Falling in Love with Metatopia

Recently, I was privileged to be guest of honor at Metatopia, one of the Double Exposure events held in Morristown, New Jersey. This was my fourth or fifth Double Exposure event, and my first Metatopia. And while I’ve known that Metatopia was awesome from posts and tweets from others from the last two years, I gotta say that they undersold the event.

Today, I’m going to share with you why I’ve fallen in love with this show, and it starts with this: Metatopia bills itself, more or less, as a design and playtesting event. But really, it’s a community event.

For those who aren’t aware, Metatopia is a convention focused on playtesting games in progress, connecting with game designers, participating in panels about the process of making games, and just generally engaging in designer culture. As can be expected from the DE crowd that spawned this, it’s got a heavy lean toward story games/indie stuff/whatever you want to call ’em.

As a Design Space

I’m not a musician, but I imagine the sort of casual space where musical greats and talented lesser-knowns (or unknowns doing this for the first time) get together to jam. demo pieces, and talk shop in a way that they can’t around those whose fandom is just rooted in consumption. This is like how I imagine that is — as a big jam where you leave enriched with someone else’s song in your head, and their song in yours, and cool that those melodies will end up influencing other works.

I participated in some playtests, where we actually attempted to play games, and one focus group, where we talked about a game concept and gave ideas. Some games crashed minutes into the test, and we talked for an hour about what could be changed, effectively turning it into a focus group. The panels were good, and some were recorded (which I’ll point out on my social media when I see them drop). My personal favorite bit was when John Stavropolous was trying to get us to “say something controversial” on the What Goes Into Your GM Chapter panel. I tried, I really tried.

There was also off-the-books playtesting, including my own card-based RPG tool that I decided to draft together a day before I flew out. This is the sort of space where while you’re at the bar with friends and designers, you can say “hey, can I show you something?” and give a five-minute demo…provided you’re cool for a critique. Oh, and the bar has a fantastic open space (which allows sound to not echo back and force everyone to be loud to be heard.

I feel like I’m not selling enough that this is a place where if you have hit a creative wall, that wall will be broken down. If you need a creative boost, you’ll be thrown into the air. And if you’re lost on a project, you’ll get a map and sense of direction. You just have to be bold enough to share being stuck, being down, or being lost in order to get that to happen, but it’s easier to get that confidence when you see professionals around you also ask for the same help.

As a Safe Space

The main bathrooms in the game area were rebranded to be non-gendered. The environment of the place was the most welcoming I have ever seen at a show, where people could wear traditional non-Western clothing without feeling like the space threatens them for doing so. And some of the panels were about hard topics in our community, trying to have dialogues rather than suffer in silence and misunderstanding. (I did my ‘Ryan talks about his story of being suicidal’ panel at the show, and Elizabeth Sampat & I held that discussion for an audience of 11 people.)

Now, if you’re like me, and some of this make you nervous because you have anxiety and are afraid of doing the wrong thing in an unfamiliar environment, it turns out that it’s also a safe place to make mistakes if you acknowledge them and are willing to talk about them. (And to get you to realize that what you’re feeling is how other people feel every day.) I recall Avonelle telling a few of us about some guys came up to her to ask her to talk about privilege, and she was beaming because men came to her about it openly, rather than your, well, more typical big convention experience.

It’s Not For Everyone

One thing about Metatopia is that it isn’t for everyone. If you’re not interested in participating in the community, and go to cons just to play the games you’re used to playing and not engage with people who are making stuff, you won’t enjoy the convention and it won’t enjoy you. Now, if you’re up for trying something new, it’s totally welcoming and fun.

Also, if you’re an asshole, this convention isn’t for you. If you’re the sort of person who would casually mock the social issues mentioned above and think you’re right for doing so, man alive you’re going to know what it’s like to be unwelcome for who you are.


It is my great hope that I’ll be able to go again next year. If you want to see more posts from people talking about their experiences, check out those on G+: https://plus.google.com/s/%23metatopia.

– Ryan


3 Responses to Falling in Love with Metatopia

  1. Marc says:

    Sounds amazing. I have no idea if I’ll be able to go for a few years, but I’m simply busting to.

  2. “Some games crashed minutes into the test, and we talked for an hour about what could be changed, effectively turning it into a focus group.” You’re being charitable. But it was helpful.

    Ditto everything Ryan said. I hadn’t thought of the music jam metaphor, but it’s apt. In addition to the structured playtests, there were a lot of impromptu sessions or just shooting the breeze over, say, an empanada. It’s a great way to recharge the batteries.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I wasn’t mentioning names partly because that was far from the only occurrence. :) And because there’s no shame — that’s all part of the event’s nature.

      I will say that, as a sense of warning, Metatopia is mentally a high-contact sport. Next year, I think I will do one fewer playtest in order to give myself some space to decompress — having a half-dozen people in a room breaking a game down isn’t relaxing, even if it is a useful and at times enjoyable experience. I found myself feeling a bit drained on Friday, which was my long day.

      – Ryan