)

Although Dialect has almost nothing in common with Sagas on a mechanical level, it shares a similar interest in playing with an intellectual field; in this case, language, in particular the intimate forms of language we build within various communities. The premise of Dialect is that the players portray characters within a society that has become isolated from the rest of the world; in our case, a Mars colony mission that got cut off from communications with Earth. Within that isolation, the characters invent, appropriate, and redefine words to suit their community’s needs and interests. By the end of the game, the isolation ends, and the community’s dialect comes under pressure to conform to the baseline of the larger society.

The structure of the game has a beautiful effect. As the game goes on, words that mean one thing in our daily speech come to take on very different shades of connotation. In the game I played, for example, the word windy came to mean something like “troubled, worried.” The word asset came to mean “traitor,” by means of a sarcastic comment: You’re a real asset to the mission, a character said to another who had a chance to escape the isolation without anybody else.

The game ties the community’s new words to the ideologies that define the community. In our case, these were statements like we are pioneers and desperate times call for desperate measures. As a result, the new language players invent in Dialect comes to personify the community as a whole. A community rises, defines itself, and falls, all with the use of just a few new phrases. I found it a remarkable experience.

This is what our game of Dialect looked like by the end - the cards are the new words we invented, and the lines represent the three eras of play. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

This is what our game of Dialect looked like by the end – the cards are the new words we invented, and the lines represent the three eras of play. (Photo by Eric Scott.)

Dialect –- or any game like it –- can only imperfectly mimic reality, a fact that the designers readily acknowledge. The actual process of a community creating its own jargon is much more complicated than can be replicated in a three-hour roleplaying game. But the beauty of such games comes in how they invite us to reflect on the real world. Despite the science fiction trappings of our particular session, the basic scenario –- a community is formed, defines itself, becomes submerged within the broader society, confronts the conflicting desires to maintain its individuality and to be accepted by the wider world –- is highly applicable in the real world. Indeed, since GenCon, I have thought a lot about how Dialect mirrors my own experiences as a Pagan.

Take some of our words; the words that have special meanings to us. Pagan, itself, or Heathen. The notion that these terms mean “a member of a Neopagan religion” or “a member of a revivalist religion based on ancient Germanic religion”[1] seems so automatic to me that I get caught off-guard when I am reminded that most of humanity does not share these definitions. (When I first explained my writing to my dissertation advisor, she couldn’t stop chuckling: the notion of Heathen as a positive term struck her as utterly novel.) We could compile a list of these specialized terms –- indeed, I once wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay doing exactly that -– and observe just how many words take on different meanings in a Pagan context.

And indeed, the end of Dialect –- the encounter with the over-culture, the incentive for a community to abandon its idiosyncrasies in favor of acceptance by the outside world –- is a problem I’ve wrestled with since I was conscious of my own Paganism. The desire to be normal can be a powerful thing. I’ve made my choice by this point, but the push-and-pull of language remains ever-present. We have seen a long programme of attempts to explain Paganism in terms that are more palatable to the over-culture; recently we have seen some strong rebukes to that programme as well.

Although this process of identity-building far exceeds the scope of Dialect, I am thankful for the game giving me the opportunity to consider the issue. This is what games can do at their best: they allow us to live through the big questions in miniature, and with luck, bring some insight back with us when we return to the world outside.


[1] I realize we could have endless debates over whether or not these meanings actually suffice, but really, that proves my point more than anything – these are the meanings the words developed in my personal lexicon through my interactions with Pagan communities. Yours may be different, because your experience of the “Pagan community” is different.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

This year Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG), a Midwest Pagan festival that’s been running for more than 30 years, broke attendance records, drawing over 1000 people to the week-long event. The West Coast Pagan convention PantheaCon, held each February in San Jose, California, has gotten so popular that they’ve introduced a new reservations system to prevent individuals from gaming the system. Pagan-friendly fantasy-oriented events like Faerieworlds are anticipating record-breaking numbers this Summer, and even brand-new Pagan events like Paganicon in Minnesota are growing at a healthy rate. It seems like Pagan festivals and conventions, at least in the United States, are doing great, but are the days of the large Pagan event that draws a national or even international audience numbered? That’s what Frater Barrabbas Tiresius at the Talking About Ritual Magick blog argues.

