While dozing on the train home from Washington D.C., I imagined beginning this piece with something suitably poetic, or maybe even sappy — perhaps wiping an only somewhat performative tear from my eye about how American fans came together during COVID and showed each other a relatively safe time. I found Otakon 2021 to be a particularly stunning example of how a group of socially responsible businesses, show-runners, and patrons can work together for everyone’s mutual benefit. But, as I sit here sifting through all of my happy memories, I can’t dredge up any feel-good hyperbole for it.
Why is that, I wonder?
That sensation of being at a loss for self-expression also seemed to have a presence at the event, where over twenty-thousand otaku converged to celebrate their fandom for the first time in over a year. When asked if it felt good to be back, a group of chatty attendees paused, then shared a look with each other and nodded, their eyes full of emotion. Others expressed surprise at their own impulsive, childlike attempts to connect. “Sorry!” one woman apologized after reaching for my service dog. She smiled warmly, dark eyes crinkling above her mask. “I’m just so happy and tired, I don’t even know how to act right now.”
I smiled back, thinking I knew just how she felt.
The COVID-19 Delta variant was well underway when Otakon began on Friday, August 6th, and Washington D.C. had just issued another city-wide mask mandate. By then, Americans had been through at least one lockdown, not to mention months and months of distance work. Many of us are still suffering from various levels of social sterility — which is precisely the kind of sterility that contributes to various illnesses, rather than reducing them. Autoclaves are great for implements, it turns out, but not so great for hearts and minds. Like many disableds, I’d already learned how to choose between my mental and physical health, how to prioritize between them according to risk on the fly, and how to set firm boundaries between work and home when isolated in a multi-use space. My able-bodied associates, however, found themselves struggling to keep their balance in what truly is a dual-edged existence. Everyone’s priorities and coping methods are different, and in a nation where everything is politicized, happy and tired fans didn’t know what to expect from their con at the end of the rainbow.
I, too, showed up with some questions, because that’s my idea of fun!
Specifically, I wondered if COVID-19 would have any effects on the convention’s social scene, and if so, what they would be. To try and answer that question, I employed a combination of small talk, formal interviews, and personal observations. For the interviews, I spoke with both attendees and staffers. For the observations, I paid attention to the intimacy of body language, whether people were as eager to connect with those outside of their social group, crowd walla levels, apparent desire to loiter with each other in the halls, and of course facial expressions, with extra attention paid to eyes, foreheads, and eyebrows. It’s important to note that what little professional training I have is in ethology, not ethnography — so bearing in mind that for me, people-watching is an art, not a science — I can conclude “yes.” COVID-19 did appear to have an effect on the social scene in both striking and subtle ways.
The striking effects seemed largely due to the visible precautions taken against COVID transmission: masks and social distancing. Everyone was required to wear a mask while inside the convention center, and compliance was so high that I could only find a rumor of someone who didn’t follow the rules. Cosplayers, a cornerstone of our fandom, were especially clever when incorporating masks into their costumes. Even those who removed their masks for pictures tried to follow social distancing — there wasn’t as much lingering after snapping photos with their fans, and some even seemed to work as hosts, directing the flow of people in their vicinity to help them avoid prolonged exposure to knots. Their artistry and continuous efforts to care for our community were very much appreciated.
Another striking difference between this year and many others, was the speed in which people used the women’s restrooms. Folks, I have never been more surprised to take a public pee! People were in and out so fast, my wait for an accessible stall never reached painful levels — a first for large conventions and most airports! I saw cleaning staff everywhere, and the bathrooms themselves were spotless, so I’m reasonably sure they weren’t being fled like poopy outhouses.
The Walter E. Washington Convention Center has plenty of other nooks and crannies to hide away in, and that too could have helped guard against the urge to linger in bathrooms. The wait for a flushless hideaway was never too long, and I saw at least one empty cubby during each of my rounds through the venue. Cubby design ranged from plain benches tucked into a corner, to small alcoves flanked with floor-to-ceiling windows. The latter were furnished with plants to partially obscure the concourse, which provided a soothing screen between oneself and the crowds. That there was always a cubby available could be a testament to how many such areas there were (alas, I failed to count them), or it could be a testament to how few people preferred to sit still. It could also be a factor of Otakorp’s dedication to accessibility, providing a dim, quiet room to sit in for those who needed it. In any case, during my past visits to PAX West and other large events, finding such an area free for use was next to impossible.
Over the course of three days, I couldn’t find a single person who seemed impatient or angry. Not while waiting in line for coffee, not while waiting for security, not while waiting for a panel, not while being reminded to pull their masks up, not convention staff, not facility staff (they did look tired, though). One man I spoke to was sad — they’d sold out of a Charmander plushie he dearly wanted to buy — but he perked up again when he heard there may be some pictures he’d like in Artist’s Alley. Like Charmander guy, most people seemed adorably pleasant: those who were at a loss to express themselves, those who impulsively forgot their manners, and those who preferred to keep socially distanced, all shared the same eye-smiles with me.
“Anime lovers are family,” explained Jason Breeden, a longtime fan and staff volunteer. He believed that patience and high mask compliance was an extension of that love, adding that he only saw a few people trying to break the rules over the course of the weekend. And that didn’t surprise him one bit. “People want to have fun and enjoy themselves,” he said. “They look happy to be out.”
My conversation with Mr. Breeden, a forty-five to fifty-year-old with fifteen years of volunteer experience, reflected the overall optimism I encountered during small talk and interviews. DB_Explorer, a man in his thirties, felt pleasantly surprised about the mask compliance, and said he was happy to find otaku being smart about COVID.
