The Future of Different Games, and a Personal Farewell
If you've followed me on Twitter or this blog, you've seen what a marvel Different Games has been. It created a much needed spaciousness within the game scene, and helped activate a community that otherwise was operating in small cohorts or latent networks. Personally and professionally, Different Games galvanized my commitment to tactics of public engagement that can move me beyond the bulwark of a department or a university. Gaming, game design and game communities can benefit from critical discourses, but these must be able to successfully code switch between specialist and populist languages. Having a Ph.D. isn't enough to ensure one is translatable in this regard—more often than not, it's an active impediment. Different Games was my crash course language exam in navigating the indie game scene.
Many have asked if Different Games will happen again. I am thrilled to say that it will. However, my pride and happiness in the continuation of this conference is only matched by my sadness in announcing that this project must move on without me.
This wasn't a decision I made lightly—but it I also wouldn't have made it if I didn't find it to be an absolute necessity for my continued success. And this was a decision that my co-organizer and I, Sarah Schoemann, came to agreement on, based on the tumultuous turns our lives were taking. Sarah is heading down to Georgia Tech later this summer, to begin her Ph.D., and whole exciting new phase of her academic life. Meanwhile, this is the year I finish my dissertation, send out cover letters, and try my hand at academia's very own craps table, the academic job market. I want—and expect—a lot out of this career. In stepping down from organizing Different Games, I am committing myself to focus on landing somewhere that fulfills my desires for intellectual community, resource support, and research flexibility. Furthermore, my experiences with Different Games has provided the friction necessary to generate my own luminous dreams—I'm stewing on how to pull off the “Different Games” of game history. Different Games gave me the best possible gift: the initiative and confidence to chase after new personal wins. And I'm grateful in knowing that whatever I build will always be in conversation with the team Sarah leads to produce Different Games.
Reflections on Inclusive Conference Design
In honoring my time with Different Games, I can recognize lessons learned that changed my relationship to event organization and conference planning. In a spirit fitting of Different Games, I want to use the second half of this blog post to create a reflection and resource on what Different Games taught me about inclusive conference design. With the experience of running Different Games under my belt, I know I don't have to ever accept claims that the underrepresentation of women, racial and ethnic minorities, or other marginalized identity categories at academic or mixed discipline conferences are just “how it is” or “the best we can do.” If you have aspirations for throwing inclusive and diverse events, this is absolutely the best advice I can give you, learned 100% in the doing.
1. Politics of inclusion have to be built in from the start
Diversity is not an ingredient. It is not something you reach for to mix “marginal voices” into an otherwise homogenous scene. Example: if you throw a conference with an all white male planning committee, it may not matter how sincerely “interested” in diversity you are. Consider instead: does an event with such an structure come off as a safe space for diverse participants? Does it seem aware of itself and capable of holding an inclusive space? Are members of this group trusted by those you seek to participate (see #2)? This is not to say that a homogenous planning committee cannot attune themselves to these issues (or that it will not, in and of itself, contain diverse backgrounds, experiences and identity categories). But casting a broader net involves cultivating an attitude about accessibility, not simply a desire for addition. For example, when planning of Different Games, Sarah and I discussed early on our own representational positions, and their limits. While we felt positive as two queer/queer-allied women planning this conference, we talked about ourselves as both white, abled women, with class and educational privilege. We had to be comfortable discussing these vectors from the outset, because they were critical to refining our language and developing trust with the community to which we were attending. This is why I have at times responded negatively to requests from other conferences to simply “use” or “borrow” our inclusivity statement—because if you don't do that processing and critical thinking amongst your own team, you will not be able to effectively express it to participants. Events also need to be sensitive to issues around intellectual inclusion—if you intend on throwing a mixed-discipline event, you must build in submission and evaluation systems that are flexible to different professional standards of genre writing, intellectual “rigor” and creative endeavor.