Solstice Fire at Pagan Spirit Gathering

Solstice Fire at Pagan Spirit Gathering

“There are many factors that are shaping the future in which we will live and they will probably have a profound impact on Pagans and Wiccans being able to assemble in large groups, unless of course, those groups are local and sustainable in the long term […] times are indeed changing and the need for such large gatherings may have achieved the upper limit in terms of both usefulness and sustainability. By usefulness I am saying that merely getting together for what would seem to be mostly a social gathering with sprinkling of some workshops, presentations, rituals, live music and the selling of obscure books and goods may not represent what is really needed or relevant for our growing population of practitioners and followers. By sustainability, I am thinking of the availability of resources to gather together in large regional or even international groups. Traveling by car or plane does impact the environment with pollutants and it also uses up precious resources, namely fossil fuels. These resources will probably become a lot more expensive in the decades ahead.”

In short, if I’m reading Frater Barrabbas’ argument correctly, the looming reality of peak oil, the effects of global warming, along with other factors, will eventually make the larger gatherings too expensive for anyone outside the immediate area to attend. That right now we are witnessing the upper limit of the Pagan festival phenomenon, one that might continue for several more years, but will eventually crumble. Is this prediction accurate? We are certainly seeing hotter summers each year, and scientists predict this will be the norm, with some areas seeing “the permanent emergence of unprecedented summer heat” in the next 20 years. Already, the record-breaking heatwaves being experienced in many parts of the United States are causing disruptions in all aspects of our transportation grid, a situation that could worsen as average summer temperatures increase. If long-range transportation becomes unreliable during the summer months, that would certainly keep many people close to home.

Airplane stuck on melted tarmac.

Airplane stuck on melted tarmac.

Environmental shifts changing the way we live our lives was recently discussed here at The Wild Hunt in a review of John Michael Greer’s new book “The Blood of the Earth.” Greer reminds us, and has been reminding us for years, that things will eventually change. That we cannot be forever insulated from the reality many parts of the world already face, resource shortages, and ever-inflating prices for the kind of travel we once took for granted. That we as Pagans, many of whom claim a special connection to the natural world, need to be ready to experience and live in this shift. This is echoed by Barrabbas, who advocates that Pagans start acting like those days are already here, and plan their events accordingly.

“As followers of earth-based spirituality, we should not only be aware of these facts, but actually embrace them and start planning and acting as if those times were already here.”

Barrabbas’ post is just the first in a series, one that I look forward to reading, especially his conclusions and recommendations, but I can take a few guesses of my own at where this line of thinking will go. Primarily, face-to-face Pagan events will become either regional or hyper-local affairs, and that national and international figures in the Pagan community will increasingly have to “attend” such events virtually. That “Pagan community” will increasingly lean on the powers of social networking to bind itself together. This reality is, in many respects, already here. Sociologist Helen A. Berger, in a revisitation of her Pagan Census project from the late 1990’s, noted that we are becoming increasingly solitary and eclectic, and that a majority of us already depend on the Internet as our main interaction with co-religionists and adherents of other Pagan faiths.

How often do we communicate with other Pagans?

How often do we communicate with other Pagans?

“Solitary practice and training outside of groups, most likely through books and the Internet, appears to be the future of the religion.”Helen A. Berger

Noted figures in our community, like T. Thorn Coyle, have already begun embracing a model that integrates virtual communication into their teaching. Producing a subscription web-series that students can use, including a private forum, giving access to Thorn and her teachings, without the need for her to travel constantly. The next step would seem to be virtual panels and virtual presentations at Pagan conventions and events that couldn’t afford to fly in a “big-name” Pagan. This would not only be “greener” but will ultimately be the only practical way to host such an event on a limited budget.

I think the age of the virtual and the hyper-local are upon us, and the quicker we accept that and learn to adapt, the better. Larger Pagan events can prepare now by investing in the infrastructure necessary to have a virtual component to all indoor events that used to welcome several noted teachers or religious leaders (projection screens, audio equipment, computers). We should set a goal so that in the next ten years, we will be ready for when these shifts in lifestyle become mandatory, rather than a lifestyle option. As Pagans, we can set an example for how to keep our communities close-knit and vibrant while dealing with the ramifications of our society’s choices. In a way, our heavy reliance on social networking, on virtual communication, to bind us together gives us a necessary head start. One we should exploit to make our events as environmentally sustainable as possible.

For more on this subject, stay tuned to the Talking About Ritual Magick blog, and I hope to revisit this topic after his series is completed, talking with some festival and convention organizers about what they think will be sustainable in the coming decades.