When asked his favorite feature of in-person conventions, he leaned forward with a conspiratorial smile. “I get to talk,” he said.
A frequently deployed member of the U.S. Navy and a self-described introvert, DB finds it easier to socialize among people who celebrate similar interests — something that isn’t quite the same during digital conventions like the ones we saw in 2020. Indeed, he was cheerful throughout our interview, graciously pausing whenever we were interrupted by touch-starved people desperate to interact with my service dog. Including, but not limited to, a man who barged in mid-sentence, only to be reminded of the risk — to himself, myself, and everyone else who’d later touch the dog. The number of people who assume service dogs are there for public delight varies by geographic region, but at the convention, I fielded a number of requests outstripping even the most audacious pet-happy states (looking at you, Northeast). This includes all other conventions, theme parks, concerts, and other such crowded events I’ve attended over the past ten years. Such rude encounters often horrify the people I’m with, who then express the outrage I absolutely feel, which puts me in the awkward position of soothing them so we can carry on. But in Otakon’s environment, with its happy-and-tired atmosphere, DB sympathized with me via eye contact and shrugged it off, which provided me with the social cover to do the same. Thanks, DB!
That willingness to provide social cover seemed to go a long way toward addressing the extra frustrations that COVID precautions added to the event. I watched people leave cafeteria tables when those outside their group exhibited uncomfortable body language with conversational topics — the tables were quite large to help with social distancing, I assume, and it was difficult to find one that wasn’t occupied by two or more groups. One pair of guests, beset by a mask malfunction, began humorously bickering about whose mask was worst to diffuse the tension. A hair clip was produced, the mask secured, and the con went on.
These lovely undercurrents of forbearance and support were encouraged by Otakon’s guests. Eric Roth, music director and conductor of OPENWORLD, approaches each concert with a determination to maximize people’s experience with the show. “It is important to me to accept and embrace the energy which individuals come to the performance with at that time,” he explained. “I am grateful that people were there to share the experience with us, come as they are.”
And he was successful on that front! A skilled artist and delightful host, he reminded us how dearly we missed the energy of live performances, and then delivered on those feelings beautifully during his sold-out show.
At the beginning of the evening, my observations within the OPENWORLD audience noted people as more subdued than I’d come to expect from conventions, especially before the concert began. Of the people around me, voices were quieter, conversation stalled for longer, and the crowd’s walla seemed more subdued as well, so much that the baby saying “Hi!” as Mr. Roth entered the stage was clearly audible. As the concert continued, however, the crowd’s jubilance seemed to ramp up each time he mentioned his gratitude — often, and in the most relatable way — until they’d morphed into the loud, rambunctious nerds I’d come to love and expect. The switch seemed drastic from where I was sitting, but I know things often look different from onstage, and it left me curious about Mr. Roth’s interpretation of the event.
“It’s hard for me to be confident about my observations of the audience in that setting,” Mr. Roth said in our interview, detailing that his concentration during a performance is occupied with making sure people enjoy themselves. “My impressions of the audience that night was that they were happy. They seemed happy to be there and to share the joy together. And I felt like the effort in our performance was received with great appreciation; I feel so much gratitude for our community and those who attended the OPENWORLD concert at Otakon 2021 in particular.”
He later amiably noted that he feels there is a lot more variety in audience behavior than is widely acknowledged.
I desperately wanted to follow up on that topic — after all, Mr. Roth has performed for audiences around the world — but curiosity is one part distraction, two parts taskmaster, and I moved on to another guest, Mike Toole. Discotek panelist and Editor at Large for Anime News Network, Mike had a front-row seat for the con at the end of the rainbow.
“It felt the same as always,” he said, when asked his impression of the panel’s energy. “The room for the Discotek panel filled up quickly, myself and my co-hosts Brady [Hartel] and Justin [Sevakis] had some fun pre-roll content to energize the crowd (Ninja Robots dub clips), and as one of the tentpole industry events of the show, we all knew we had expectations to meet. Not only were we expecting the crowd to react to Gunbuster that way, we knew that it would be important to end the panel with a bang — that’s why we announced Gunbuster a bit early…Beyond that, it was just good to be in a big room full of fans again — both for the panel, and for the same day’s screening of Project A-Ko.”
Mike noticed some other effects of COVID, however. “Overall, during the pandemic year I’ve seen more fans engaging with fan art on social media, funny tiktok videos, and that sort of thing. I’ve tried to keep up, doing things like being more active on Discord, but it’s tough to stay in touch—after months stuck in the bubble, everything seems a little overwhelming.”
“In retrospect,” he added later, “it’s kind of a miracle we’ve gotten anything done at all, let alone figure out some new ways to share our fandom.”
Emerging from over a year of social isolation — not to mention political division — to safely celebrate a common interest did feel miraculous. Hyperbole aside, it was a really special time! Certain aspects of this year’s Otakon were noticeably different due to safety precautions, and at times things felt slightly off, like with the increased social impulsiveness I noticed among adult con-goers. But as to the actual enthusiasm of our fandom? That seemed high as ever. People’s patience, attention to safety, eagerness to provide social cover, and jovial forbearance — present at most conventions I’ve attended in the past — were happily extended toward pandemic frustrations as well, lending a familiar feeling of cohesion to the event.
Mr. Roth seemed to speak for all of us near the end of his concert, saying, “We are so very grateful and happy to be here with such great friends!” And it showed.
Update 11/10/2021, 7:21AM EST: We accidentally referred to OPENWORLD as “OVERWORLD.” This has since been corrected.