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No Show Conference aims for less pageantry, more gender equity
No Show Conference aims for less pageantry, more gender equity Exclusive
May 29, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

May 29, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
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    15 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive



The old notion that there are "no" women at game industry events is, fortunately, becoming easier to dispel. But stereotypes about the universal maleness of events persist in part because it remains somewhat rare to see women speaking at these conferences.

Generally, we hear that there are fewer women speakers because not enough of them submitted talks. But in her efforts to organize a constructive conference for the Boston area games industry, project manager Courtney Stanton found a way to make sure no less than half of her event's speakers were women.

That wasn't always her primary intention; the frequently pink-haired and always-multitasking Stanton started out trying to plan an event that would address all the reasons she harbored a "semi-hatred" of the traditional conference format.

Thus the No Show Conference was born, named for its aversion to pageantry and its pragmatic focus on the needs of its locals. It takes place over a weekend so that attendees don't need to use vacation time, aims to keep admissions low and in particular promises to avoid the roundtable panels format, for those who don't like "listening to strangers agree with each other," in Stanton's words.

The dev commnunity in the Boston area is enormously diverse, from AAA developers (Turbine and Irrational among them) to one-person indie shops. "And then when you look at the geography, we've got New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and Washington DC all within a day's drive, and those are all cities with thriving game development communities as well," Stanton tells Gamasutra.

"It just seemed obvious to me that this part of the country could probably benefit from an excuse to hang out and be smart together for a couple of days," she adds. It was crucial to her to be cost-sensitive, too, as small studios often have to be very careful about deciding how to budget their conference travel for the year -- to say nothing of dev budgets.

In the process of trying to set up an event that would act as an alternative to the traditional conference slate, Stanton, an outspoken advocate for equality in the games industry, decided to experiment with other ways to defy the familiar. It was important to her to solicit and consider proposals from as many industry women as possible.

This proved an unexpected challenge; in an in-depth blog post on her efforts to recruit speakers, Stanton reports that while men were likely to unhesitatingly begin proposing ideas when invited, women would often disqualify themselves, refer Stanton to a superior, or claim they didn't have strong enough concepts.

Stanton committed to seeking out accomplished industry women and encouraging them to talk. On the subject of why woman speakers often needed extra encouragement, "the catchy rhyming answer to this is, 'we can't be what we can't see,'" she says.

"If you attend events in your industry and nobody on stage looks like you, it's hard to think that professional events are looking for people like you," she continues. "And if you're not used to thinking about your ideas or projects as things you could potentially speak about (since you never speak at conferences), then you draw a blank when someone asks you if you have anything to submit for a conference. It's a vicious circle. and it's tough to break."

The less-discussed challenges of the conference environment for women in tech and games can even include fear of inappropriate conduct or harassment. Plenty of women have stories, often kept among close friends, of being made to feel uncomfortable in a majority-male environment. That's why it was important to Stanton to have a firm harassment policy in place at No Show, she says.

"I can tell you from my experience and the experiences of people I know directly that there's everything from sexual assault to verbal harassment, to groping, to the occasional instance of someone using sexist language or slides in a presentation in a nauseatingly demeaning way," she explains. Having a policy in place with volunteers trained on that policy gives all individuals clear recourse if they find themselves in a line-crossing situation.

It's clear that for a complex cocktail of cultural reasons it's challenging to have visible gender equality at game industry events -- one of these reasons being that many people ask why it must be an area of focus. Many hold that diversity just "shouldn't matter," and that the culture of the industry and its associated events will just shape up as it will, and that viewpoint is often bandied to challenge industry individuals passionate about campaigning for inclusiveness and positive representation.

"Women are a bit over 50 percent of the population, which means that one way or another, we're about 50 percent of the business -- even if it's as, 'part of a potential customer base we can't figure out how to reach yet,'" Stanton points out.

