Return of the Video Game Conference

Video Game Expos in the Age of Covid

Video games and the people who play and make them love their expos. They traditionally kick off each year with the wonderful DICE Summit in February and wrap up in the fall with the likes of PAX West and New York Comic-Con.

The last two years, though, have thrown quite a large wrench into things with the rise of COVID-19, the need for safe, sensible distancing and at-home quarantining, and the difficulty in traveling. Now, as the vaccine continues to roll out around the world, some of those expos that have been in a sort of hibernation are starting to test the waters for a return to full, in-person celebrations.

This year hasn’t really seen any in-person gaming expos yet, but that’s set to change fairly soon. Looking over more than 20 events hitting in the remainder of the year, I found no less than seven events already announced to be returning to a full-blown in-person event, or some form of hybrid. That includes mammoth events like China’s ChinaJoy ( the largest gaming event in the world) down to smaller events like the New York-centric Play NYC and Atlanta-based Southen-Fried Gaming Expo.

Next year is most likely when we’ll see a return to video game expo normalcy, but what that means exactly remains to be seen. I’d like to think that two years or so of no physical events have taught event planners and conference-goers some important lessons.

Yes, in-person networking can be invaluable, but requiring in-person attendance creates an unnecessary barrier to a broad swath of fans and developers alike. What should come in 2022 is not a return of the pre-Covid expo, but the rise of hybrid events that take the best of those old-school, shoulder-to-shoulder expos and entirely virtual conferences to create something as welcoming as it is constructive.

People should have the option to attend in person, and there should be some additive benefit to that. But virtual attendance should also be available.

Much more importantly, conferences should be more open to the idea of blending in-person and virtual speakers during panels. This would have a massive impact on the diversity of the topics discussed and who discusses them — an issue that has long plagued many of the biggest gaming conventions.

Until then, we’re left with a mix of online and in-person events, some interesting experiments, and some tip-toes back to the way things used to be.

Below is a rundown of when the year’s in-person events will be happening, where they will take place, and what sort of safety protocols they plan to follow. Do keep in mind that all of these events have noted the possibility of a change guided by changes in local, state, and national health policies.

Freeplay Indie Games Festival
June 8 to June 13
Melbourne, Australia

This annual indie games festival bills itself as the world’s longest-running independent games festival. This year, the event is trying its hand at a hybrid event. The event will take place across six days in June online, but that will then be supplemented by a series of free and paid-in person events including the show’s Night Market Party, live music, some physical games, and more.

Unfortunately, there’s no word yet on exactly what that will include, nor on what sort of safety measures will be in place. I’ve reached out to the organizers with questions and will update this once they respond.

China Joy
July 30 to August 2
Shangnai, China

The largest gaming and digital entertainment exhibit in China, Asia, and perhaps the world, China Joy managed to dodge the need for going online-only during the pandemic. Last year, the show was held despite the impact of COVID-19 with the help of what show organizers call an “effective mechanism to carry out the onsite epidemic prevention and control.”

This year, the show looks like it will be following the same procedures. That includes having to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test, temperature checks, a mask requirement, increased cleaning, reduced capacity, and a contact tracking app.

August 25 to August 29
Cologne, Germany

Gamescom is a wonderful gaming expo that is equal parts exhausting and thrilling, sweaty and delightful. This year the show promises to keep things safe as it delivers a hybrid in-person event. That’s one step closer to fully back to in-person from last year, which was an online-only event.

This year, the event will feature an entertainment area “especially designed for a reduced amount of on-site visitors, which focuses on the testing of new games live on-site including a digital queue management system a further developed Gamescom now as a central meeting point on the web for gaming fans from all over the globe.”

The safety protocols for the event include mask requirements, increasing cleaning, reduced capacity, and an app for tracking visitors. You can read the full breakdown of safety measures on the expo center’s B-Safe website.

Play NYC
August 7 to August 8
New York City, New York

The largest gaming event in New York State returns to the physical in 2021 with its fifth annual event at the Metropolitan Pavilion. The scaled convention that “unites game creators and fans” over a weekend that includes a live stream.

The event will require proof of vaccination or a test and have mask requirements, increased cleaning, and a reduced capacity.

Southern-Fried Gaming Expo
August 20 to August 22
Atlanta, Geogia

With more than 250 arcade and pinball machines, dozens of new systems, and a mix of vendors, panels, and speakers, the Souther-Friend Gaming Expo doesn’t just have a great name, it also is a legitimate draw for southern fans of gaming.

This year’s event is returning to in-person later this year at the Renaissance Waverly Hotel and Cobb Galleria Convention Center. I reached out to the organizers for details about what safety measures would be in place and was told, “Those kinds of details will be decided closer to the event as we work in conjunction with the CDC, Marriott, Cobb Galleria, and others.”

New York Comic-Con
October 7 to October 10
New York City, New York

New York Comic-Con is back, and I’m sure the organizers over at Reed Pop couldn’t be happier. Hosted annually at the Javits Center, NYCC is host to a massive array of vendors, events, panels, and reveals related to all things gaming, comics, and general “geek” culture.

This year, NYCC will require masks, will up the cleaning between panels and in general, and will run at a reduced capacity. You can read up on the organizer’s approach to safety in their booklet entitled “Events in the New Normal.”

San Diego Comic-Con
November 26 to November 28
San Diego, California

The grandmother of all comic book conventions, the 2021 San Diego Comic-Con was technically canceled, with a return expected in the summer of 2022. But the organizers decided that they could still hold a little supplemental event in-person in November (Yes, that’s Thanksgiving Day weekend) called Comic-Con Special Edition.

We don’t know much of anything about the event, including health precautions. What the organizers do say is this: “It is our hope that by that point, conditions will permit in-person public gatherings of this kind. As details are still being finalized, badge cost, attendance capacity, and related information will be forthcoming.”

So far that’s it for 2021 in terms of in-person events. Of course, there are plenty of online events taking up the year as well. That includes the Brazil Independent Games FestivalE3PAX OnlineGames for ChangeGDCGame Devs of Color ExpoSummer Game Fest, and Tokyo Game Show.


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