#AlterConf Sessions Are Awesome and You Should Go

Alterconf Sessions logo
This weekend I attended something called AlterConf, which I hadn’t even heard about until a friend mentioned it, but was very glad I did.

AlterConf is basically a series of local events that feature short talks about diversity in tech and gaming, by people who are actually members of the communities they speak about. The project was started by Ashe Dryden, a programmer, organizer, and consultant who speaks and writes a lot about diversity and marginalization in tech.

Obviously, I am not a programmer or a game developer or any of that other stuff, but I play games (I don’t like to use the word “gamer”) and am a pretty huge tech nerd. (How huge? Doesn’t matter. I’m tired of getting into those pissing contests with guys.) I am also a woman, and someone who cares a lot about inclusion and diversity, and someone who has been watching the Diversity In Nerdom War for a while.

Despite my lack of technical knowledge and serious involvement, I really enjoyed the session and learned a lot because it mostly concerned the experiences of marginalized people in tech/gaming and some of the efforts they are making to create community and inclusion. I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know before, such as the fact that some people claim that there are no tech professionals in/from the Bronx (there were at least two speaking) and that cochlear implants only allow you to hear a rather poor representation of the actual sound, which is just one of the reasons many Deaf people don’t necessarily think they’re that great.

What also stuck out to me, though, was just how well the event was run in terms of inclusivity and accessibility. For instance:

  • Eight of the ten speakers were people of color, and five were women. One of the speakers was deaf, and one spoke about having chronic pain and mental illness.
  • The speakers were paid.
  • Although tickets cost money, the Eventbrite page also had an option to choose a free ticket if you could not attend the event otherwise.
  • When attendees checked in, they were instructed to make a name tag that included their preferred gender pronouns.
  • The event had an ASL interpreter, as well as someone who was making accurate live captions appear on the screen (?!) as the speakers talked. Ashe invited any audience members who needed ASL to let her know, so that she could make sure the interpreter was signing at them.
  • There were healthy food and snacks, including vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and Kosher options.
  • The venue had plenty of physical space for the audience size, and the chairs were arranged in a way that made it easy for people to get out of and into their seats with minimal tripping over others.
  • The venue had free wifi, the details of which were written prominently on a whiteboard.
  • Before the talks began, Ashe let the audience know that there would be one talk with a content warning, and that in general people should free to get up and leave at any time if they needed to. She repeated the content warning before the talk that it applied to, in case anyone missed it or forgot.
  • The event had a comprehensive code of conduct (although I don’t remember if this was actually discussed at the event, which would be important).
  • For the most part, speakers were audible, slides were visible, and Ashe made sure that people stuck to their time limits and had time for questions.
  • Ashe let the audience know that the speakers had all explicitly consented to being photographed, videotaped, and/or livetweeted, and also asked the audience to keep context in mind when doing so.
  • The talks were recorded and will apparently be posted online.
  • Ashe invited attendees to come see her after the event if they needed help with transportation or if they wanted to be paired up with another attendee for safety reasons.

I include all this here because the level of professionalism and attention to detail I saw at this event was pretty much unparalleled at other conferences and events I’ve gone to. To be fair, Ashe Dryden is a professional organizer, so it’s probably a pretty high bar for student/volunteer organizers to reach. (Also, I don’t know how the event was funded besides ticket sales, but maybe she had a lot more money to work with than most organizers can get through fundraising alone.)

Regardless, it’s definitely something to think about for those of us who plan events, whether they last an hour or an entire weekend.

As far as the talks themselves go, I was also very impressed. Some of the speakers were very new to speaking (one said it was her first talk, and everyone cheered and applauded); others have spoken at many conferences before. The speakers were clearly chosen very intentionally, as they covered a wide variety of topics and issues in just nine talks. Some of my favorites:

  • David Peter spoke about deafness, the medical and social models of disability, Deaf culture, and how to make tech/gaming communities more welcoming to Deaf people.
  • Catt Small, a friend of mine who runs approximately fifty thousand projects, spoke about one of those projects, Code Liberation, which teaches women to code through classes and game jams. It’s so incredibly important to hear from people actually doing work like this if you want to understand why women and minorities are underrepresented in tech and how to change that.
  • Manuel Marcano spoke about stereotypes of Native Americans in games and how they perpetuate oppression.
  • Senongo Akpem gave an overview of the tech/games industry in Nigeria, shattering what I’m guessing are many misconceptions and stereotypes that people have.
  • Shawn Alexander Allen spoke about how crowdfunding can help games with diverse characters get made, and how it also allows backers and fans to hold developers more accountable in terms of diversity.
  • Aly Ferguson was amazing and discussed research on how video games can be used to help people dealing with mental illness, chronic pain, and disability.

