Two weeks ago, I helped run the Queerness and Games Conference at UC Berkeley, a free, public, interdisciplinary, and inclusive space for people who wanted to talk and learn about the intersection of games and queerness. To say it was a success would be an understatement; at the end of the conference, one of the main questions we discussed as a group was “How do we keep this community going after this finishes?” That people grew something around our event showed me the conference was needed and fulfilled its function.
Conferences as a concept are at a focal point in the games community’s vision. From the inaccessibility of the Game Developer Conference to the toxic overtones of the Penny Arcade Expo, there hasn’t been enough space to accommodate the growing diversity of people interested in playing, creating, and thinking about games. There’s been a reaction; in a relatively short amount of time, we’ve seen No Show Conference, Different Games, and GaymerX along with QGC start up to offer alternative spaces. The point of this influx is that there is a need, a need that doesn’t come without caveats when put forward to the larger events. For me, QGC started out as an experiment. Could we create an event that lives up to all of our ideals, ones that are often met with friction in other spaces?
I want to share some of the insights around running OGC and what it speaks to for what we need from conferences. One of the other organizers, Bonnie Ruberg, is also penning her thoughts on more logistical stuff over at her blog.
Obviously, the biggest difference between QGC and mainstream conferences is its commitment to having a diverse audience and speaker list, and making sure it was a safe space for all. Though, a ‘safe space’ might seem ambiguous to most people, it is not only possible but easy to get people to participate in.
Beyond my own experience in social justice activism, I actually riffed off of the conferences I went to before for an idea of how QGC would set up and encourage a safe space. Different Games had an inclusivity statement in the program that was read in the opening ceremony and the organizers instructed everyone to sign it. This left an impression on me because it felt like we were all on some sort of same page, and could all point to something when a problem arises. It also communicated to me that the conference organizers were serious about everyone being welcome to attend and participate. I took theirs and shaped it in my own words, especially in tone difference. I wanted to work on not only establishing QGC as an inclusive setting, but also a place where attendees felt comfortable settling matters on their own. I believe safe spaces aren’t a static thing, at least while different people with different understandings of social justice are in the same place. A safe space is something we work towards as a community, where we learn from one another. For that to happen, I emphasized that not only were these policies created to protect people, but also enable them to speak up when they feel safe. In one talk, attendees spoke up about cissexism in a certain presentation, and there weren’t torches and pitchforks, and the person learned from the experience. A conference organizer wasn’t needed to solve the issue. If we start off knowing that everyone isn’t going to have the same experience, and that we ourselves need to be open to learning, the hostility that comes along with maintaining safe spaces is vacuumed out the room.
At No Show, I remember feeling struck by the idea that the person you would talk to for inclusivity-related problems, main organizer Courtney Stanton, was always around and visible. Like, the knowledge that if I had a problem I could just look around and be directly in touch with the person I knew would care about what I had to say had this unspoken safety to the space. Because we had four main organizers, I was able to emphasize this role and be a touchstone in case anyone had questions or reports. I think it was important because the structure of my role made it possible for me to leave what I was doing at any time to go solve anything that might have come up. I got to have a lot of personal conversations and observe how the conference was going from a safety and inclusion standpoint. We had no reported incidents, and we know next year we need stronger guidelines for speakers, to further educate everyone on ableist language, and reach out to more non-white creator communities.
The magic of this is, once it’s laid out clearly in the beginning, we rarely had to bring it up again. There wasn’t this hanging cloud of thought crime or what-not, people were just legitimately decent to one another and felt safe knowing they could say something in case there was a problem. Larger conferences aren’t good for this for a couple of reasons. Mostly, they don’t want to seem ‘political,’ and have the conversation be a centerpiece to the event. As well, it is extra effort and money to train a large volunteer staff on inclusivity, though, GaymerX did that and it seemed like it would scale easily if the conference made it a priority. That isn’t to say there isn’t efforts done by these larger events to do better, but usual trappings of being for-profit or associations with frequent offenders get in the way of progress making a sizable headway. Mostly, the larger the conference, the more likely the people who need exposure to inclusive thinking can completely bypass advocacy talks. I’m thinking about the last GDC, which for me was all about the establishment of advocacy and the powerful emotions about the bullshit of the industry. I remember seeing people who, because they aren’t interested in social justice, going to other talks and bemoaning the seeming takeover. At QGC, if you came and were respectful, you didn’t have to obey one monolithic thinking. Contrary, there were many people who didn’t identify as queer or completely understanding, but felt like they were allowed to explore, act, and think differently because the space explicitly encouraged them to.
