Conferences and sustainable diversity

Over the last six years, I have volunteered as the conference co-chair for the IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games. For those unfamiliar with IndieCade, it is a festival that brings together gamemakers, critics, companies and the general public for a weekend celebrating independent games. A rotating cast of co-chairs and I have put together the what used to be called the “professional conference,” now known as “think:indie” (the talks and panels at the Ivy Substation and the Foshay Lodge). Part of IndieCade’s mission is to bring more diversity to games—both in terms of the play experiences, but also those making the games. With this mission in mind, my co-chairs and I have worked hard to diversify the speaker pool. We’ve done a pretty good job of it, too: this year we have roughly a 3:2 ratio of women to men, approximately 25% people of color, and an even larger percentage of LGBTQ-identifying speakers. We’re nowhere near perfect on the inclusivity and diversity front, but we’ve done better than most, at least on the surface.

Implicit in my work with IndieCade was a belief that conferences—the talks, the panels and the interstitial moments of community—are vehicles for change. Looking back at the last six years, I no longer believe this is a meaningful way to sustainably support marginalized communities. And so I’ve made the decision to step down from my conference co-chair role, making the 2015 IndieCade conference my last in this capacity. I’d like to share some of my thinking on the intersections of diversity initiatives and conferences that informed this decision.

Within academia, conferences are central to the “publish or perish” existence, particularly the conferences hosted by the discipline-based professional organizations like the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) or the Association for Computing Machinery’s SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group: GRAPHics). DiGRA and SIGGRAPH operate under a cooperative model where its members volunteer to organize the conferences as a way of sharing responsibility for a platform that benefits the field and individual careers alike. These conferences are either part of an established (SIGGRAPH) field or a growing disciplinary infrastructure (in the case of DiGRA) that helps sustain game studies, train gamemakers and allow basic research into the medium of games.

Conferences are so deeply engrained in many of us academics that I couldn’t help but assume they were a workable model for my communities outside academia. For me, a big motivation for volunteering my time to co-chair the IndieCade conference has been giving marginalized voices a platform to share their work. Events like IndieCade and GDC’s diversity track give these developers and critics a platform to share their work, but I fear these events are not providing sustainable, long-term benefit to those outside academia and game development companies.

Asking someone to speak at an event is asking for a lot more than just the hour of time on stage. There are the opportunity costs of setting aside work in order to prepare a talk, and of course the financial outlay to travel, find lodging and purchase food. Within academia, it is assumed that speakers will cover their own travel expenses and conference admission, sometimes with the support of grants, university funding and similar resources. But within marginalized communities of gamemakers, outside the academic and game development ecosystems, it is unfair to assume everyone can afford to take on the opportunity costs and financial burden of attending a conference. Even with the free conference pass given to most speakers, travel, lodging and food can easily eat up $1,000 or more for a weekend event. Over the last couple of years, IndieCade has made efforts to provide some financial assistance to conference speakers who need it, but it has been a token gesture at best, as we’ve only been able to cover a portion of the speaker expenses relating to travel, lodging and meals. I’m proud that we have made this effort, and applaud that IndieCade supported my co-chairs and I in trying, but it just hasn’t been enough.

Creativity competition reality shows like Project Runway keep popping into my mind as I’ve mulled all this over. Up-and-coming designers vie for an opportunity to compete for a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to showcase their work, and if they are lucky, gain the title of Project Runway winner. On a recent episode, Tim Gunn was consoling that episode’s loser by telling her “we’d hear from her again.” I started thinking back to previous contestants and winners from seasons past—had I ever heard from any of them again? A couple of previous competitors have ended up on other reality shows and Project Runway spinoffs, but I can’t think of any that have become well-known, established designers.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nothing about Project Runway was designed to help the fashion designers establish a sustainable career. Instead, these programs exploit the designers for the purposes of television ratings and advertising revenue. And so when the season is over, the designers are often no better off than they were before appearing on the show. I’ve come to see developer-focused conferences in a similar light. Yes, these conferences have been part of making some gamemakers and critics “conference famous,” but beyond that, what are we doing to support them? By inviting a developer or critic to speak, are we doing them a favor? Or are we doing the organizations or ourselves a favor?

I’ve come to see sustainability as the most pressing issue for keeping the margins of indie games from fraying and leaving people more disenfranchised than they were before entering our communities. I’m not sure how this problem is solved, but I am increasing certain that developer-focused conferences can mask the real problems. This weekend was amazing, seeing such an incredible range of gamemakers all in one place, catching up with friends, getting inspired by the talks and games. Each year’s gamemakers is more diverse than the previous. It is hard not to feel connected and part of something important. But this can create a false sense of infrastructure. Yes, we have community, but we’ll all soon return to our daily lives. Academic conferences operate within the larger ecosystem of higher education, from which we can return to our jobs as faculty or our studies as graduate students. But gamemakers outside academia and game companies leave Culver City to return to… what, exactly? There simply isn’t an infrastructure there to provide a basic, sustainable quality of life.

