Saturday, 16 August 2014

Changing Scholarly Altitudes : DiGRA 2014

Early this August, I attended the 2014 DiGRA conference near Salt Lake City, Utah.  It was my first time attending a DiGRA event (I watched the 2013 Atlanta conference deadline pass by with a sigh).  A more personal account of my experience might follow in another post, but this one is about a critical response to DiGRA 2014 and I hope to see more of the conversation by other participants.

The games criticism power duo of Zoya Street of Memory Insufficient and Andrew Grant Wilson of Silverstring Media have been publishing a series of insightful letters in response to the conference on the Silverstring Media blog and while I can't provide the same level of critical eloquence, it's a good reminder that we should respond to our conference experiences and, when needed (and it's pretty much always needed) offer critiques and, when possible, solutions.

I was absolutely thrilled to be accepted to the conference. Six days in Utah meant meeting new colleagues and hearing great ideas. To this day, I remain very happy that I applied. But there are other aspects of my experience beyond my nerdy joy that deserve explanation. I don't blame the organizers and volunteers for some of the problems this year. These folks made huge commitments of their time and energy and did a great job. But I do think we need to speak out about concerns of cost, accessibility, diversity and other areas in which we can improve.

After being accepted, my DiGRA experience began with massive sticker shock, delivered via my credit card, in continuing and frightening instalments. In my situation, the combination of DiGRA membership, early conference registration, air fare, hotel fees and food costs are probably somewhere slightly above $2000, and I write this as someone who largely subsisted on the food offered during breaks and a substantial collection of energy bars, fruit bars, and other foods in bar form, purchased in bulk in Canada. Over six days, I spent money at the in-house restaurants twice, motivated by the really excellent company. And despite leaving my room's garbage cans filled with enough wrappers that I worry the cleaning staff will think I was nesting in them, I spent that minimum $2000, only $300 of which I might be able to get back from my department. In a strange note, I'm actually one of the very lucky ones this time - I won a copy of Unity Pro I might be able to sell to cover the rest of the cost and maybe more. But not everyone is so lucky.

The choice to situate DiGRA at the Snowbird Resort is an understandable one. The location offers conference services and simply staggering views of the surrounding mountains. An included ski-lift ticket took me up the mountain and for a moment I genuinely forget how much money I had spent. But using a resort location drives up prices and raises the obstacles for persons who want to participate, to share their work and energy. It immediately makes it harder for the voices we need the most to join in the conversation. We have an ethical and professional responsibility to mitigate the costs of attending DiGRA in the future.

And accessibility more broadly is an important issue. The Snowbird resort itself had some significant physical accessibility issues and may actually have been designed by M.C. Escher. Anyone with difficulty handling stairs and barriers was immediately, if unintentionally, sent a message that their needs were not a priority. A space being technically navigable does not mean it is truly accessible. We have to fight for welcoming spaces at conferences and similar events. Cost and physical barriers are major factors in whether our events are welcoming, or even accessible period.

Diversity and a plurality of voices and perspectives are key to the success of conferences more generally. But they're also essential for the integrity and ethical responsibility conferences should strive for. That DiGRA is an academic conference in the first place raises barriers for potential participants, that ignore the worth of their work. And we should keep that in mind when we create the conditions of our next conference. And every conference.

At the DiGRA Fishbowl on Diversity in Game Studies, it was noted correctly that 'we can't accept submissions we don't get' but what that leaves out is that we have a responsibility to create the conditions to encourage and enable those missing submissions - from people of colour, from trans and genderqueer people, from women, from activists, from people living and working in poverty. DiGRA needs to solicit and listen to advice and criticism from the people under-represented at its events and recognize that we are responsible for the submissions we don't get.

Another important comment was made by Dr. Gillian Smith during the Diversity Fishbowl, namely that people who point out problems are not the only ones responsible for organizing efforts to deal with them. The people likeliest to notice problems - missing voices, for example, or instances of sexism or racism in an organization - don't always possess the resources that the ones least likely to notice problems do have. So, if we at DiGRA actually value the input of the people pointing out problems, we need to offer help to address that input. Time, effort, money, coverage, encouragement - the people to whom these resources are readily available have an ethical responsibility to share them. Sympathy is not enough. We need resources and help.

DiGRA President Dr. Mia Consalvo said something that resonated with me, that "We are DiGRA," that the people in the room, at the conference are part of the organization with the resources and responsibilities that entails. I am very happy to be a part of DiGRA and I want change. I want to know who else wants change. It's important to talk solutions, but it's also important to share concerns, to express anger, fear, and hope. The more we meaningfully converse with each other, the better.

So here is a starting set of principles I think DiGRA should adopt. (It's only a start and I encourage interested folks to critique it.)
1) A commitment to lowering the monetary barriers to involvement in DiGRA and its events;
2) A commitment to radical inclusivity (similar to the one discussed at the 2014 Canadian Game Studies Association Conference); this includes:
     a) genuine physical accessibility at conference venues
     b) creating the conditions to welcome submissions from under-represented contributors
     c) exploring other areas of improvement in dialogue with members and non-members of DiGRA
3) A commitment to ensuring the acknowledgement by members of DiGRA with access to privilege and power of their ethical responsibility to help with the problems affect fellow participants in games studies and criticism

And I formally suggest that we try out the idea of a Game Studies and Criticism  Camping Trip series, as suggested by Zoya Street here.

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