Conference access, and related topics

This post started out as part of my monthly link roundup, but it turned into its own thing. The link roundup will still appear, but for ease of digestion I have separated the two.

ICIDS, the International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, has a call for papers for this year’s conference, and will also be hosting an exhibition of related works. The deadline is June 17, and the conference itself will be November 15-18 at the Institute for Creative Technologies, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA. Discussions of interactive narrative systems and/or specific works are often appropriate for this conference.

Likewise, there is now a creative track for the ACM Hypertext conference, which would be an appropriate place to submit Twine, Undum, or similar hypertext works for display. The deadline for that submission is May 6, 2016, and the conference itself (which contributors are expected to attend) is 10-13 July 2016, in Halifax, Canada.

Students traveling to the Hypertext conference may be interested in this support application to help defray travel costs. Except for invited keynote speakers, I am not aware of any financial provisions to support non-students in traveling to either of these events if they don’t have institutional support to do so. (Indeed, most academic conferences do not waive your registration fee even if you are speaking, unless, again, you’re doing an invited keynote. Those fees are usually on the order of hundreds of dollars rather than thousands as at GDC, but it is inevitably something to be aware of.)

More distantly but still relevant to some readers of this blog, there’s also

  • the meeting of the Electronic Literature Organization (Victoria, BC, June 10-12, submissions closed)
  • ICCC, the International Conference on Computational Creativity (Paris, June 27-July 1, submissions closed)
  • (Edited to add:) nucl.ai, artificial intelligence in creative industries, which this year has tracks on procedural content generation and dynamic storytelling (Vienna, July 18-20, submissions still open through April 15).
  • DiGRA/FDG, a joint meeting of the Digital Games Research Association and the Foundations of Digital Games conferences (Dundee, August 1-6, submissions closed)
  • IEEE Computational Intelligence in Games (Santorini, September 20-23, still accepting papers and demos)
  • AIIDE, Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment (Burlingame CA, October 8-12, still accepting papers).

Yeah, I probably can’t go to those either. Accessibility of conferences is an issue. So is the fact that in some subfields of games, one is “expected” to go to X or Y conference in order to be taken seriously in that particular subfield, which is taxing for people who are busy and not independently wealthy.

Mattie Brice has written about boycotting GDC this year because it does too little to support marginalized creators who contribute content; and one of the reasons John Sharp withdrew from IndieCade was out of concern about whether it was really helping people at the edges to do their work in a sustainable way.

I don’t think there’s a simple fix for these points — though I think it’s also worth drawing additional distinctions between for-profit conferences like GDC, non-profits like IndieCade (large) or Feral Vector or Lyst (small, quirky, specialized in focus), and academic specialist conferences like ICIDS, ICCC, and ACM Hypertext. The non-profits and academic conferences are operating on small budgets, and it’s safe to guess no one is significantly profiting on the contributions of the speakers. And at some point the unworldliness of a given conference may affect its ability to keep running. I believe Feral Vector ran at a loss last year, though I’m happy to see it’s announced again for this year.

I’m not even going to get into trade shows like E3 or Gamescom, or consumer events like PAX. I haven’t been to PAX in years, as at a certain point the surrounding politics made me feel unwelcome there; E3 and Gamescom look like they’d be bigger, more glitzy renditions of the GDC Expo floor, which already makes me feel sad and alienated from games. I doubt they are much use to people in industry-borderland positions, and they’re also not doing much to try to attract those people. I’m fine leaving that stuff off my calendar.

I’ve never figured out the angle of Future of StoryTelling at all, except that the value proposition seems to be “you have to be sent an invitation for the opportunity to pay to be in the same room with famous people who may or may not know anything at all relevant to real-world interactive storytelling.” At which point it’s not all that different from buying a seat at a political lunch: know the right people, give a lot of money, have your picture taken with Al Gore! (Yes, Al Gore is affiliated with FoST. I don’t know why.) Possibly this is an impression grounded in ignorance, and possibly FoST is lovely, but on the other hand, the phrase “quarterly influencer salons” appears in its marketing materials.

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Then there’s SXSW. “Who are you with?” people kept asking me, because it’s a place where brands go to meet other brands.