2. Disparities in participation are network problems, not knowledge problems
The people are always out there. They may not be what you expect. They may not come with typical pedigrees. But smart, interesting people of diverse backgrounds and subjectivities are doing great work in the world. If your event receives a low level of participation from a desired group, the problem isn't “them.” It's you. To hide behind claims of the “male dominated” character of a scene, or to claim that the problem will “correct itself” when “more 'X' individuals” are qualified to participate, is to misidentify one's own structural participation in the problem. It is to treat a network problem (problems of social capital and community trust) as if it is an empirical knowledge problem (there just aren't enough “X” doing “Y”). Problems of visibility are structural—which means you have to position your project in such a way that it amplifies what a system is internally designed to shut down (this is why diversity as “add-in” can be a damaging move). So when you're thinking about inclusion and diverse participants, the question is: do you know where you are on their network? Are you even visible on their network? And if you want to be, how do you get visible on their network? These are concerns more about building trust and relating to a community than they are hitting a numbers game. In other words—if you don't know the vaguest contours of the people you're trying to reach (or people who know these people), you may not be the right person or group for the project.
3. Own, don't defend, what you cannot account for
For all that you try to remain sensitive to and handle with consideration, you have the accept the embedded limitation of inclusivity: there is no way to get it “right.” Things will escape you. You won't be able to cover it all. Someone will critique your efforts. More people may not even recognize all the places you did succeed. What's important about these experiences and critiques is that you hear them and let yourself be shifted by them. You have to own your limitations are much as your success. For example: one of the big blindspots in the organization of Different Games was around ablist issues. This happened for reasons of time, attention, and personal and institutional bias. This came to our attention in several ways. A couple weeks before the conference, we were called out about having an entirely abled presenter line-up. We had to publicly own our limitation, and publicly acknowledge that we were aware of this and would like to endeavor to improve. At the conference itself, there was considerable tension around the use of the word “crazy,” which was a word specifically flagged in our inclusivity statement. When frustration around the use of this word originally arose on Twitter, all the work we'd done from the very beginning followed through for us. Sarah and I took it seriously. We discussed the issue with volunteers to get their perspectives. Sarah found it appropriate to make a public statement asking presenters to remain sensitive to language. We weren't able to “solve” the problem—but we were able to own the problem in a way that let other people know critical, serious reflection was welcome, and set a positive precedent for future events (read Alison Harvey's excellent, judicious write-up of the issues around ableist language at DG).
Overall, what I learned from the DG experience is that how you handle what arises can matter more than what you're handling. The terms and languages of social experience are always shifting. Over time, margins can come to be acknowledged as new centers, and previously unaccounted for systemic disparities become more legible. Addressing problem through the hows rather than the whats cultivates an attitude that focuses on sustaining networks and connections and the pleasure of human interaction. It's an attitude that permits growing in all directions, rather than a narrow focus on certain types of (only ever historically-specific) categories.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for supporting Different Games. Let's all keep being awesome to each other.
The recent weeks have been lush with excellent re-caps of the Different Games Conference, which I co-organized with Sarah Schoemann at NYU-PolyTech, April 26 + 27. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and I’ve been really gratified to see that areas which bore more friction—especially issues around ableism and ableist language—have been summarize and assessed with grace and thoughtfulness (see Alison Harvey’s excellent summary/response here).
Sarah and I have a lot to be proud. It’s been noted in several blogs and tweets that Sarah and I were accepting of criticism and concern, and made efforts to respond transparently to issues that arose. No one should underestimate the enormity of that challenge—of trying make choices carefully guided by one’s politics while you’re pulling off the most stressful event of your life, and you feel like your whole community is watching your every step. But our politics were what we started with, the one joint that carried us through the planning and managerial process. No matter how different our aspirations or intentions were at the beginning, the thing that fused this project together was that Sarah and I cared so deeply about making this a safe and inclusive conference.
Much attention has been brought to our conference inclusivity statement: to the power and intention of its existence and its language, and the importance of the symbolic act of asking everyone to sign it. In this post, I want to detail some of this history of how Sarah and I came to make this document. More importantly, I want to highlight the critical contribution of our inclusivity consultant, Tim Johnston, who is largely responsible for the document’s success.