Here are some highlights, or at least the ones I was able to tweet fast enough:

Of course, that can only paint a very small picture of what the event was like and why it was so awesome. I was told that recordings of the talks will be posted online at some point, so follow my Twitter or the #alterconf hashtag if you want to see them.

One small thing is that I wish gender identity and sexual orientation had been discussed more–or at all, really. That was one topic that seemed oddly missing from the entire event. There are certainly game developers out there addressing these issues explicitly, and it would’ve been really cool to hear some of them speak. But, obviously, there were only 10 speakers and four hours and so many important things to cover that got covered–race, gender, ability, class–and so I really can’t hold this against the event. For all I know, it has been discussed or will be discussed at other sessions.

On that note, AlterConf sessions are being planned for a bunch of other cities (so far they’ve happened in Boston and NYC), such as San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, DC, and others. If there’s one near you at some point, I highly recommend going, even if you’re only tangentially knowledgeable/involved in this stuff, like I am. If all these recent debates within communities like atheism, skepticism, science (and science writing), video games, comics, and sci-fi/fantasy have taught us anything, it’s that very few of these issues are specific to any particular community. Even if you don’t care much about games or technology, I think you’ll learn a lot from AlterConf.

#AlterConf Sessions Are Awesome and You Should Go

Of Ethics, Feelings, and Skyrim

I’m currently visiting my family in Ohio, which means catching up on all the gaming I’ve been too busy for during the last five years. My 12-year-old brother and I have a nice symbiosis going: he has a Windows machine, which meant I could install Skyrim on it, and I have a purchased copy of Skyrim. So we take turns watching each other play.

Kilkreath Ruins. Creepy, yeah? Well, maybe you just had to be there.
Kilkreath Ruins. Creepy, yeah? Well, maybe you just had to be there. Credit: Ekulylnam

Last night, while I was adventuring through the Kilkreath Ruins on a quest from the Daedric Prince Meridia, my brother remarked that he found the cave scary–the creepy noises, the unidentified black mist near the ground–and that started off a discussion about the emotional effects of games and how we feel about them.

My brother said that he’s actually glad that the game is making him feel things again. He has previously played it on Xbox (claiming, in fact, that he “beat the game”), but he said that after a while, he stopped feeling bad when people died or feeling scared by the parts that were meant to be scary. But he prefers to feel those things even though they don’t feel good, because otherwise he worries that he’s becoming unempathetic, somehow cruel. This, he said, is why people should be careful about letting little kids play games: you need to make sure they don’t get used to not feeling things.

I hadn’t actually thought of it that way before, though it seems obvious now. I had always been frustrated by how deeply I felt things that happened in games, and how much that actually restricted my gameplay. My ethics as a game character are not very different from my ethics as a real-life person: I don’t steal (unless, hypothetically, it’s vitally important), I don’t fight anyone who doesn’t fight me first, I try to avoid injuring innocent people with splash damage unless it’s totally unavoidable, I try to persuade people rather than bribing or threatening them, and I don’t hunt wild animals (except the ones that attack me).

But despite everything my brother said, we soon discovered that our styles of play are actually quite different (besides the fact that I play slowly and deliberately whereas he tries to get through quests as fast as possible, a difference that he had already remarked upon in frustration many times). After the Meridia quest, I ended up doing another quest in which I was falsely accused of multiple murders and ended up in a prison mine with people who had attempted (and failed) to recapture the city from people they thought were oppressing them. Together with them, we escaped from the mine, since they all turned out to be very capable mages.