Want to move to Dublin? I don’t, but because I spoke at SXSW, I’ve been spammed aggressively by an organization that tries to attract startups there; they even asked for a half-hour meeting that, as far as I could tell, would have been an utter waste of my time and theirs. I also got an email that semi-commanded me to come to a random Austin hotel room to give a video interview for what sounded like some sort of futurist documentary. I didn’t bother answering that one.

I spent some time at a chill space with a huge flat panel wall display of fireworks, a lot of knee-level pink lighting, and a very strong — one might almost say overwhelming — odor of cinnamon red-hots. There was free coffee, though, and I was eight hours jet-lagged.

It turned out that this lounge was the work of Mood, a company that supplies “customer experience solutions for retail spaces.” My fellow panelist asked about their scent marketing strategy, a topic on which I was also morbidly curious but about which I didn’t dare feign a commercial interest. It turns out that Mood can custom blend you a scent to convey important branding identifiers such as “clean” and “upscale.” I did not ask what base and top notes went into “upscale,” but I did find myself thinking about the God Rest Ye Merry LARP and its use of smells; I doubt Mood gets much call to deploy the smell of human flesh roasted in a fire.

On the upside, attending SXSW also let me see a book and some of the artifacts from Vivorium, a project to create partially living and/or edible garments, much of it involving mushrooms and slime. If you’ve ever read Porpentine’s work and thought “I want to cosplay this, but how???” Vivorium is for you.

I had a good time giving my panel and my other panelists at SXSW were terrific, as were the people who attended and introduced themselves afterward. So I’m not sorry I went. But I gave the conference only one day, driven out by the $300-$500/night cost of even a budget, way-outside-of-center hotel room, and I’m not sorry for that, either. The conference is a wildly chaotic experience and dedicated to a level of rabid mutual marketing that transcends self parody.

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Most of these formats are predicated on the idea that the speakers are likely to receive external rewards for speaking — contacts leading to future work, promotion within their companies, tenure, credibility applying for grants, sales for the game they’re exhibiting — and therefore the event itself doesn’t need to pay fully for the labor supplied.

For some people, the externalities work out okay. GDC is tough if I have to buy my own pass, but if I have a speaker pass, then (I can convince myself) it’s worth it to spend 20-40 hours prepping a talk, then pay for a plane ticket from England, a hotel in downtown San Francisco for a week, and a week of meals out. In exchange, I get visibility, networking, and education. It pays off financially and otherwise — for me. Not necessarily for everyone.

Academic conferences are tougher for me to justify attending if I’m not an invited speaker, because the contacts I make there are not likely to hire me. I tend to really enjoy them, but that doesn’t pay bills. Still, it’s often useful for me to know something about what is going on in those spaces, so I’m on a few program committees. This means that in exchange for volunteer time spent reading and commenting on papers, I… get to read the papers. You get something out of it, but then the rest of the value of your time is understood to be service to the community. It’s a bit like judging IGF in that respect, and again the fact that I can even (sort of) afford the time to do that comes from being a pretty privileged person.

The same thing applies to many academic publishing deals. I have never been paid for contributing to academic books or journals that touch on interactive fiction, because that’s not how those businesses are structured. But because I’m not myself employed inside academia, I am not getting the career benefit that a tenure-track lecturer would get for publishing in that context. (Whether I’m getting any career benefit from it at all is harder to tell, but so far I haven’t noticed any, which is one major reason I don’t write a lot of academic journal articles.)

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From the perspective of someone trying to get these different fields to talk to one another more, this state of affairs is frustrating. I don’t want to frame this as an attack on anybody, because I’m seeing how hard it is to solve the community and institutional issues, but

We are all reinventing one another’s wheels all the damn time.

The following doesn’t apply to everything that’s going on, but: I see methods presented as cutting edge at GDC that have been solved problems in the IF community for 20 years, and UI solutions in the IF community that come from 1994. I see assessment techniques applied in academic research, and AI techniques at the AI summit, that people in IF seem totally unaware of. I also see toolsets being made in academia that are very hard to imagine using in actual game production situations, and seriously proposed and tested hypotheses about choice design that make me wonder whether the authors have ever read a single work of craft writing from the IF community. I see commercial toolsets being built that claim to be ground-breaking, but are if anything a step backward. Every single time I link to Sam Kabo Ashwell’s CYOA structures post I get someone reacting like I just sent them a map to the location of the Grail. It’s a great post! But it’s also not news! Or it wouldn’t be, if the circulation of knowledge (together with the financial and social means necessary to keep working) were as smooth as I wish it were.