Making a StartTim Johnston, Different Games Inclusivity Consultant
The idea for some sort of “safe space” statement came up while following the coverage surrounding the sexist language called out at Py-con by Adria Richards, which subsequently resulted in firings and death threats. As we knew this conference was bringing together a range of people with very different exposures to what it might mean to be “inclusive,” to value “difference,” and to foster a “safe space,” Sarah and I figured it would be good to spell this out somewhere on the website or program. Once the program design began in earnest, I started to try and draft it up.
I’ve got plenty of experience with pedagogic and administrative writing, critical theory, and academic gender studies; Sarah is familiar with languages that emerge around skillshares, anarchist events, and queer community organizing. But as we passed this document back and forth, it just felt messy and unfocused. I scoured the internet for examples; university documents were all too vague and bureaucratic, while ones from community organizing didn't have enough of a professional glean. We knew this was a special event, and we wanted something that directly reflected the sensitivities of the conference.
Asking for Help
I felt surprised at how hard this was for me, and a bit embarrassed. I'd presumed a document like this would come easy. Frustrated, I turn my thoughts outside of myself: “Who in my community could help me with this? Who would be gifted at this?” That's how Tim Johnston became our inclusivity consultant.
Tim is a Ph.D. candidate at Stony Brook University in the Department of Philosophy. We'd met while getting our Women's and Gender Studies Graduate Certificates, and became close friends. Tim's dissertation focuses on affirmation as a philosophical concept and embodied practice, one especially important for queer bodies. What years of study and careful thought have wrought in Tim is a deeply internalized sensitivity to how bodies exist in space, and a powerfully analytic articulation of what is needed to help bodies feel safe. Far from abstract “ivory tower” theorizing, Tim applies these ideas to assess GLBTQ bullying policies, and concerns around inclusive space-making generally. Tim is a consultant-for-hire, and those interested in learning more about what he can offer your own events should visit his website.
The proof is in the work. I sent Tim our sketchy paragraph. Tim spoke with me on the phone and prodded me to articulate why we needed this statement and what we were hoping it would accomplish. Given the Py-Con event, we were especially anxious about language issues, and how to express to everyone, in an open way, that we aspired toward specific affective goals as a community.
What Tim passed back to us wasn't a list of demands, or a document intended to “get anyone” but rather a call to set an intention. Feel ok calling others out. Ask questions about things you don't understand. Be polite, make space, let's all be humane. Alot of the tenor of the piece rose from Tim's awareness that you don't build community by making people feel alien. Folks who may not “get” the statement needed to feel invited in as well. I think that's why the term “inclusivity statement” stuck; this community needed to hold all of us.
Gathering the Team
In keeping with the politics of the inclusivity statement, Sarah and I elected to hold an “inclusivity training” with all our potential volunteers a week before the conference. Tim served as our hand's on instructor during this time. He asked the volunteers to talk about what they hoped the conference could accomplish, and read through the document to ensure that everything was clearly understood. It should be noted that Tim was, among other things, uniquely responsible for the bulleted list of action points and the signature line. During the inclusivity training, he and the other volunteers pushed Sarah and I to begin the conference with a call to sign the inclusivity statement. “This isn't a legal document,” I recall Tim saying with a laugh. “But the symbolic act of signing it helps us set a goal.”
Tim organized the experience in a way that made the best use of our time, and focused on the needs of our conference specifically. We were able to clearly explain to our volunteers that they were not “behavior police.” Tim offered tips on conflict mediation, should issues arise, and solicited questions and feedback from the volunteers themselves. This produced a valuable contribution—volunteers expressed uncertainty about Twitter use during the conference as a “snark backchannel” that might produce an experience in contrast to our goals. Tim led a discussion on how we might address this without making it seem like we're silencing social media use, and then we elected to add this material into the inclusivity statement itself.
In conclusion, the statement worked because it was an expression of our own political desires for our event, we accepted our own limits in its making and drew assistance from others, and allowed it to be a dialectical creation with our volunteer staff, in a way that made us all feel more invested. It was empowering to write and present, and I would absolutely recommend the formation of such a document, in consultancy, for events where issues around difference and inclusion are particularly fraught.