SDCC Badge Pre-reg and the “Vegas Effect”

Comic-con has been putting out a slow trickle of information on badge sales for 2014, and as the actual convention creeps closer the anticipation and stress level for the actual sale has only built exponentially. For me, aside from its other perks Comic-con is where I see (and in some cases met) the majority of my friends and the only convention I still go to for fun. I’m pretty dang invested in getting a badge (and I really wish I’d tried for Pro). The year they put the next year’s badges on sale at the con, I stood in an obscene line and got shut out of Preview Night – only to have friends breeze through a painless online reg later on. I’ve been through tough times with Comic-con. But they continue to give me a series of small heart attacks, like the announcement today that the badge registration waiting room will be randomized.


Analyzing my own reaction to this news, as well as reading reactions of others on Twitter, has led me to wonder whether there’s more to why we’re upset than that we feel it won’t be effective (which we can’t really predict well). We really want our universe to be a meritocracy. History has shown we much prefer even the illusion of a meritocracy to egalitarianism. Our ancestors tried absolutely everything to control the world around them, from the weather to their love lives. We want the system to be fair; right up to the point where it means we lose our own advantage, anyway. Loss of control is scary. That’s a totally normal human response.

There is no system that demonstrates this human tendency to believe in their control over events they cannot actually influence than Las Vegas. The casinos are masters at psychological manipulation. Amongst the many visual and even olfactory tricks they use, they carefully employ sound design to give you positive reinforcement for continuing to play (I’m serious, there are specific sounds – like the sounds in Mario – that make you feel you’re succeeding, even if you’re not). People who play slot machines regularly have extensive superstitions and rules they believe have an impact on how often they win. But there’s a chip in those machines that contains an algorithm which controls payout per number of plays, and that algorithm is not only complex and top-secret, it regularly *changes*. When you remove that much of user ability to influence outcomes, they become effectively random. Your first pull might win; your thousandth might not. Because the precise degree to which that win feels like a possibility is carefully calculated and controlled, people still play. One way or another, the house always wins. (Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a business.) But the point is, they’re just capitalizing on an inherent human desire to believe we’re in control – which probably HAS a name, but we can call the “Vegas effect”.

So while you may have felt in the past that carefully controlling your registration preparedness determined whether you got a badge, it may NOT have been true for several years. Carefully timing your caffeine intake, restarting your computer, selecting the right browser and killing background operations – at one point, they may have made a split-second difference that mattered. But right now, SDCC may just be acknowledging that these techniques influence the outcome about as much as what color underpants you have on.

In the case of badge purchasing, it’s not a belief that came from nowhere, though. In theory, if 60 people are submitting a request to the same server at roughly the same time, a second of difference in the speed with which you execute that request can matter. If your brother is streaming Arrow on Hulu while you’re trying to do it, it might cost you a badge.

But when that number is, say, 60,000 (and it’s WAY more than that), those gaps between one request and another close so significantly that for all practical purposes they cease to exist.

Imagine this scenario: a crowd of people is outside a store on Black Friday. The people closest to the door should get in first, right, since they waited the longest. But if there are too many people trying to get through the same handful of doors at once, what really happens is total chaos. Some of the closest people get in, but some of them get shoved into the door frame while people who were behind them push past. Or sometimes, the cops get called and the whole thing is shut down. If there’s only X amount of Thing for Y number of people, someone is definitely going home sobbing. The most you can do is stop them being trampled.

This is basically what happens inside a computer when there are too many requests to process. Either it’s effectively random which requests are accepted, or the server is totally overwhelmed and crashes and no one gets in. The “waiting room” system was implemented to counteract this by, more or less, starting at the front of the crowd and letting people in a few at a time while leaving the rest outside. But basically it was just re-locating the fight from the doors to the parking lot. So it helps, but it doesn’t help all that much. Mostly it keeps the servers from crashing.

Those who’ve been going to SDCC for some years will know that the hotel reservations didn’t use to be a lottery, either. Eventually the number of people hitting the servers made the whole thing totally ineffectual. Yes, that’s right; getting a Comic-con hotel used to be WORSE. It was at the point where someone was going to keel over from an actual heart attack. I will admit that the hotel lottery system has had some years that feel much more effective than others, and whether that’s from genuine fine-tuning of the system or whether or not I get the Omni, I can’t say for certain.

I’m just as stressed about sacrificing (the illusion of) control as everyone else. But the truth may well be that we haven’t had the wheel for a while now; and either way we have to trust Comic-Con not to crash the bus. I DO wish there was another, better way. If any of you go to Disneyland, you’ll know that no solution to “too many people want to ride Indy” is fully effective, and nearly all of them are in some way preferential or discriminatory. Larger conventions have struggled with this question, too, and more will have to as their numbers continue to climb. And we all know it’s not just badges or hotels, but line management that may have to change.

What solution would you prefer? Obstacle course? Nerd trivia? Differently-priced tickets with benefits? Are any solutions besides the “level playing field” or a lottery just instituting a class system? Or do we just need the EPIC system to make some satisfying noises like the Mario coin sound?

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Anne Darkly
Professional geek, plush artist, movie lover, writer trying to get back on the wagon. Or off the wagon. There's wagon involvement. Everyone told me to get a blog, so I did. Yee-haw.
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