Jonny Nexus

Writing, life, politics

A Gopher’s Guide To Gophering

Eastercon is the British national science-fiction convention. I’ve attending five Eastercons in total. In 2010, I volunteered for the first time as a gopher. Since then I’ve spent something like twenty-five hours gophering, if we’re counting, which I am even if you’re not. I think it’s a cool thing to do, so I thought I’d write a blog post about it, in the hope that it might encourage more people to gopher at future cons.

In general, all my gophering experience has been at Eastercon. (I did once gopher at Dragonmeet, a games convention). So what I have to say is based on the way Eastercon does it, but I suspect it’s very similar at other conventions, if not identical.

What is a Gopher? Gophers are volunteers, drawn from the convention attendees, who help out with general convention duties. Unlike the convention committee and staff, who’ve generally signed up for the “job” in advance, you can volunteer as a gopher at any point during the convention. The only requirement is that you be an attendee (i.e. member, chap/chapess with a convention namebadge) of the convention.

Why Gopher? Quite simply because without gophers, the convention can’t happen. Conventions like Eastercon are run by a “Committee” under which are a set of people who form the “Staff”. These guys put in superhuman amounts of work, both in the years and months running up to the convention and in the convention itself. But once the con starts, they simply need extra hands, some Indians to their Chiefs. Which is where the gophers come in.

How do you become a Gopher? Well when you sign up, there’s usually a box you can tick saying that you want to volunteer, but the way I’ve always done it is to go to the Gopher Hole (this is a room which will be marked on the convention map in the programme) and say that I want to volunteer as a gopher. It’s quite simple. If you’ve never done it before, they can fill you in on what’s involved, and then you get an extra gopher tag you can wear (I attached mine to my main tag).

What if I’d like to learn about it first? At Eastercon there are usually a couple of panels in the timetable that explain all about gophering. I think this year there was one on the Thursday night and one on the Friday afternoon. If you haven’t gophered before, these are an excellent way of getting involved and signing up. But if you do miss these, don’t worry. You can just go down to the Gopher Hole.

Who’s in charge of the Gophers? At Eastercon, there are two people/positions in charge of the gophers, one male, one female. The man is referred to as “Gopher Mum”. The woman is referred to as “Gopher Dad”. (No I don’t know why it’s the wrong way round. It’s just some sort of tradition –although I guess it’s a good way of guarding against potential gender stereotyping.)

How many hours do I have to work? As many or as few as you like. You only work when you’d like to work. The only (being polite/nice/decent) requirement is that if you say you’re going to do something, you should then do it, but that’s just common sense. You only work when you want to work. (So you can fit it around the panel items and events you want to go to).

What would I have to do? Again, this is up to you. Gophering is on very much a volunteering basis, not only in how long you work and when, but on what you do. You only have to volunteer for roles that you feel comfortable with. It’s my experience that you will never be in any way pressured to do something you don’t feel happy doing.

So how do I volunteer to do work? The way it tends to work at Eastercon is that there’s a grid, with the roles that need doing at any one time along the top, and the hours of the day down the side. If you fancy doing a particular job, you look down the column for that role and find an empty slot which is at a time suitable for you. (e.g. You might volunteer for door duty on the Dealers’ Room between 2 and 3 pm).

Is there any reward? Other than the warm glow of doing good, yes there is. For each hour that you work, you get paid two groats (generally, you claim these by reporting back after a period, or periods, of work to either the Gopher Dad or the Gopher Mum). Groats can be spent in the convention bar, the convention cafeteria, and the Dealers’ Room. Each groat is worth one pound sterling. They can usually also be spent on a limited edition item, of which more later.

What jobs can you do? Gophers can end up doing a whole load of different things. I’ve loaded and unloaded vans, moved things, set up tables for author signings (including one signing, where I then immediately sat down as one of the authors), and helped marshal the queues at an author signing (actually, there weren’t any queues, but had there been, I was ready). You can also man the entrances to the trade hall (a.k.a. be the “Door Nazi?” that Knights of the Dinner Table once described) and the art show, attend panels to do the time keeping, deliver drinks to panels, man the table that sells t-shirts, man the table where people can sign up for events, and so on.

Door Nazi? This involves sitting on a chair outside an entrance to the Dealers’ Room checking that the people entering: a) are wearing a convention badge (i.e. that they’ve paid to attend the convention); and b) aren’t carrying open drinks containers or food. (The latter requirement is because there’s a lot of expensive books and other items on display inside, and someone tripping up whilst holding a beer could literally cause hundreds of pounds of damage). The exception to the drinks rule is people who have a dealers badge, who are allowed to take drinks in (because otherwise they’d die of thirst, and they will be taking them straight to their own table).

Is is all work? No. One perk of being a gopher is that when you’re not gophering, you can hang around the Gopher Hole with other off-duty gophers. This is actually pretty cool in itself and a really good way to get to meet other convention attendees. This is especially good if you’re attending the con on your own. There isn’t really an in-crowd at Eastercon; it’s not that sort of event. But if there was, gophering would be a fast-track to getting into it.

Hanging around the Gopher Hole is also a cool thing you can do to help the convention. Much gophering is based around a fixed schedule, as I described above. But sometimes, someone from Tech or Ops will turn up at the Gopher Hole and say, “We need X gophers in room Y to do Z”, at which point – if you don’t have any panels you were about to go to – you can raise your hand, and say, “Yeah, I’m free.”

It might be a bit of an embarrassing, adolescent thing to admit to, but I find it quite satisfying to hang around the Gopher Hole like some kind of rapid-reaction gopher force.

I’ll never know what it feels like to be a fireman responding to a 999 call. I’ll never be on the flight deck of a C-130 Hercules coming in to land at some disaster zone with much needed supplies. But when the women at the crèche reported that their TV was broken, and a replacement urgently needed to be sent over to them… I was there. I took the call.

