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Game Dev, D&D, and VR: Exploring Games at GeekGirlCon 2016

I spent last Saturday, October 8 doing “research” at GeekGirlCon.com 2016 by attending panels, buying awesome geeky stuff I don’t need, gawking at the costumes, and exploring virtual reality. The popular Seattle-area convention, now in its sixth year, attracts around 11,000 men, women and children to celebrate all things geeky and female.

There were far more interesting panels scheduled than a single person could attend, so I chose the ones that were gaming-specific, or at least included games in the topic.

The most popular one I attended (it was standing-room only) was “Rolling for Boob Size: Being a Woman in a (Masculine) D&D World”, with Lauren Karp, Helen Stonehouse, and Jaden Emme.  More women are playing Dungeons & Dragons these days thanks partly to more explicit efforts by the game’s current owner, Wizards of the Coast, to be more inclusive, and partly to YouTube videos like this one that make it more appealing and easier to learn how to play:

The panelists did an excellent job walking us through a history of how female players and characters have been (often poorly) included in Dungeons & Dragons since the 1960s, and the misogyny that female players still encounter regularly (on YouTube, etc.). They also made a great case for why we need more women Dungeon Masters, and answered questions about how to deal with rude players, and how to find other women to play with.

I also attended a panel on Asian visibility in entertainment called “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Representation of Asians in Film, TV, & Gaming,” with gaming blogger Sonja Marcus there to talk about games. The panel discussion was very interesting (while stereotypes persist, the quality and quantity of Asian characters has improved greatly on TV, not so much in movies), but the conversations about TV and movies took up so much time that there were only a few minutes left to discuss games. Consequently, Marcus only really had time to mention Mirror’s Edge and Sleeping Dogs as examples of games with well-rounded Asian characters and representation.

Everyone on the panel agreed that it’s important for more people of color to be working behind the scenes on all types of entertainment.

GeekGirlCon 2016

Top to bottom: the panels on DnD, Bamboo Ceiling, VR, and working in the game industry

Another popular gaming-ish panel I attended was on “VR and the Future of Reality.” Panelists Meagan Malone, Carolyn Huynh, Felice Gallego, Eva Hoerth, and Evie Powell led a spirited discussion about the current and future state of virtual reality, both for games and other more practical uses (medical imaging, etc.). Aside from the cumbersome size and lack of portability of the current VR headsets, panelists agreed the biggest obstacle VR needs to overcome for widespread adoption as an entertainment device is the (mis)perception that VR is isolating. In fact, VR can be–and often is–extremely social. Hoerth said said that games and experiences like Rec Room allowed her “to connect with people faster and stronger than I ever have on Twitter or online,” and other panelists shared similar social VR experiences.

Education about VR in general is key to its success. More work is necessary, the panelists posited, to help bystanders understand what someone is doing when they put on a VR headset at a party. Or as Powell stated, we still need to address “what makes this socially acceptable, so that everyone else has a really strong understanding of what you’re doing” when you’re wearing a VR headset?

The last panel I attended, “Journey into the Game Industry,” featured game developers Tifa Robles, Kiki Wolfkill, Kelly Snyder, Clark Ly, and Morgan Lockhart talking about how to build a career in the game industry. Much of the advice was fairly straightforward–don’t be afraid to network, when all else fails just start making something etc.–but there were a few less common tips offered, such as the importance of finishing the games you start. The panelists each shared their own experiences getting starting with games, and all agreed that a non-traditional career path is more common in the gaming industry than most realize.

(I also attended a panel on “Mass Effect: The Next Generation”, but the conversation didn’t really stay on-topic, and I had to leave early because it overlapped with another panel.)

In addition to the panels, the convention offered plenty of game-making workshops, like “Make a Game with Girls Make Games” and Xbox’s “Intro to Game Design”, as well as sessions designed to teach you specific games like Magic: The Gathering. The lower floor was filled with tabletop games that you could grab and play with friends, or strangers, at any time.

The convention also featured a floor of exhibitors, with a vast number of booths selling all sorts of geeky items from board games to comics to jewelry. Gaming-themed booths were in the minority, but between the Feminist Frequency booth, another one selling used video games, and all the tabletop games for sale, there was enough to keep me interested.

GeekGirlCon 2016

There were a dozen or so playable video games on another floor. Most were games that have already been released (ReCore, Elinore etc.), but it was really fun to see so many young girls–and women-with controllers in their hands.

Nearby, there were long lines for attendees to try out the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. I played two games on the Vive, and while the Space Pirates game was just OK, the underwater exploration experience TheBlu blew me away. It really makes you feel like you’re standing on the deck of a sunken ship watching a huge whale swim past you only a few feet away, and I didn’t experience any motion sickness or other hardware problems.

The Vive’s hefty price tag and room-size requirement is likely prohibitive for most players–including me–and the platform still needs more games, rather than just “experiences.” But if you get a chance to try TheBlu, I highly recommend it!

Overall, I definitely enjoyed my day at GeekGirlCon 2016, even if the panels at the convention were a little lighter on game content than I would have liked. Though to be fair, there were additional gaming panels on Sunday (which I didn’t attend), such as “Women in Games: Tales from the Front Line” and “Exploring Mental Health in Games.” And I suspect the convention’s greater emphasis on other aspects of pop culture is largely driven by the fact that there are currently more women interested in comics, anime, TV and movies than games–as demonstrated by the large attendance at the popular panels like “Women in Pixar” and “Finding Your Place in the Wizarding World: Race & Identity in Harry Potter.”

I hope that will change in time. Meanwhile, it was almost worth the ticket price just to be surrounded by so many fabulous women in geeky costumes.

Follow GeekGirlCon on Twitter to stay updated on details about GeekGirlCon 2017.

Sarah Warn is the Editor-in-Chief of remeshed.com and an avid player of console and PC games of all kinds. She was previously the founder and EIC of AfterEllen.com, and online editorial director for MTV Networks. Follow Sarah on Twitter.
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Sarah Warn is the Editor-in-Chief of remeshed.com and an avid player of console and PC games of all kinds. She was previously the founder and EIC of AfterEllen.com, and online editorial director for MTV Networks. Follow Sarah on Twitter.

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