Rethinking the Games Conference

There are days where I feel really self-conscious about calling myself an activist, since a lot of my work is in writing, speaking, and the realm of ideas. But I do feel closest to a feeling of activism when I help organize conferences and run various events that seek to include voices and perspectives commonly left out of the conversation surrounding games and highlighting alternative methods of gathering and sharing knowledge and our work. For someone who’s only been in a given field for about 5 years, I’ve organized a lot, and participated in even more, particularly ones that want to further represent the margins of art and thinking in games. Having just went to and helped out with multiple conferences in the past few months, it’s becoming more apparent to me that the usual format that we assume conferences should have isn’t working given the ideals we have for respecting labor and enabling actual change in our communities. This could be because the current conference model was borrowed from academics for how that industry works and not necessarily for communities of people whose main channel for discourse is impressionistic social media. The upshot to all of this is the average event is getting better; there are more explicit codes of conduct, clearer methods of reporting harassment and abuse, continually more diverse speaker rosters and audiences. So it’s not that everything has been going horribly wrong, rather we can always be looking to improve and solve the problems that arise as they come along. So here are a few topics the contemporary games event needs to address as we continue to evolve how we gather and celebrate the culture around our field:


Respecting Labor

Out of all the issues, ethical labor practices is the most in need of revision. This ranges from compensating speakers fairly to respecting the work of volunteers beyond a thanks. The most common position for events is that they would love to pay people who contribute to its existence, but they don’t get enough funds. In professional circles like academia it’s expected for people within the system to volunteer and contribute to the groups they are a part of, and it pays back (in it’s own, flawed way, this isn’t a piece about the many of troubles of the academic system) by publishing papers, extremely intimate networking, and access to latest research that could be a huge influence on yours. This sort of system doesn’t work, or exist at least, for many people in games, especially those not trying to work at companies or large teams for mass commercial work, so right now the supposed payment of volunteer work and speaking is that it’s “for the good of games” or some other agenda, but effectively keeps the exploitative nature of the games industry, burning out people who are in vulnerable and/or already exploited positions from being a part of the ecosystem. I should say that I think it’s really great that conferences do turn meager budgets into taking care of food expenses for the entire conference, which helps subsidize attendance, a problem I’ve seen a lot of progress on.

Beyond general extravagant uses of budget for the experience (I’ll get to this) instead of for the people who are asked to make it run, there are multiple forms of trade outside of monetary to make volunteering or speaking for a conference worth the work. For one, you can be direct and asking anyone volunteering their labor what they would like in return with the knowledge that money isn’t going to be available. It’s possible a volunteer/speaker would benefit greatly from a direct introduction with someone who you can feasibly have at your event, or that someone on the main event team can run a seminar of an important topic that relates to the interests of those who are volunteering. I’ve heard suggestions of having speaker/volunteer parties so volunteers, who are usually students or those looking to bridge into new communities, network more closely than they can while they are working. I’ve also heard of paid speakers giving lectures or resume reviews to volunteers. This also speaks to the lack of investment I see in a lot of volunteer work, because they know the event staff can only ask for the minimum amount of effort because they aren’t really getting much in return. I believe we can get resources to those who don’t usually have access by using conferences as a sort of work-trade, where if you volunteer, you get something you can take back to the community and enrich it.

Obviously a nice paycheck would be the best answer for compensating labor at events. I know that’s not the reality, and because of that, I don’t think we should just concede and sheepishly exploit people. Instead, I think we could rethink the trade. Ultimately, this forces your event to be a material benefit to the community by actually contributing to the people who help make it exist in the first place. And when seeking funding/support for the event, especially towards universities, this is a good way to extract more support when funds are limited.


Establishing Purpose

Picking up on being directly beneficial to a community, I find that most conferences don’t have a strong reason for why they exist. They share the problem with the overabundance of awareness activism, that while, yes, creating awareness of an issue is important, there has to be something beyond that awareness to keep your ideals relevant. I’ve noticed events get into a rut of over-correcting academic-heavy line-ups with really uninspired, underwhelming skill sharing and reacting to boring run-of-the-mill conference topics with panels of well-known people who don’t really say much besides letting you know they are well-known. I find that most conferences become tired after 3 or so years because they work on the basis of just existing instead of creating roots or actual bonds to other entities.