(With two others. And a trolley. I mean, it was a big-screen, old-style, CRT set. Have you ever felt the weight of those bastards?)

Are there any other benefits or perks? Actually, yes. There is. Each of the three Eastercons I’ve gophered at have had an offer for some kind of limited edition garment (either a t-shirt, a sweatshirt, or a hoodie) that can be purchased by groats only. This means that it’s only available to volunteers: gophers, the tech crew, the green room staff, the ops guys, and so on.

At the 2010 and 2011 Eastercons, the garment cost 10 groats, meaning you had to do five hours of work. For 2012, the price did increase to 15 groats (or 8 hours), but was it a very cool black hoodie – totally worth it! (It had a black on black design inspired by the black on black controls and dials of the Sundiver starship in Douglas Adam’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe).

So that’s gophering. If you’ve never been to an Eastercon before, I’d really recommend you give it a try. In 2013 we’ll be heading to Bradford for EightSquaredCon, and then in 2014 we’ll be heading to Glasgow for Satellite 4. And if you do go, think about gophering. It’s pretty cool, and not nearly as scary as you might think.

9 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Jonny, and thank you for being there. You made our life much, much easier.

    I don’t know whether the cross-gendered Gopher Parents is actually a tradition. In fact, it isn’t: I’ve just checked through my old emails and found out that I was supposed to be Gopher Dad. But I’m a contrary cuss, and taking the Gopher Mum badge first meant I could step back and worry about the well being of our little gophers, while Gopher Dad was the disciplinarian. And it turned out at the ceilidh that she leads when dancing, so that was the right choice 😉

    I’ve only been gophering for 3 years (it feels longer!) having opted for it at Odyssey, in 2010, for much the same reasons that you mention: the people I knew at the con all knew *other* people at the con, and I didn’t. Since then I’ve done Redemption, Illustrious last year, and now this. So… yeah, it’s a bit of a fast track.

    As a gopher, what you do get to do is interact with a lot of people, without needing to think up a reason to do this: taking cables to the tech crew, phone chargers to people in the dealers’ room, TVs to the creche, or just tea to the guest of honour at a panel. All of which gives you a chance to say “Hi!” and break the ice, without having to go through a painfully stilted conversation. And, if you don’t suffer from painfully stilted conversation, it gives you access to the guests that you might not otherwise get (as long as you’re quick): I had to get a book signed by George (as us namedroppers call him!) on behalf of one of our disabled attendees.

    Finally, and this is important: there’s no commitment. If you can only do one hour, guarding a door, everybody will be thoroughly thankful, because it’s one hour *less* that somebody else does it, so they can go to a panel, or get breakfast. Absolutely any offer is gratefully (and sincerely) received.

    (Oh, and really finally, it means you can hang around with cool authors, such as Jonny, and treat them as real people, without risking the urge to become a drooling fanboy at every possible moment. At least, I don’t think I did 😉

    • Well I’m not sure I count as a “cool author”, yet, but thank you very much for suggesting that I am! 🙂

      The point about even an hour being useful is a very good one, and your description of the cool things you can do is much more evocative than mine.

      Lastly, it sounds almost patronising to thank you for such a good comment, but I mean it: it’s a really good piece that complements and builds on my post very effectively, making the combined post plus comment greater than the whole. Hope that makes sense! 🙂

  2. Martin Easterbrook

    April 11, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    Good to know gophering is still as much fun.

    I haven’t heard ‘Door Nazi’ before, the term I’m more used to is ‘Badger’. Gophers & Badgers seems to trip off the tongue better.

    US fans also use the term ‘Door Dragon’ but this implies someone at the door or a restricted entry party, like the Hugo nominees, SFWA etc. The ‘Door Dragon’ has sometimes to use their own judgement about who to allow in and is therefore usually someone who has been in fandom for a long time and knows a lot of people.

    • As far as Eastercon, Door Nazi is entirely my term, and I’ve only ever heard it in the context of gaming conventions, and then only in an issue of the excellent gaming comic, Knights of the Dinner Table.

      http://www.kenzerco.com/index.php?cPath=22_23

      (They go to “Garycon”, but are unable to enter because one of them has lost his badge, and the “Door Nazi”, as they refer to him, refuses to let him in).

  3. Thanks very much for gophering.

  4. We cannot do without gophers, and as you say it is a great way to get involved. I did not realise that next year I appear to be shifting genders. Oh well. See you in Bradford.

  5. @wimble: I’m pretty sure when I first gophered (Eastercon 2008 “Orbital”), M. was “Gopher Mum” back then too. So perhaps it’s not so much a tradition rather than an in-joke…

  6. As a reply to the above three comments:

    “I don’t know whether the cross-gendered Gopher Parents is actually a tradition. In fact, it isn’t: I’ve just checked through my old emails and found out that I was supposed to be Gopher Dad. But I’m a contrary cuss, and taking the Gopher Mum badge first meant I could step back and worry about the well being of our little gophers, while Gopher Dad was the disciplinarian. And it turned out at the ceilidh that she leads when dancing, so that was the right choice”

    And:

    “We cannot do without gophers, and as you say it is a great way to get involved. I did not realise that next year I appear to be shifting genders. Oh well. See you in Bradford.”

    And:

    “@wimble: I’m pretty sure when I first gophered (Eastercon 2008 “Orbital”), M. was “Gopher Mum” back then too. So perhaps it’s not so much a tradition rather than an in-joke…”

    Well I’m now not quite sure if in my post I’m reporting on a tradition or in danger of starting one, but I guess traditions often start by accident and then get “set” by mistake, so in this case, I’m more than happy to be the accidental recorder of one, if that makes sense. 🙂

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