Outside the mine, the escaped prisoners were confronted by prison guards. I had planned to fight alongside them, but here my brother started insisting that I kill the prisoners instead. Why? Because they have really good armor, I wouldn’t get a bounty, and I could kill them easily now that I had my own armor and weapons back. I said, “But they already gave me a set of that armor as a gift.” My brother said, “But it’s really expensive and you could make 10,000 gold just from selling all of theirs.” I said, “But I have other ways to get gold.” He said, “But it’s so easy! Just kill them!”

I knew one thing for certain: I had absolutely zero desire to make 10,000 gold by killing these men. At that moment, there was nothing I wanted to do less than to kill them. The idea just felt bad.

And so I told my brother, “Remember how you felt so scared of the cave you asked me to turn the sound down, even though you knew it was irrational? That’s how I feel about killing the men. It would make me feel bad. The point of playing a game is to have fun. That would make it very un-fun for me.”

He immediately stopped trying to convince me to kill the men and never brought it up again.

It’s true, refusing to kill the men was an irrational choice. Within the game, there were no disadvantages to killing them, and one huge advantage to killing them. But outside of the game, the advantage seemed so small–what’s 10,000 gold, really?–and there was also one glaring disadvantage–the fact that I would feel crappy and uncomfortable, partially defeating the entire purpose of playing the game to begin with.

Earlier I might’ve found this frustrating. I thought that I let myself get way too affected by virtual things. I’m the sort of person who would treat even a fairly rudimentary robot as I’d treat a human or a non-human animal.

Now, having had the first conversation with my brother and the subsequent moral dilemma with the prisoners and the guards, I started to think differently about it.

After all, we (I include myself in this) are more likely to think of it as a feature, not a bug, when we experience emotional reactions to things like films and shows and novels. (That, in fact, is what I reminded my little brother when he called me crying after finishing The Little Prince, and again when he called me crying several years later after finishing Flowers for Algernon.) Playful teasing outside, feeling terrified or very sad during movies is pretty standard. Why not in games?

Maybe it’s because we assume that the point of film and literature (as a fan, not a scholar) is to be absorbed into a story. The point of games, some might argue, is more tangible: to shoot stuff, to solve puzzles, to build cool things, to become the best. Stories may matter in games, but they don’t matter the way they matter in films and novels.

And there are definitely games I would play purely for those tangible aspects. I don’t get emotionally invested in the story of my SimCity creations (though maybe some do). I care slightly for the plight of Fez’s Gomez, who has literally had his entire world as he knew it torn to bits, but mostly I’m just there for the cool puzzles.

Persuade, intimidate, or bribe: Skyrim's eternal moral dilemma.
Persuade, intimidate, or bribe: Skyrim’s eternal moral dilemma.

But with games like Skyrim, I come for the fighting and stay for the interesting narrative, and that generally means starting to feel immersed enough in that world to feel bad when people die needlessly in it. The experience of considering (and strongly rejecting) the idea of killing the escaped prisoners for their valuable armor reminded me of something I think I already knew: that much of ethics, at least for me, is based on automatic emotional responses. Stealing feels bad. Threatening feels worse. Killing needlessly feels even worse.

There must be ethical systems out there that rely on something besides emotion and that still result in minimal harm to other people, but they feel alien to me. In any case, I doubt that those systems would transfer over to virtual worlds. Why bother?

Sometimes I wonder if other people feel that way, and if other people end up playing about the same way that they live (give or take a few magical abilities and badass warhammer techniques, of course). If there are gamers who feel bad when they kill NPCs, I wouldn’t expect them to ever say so, because nobody seems to talk very much about the emotional experience of gaming in general, and because of the hypermasculine culture of it.

But for me–someone who has no interest in participating in or belonging to any sort of “gaming community” and who wouldn’t even take up the label “gamer”–it doesn’t feel like a big deal to say that games make me feel things. Not just general things like excitement or fear, but specific things, like I feel sorry for that man who died even though he’s just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s. Or I wish I didn’t have to kill that dragon; it would feel much better if we could just be friends. (That one might be influenced by the fact that I recently saw both How To Train Your Dragon movies and really liked them.)

And now I’ve finally decided that I like it that way. It’s more rich and fun that way, even with the bad feelings too. Like my brother, I like myself better when I feel those things. Embracing that irrationality feels more human to me.

Of Ethics, Feelings, and Skyrim