This Weekend, the Different Games Conference Comes to NYC—and UStream

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The past few years have seen a much-needed rise in events focusing on queer gaming, corresponding with an ever-increasing visibility of queer developers, themes and issues in the culture. Running the gamut from social fan conventions, to industry events, to academic conferences, the past calendar year has seen events like Gaymer X and the Queerness and Games conference bring a huge range of topics and speakers to the table.

This weekend, one of those new events returns for a second year. A volunteer and student-run conference, Different Games brings together game designers, community organizers, academics and more in a two-day event focusing on queerness, inclusiveness and diversity in gaming. The event is a collaboration between digital media programs at New York University and Georgia Tech and goes down this Friday and Saturday, April 11-12, at NYU’s MAGNET Center in Brooklyn.

You may have noticed that this timing puts Different Games squarely up against nearby gaming convention juggernaut PAX East, which is happening the same weekend in nearby Boston. While the organizers didn’t necessarily intend for this collision to occur, they’ve entirely embraced it and fully endorse Different Games as an alternative to PAX’s “Diversity Lounge”-style approach to diversity in games. They celebrate their event as open to anyone of interest from any background, a welcoming space. That being said, one of the most clever and savvy things on the Different Games program is the “Dispatches from PAX East” session on Saturday afternoon that will combine on-site observations from people actually at PAX with commentary from speakers at Different Games itself about dealing with events like PAX.

Different Games ran for the first time late last April, and involved the same diverse range of speakers and topics. The first conference was a reasonably well-attended event as these things go, bringing in over 200 people. Co-organized by Sarah Schoemann and Laine Nooney, last year’s Different Games had a more academic conference-like structure, with some speakers presenting full-on research presentations, but this year the content is a wider range of content and has backed off somewhat from the scholarly bent.

According to Toni Pizza, one of the conference organizers and a graduate student at the NYU Game Center, the shift in content was partly to reach the broadest possible interested audience, and partly out of a realization that you can’t cover everything with a single event. The organizers drew on important topics that have arisen since the last Different Games when considering what they wanted to be covered at this year’s event.

A quick look at the schedule still shows an exceptionally diverse range of speakers and content, however. Sessions cover everything from a breakout group on games and mental health, to discussion of diversity in the fighting game community, to a keynote by writer and critic Leigh Alexander on using our experiences to inspire a more meaningful game culture. The people presenting these sessions are no less varied, either. The speaker lineup includes game designers, academics, critics, bloggers, community organizers and more.

This – if you’ll pardon the pun – diversity of content has always been the strength of Different Games as an event. Adrienne Shaw, an assistant professor at Temple University who’s done considerable work on queerness and gaming, was a speaker and attendee last year. When asked for an impression of what it was like attending the previous event, Shaw summed it up thusly: “I have found my people.” For her, the bringing together of so many different viewpoints, levels of experience, and backgrounds reflected a way of looking at games she had long advocated for but hadn’t found in a long while.

“I felt like Different Games embodied a coalition politics I always felt game studies and game design needed,” Shaw said. “It has shaped my scholarship, as well as my teaching and social networks, ever since.”

It’s clear that examining and talking about games isn’t the only thing Different Games focuses on, either; the act of making and building is clearly important here. This year’s programming starts with a series of talks and game exhibitions by the five Different Games Fellows: Anna Anthropy, Colleen Macklin, Kaho Abe, Mattie Brice and Robert Yang. A list including some of the most well-known names working in games right now, the Fellows are funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant to create—well, “different games.” It’s appropriate that the event starts on Friday with these designers and creators discussing their progress and previewing their work for the conference crowd.

Beyond that, there are also a few workshops in the schedule focused on creating or modding. Colleen Macklin and Eric Zimmerman will lead a session on “Queering the Metagame” in which participants will help develop new cards for the Metagame, a card/discussion game about culture where participants stage impromptu debates based on their cards at hand. Game designer Ramsey Nasser will also be leading a workshop on modding the popular board games Settlers of Catan.

And of course, there’s the arcade: a huge selection of games by developers, designers and artists from all over the world that will be playable at the event. As you might expect from a conference called “Different Games,” the range of topics and formats here is profound: everything from a game about re-framing our view of BDSM in a loving relationship (Merritt Kopas’s “Consensual Torture Simulator”), to an interactive fiction game about healthcare in Texas (Carly Kocurek, Allyson Whipple and Grace Jennings’s “Choice: Texas”), to an experimental music/dance game travelogue featuring stop-motion Google Maps animation (Benjamin Poynter’s “Long Distance Call”).

Different Games starts this Friday, April 11 at 6pm at the NYU MAGNET Center in Brooklyn and continues on through Saturday, April 12. Those wishing to attend in person can get tickets for a sliding scale cost (with a suggested $20 price tag). For those interested who can’t attend in person, the event will also be live-streamed online via UStream; watch the Different Games Twitter account for more details as the event approaches.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Different Games tickets would be free; on the contrary, tickets will be sold on a sliding scale with a recommended price of $20.

Todd Harper is a researcher at the MIT Game Lab who studies both e-sports and competitive communities and LGBTQ issues and representation in games. He will be a speaker on the Different Games Conference’s ‘Voices of Queer Advocacy’ panel this Saturday (April 12) at 1:30 PM. He blogs infrequently at his website Stay Classy and tweets far too frequently as @laevantine.