Industry needs to hear more from marginalized creators, and it needs to hear also from the people doing unusual, edgy work in academic research projects. Academic interactive digital storytelling needs more creators using and proving out the tools they’re building: too many weird and interesting AI and procedural narrative tools are languishing as prototypes, never applied to any full-sized creative project, and thus never put through the refinement that inevitably comes with real-world use. And a lot of IF, indie, and altgame creators could use funds for sustaining their work, institutional validation of what they’re doing, connections with other people in the same field, and the support of toolmakers.

I admit that I draw a breath when I read discussion of this myself, because I see “there needs to be more support for indie, marginalized, and altgame creators at the edges of these fields” and I think “oh god I’m at my Patreon/Kickstarter/volunteer limit already.” Crowdfunding from a small crowd of dedicated but over-stretched people is not going to solve this.

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Possibly more remote-presence events would help. It would be hard to replicate a lot of what I get out of GDC through streaming, but there might be ways to incorporate or hear from some people some of the time. I know at least one speaker at ICCC last year spoke by Skype because they weren’t able to reach the venue in person.

This is an area where different forms of accessibility are often going at right angles. inkle are going to speak about ink at the London IF Meetup, which, at least for people who live in London, is much cheaper than going to San Francisco and buying a GDC pass to see their talk: cost, an evening of your time and a Tube journey, and I throw in snacks.

On the other hand, I’m not equipped to record or stream what they say, whereas the GDC Vault does capture pretty much everything that happens at GDC and (to give credit where due) has recently released quite a lot of the more general-interest content for free, even though notionally a lot of it is behind a pay wall.

And of course, even remote-presence events have to deal with time zones and technological barriers. It’s hard to make a group meetup that lets people in the US, the UK, and Australia all attend, as I found when I was organizing the IF discussion group; Australia kind of tends to get the short end of the stick. And not everyone has the bandwidth to stream talks, and and.

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Meanwhile, speaking of access: for the last couple of years I’ve organized a dinner for IF people adjacent to GDC. This is an excuse for me to see people; I also hope that it serves as a source of connections for IFfers attending their first GDC, or just a friendly/comfortable place.

This year something mildly unfortunate happened: the restaurant where we met last year had a sudden flood the morning of the dinner. So they moved our reservation to one of their other branches, which happened to be a) unable to seat 20+ people at one long table, and b) way louder. This meant that some people wound up relegated to the most distant table and communicating by passing notes. This is not what I was trying to accomplish.

To some extent this particular situation can be written down as bad luck, but it kind of underscored something that I’ve been struggling with anyway:

– for some people, “accessible event” means an event that is inexpensive or free, that advertises itself widely, and at which anyone interested is welcome to attend.

– for some people, “accessible event” means an event that is small enough and quiet enough not to feel socially overwhelming or to overtax their voices or their ears.

Is it possible for this to describe the same event? I’m not really sure. Maybe (as so often) the answer boils down to needing more kinds of event to meet more kinds of need, and not expecting every event to help everyone.

The London IF Meetup sometimes hits its attendance limit and goes over to waitlisting, and that’s also a barrier of a kind.

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There’s also the need for cross-field mentoring.

I see people complain about the representation at GDC panels or elsewhere, and it’s often a reasonable complaint. But if we’re going to improve the situation, there is more to be done than applying pressure to organizers (though that’s probably also worth doing).

If you belong to one community pretty much exclusively, it’s hard to know whom you could/should be inviting from another — who’s done credible or interesting work? Are you equipped to evaluate it? Who’s good at communicating about what they’ve done? PRACTICE makes a big effort bringing in people from entirely outside the standard video game fold, which is one of the reasons I love that conference, but it takes work and it can misfire — see this write-up on John Popadiuk’s talk in 2014.

And it’s scary to volunteer your speaking services to another community. I would never have applied to speak at GDC the first time if I hadn’t been asked; I assumed they didn’t want someone like me. It also really helps having people who know the ropes a bit and can offer some guidance, like read a paper that’s being submitted to an academic conference by someone who isn’t a professional academic, or go over a slide deck proposed for an industry conference by someone who hasn’t spoken at or attended one before.

I know a lot of people don’t even want to apply to present if they feel like their application might be laughed at by the recipients. If you don’t really know the expectations of a particular community, it’s hard to be sure you’re meeting those expectations.

