No Show Conference aims for less pageantry, more gender equity
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.