"It's also really important to me that we get beyond tokenism with women speakers, because no one or two women should have to represent all women in the game industry," she adds. "I want women currently in games and women considering the game industry to be able to find role models or mentors -- or, heck, even sworn enemies who are also women, which is harder to do if you've never heard of more than a couple women in the industry at all."

"I think breaking free of the idea that 'women' is somehow a demographic, that we're a monolith that all think alike, is critical for the growth of the industry," Stanton continues. "Part of doing that is understanding that there are lots of different women in games... and it's much easier to realize that when you actually see lots of women at industry events, instead of just the usual one (or none)."

No Show's event program contains an intriguing range of unusual topics, from starting a video game arts organization (from Toronto's Jim Munroe) to gameplay opportunities in environmental design, led by Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab's Clara Fernandez-Vara. Producer, game designer and creative director Naomi Clark, who has been working in particular on multiplayer design since she was a teenager, will give the opening keynote.

With the event Stanton hopes it's possible to create a productive, affordable local event -- and confront prohibitive old boundaries at the same time.

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Comments


Kenneth Blaney
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"I think breaking free of the idea that 'women' is somehow a demographic, that we're a monolith that all think alike, is critical for the growth of the industry,"

I can't agree more. The general solution people pose for "how do we reach a female audience?" seems to be "let's put more females on the dev team." However, it doesn't work out because the women involved in game development are not representative of women as a whole just like how a group of any single profession won't be representative of humanity as a whole. If instead we qualify the question and say "how do we reach an audience interested in ?" then we will have a much easier time reaching a female audience (who just so happens to enjoy said activity).

Take for instance "The Sims" which overthrew "Myst" as the best selling game of all time. "The Sims" had the usual simulation quality you would expect from Maxis, but layered on top was a generalized family life feel. Unsurprisingly, "The Sims" did very well with women... in no small part, I'd imagine, because of the "playing house" quality that is culturally a very female activity. (That said, Myst also did well with women because the main draw was artistic landscapes and art can appeal to anyone even if it is "masculine" or "feminine".)

Bryan Ferris
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Jackson: I agree with your first paragraph, but I think you misinterpreted the part you critique in the second paragraph. I don't think that Kenneth was trying to say that all women just hap[en to enjoy that activity, but you will reach a female audience because the group of people that enjoy that activity has females in it.

Joe McGinn
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I like everything about this except the artificial 50% female speakers rule ... given the current demographics of the industry, surely this just results in lower-quality speakers, people being chosen because of their gender not because they have something interesting to say?

Christian Nutt
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Or perhaps it will allow the conference to:

- Encourage female speakers who might not otherwise submit talk topics to step forward, knowing they have a great shot at getting chosen
- Have a diverse set of opinions and viewpoints presented, including some that aren't usually represented

Also, there are way more submissions for, say, GDC, than get chosen, so I wouldn't worry so much about the idea that a bunch of poor-quality talks are selected.

Sure, it's literally possible that this is going to happen. But planting a stake in the ground and saying "this is how we hope to do things" publicly and in advance levels the playing field for those who wish to submit talks.

I also think this is addressed more than adequately in the body of the piece. It's about encouraging people to come forward. Men will weather this just fine, I'm sure. They seem to be doing okay in this industry.

William Johnson
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I hope you'll be pleasantly surprised by this conference then.

E McNeill
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I don't think there is an "artificial 50% female speakers rule". Stanton seems to be trying to even the ratio by soliciting more and better proposals from women, rather than inflating the few she would normally get. From the linked blog post:

"The easiest way I saw for getting more women on stage at the actual event was to get as many women to submit speaking proposals as possible. Selecting presentations was done without speaker information associated with the titles and pitches, so I wasn’t able to “reserve” spaces in the program for anyone based on aspects of their identity — and I wasn’t interested in that sort of reservation system for this event, anyway. It’s a come-one-come-all event for game industry professionals, so more than anything I wanted a really strong set of talks, even if that meant I ended up with, sigh, yet another roster of all dudes."

