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My family and I just returned from four days at MegaCon, a comics, gaming, cosplay, anime, all-around-geekery convention in Orlando. It’s a tradition for us to book a hotel room, pack all our nerdy fandom tees, and make our yearly pilgrimage to commune with our dorky brethren. Alex and Ryan have made the analogy between religion and sports fandom, but the jocks aren’t the only ones full of secular zeal. If a football stadium is like church, a comic convention is like camp meeting.
Abby and I happily reminisced about camp meeting in an early episode of the podcast. We both remembered an early sense of freedom, as our parents let us test our adolescent independence by navigating the campground on our own. We went to our own meetings while our parents went to theirs and often checked in with them only at mealtimes.
For this year’s MegaCon, Alex and I chose a hotel connected to the convention center by a covered walkway, so our 13-year-old and her best friend could come and go from con events on their own (after making sure that we all had cell reception throughout the convention center and hotel). When they returned to the room, eager to show off the fan art and anime figurines bought with long-hoarded birthday money and allowances, I remembered the thrill of choosing my own books and games at the ABC.
After hours, the hotel reminds me of the tent city at camp meeting. Misty and Ryan stayed across the hall this year, and when we were in our rooms, our doors were unlocked, so we could dash back and forth to play card games, share snacks, or borrow essentials forgotten at home. In the hotel bar, Alex met up with con friends--comic book writers he jokes with on Twitter and other seasoned MegaCon attendees he looks forward to seeing this one time each year. I remembered years-long camp meeting friendships and crushes.
Besides these superficial similarities, conventions and camp meeting share a strong sense of community. I grew up in a small town, very aware that being Seventh-Day Adventist meant that I didn’t really belong in the world. The ordinary unease of an adolescent who hasn’t quite found her place was purposefully magnified, encouraged, and skewed by the adults in my life. Camp meeting was a place where the Adventist sense of not belonging fell away a little. There were so many of us! We all knew the same songs, had read the same obscure books, wore the same clothes, ate the same strange food, revered the same pseudo-celebrities. For a few days at camp meeting, I could pretend that the world was made for people like me.
Many people at MegaCon clearly feel the same way. At Alice’s first MegaCon, she dressed up as a character from her favorite cartoon. As we were walking the convention floor, and young girl ran up to her squealing with joyful recognition and asked to give her a hug. My favorite comic book t-shirt means nothing to most of the people I see on a daily basis, but it warrants a high five at MegaCon.
On Saturday, one of the convention guests was groundbreaking sci fi actress Nichelle Nichols. I was walking past the table where she was giving autographs when a young woman in an original series Star Trek costume approached. When she saw Nichols, the young woman’s hands flew to her face and her eyes filled with tears. People around her reacted with knowing smiles. At MegaCon, you don’t have to explain what a sci fi actor or a comic book writer or a video game character means to you; we understand. That sense of shared significance is very powerful in secular and religious communities. It doesn’t surprise me to hear con-goers refer to their favorite fandom as their “tribe.”
But the sense of belonging in a community based on superficial similarities can be deceptive. The camaraderie of Adventists at camp meeting masks factions and bitter disagreements about doctrine. Immerse yourself in a fandom, and you will find power struggles and heated arguments over canon and continuity and the correct interpretation of the community’s “holy” texts. Counting on superficial similarities as the basis for one-on-one relationships can be even more problematic. It’s fun to swap X-Men trivia with other fans, but in order to develop meaningful friendships we have to share more than that. Even the ritual of attending church or visiting the comic shop each week doesn’t guarantee that we have values in common, that we will understand and like each other on a deep level.
It hurt to realize that I didn’t fit in with my religious “tribe” because all our commonalities were on the surface. The “people like me” weren’t really like me at all. This may be one reason that I hold myself back from full-blown participation in any fandom. I wasn’t great at being a religious zealot, and I’m not great at being a geek either. I don’t want to argue about continuity or doctrine. I don’t want to compete for autographs or stars in my heavenly crown. But if you wear a great Storm cosplay to MegaCon, I might ask for a hug!