So if conferences aren’t part of the sustainability solution, what is? I’m honestly not sure, but I have seen a few examples that may point the way. One thing IndieCade has done well over the last few years is create programming within the festival that fosters marginalized and up-and-coming developers. Two initiatives stand out. First is Intel’s “gaming for everyone” that brought many of the organizations working with marginalized game making communities to Culver City for the weekend. It was a truly inclusive space that gave exposure to these organizations. I hope Intel continues this, and broadens to other gamemaker events.

The second example is the indieXchange, a free event open to anyone who has submitted a game to IndieCade that year. Developers attend sessions on project management, design, marketing, business and legal. IndieXchange also provides access to publishers of indie-friendly channels. For those with an indie-as-small business mindset, indieXchange is a great opportunity. But this isn’t always a realistic or desired opportunity for many in marginalized communities; or if you feel strongly that you should give your games away; or if you are creating work that doesn’t fit the digital distribution models of Steam, Sony, Microsoft, Apple and Google; or if you are dealing with subject matter, themes or play styles that don’t lend themselves to broad audiences.

I think there are opportunities to provide similar programming for those approaching games in ways closer to art or poetry than small business development. In New York City where I live, there are two organizations doing this for artists that we can learn from—the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) and Creative Capital. LMCC runs a series of free or low-cost workshops to help artists—think poets, performance artists and experimental musicians—manage the particulars of careers based on producing work that doesn’t naturally fit within supply-and-demand marketplaces. LMCC workshops and programs cover everything from financial literacy to career planning to grant writing. These are essential skills for artists—knowing how to mange your finances and create a sustainable existence for oneself; learning how to establish goals for one’s career; understanding how to apply for funding to support the creation of your work. Developing similar programs for gamemakers operating outside the traditional production and distribution infrastructures is essential to creating an inclusive and diverse community.

Helping artists better manage their careers is important, but so is providing them opportunities to create their work. Creative Capital is a great model for this. They are more or less a venture capital fund for artists. Artists apply with projects that need financial support to be realized. Should the project ever make a profit, a percentage of the money returns to Creative Capital to continue supporting other artists. This is kind of like the Indie Fund, but without the expectation that the work will ever turn a profit. This sort of private sector support is essential to help those on the margins of games have the opportunity to make work.

Fellowships and residencies are a third method for supporting gamemakers that we can learn from. Organizations like LMCC and Eyebeam provide artists a space to work, access to resources and a community, and in some cases, stipends. These can be win-win programs, as the artists can create their work, and the organization and its community get to learn from the artist in turn. Outside arts organizations, universities and corporations also run artist in residence programs. Facebook, for example, has a residency program.

The catalyst for all these artist support initiatives is funding. We are starting to see some government support for games as an artform, but for things to happen, we need individuals and companies to get involved. For companies to really help in this area means doing more than simply sponsoring conferences. It means recognizing the importance of creating an infrastructure to support the medium and not just the commerce. We need non-profit foundations that see the importance of supporting games along the margins—not to help turn them into developers of saleable games, but to allow them to make games from the messy, fragile lens of art.

Intel’s $300 million diversity initiative has unparalleled potential to help with this; I hope they continue and set an example for other companies. On a smaller scale, there is NYU Game Center’s annual No Quarter exhibition that commissions games from four gamemakers. And there is IndieCade’s submission scholarships, which allow developers to apply for fee waivers when submitting their games to the competition. These efforts all matter, big and small, and we need more of them.

So while I’m no longer helping IndieCade organize and run its conference, I do plan to continue looking for ways to create a space for sustaining a diverse and inclusive community for game making. Perhaps this can happen through the IndieCade Foundation, maybe it will be through partnering with an existing arts organization. If you have ideas about how to make this happen, or you have the resources to help make this happen, let’s talk and see what we can do. Even better, start something on your own. The more people working to create ways to sustain the margins of games, the better.

Stepping down as co-chair of IndieCade is bittersweet for me. I want to thank Stephanie, Sam and Celia for giving me the opportunity to help shape the conference portion of IndieCade. I’ve personally gained a good deal as an IndieCade volunteer—met hundreds of developers, learned from the diverse range of games and play experiences discussed in the conference and exhibited within the festival, gained exposure for myself as a gamemaker and speaker, and so on.

Finally, I want to thank all the gamemakers and critics who have joined us on stage over the last six years. It took me a while, but I now realize how much we asked of you. I hope you gained half as much from the experience as we did.