Abby Friesen
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As a female game designer myself, let me just say I'm sick of reading anything to do with 'women in games.' If a woman wants to speak at a conference she will, if she doesn't she doesn't. If she doesn't because she's uncomfortable in a male-dominated industry, that's HER problem. If a woman wants to work in the industry, she will. If she doesn't, she doesn't.

Because, hey, surprise! Some of us don't even notice the genders around us when we go to class, go to work, or go to a conference. We're there to share our ideas, make new friends, and play / make games, not pine for someone to represent us ( -_-)'

Articles like these just give me a bad vibe, and I think it's because I get the creepy feeling we're treading into some sort of affirmative action territory with women and the game industry. I feel almost embarrassed, like I have to write this and point that I don't agree with forced equality. At the end of the day, I don't care what the penis-to-vagina ratio is at the big table, I just want to learn something cool.

~whew~

David Marcum
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I wish you had spoken at the conference, though I suspect it would have been a hostile audience. I may pay for writing my support for what you said.

I think more women working in the industry would most probably improve it. Mainly because when men get together w/o (or with very few) women around they tend to act 13 years old (one way or another). But women should get the job on skill and team fitness, not because we should have more women (which is the pressure you are feeling).

Don't let it work on you! Don't feel like you have anything to prove. You got the job, and your skills are displayed for everyone to see.

Philip Minchin
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Everyone agrees gender *shouldn't* matter, but there's plenty of evidence that women who put their heads above the parapet face both more and nastier abuse than they would if they were men. Not all women, but enough women that it's reasonable for any given woman to factor it into her decision-making about when and whether to take the public stage.

So I'm glad - seriously - that not worrying about these wider social patterns works for you. It's wonderful that you can, and even better that you make the most of it. It's great that the ideal is real for you.

But not everyone has that luck. So Stanton's efforts were about bringing everyone to a similarly fair situation. In other words, she shares your ideals, she just recognises that some people not unreasonably need support and encouragement to make decisions the same way as you do.

It's worth pointing out that (if you read her post) all Stanton did was discourage self-censorship when she first asked people for paper submissions. Her paper selection process divorced paper topics from identity, and she was quite open to the possibility of getting all men presenting if those were the best papers.

The point Stanton's making here is that women create great papers if they actually take the chance... but that they are more likely than men to engage in self-censorship. So an encouraging approach - applied across the board, to men and women, but women are more likely to need it at this moment in history for the reasons above - is a good idea if you want to get the absolute best range of contributions. And she's telling us about this because next time such opportunities arise, her experience might offer encouragement to other women to participate in the way you seem to feel free to.

(Not that I'm conceding that "affirmative action" is a bad thing - it's not as though undeserving straight white men don't get jobs over better candidates because of extraneous identity characteristics. In fact in some careers so many of them have that they skew our ideas of who is a "good fit" for a given job! But it's a much more convoluted and fundamentally extraneous conversation.)

Rob B
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'If she doesn't because she's uncomfortable in a'...
Women hold lower powered positions, get derided for standing up for anything (You know, kind of like you are doing now and getting lots of support for doing it... congratulations...) arnt paid as much and are underrepresented. Saying that is all their problem is akin to saying, if you cant take being abused you shouldnt work here.

'If a woman wants to speak'.../'If a woman wants to work'...
Not without role models and encouragement that all industries and all sexes rely on to entice them in. Nobody makes decisions without the influence of inspirational people.

'Because, hey, surprise! Some of us'...
You do notice genders, everyone does. This isnt some utopian society within which they dont matter.*

'We're there to share our ideas'...
_You_ might not want representation plenty of other people would strongly disagree with you and getting in the way of that is senseless contrarianism at its worse. It is through positive representation that people grow interested in, and fight for roles in industries that were not too long ago very much cut off.

'I feel almost embarrassed'...
You feel embarrased by the idea that anyone would try encourage more women to speak up? and you dont think there is a problem here?

