Over the past week, a series of events quickly transpired, leaving annual gamer gathering Gen Con searching for a new home following fourteen years in Indianapolis. The potential move comes in response to Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who on Thursday, signed Senate Bill 101 into law. This new law, operating under the title “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” surreptitiously overrides prior state protections against discrimination. A key example in Gen Con’s stance against the law is a business’s newfound right to deny service to homosexual patrons, should the owner’s religious views not agree with such a lifestyle.
You may recognize this manner of absurd logic, co-opting religious freedom as a means to discriminate, in last year’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. Supreme Court case, where the religious views of company owners conflicted with company-provided health plan’s coverage of birth control medication. Gen Con CEO and Owner, Adrian Swartout, made similar conclusions, and with the backing of the local Indianapolis government and business community, petitioned Governor Mike Pence to not sign SB 101 into law.
In light of the Pence’s decision to sign, however, Swartout has issued an open letter to Gen Con attendees. The convention is under contract in Indianapolis through 2020, and even in its initial threats to relocate, made clear that the contract would be honored. Following a dialogue with the city of Indianapolis, Swartout’s stance has softened, now stating that “discussions whether to remain in Indy or move elsewhere have begun.” In the interim years, Swartout has opened several lines of communication to attendees, where she encourages them to report any instances of service refusal or discrimination.
Gen Con’s economic impact to the state of Indiana is reported at $50M, and the convention is not alone in its threat to relocate. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) also threatened to relocate a 2017 convention with a reported $5M economic impact, and there has been much speculation as to potential responses from the NCAA and NFL, both of which host major annual events in the state. Many expected the legislation to fail due to a situation in Arizona last year, where implied threats from the NFL forced Governor Jan Brewer to reverse course and veto a similar bill. In a ripple effect, following Gen Con’s stance, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff also pledged to “dramatically reduce” the company’s investment in Indiana.
It is uncertain what response such moves will garner from the state of Indiana, but with the bill now signed into law, the long road to Gen Con 2021 has begun. With over five years of contract remaining, Gen Con must decide now whether to make good on their threat. Relocation will not be easy, however. As the Indianapolis Star reports, “seven of the 10 largest convention centers are in six states with a similar law or provision in its constitution: Illinois, Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas.” And although many other likely options are already home to convention staples such as San Diego Comic Con, PAX, or Dragon Con, Gen Con is not without options. Similarly-sized convention centers exist in cities such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Denver.
We here at FreakSugar proudly and openly support Gen Con’s opposition to this law. As the gaming community as a whole has struggled with the topic of discrimination and harassment over the past year, conventions have emerged as a safe space. As gaming pushes further into mainstream life, conventions must continue to present a message of “welcome home” to individuals of all cultures and orientations.
Header image by Flickr user Sweet Alize, used under Creative Commons license