It all started with me missing GothCon, which is the time of year when I reconnect with gaming friends from all over Sweden. When social media started filling up with updates from the convention I knew I had to do something. At the same time I been thinking about going hiking in the mountains. The two ideas collided.
A hiking+gaming convention? It seemed like a dumb idea, and I wasn’t sure anyone but me would find the combination attractive. I was wrong. When I mentioned it the response was overwhelming. Tons of people wanted to go!
So I decided to do it.
The convention ran from Wednesday afternoon, to Sunday afternoon in mid July 2014. It took place in a 16 bed cabin in Björkliden, Sweden. We went hiking during daytime, and played and discussed games in the evenings. In between, we enjoyed the midnight sun, ate well, took saunas, and admired the stunning landscape.
I wanted as many people as possible to be able to participate, no matter their level of hiking experience. With the help of the local guides I planned 3-4 hour hikes that ”the average unfit person” could manage. I also planned some shorter one hour hikes if someone wanted a more restful day. We set out hiking in the mornings and returned in the afternoons. During hikes there is a lot of time for silent reflection, but also for long conversations as one walks across the landscapes. For us, these discussions naturally concerned games, but also life, the universe and everything.
After the hikes we showered and hit the sauna. For an explanation of the sauna culture of northern Sweden and Finland I recommend Vincent Bakers blog post “A Guide to the Sauna for Shy Americans” Afternoons were also spent preparing dinner. In the cabin we used, the kitchen is tiny, and the participants were therefore divided into kitchen teams of four people, with each team being responsible for cooking everyone dinner one of the evenings. While the kitchen team on duty prepared dinner, the rest talked, napped and relaxed.
The gaming in the evenings
All participants were asked to bring a game or workshop they were prepared to run. The focus of the convention was roleplaying games and larps but there were also board games, story games, card games, and bookbinding workshops. We had to bring a lot of “extra” games, in case bad weather would force us to stay inside the cabin playing games. This year I decided to not schedule the evening games, which in retrospect was a mistake.
The next time I run a hiking+gaming convention, I will have the participants send in a short pitch of what sort of game/workshop they want to run, how many can participate and how long the game/workshop will be. Then the participants will sign up for the games/workshops they find interesting and I’ll fit it into a schedule for the evening gaming. Since the possibility of bad weather remains, I will also ask the participants to bring extra games/workshops.
The synergy between hiking and gaming
Often when you go to gaming conventions they are intense and crammed into both a tight space and a tight schedule. There are people everywhere and every minute is filled with as many gaming activities as possible. I love it, but for Fjällcon I wanted to create something different. I wanted a convention where you were present in the moment and had time to reflect, and where you follow a natural pace, rather than clock time.
Nature was of course a huge part of the experience, but the beauty of the place is best described in pictures rather than words. While the gaming and all the discussions were great, for many of us it was the experience in nature that really stayed with us. I have had great gaming at conventions before, but I have never had nature experiences like these at any other convention. Emmie, one of the participants, captured this aspect of the convention beautifully:
“ Firstly, it is an experience driving up to Abisko (and then some). Really. Every minute was one to remember with good company in the car and the stunning sight of northern Sweden that was passing outside the car window. When we passed Kiruna and began to see mountains keeping the car on the road was difficult [due to nature distracting. -translators note]. One incredible view followed the other and finally, after ten hours on the road we arrived in Björkliden. Everywhere you looked, the beauty was unreal! The cottage was cozy and the company was fantastic.
I do not regret a second; neither the fear I felt riding up a cable car nor the hike through a bog in pouring rain. Everything was just so epic and I hope and pray that we get to experience it again next year! The drive home offered a lightning storm without equal, with powerful flashes that blinded us, followed by a rain storm that drowned the cars and the road in water. “
While hiking is nice and gaming is nice, hiking+gaming creating an awesome synergy. Something happened when we combined the two elements. I think Per, another participant, said it best:
“I have, during the convention, often been awe-struck. In part because of the location’s jaw-drop-inducing qualities but also by the camaraderie that developed during the convention.
Geeks are sometimes a delicate lot. Although it is possible for us to communicate amongst ourselves we can only do so by shared interest in a hobby. Naturally, communicating outside the boundaries of that specific hobby can be perilous undertaking. But when you combine the hobby of playing games with hiking in the wild it creates a whole new group dynamic that breaks through the often shallow convention-based friendship. The kind of trust I felt towards the ones I wandered through the hellish bog with is of a kind that I rarely feel with someone during nerd activities. We shared something very real and very physical in that god-awful bog. Combine this with the game-based fictional experiences of the convention and the next level of nerd conventions was achieved.
The experience of the reality-based activities and the fiction-based games created a unique blend. The genius of Fjällcon is that it succeeds in combining hiking and gaming: the feeling of community is the essence of both experiences, the collective experience that is hinted in both hobbies. FjällCon is an involving creative process that you share with other people. It is a physical process and a mental process, with both processes produce experiences which benefit and enhance the other. The physical experience of hiking is enriched by the mental experience of playing table-top rpg:s and vice versa”
The sneaky agenda: Bridging communities
Not only did I want to run a hiking+gaming convention, I also had a hidden agenda. Many of the people who came were game designers, larp or convention organizers, gaming club leaders or active in Sverok (The Swedish Gaming Federation): people who create games and shape the gaming community. My plan was to get them in together a cabin for five days, to see what would happen.
The participants came from all over Sweden as well as from Norway, were different ages and had different backgrounds; there were larpers as well as tabletop players, people who also have all sorts of different interests outside gaming. They were people that didn’t know each other, weren’t into the same kind of games and had different perspectives.
My hope was that they would get to know each other, would learn from each other and that all sorts of cool things would come from it. I think I succeeded. Nordic larpers and traditional tabletop game designers were found in deep conversation regarding how the different media explored cultural play, despite never having tried the other form of gaming before. There were many great gaming discussions going on all weekend, about game design and the gaming community. Cool things will come from it, I’m sure.
I set out with the goal of combining hiking and gaming into a convention, but ended up with something more. The limitation of the convention format helped people get to know each other in new ways. For four days, 16 people gamed, hiked, talked, cooked, took saunas, shared meals and relaxed together in a small cabin. Fjällcon helped bridge communities and strengthen relationships in different ways than other types of conventions do.
The shift between real and fictional experiences, between physical and mental activities, between reflection and activity, and between hiking and gaming created synergies that fed into each other. The way we came to trust each other while out hiking carried over into our games and helped us trust each other while gaming. Long conversations about gaming carried over into conversations about life, the universe and everything and carried back to gaming with new insights. Different gaming perspectives and experiences met and mixed.
My recommendation for anyone wanting to run something similar is to keep it small. From an organizer’s perspective 16 people felt safe and manageable, even though we hiked through remote arctic wilderness. Even when the party split into smaller groups on hikes, with some rushing ahead while other moved at a more steady pace, it was easy to keep track of each other. We kept track of each other making sure everyone was okay and no one was lost.
Also, I recommend that you have some experienced hikers among you. At FjällCon 2014 some participants had lifelong hiking experiences and advanced training, while other had never been in the mountains before. It really helped having participants with a lot of experience that could support the rest of us.
Lastly, I loved every minute of organizing a hiking+gaming convention, and I really recommend others to try similar concepts. The world needs more gaming+hiking conventions and there are lots of people that would love to participate. If you want to organize a hiking+gaming convention you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org , because I would love to hear about it and be happy to offer any advice I have to give.
Thanks to Joel Nordström for help with editing.