'At the end of the day, I don't care what the penis-to-vagina'...
Tough, because there is a small army of people out there who consciously or not** make their decisions based on sex (and race and ethnicity and sexuality etc) Its what has held back many groups not only the games industry but across the board.


Everyone should be pushing for a more equal society through role models, encouragement and espousing the benefits of the idea. Standing against that with the alternative of what? Apathy? Is ridiculous.

This article is about someone trying to encourage women to speak up and ultimately encourage further women. If you see a problem with this then I would suggest that you are part of the reason an industry with over 40% female gamers has by some estimates less than 5% women working in it.


*There are a few experiments that demonstrate innate discrimination, measuring peoples unconscious response to others. Everyone discriminates by there nature, its through recognising that and thinking it through that we get beyond it.

**Interviewers pretty much make up there mind within the first few seconds of meeting you no matter who you are.

Abby Friesen
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Rob B, you make a lot of great points and I totally get where you're coming from. I still have some issues with some of your points, perhaps I should have spent more breath on my first post.

"Women hold lower powered positions, get derided for standing up for anything (You know, kind of like you are doing now and getting lots of support for doing it... congratulations...) arnt paid as much and are underrepresented. Saying that is all their problem is akin to saying, if you cant take being abused you shouldnt work here."

Yes, this does happen to women. I've had my share of it, so I'm not exactly a stranger to the concept of sexism. It becomes their problem when they let it get them down and prevent them from doing what they want to do because they're afraid of discrimination. Though these hardships may not be their fault, they're no reason to feel bad about themselves. Just gotta suck it up and realize the jerks in this world aren't going anywhere for a while so do what you want and love it!

"Not without role models and encouragement that all industries and all sexes rely on to entice them in. Nobody makes decisions without the influence of inspirational people."

Very true! Agree 100%! But wait, who made the assumption that women in this industry need / desire female role models? Maybe some do, but I'm not sure why. You can never know who will look up to whom.

"You do notice genders, everyone does. This isnt some utopian society within which they dont matter."

Oops, "not caring about genders" is a better way for me to put it than "not noticing genders." Indeed, I do notice a person's gender when I meet them. Whether I care is what matters. You got me there.

"_You_ might not want representation plenty of other people would strongly disagree with you and getting in the way of that is senseless contrarianism at its worse. It is through positive representation that people grow interested in, and fight for roles in industries that were not too long ago very much cut off."

Nope, I've never felt the need for representation. And no, not everyone grows interested in this industry through positive representation. Only those that need it / want it do. Although why they would is beyond me. Wait, no it isn't - they require proof that someone like them can do the job well.

"You feel embarrased by the idea that anyone would try encourage more women to speak up? and you dont think there is a problem here?"

Of course I'm embarrassed! How can I explain such a thing properly? I think encouraging people and giving them hope to do better and have confidence and blahblahblah is a great thing. Targeting a particular group perpetuates the idea that [insert group here] need extra help and a boost to get them going. This works well for kids that are still having self-esteem issues and learning the ways of the world. For a group of adults, it can be humiliating to be viewed as struggling and incapable.

Quick anecdote: In college, I was one of only a few girls in my program. An instructor began offering the females in my program free extra financial aid as a way to encourage them to stay in the program. None of the males were offered. I was mortified. Not only was I publicly put on some sort of special pedestal, but I was better off than many of the males that actually could have used some aid. The school just assumed I was struggling because I was a girl. Needless to say, I didn't take their 'gift.'


"... there is a small army of people out there who consciously or not make their decisions based on sex (and race and ethnicity and sexuality etc) Its what has held back many groups not only the games industry but across the board."

And they will always exist. And they are missing out on a great world. And I should never let them run my life :P

"Everyone should be pushing for a more equal society through role models, encouragement and espousing the benefits of the idea. Standing against that with the alternative of what? Apathy? Is ridiculous."