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Right now, to the extent this mentoring is done, it’s mostly done as unpaid labor and often by people who are already in semi-marginal spaces. Unsurprisingly it’s often the people who themselves had a challenging time that recognize the need to help others. (I was reading a study yesterday, which I now can’t find, to the effect that black and female faculty do many more hours of mentoring and institutional support work in academic contexts than white men, but are promoted more slowly. It was the sort of article that makes me breathe through my teeth.)

It’s worth knowing, though, that sometimes a GDC panel organizer has really gone out of their way to invite new people and help uncertain/less experienced panelists get a submission into shape. That contribution is generally unseen by the public, but FWIW, that is a thing that sometimes happens.

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Still, maybe it would help to have more dedicated liaison positions. I’m picturing someone from within one arena who was funded to attend and report back on conferences/events in another. Someone whose job was to maintain community links in that other space, and stay aware of publications. Someone who could curate news, recommend crossover speakers worth hearing from, and provide social welcome and mentoring functions when those crossover speakers did arrive. Maybe this person would put together a panel at their community’s main event(s) that provided a summary look at interesting output from elsewhere.

For instance: the AI Summit at GDC did invite me to speak at my first GDC, and that was really useful to me. They award GDC scholarships and make sure that the scholarship winner is introduced around and made welcome. They also do sometimes have panels on what’s going on at, say, UCSC’s Expressive Intelligence Studio, so it’s not like they are totally closed to academic-sourced content. And they get together and practice/coach their talks before GDC, if one needs that.

But it’s also true that that summit overwhelmingly tends to feature white male speakers, typically talking about combat and pathfinding concerns. There was more about narrative AI in the Narrative and Indie tracks this year, and the enthusiasm around procedural generation and computational creativity tools turned into multiple spontaneous para-GDC events.

I mention this not to pick on the AI Summit, but actually because it’s a space where I think there is good will, and where I’ve always felt welcome. I can just imagine it being quite a bit more awesome if augmented by more outreach to the surrounding communities, and a greater commitment to changing up the faces on stage. The same might be true for a lot of other summits and conferences.

But, once again, I’ve just described a solution that involves someone (who? why?) spending quite a bit of money to fund this hypothetical liaison. I don’t have this money myself.

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So. All that is tricky. But the reality is

— there is genuinely amazing work being done right now. I found GDC Narrative Summit, last year’s IF Comp, and my recent conversations with people in academic narrative AI to be as promising as they’ve been in years.

— our methods for disseminating knowledge about that work rely on systems (industry, academia) that are overtaxed and exclude important things. Lots of academic work is published behind a paywall; lots of industry wisdom is locked up in the GDC Vault; lots of indie work suffers discoverability issues.

— the resulting situation is unfortunate both for individual people and for the development of the field. There are people who manage to maintain a presence in multiple arenas, but that in itself is hard, expensive, and exhausting. If it’s difficult to qualify yourself in one of those areas, it’s really really difficult to qualify in multiple ones.

 

8 thoughts on “Conference access, and related topics

  1. I felt a wave of sympathetic sadness when thinking about the many points you’ve raised; of outsiders made to feel more marginalized; of academics and people in the games-industrial-complex stumbling blindly past problems posed and solved twenty years ago by lone non-commercial auteurs; of physical and financial barriers to accessibility and the odd ways in which nice people can be poorly served by institutions.

    The IF community is a chain of wondrous Galapagos islands that (I allege based on my own feelings, possibly motivated purely out of pique and vinegar after having wandered as a painfully shy person through the noise and weirdness of SXSW Gaming 2016) makes for an emotionally healthier place for collaboration and thoughtful intellectual discourse than any game industry convention.

    The IF community demands no compensatory pound of flesh; the IF community salves no ego; the IF community is a garden and park. GDC and SXSW are screeching metal handshake machines, surrounded by dandruff clouds of business cards and expensive anxiety, of flavored vodka extroversion and what-can-you-do-for-me.

    Long live IF.

  2. I haven’t been to PAX in years, as at a certain point the surrounding politics made me feel unwelcome there

    Sorry to hear that. I’m still stinging from some of that politicization too, but I would’ve thought the problems would be more like “people who hate PA will shame me for going” than “I won’t feel welcome there”. In any case, I hope you can make it back again someday once the winds shift.

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