One of the things I obsess about is having an interdisciplinary approach to games. This mostly comes from my own background as a creator; I didn’t grow up with the skills to make games in the traditional sense. It was only until the barriers to entry came down low enough that I was able to become a designer and do my current work. As team, the organizers are pretty diverse as to their professional relationship to games; we had academics, journalists, designers, and activists. We really wanted create a space that was not only friendly to all these disciplines, but built bridges and healthy dialogue between them. In the end, I think it was a rather freeing process for those involved. We encouraged academics to try something new if they didn’t want to read from their papers, had a variety of game-making workshops for those who didn’t have the skills yet, and really let developers air out their theories and experimental projects.
We structured the event as best as we could to prevent particular groups of people camping in certain kinds of talks and never cross-pollinating. Academics and developers have their own conferences where they can bounce ideas off each other, but when do they have the opportunity to listen to someone who has a completely different competency? Also, there was the scary academic vs intimidating artist contention to break down; in other words, academia seems hostile to those who don’t have a traditional education and artists seem unapproachable as the creators of the things academics study. I was happy to see a lot of note-taking and nods during developer- and academic-heavy talks, and a general sense of understanding in the more hybridized ones. And, actually, it wasn’t until QGC that I realized so many people had feet in multiple camps and already were trying to help this dialogue along.
I felt this was particularly successful for our microtalk section. We filled up the entire hour with a wide range of talks, from good, inclusive fantasy novels to a call for hacking into accessible game making tools to an exhale of frustration on the current binary treatment of gender. Our attendees all had different things they wanted to say and I think it was encouraging for others (the room was packed) to see their peers speak.
In some of the feedback we got from attendees, there was a want for some more introductory talks along with all the more in depth things. I saw this to be a great sign, because it meant people wanted to learn and attend talks they aren’t used to. I think in our efforts for next time, there will be a stronger outreach to get more developers and non-game people interested in games to speak.
A Quick Note on Locality
Something I want to stress is how important I think it is to have local-specific conferences. When encouraging other people to make their own conference, I usually start off with how tired I am of seeing so many on the west coast in the usual places. This does two things:
1. It makes conferences even more inaccessible to the poor, even poor speakers, because travel is a financial strain. Having more, smaller conferences all over ups the number and chances more people can participate in talking about games. And that’s what these events are about; at the larger conferences, you don’t go for the panels or expo unless you’re working during it. You’re there to network, socialize, and have off the record conversations in person. Seeing that development is becoming more accessible, we also need to make networking and community more accessible.
2. It increases the variety of events. Right now, we have mono-culture that is perpetuated by GDC and PAX which imply how we think games and talking about games look like. The cool thing is that every locale has its own unique relationship with games that is drowned out by centralized conferences and conventions. This is even true for the bay area, which actually has a lot more besides social gaming start-ups and the usual juggernauts. There’s independent talent, street games, theater games, ARGs, all of which are usually in low quantity or missing in bay area events. We gain a lot by researching into our own local culture of play and celebrating it and local creators. What we don’t need is the usual suspects being shuffled from conference to conference saying the same thing to different people. Even they want a home to dig roots!
As well, we really should be encouraging and establishing relations with international creator, writer, and academic communities, because often we are stuck in the echo chamber of American perspective.
A Plan For Action
Very quickly, I realized the attendees of QGC were collectively thinking two things: 1. We get that there’s a problem in games regarding representation, let’s dig deeper and 2. What can we do to move forward and feel good about where we’re going?
One of the hardest parts of attending very broad conferences likes GDC and PAX is that you have to assume your audience is mostly new to what you’re talking about if it isn’t specifically development-related. Which means a lot of ideas and talks are hamstrung by needing to either be part introductory or purely polemic in order to connect with the audience (or, that’s how these talks are tailored to exist). At QGC, we all knew that queerness is underserved in games, that queer people are underserved, and we didn’t need to have every talk verify that. We could dive into more interesting conversation because everyone is mostly on the same page, or at least, aware of attitude the conference had. For me personally, it was refreshing to not have to talk about why gender matters in games; instead, I got to do a roundtable with my peers to talk about activism in the press and what that means for this current stage in games. Anna Anthropy got to talk about kink and play, Robert Yang about queer programming, Colleen Macklin posing that queerness already exists in games. These were all challenges posed to the entire game making community to explore and help games grow. To propose ways we can fuck with this really broken system. In a sense, a way to cope, considering the Jack Halberstam influenced talks on failure.
Everyone left with ideas and possible collaboration partners. I am glad to see people who didn’t know each other before the conference chat happily away together on Twitter and have that open door to a future project. In next iterations of the conference, it would be great to have more directed mixing sessions to get everyone knowing each other and finding connections that will benefit them outside of QGC.
I am thrilled to have completed (and survived!) putting on QGC, and I realize the part it plays in creating new spaces that people can be different in. The greatest part of QGC was not needing to be queer, a developer, or an academic to feel invigorated by its atmosphere. It was earnest in its intent to connect and move forward, and for that alone, I can’t wait to see what next year looks like!
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