No, they shouldn't be pushing. Role models are self-made. They're not the result of people ushering them to the front in their own efforts to make things equal. If I want a female give a great talk at, say, GDC, I'll work even harder and give a great talk myself. If it reaches the point where we're trying to create leaders and representatives for all the thousands of groups that we feel need representing, we've failed.

"This article is about someone trying to encourage women to speak up and ultimately encourage further women. If you see a problem with this then I would suggest that you are part of the reason an industry with over 40% female gamers has by some estimates less than 5% women working in it."

How terrible of me. And to think, I've been spending all this time playing games and becoming better at what I MYSELF do instead of supporting the fight for more women to join the ranks and better themselves. What was I thinking?!?

Rob B
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"Just gotta suck it up"...
I disagree, the jerks in this world can and have been faught. While it would be naive of me to believe you shouldnt ever 'suck it up' we should aspire for something better when the opportunity arises and that is a large part of what this article was about.

"who made the assumption that women in this industry"...
Its down to who people can relate to. When people see that an industry is harder to get in to because of the issues discussed above, they will be less inclined to take on board the things said by those who naturally havent encountered those problems. Its like a rich person talking about anything that also relates to the poor, even when they make good points it tends not to get through.

"not everyone grows interested in this industry"
I should have said many people instead of implying all

"they require proof that someone like them can do the job well."
Id say its about being inspired. A demonstration of where you can get to with the skills you posses not just that you could posses them.

"a boost to get them going" -> "struggling and incapable"
Those arnt really equivalent. There is a huge difference between boosting up people who are just as skilled but struggle to make as much progress as their peers, and considering people incapable if they need help.

"Quick anecdote"...
This is where things get blurred. The stats on various industries and programs where women are under-represented are a clear indicator that given entirely equal situations far more women would be involved. Thats why we need to help people, not on to a pedestal but on to the same level.
How exactly thats done is still not clear. The efficacy of numerous ways to go about it have been seriously questioned and its difficult to see where helping on to the same level becomes giving someone an unfair advantage. Its not even clear how damaging or beneficial giving someone an unfair advantage would be in the long run. (To see if the ends justify the means.)

That said I think that this situation is less ambiguous. Courtney Stanton isnt handing out chunks of cash to hold somebodys attention, she is giving a larger platform to skilled women to encourage others. With the industry so clearly biassed in favour of men a larger platform is necessary to redress that balance. This is more like advertising than bribery.

"And they will always exist"...
I dont believe they will and of course they shouldnt run your life but the reality is that they often do regardless.

"Role models are self-made."
Role models have taken influence from their role models who have in turn been influenced by theirs and so on and so forth, just about everyone is inspired this way. The article is also clear that it is not about creating a few leaders, its about the community considering the chance to be more visible to others who could be inspired.

"What was I thinking?!?"
Ahh, sarcasm. The thing is, this isnt about you specifically. It isnt even about whether you directly support this (Though I dont see why anyone wouldnt if given the opportunity.) Youve actively posted here against someone fighting for women to have more representation within the industry, and that is what I disagree with.

Christer Kaitila
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At least we all can agree that a conference without lame booth babes is a good thing. I'll bet nearly 100% of game developers, male and female alike, are ashamed of that aspect of the mainstream conferences.

Wayne Gardner
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I have to agree with Joe McGinn. Its the same for a interview ..it should be based on experience and the right fit ..not gender, sexuality or colour etc.

Sam Potasznik
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The talks at noshowconf look absolutely amazing to me in their own right- http://noshowconf.com/presentations/ (Plus a game jam?? DAMN)

This year was my first at GDC and it already tired me out of living in a hotel full of men, walking down the street to the convention in a giant man-horde, and then watching talk after talk given by a man. Especially those including slides on "how to use playtesting metrics to balance the attack power of the giant purple dildo weapon in your newest shoot 'em up!"

My favorite panels at GDC had multiple perspectives. A good conference should have a broad range of voices speaking. Our industry should encourage a wider swath of the population making games, not ignore the forces that discourage it.

Kudos to Courtney for putting together a kickass conference.


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