Hear that sound?

It’s the cries of thousands of PC gaming fans worldwide, bemoaning last month’s announcement that Blizzard is canceling its annual Blizzcon conference this year. Having never been to Blizzcon, I can’t appreciate the full effect of this cancellation. But I did purchase a virtual ticket to the event last year, and I really enjoyed watching the coverage on a live stream.

Reading the various posts on the cancellation got me thinking: what’s the purpose of technology conventions anyway? What impact does their cancellation have on the viewing public? And does it affect their relationship with their clients in any meaningful way?

Admittedly, I’ve never been to a technology conference like E3, but I have been to multiple academic conferences, and that’s given me a taste of their role in a particular industry. And while no conference I’ve been to has ever produced the type of passionate political frenzy associated with say, the French Revolution (pictured above), I have come to see conferences as playing an important formative role in the creation of a group’s social identity.

Of course, conventions like E3 also serve a broad economic purpose. While incapacitated by illness over Christmas, I was watching a show on ‘smart shopping’ in which an expert in retail discussed making technology purchases over the holiday season. “Don’t spend all your money on gadgets over Christmas,” she advised. “Save some of your big purchases until the spring, when companies hold conventions to unveil their new products.” I certainly see her point: with the expected announcement of new releases, demand will certainly be higher, which may drive prices, especially for last season’s items, way down.

There’s no denying that conferences also generate a sense of cultural solidarity which is hard to emulate elsewhere. In many ways, gaming conventions provide a sort of protective sanctuary from the harsh realities of the outside world. Unlike, say, Times Square in broad daylight, at Blizzcon you can masquerade as an orc or an elf in relative peace, save for the occasional snide remark about your choice of faction. There’s a lot of truth to the stuff written on the importance of ritual in the formation of culture, and I’d say this certainly plays out at conventions like E3.

We also love conventions because we are information fanatics. As gamers, we scrounge daily for information about upcoming releases, and then catalogue this information in an ever-increasing mental compendium of encyclopedic proportions. Most major franchises have not only inspired hundreds of fan pages on-line, but also ‘wikis’– objective retellings of central storylines, game mechanics, and character bios. There is an ever-growing urge to make video games concrete. Just as you can type in “World War II” into Wikipedia, you can do the same for video games, and trust that you will find objective, accurate information.

As video game fans, we salivate over screen shots and cinematics. We know how to ‘make do’ on just the tiniest of teasers released ahead of a game’s release. We are able to take crumbs and turn them into full-fledged panoramas in our imaginations. If you’ve ever visited FanFiction, you’ll know that media fans are masters of flushing out the more minute plot elements in a franchise’s storyline.

It’s true that the cancellation of Blizzcon means developers will be able to spend more time working on new projects, so that they arrive at consumers’ doorsteps sooner. In all likelihood, it’s also causing them to miss out on quite a bit of income. In 2010, 500, 000 fans purchased virtual tickets to view live coverage of Blizzcon in 2010. At $40 a ticket, that’s a real jackpot, especially since another 25, 000 fans opted to attend the conference itself. With a subscription base of approximately 10 million players, that means approximately 5% of players (or 1 in 20) forked over cash last year to obtain information about Blizzard’s upcoming games and merchandise.

To be sure, conferences like E3 are a lot bigger and promise a lot more reveals for the average gamer. But to deny Warcraft fans Blizzcon means that our knowledge of events, and therefore the time we have to spend searching for information on the new expansion, will increase tenfold. Can the internet sustain another few months of full-fledged ‘panda-monium’?

Ultimately, it’s clear that the suspense of a new release– like a good horror film– is part of the gaming industry’s mass appeal. And in spite of my long, laundry list of complaints, I  know it’s something  I would never want to go without.

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