GenCon, the world’s biggest convention for tabletop gaming and a massive moneymaking machine for the State of Indiana, has responded to a bill that legalizes discrimination against LGBT customers by threatening to leave the state—and take their $50 million-a-year convention elsewhere.
This isn’t because GenCon is run by political progressives or “social justice warriors” trying to make a difference. It really, really isn’t. If GenCon leaves Indianapolis it’ll be for the same reason it came to Indianapolis and abandoned its original home of Wisconsin, the home state of founder of D&D Gary Gygax (peace be upon him).
Because it makes business sense.
It should be obvious why it would make business sense for a convention like GenCon to flee Indiana if a bill legalizing LGBT discrimination passes. GenCon is only in Indianapolis in the first place because of the longstanding tradition of GenCon in the Midwest, despite the difficulty of finding space for large conventions out here. It came to the Indiana Convention Center because there wasn’t room anywhere in Milwaukee, a convention center that strains to accommodate its 50,000 attendees and was expanded in 2011 partly just because of GenCon.
It’s been brought up many times that it would make a lot of sense for GenCon to move to Seattle, where GenCon LLC is actually headquartered, as are Wizards of the Coast, the current makers of D&D, and which already hosts the even more massive Penny Arcade Expo.
What might finally tip the scales in favor of breaking with tradition and abandoning flyover country for the coast? Telling conventiongoers, exhibiters and VIP guests that their sexual orientation might get them refused service by local merchants.
Really, it shouldn’t be a surprise that not just GenCon but the Indianapolis travel bureau have spoken out against this bill. It’s literally a bill declaring the intention of for-profit businesses to turn away potential customers. It is, bluntly, an anti-business bill.
I get very, very tired of the argument that progressives seek to pressure companies to push a “social agenda” at the expense of “making a profit.” These two things aren’t opposed. In fact, it’s the cultural reactionaries who get upset at companies selling something wildly profitable and demand that they stop.
This isn’t a new debate. Libertarians have long argued that by definition any company that markets to a broader, more inclusive audience will capture more dollars than a company that limits itself—and therefore the free market should inevitably lead to the end of Jim Crow, the end of the gender pay gap, and ultimately achieve Martin Luther King’s dream without any need for protests or regulation from anyone.
In real life, it’s not that simple. Things stay static for a long time, even when there’s potential profit to be made by diversifying. This is partly because of humans’ irrational fear of change—partly because of our entirely rational fear of other humans, whose irrational fear of change leads them to start deranged hate mobs.
Take the world of comics. This is the age of a comic book renaissance—only 20 years after Marvel Comics had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the wake of the epic economic collapse of the “grim gritty ’90s,” when comics doubled down on their “core audience” of disaffected, young white men.
Since then, comics have come roaring back to economic and cultural success, based largely on a conscious decision to increase diversity. Marvel’s current top seller is its Ms. Marvel title starring Pakistani-American Kamala Khan. The new female Thor is outselling her male predecessor by 30 percent. Over on the DC Comics side, the “hipster” reimagining of Batgirl has drawn attention the character hasn’t gotten in years and made her DC’s rising star.
The idea that basic gesture—like trying to appeal to young women as well as young men—might breathe new life into the moribund comics industry shouldn’t be a surprise. Comics already were for a more diverse audience back in their heyday. Sabrina the Teenage Witch was a comic book long before it was a sitcom, and even superhero comics used to intentionally court female fans before the drastic shrinking of the comics audience in the 1980s. In Japan, the question of whether or not “girls read comics” is a laughable one.
And what has been the response to this from “hardcore” comics fans? Gratitude and excitement that the medium is commercially successful and that new fans are coming in? For many, yes. For others, it’s been one long, obnoxious blast of people trying to convince the industry to throw those new fans’ dollars away because they don’t spend as well as real fans’.
Hence when DC blundered and issued an offensive variant cover of Batgirl being menaced by the Joker—before the artist and creative team behind Batgirl themselves chose to withdrew it—dozens of angry comic book guys marched out of the woodwork. These were detractors who clearly had no particular interest in Batgirl, but wanted to accuse DC of “self-censorship” and “caving” to progressive busybodies.
Well, DC is making a lot more money on Batgirl now that she’s an aspirational hero for teen girls than they did when she was a disposable victim for male fans to ogle. Yes, lots of “hardcore” comics fans have fond memories of The Killing Joke—the Alan Moore comic referenced on the recently pulled cover—and get mad when that book is called out as offensive.
Guess what? That doesn’t matter. You guys aren’t part of the target market for the current Batgirl run, and not catering to you is, again, good business.
And we come back to LGBT rights, and how every “economic impact” analysis of every same-sex marriage referendum has stated that the impact of a “wedding boom” and increased migration to a state seen as “LGBT-friendly” can only have positive economic effects.
But so what? Indiana’s legislature has made pretty clear that for them “values” trump economics to the point of turning away paying customers en masse if they have the wrong sexuality, to the point of driving business out of their state. And Indiana is only doing on a small scale what Russia has done on a grand scale, to the point of threatening their ability to keep the Sochi Olympics in 2013.
Personally, I’m far from a free-market libertarian, but I’m not really anti-capitalism per se. The capitalist view of the world is, if anything, kind of charmingly naïve—the Homo economicus that Econ 101 classes teach is utterly alien to real human beings—and would be a lot more tolerable than real human beings, if he existed.
The real history of the human race shows we’re tribal apes much more than we are rational profit maximizers. We have no problem paying an immense price to turn away potential customers who want to trade with us because we’re prejudiced against them. Indeed, we’ll pay an even higher personal cost to attack and drive away other people’s customers who have nothing to do with us. At its most extreme this kind of entitlement will lead to literally burning huge stockpiles of wealth to the ground—”If I can’t have it, no one can.”
There’s little you can say to the perpetually angry demographic of gatekeepers who value the “purity” of their community—whatever scale of community it might be, from a nation to a city to a media subculture—over something as pissant as profit.
But you can say to the greedy businessmen and corporations that these people are not your allies, and that those hectoring censorious pro-diversity progressives actually are. We are the ones who ultimately want to expand your audience—the set of people who will buy your stuff—as large as it can possibly be. The reactionaries are the ones who want to limit or shrink it. Whose side are you going to be on?