Stepping into the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville—a vast and winding open space filled with tropical plants, waterfalls, river boat rides, and hints of Alice in Wonderland underneath a glass dome of a ceiling—is a sight to behold on its own. But as it hosted the first-ever Con of Thrones, it felt like something that came straight out of the mind of George R.R. Martin.
Cosplayers, a majority of them portraying characters and concepts from Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, were present nearly everywhere you went, whether it was around the Atrium or in one of the many, more-modern conference rooms hosting panels. The scenery added another level to all of the Daenerys Targaryens, Jon Snows, and Sand Snakes, while making other striking visuals, such as the Children of the Forest and a White Walker sitting down to casually checking their phones, fit right in.
Con of Thrones co-founder Zack Luye and Mischief Management CEO Melissa Anelli told me before the con that they aimed for fans to lose themselves in this immersive environment, but bringing different parts of the fandom together was just as important.
“We felt very strongly about bringing in voices from the fandom and making sure those were heard,” Anelli said. “We have a lot of podcasts coming, it’s not just actors, it’s not just getting autographs and photographs, it’s a huge swatch of every piece of the fandom being represented here.”
Part of that was letting fans take over much of the programming, which, for the most part, went off without a hitch. Game of Thrones and ASOIAF experts, many of them appearing as panelists for the first time, offered their thoughts of what might happen with certain characters and plots ahead of season 7 and The Winds of Winter. Many of the actors and creators involved with Game of Thrones were spotted on panels beyond their particular spotlight or the actor-heavy “Ghosts of Westeros” panel. Some of them even showed up at other panels unexpectedly. Kate Dickie (Lysa Arryn) surprised guests at the Sex and Sensuality panel I appeared on while Kerry Ingram and Sam Coleman (Shireen and young Hodor) popped up at a debate panel over the most upsetting deaths on Game of Thrones. Paula Fairfield, a sound designer on Game of Thrones, created buzz among fans after she revealed that season 8 might include feature-length episodes.
After covering larger conventions like VidCon and New York Comic Con over the years, Con of Thrones was an entirely different experience, and one that felt much more intimate. You could chat with people much more easily—and not get drowned out by the size of the crowd. Some fans met each other for the first time after spending years chatting about Game of Thrones online. You could witness people meeting and becoming fast friends in almost an instant, both in-person and through the Con of Thrones app. They coordinated meals, which panels to attend, and even where to meet for an epic cosplay photoshoot. They could form teams during a Game of Thrones trivia contest and observe some of the con’s best cosplay during a costume contest.
It was welcoming, even as people respectfully debated topics ranging from the treatment of women on the show and the female gaze to what spinoff HBO should make once Game of Thrones ends. You could go into any room and learn something new or discover something you missed while watching or reading the books. New theories emerged while older ones found brand new light. Although a few fake spoilers were thrown out here and there for fun, people respected other fans’ spoiler gauges; while some keep up with spoiler predictions or have read all the books, others were content just waiting for the show.
People who went to Con of Thrones alone could find companions as they explored the convention center and downtown Nashville, which was home to a Game of Thrones bar crawl during the weekend. It aimed to be inclusive to people of all genders, offering multiple gender-neutral restrooms throughout the convention center. Even though Game of Thrones is the most popular show in the world, there was still a sense of relief about being able to hash out hopes and frustrations that more casual viewers might not pay attention to with other people—and people understood exactly what you meant. (Looking at you, Hairwatch.)
And what really struck me, a lifelong fandom lurker who participated on panels at a convention for the first time, was how friendly everyone was throughout the weekend. They were completely approachable and you could lose yourself in half a dozen conversations with a new group of friends, each of them worth engaging, and still come out completely content. While discourse online is often ugly—especially when addressing some of the show’s more controversial plots like Sansa Stark’s rape in season 5—the idea that you can still love a show or a book series while acknowledging its faults prevailed. In-depth conversations were a regular occurrence.
The event ran into a few minor hiccups, which isn’t unheard of for a first-time convention. Some fans had complaints about the size of the marketplace, while some found it easier to catch up and chat with friends old and new in the lobby rather in the ballroom where Ball on the Wall took place.
Ahead of season 7, Game of Thrones fandom is in a fascinating place. The show will end soon, but online chatter will continue far beyond its eventual end date. Martin still has two more books to publish, and while some fans still anxiously await them, others are starting to lose hope that we’ll ever see The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. The successor shows will extend discussions on the shows and whatever world it opens up for years. Fans left hopeful, with some even joining Twitter for the first time (or again) to interact with everyone they met at the convention online.
Although concrete plans on Con of Thrones 2018 weren’t announced by the end of the convention, fans were directed to a site where they could sign up for updates. And by next year they’ll have much more to talk about: After all, they’ll have at least an entirely new season to obsessively dissect together.