This awareness vs action focus can be felt down to the programming. So many talks are “I had this experience” or “I noticed something neat” and leave it there instead of taking those topics and turning them into an opportunity for audiences to respond. Not that everything must be some sort of 3D modelling 101 class, rather a call to action, the room to act, should be created by events and each part of its programming. This came into strong relief for me when I participated in the Allied Media Conference which handles this balance so well. Beyond including social meetups around social issues without conflicting with other programming, many of the sessions are lead by critical facilitators more than speakers; they have an agenda, perspective, and experience they want to share, but use it as a method of creation, action, or planning that allows participants to bring in their own life issues or creative impulses and work it all out.

I feel like it’s critical for this element to become incorporated into our events, especially ones claiming any level of social awareness, to become something that actively changes how the community works and activates it to solve contemporary issues. Too long have conferences stayed at an introductory, ephemeral level that people forget about once it’s over. There’s still room for the theory and personal experience, and for any awareness building, but it can’t be what we try to subsist off as we go on.


Size Control

Many events are way too bloated. This follows the previous two problems: when you’re not paying for the labor to substantiate an event and your purpose is vague and generalized, your event grows beyond its means and includes things just for the sake of having them. Conferences typically position themselves as central, national, or even global conferences and try to (with varying degrees of effort) to represent everyone under that umbrella, usually, if not always, failing at that task. The problem with having more things is less control over how they turn out, since it usually means you’re not paying them, you couldn’t give a lot of attention to mentoring the processes of the talks if there are new speakers, and that there’s less of a curatorial voice that ties things together and makes the event a more cohesive experience. There is this assumption that a conference must be multiple days with multiple tracks and multiple panels of multiple people. But instead of enriching people through including a massive amount of content and bodies, this waters down and muddles any sort of effect programming could have on audiences.

I honestly think limiting the amount of speakers, especially to local artists and thinkers, and only having one track of sessions is a better structure for an event than current models. I would exercise extreme prejudice against panels, which, as another holdover from academic conferences, doesn’t work unless there’s a lot of preparation or all the panelists know each other and have a good banter, which is usually not the case. I would suggest an edit to what I experienced at PRACTICE: a single track of 30 minute to 1 hour talks, no Q&A but break sessions where speakers have their own tables and people who wanted to ask questions or even just chill in the general vicinity of conversation around the topic of their session can do so.

Frequent feedback I’ve gotten was how much audiences wanted the artists of showcased works, typically in accompanying arcades, to give talks about the experience and process of their selected work, giving them a new perspective to reapproach the game with after encountering it in the wild. Audiences also benefit from eavesdropping on a pair of thinkers or artists speaking on topics they are interested in to get a more in-depth look into how people deep in these fields go with contemporary issues. Despite how it’s been reduced to a sort of tech party favor buzzword, people do want sessions where they can take something away. Sometimes we rely too much on planning for ‘inspirational’ talks; having given and witnessed some, when they work, they are amazing. On average they don’t, instead speakers tend to just settle on a sort of “I have no answers” or “take what you will” notes and it’s obvious the energy behind the talk is completely missing. Inspirational talks have to be mentored at some level and used in moderation. I’ve been to conferences with all inspirational talks that weren’t mentored, and if you don’t leave with a sort of voyeuristic pleasure of the confession of struggle it’s rather dulling. I don’t think events should have people parting with a feeling of “So what?”

I believe a community needs good events to thrive and grow, and there is room for more local events that support different local needs and agendas that the general conference doesn’t already. Conferences have an opportunity to act as stronger support system for marginalized communities and create a more ethical system of give and take. I want to fight the usual burnout cycle that industries participate in, going through exploited creators and thinkers as they are useful and not giving back to them once they are deemed too much of a maintenance to keep around. I also just want more events to exist, and for more communities to feel enabled to make their own despite not having a lot of money. If we’re going to change things, we can’t do it at the pace at which those more powerful deem us useful to them.

 

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