Nine Worlds Geekfest 2014

Despite it having happened a fortnight ago now, Nine Worlds Geekfest was the first in a string of four events which I attended recently, so I’m only now getting around to my write-ups. Check back later for my reviews of GDC and Gamescom in Köln, and Loncon 3 in London!

Nine Worlds Geekfest feels remarkably different when one travels to and from there almost directly by aeroplane. As my co-hosts from The Geek Night In have already remarked, Nine Worlds is a uniquely welcoming and inclusive event; thus, passing through security at Heathrow airport felt like crossing the border to a much friendlier place even than Sweden.

I took part in a handful of panels again this year – which I’ll return to in a while. Unlike last year’s event though, I wanted to take advantage of the fact everything was under one roof and experience more than just what was on offer in the video games culture track. I’m pleased to say that, while my partner was captivated by an impressively strong series of ‘future tech’ programme items, I was cheerily dipping my toes into Game of Thrones fandom, geek feminism and podcasting.

Friday

Finding Your Voice

Finding Your Voice, on the podcasting track, was a solid way for me to start my Nine Worlds experience. Here, panelists from a handful of successful podcasts (including the Hugo-nominated Tea and Jeopardy) shared their experience of the craft and gave out useful tips for those wanting to create – be it a literature review, something narrative or a regular discussion of geek media. I was particularly grateful to receive tips on hardware, considering how wide a gap there can be between podcasts like ours, which are (usually) recorded over Skype, and those which have access to studio equipment.

Perhaps ironically, The Geek Night In later benefited from actually not having to be assembled over the internet, as we recorded a live episode that same evening! This was the first time we’d all been in one country at the same time, and it was the first time I’d met co-host Kate in person. Our episode also had an audience, meaning we had contributions from ‘badassperger’, Cara Ellison and Eoin Mason. You can hear the episode here.

The Geek Night In at Nine Worlds Geekfest; photo by Hellen Grünefeld
The Geek Night In at Nine Worlds Geekfest; photo by Hellen Grünefeld. From left: Laura Kate, Tilley, Kate and myself.

My first panel of the event was held earlier on that Friday, on the subject of ‘Failing Faster‘. Here, Dan Pearce, Georg Backer, Dan Turner and I discussed our various approaches to prototyping when developing interactive media. I look forward to sharing the recording of this panel some day soon, as we had a lively discussion which I hope would prove informative to anyone starting out in design, or who’s looking to try new techniques.

I later attended a video games culture panel on Writing Better Characters, with contributions from Meg Jayanth (80 Days), Jack de Quidt (Castles in the Sky) and Helen Gould, an academic. Here, the panelists stressed the need to research in order to write better narrative generally, but also to avoid the trappings of stereotype – which is particularly important when writing in other cultures than your own. Gould gave a rousing talk later that weekend, on character creation in games; it was entitled Male, Pale and Stale. I applaud the delivery and her message, which included (amongst other things) the reminder that minorities still suffer erasure in media like games because we’re not viewed as people; rather as devices or a box to be ticked.

This set a good tone for the evening’s entertainment, as we were treated to a gig by LGBTQA-friendly, steampunk folk band The Mechanisms, whose performance is depicted at the top of this article.

The 'Sex in Video Games' panel, photographed by Tim Skew. From left: Maki Yamazaki, Cara Ellison, Meg Jayanth, myself and Jenni Goodchild.
The ‘Sex in Video Games’ panel, photographed by Tim Skew. From left: Maki Yamazaki, Cara Ellison, Meg Jayanth, myself and Jenni Goodchild.

My second panel was to a packed room, as myself, Cara Ellison, Meg Jayanth and Maki Yamazaki spoke about Sex in Video Games. I dare say the content was as colourful as everybody’s outfits (save for my own!), and in a fantastic way: we spoke about the need to reflect real sexual experiences in games, and Cara in particular was able to highlight the (often niche) titles which do this already. We also discussed those games which sit on the fringes of this topic (such as Japanese dating sims), and brought up examples of games which depict love poorly or lazily – which in my case, fed off what I experienced at Lyst Summit earlier this year.

Saturday

My signed, wooden practice sword from water-dancing with "Syrio Forel", atop the stash of books given to us at registration.
My signed, wooden practice sword from water-dancing with “Syrio Forel”, atop the stash of books given to us at registration.

My Saturday began in energetic fashion, with a swordplay workshop by Miltos Yerolimou (of Game of Thrones fame). There is, of course, little of ludic use to be gleaned from such an experience, but it was supremely fun and did give me more of a (basic) appreciation for how swordplay was actually done, and how often the rules are broken for dramatic effect. I don’t often play games involving swords, but when I do now, I can at least get a rough idea of how showy/suicidal the combatants might be in their respective finishing moves.

Peter Silk moderating the panel, "Indies vs. Game Police".
Peter Silk moderating the panel, “Indies vs. Game Police”.

I freely confess that I was cheekily wound up in the tongue-in-cheek, Indies vs. Game Police panel, which was moderated by Peter Silk. It’s a topic which I believe should always be dealt with humourously, not least because I have pretty firm rules on what does and does not constitute a game. It is, of course, a non-sensical and pointless discussion but satire seems the best way to deal with those who take it too seriously online.

On a calmer note, I then had the privilege of attending A Conversation with Reiner Knizia, and I got chance to speak to the legendary game designer afterwards.

Me with Reiner Knizia
Me with Reiner Knizia

In his interview – which was hosted by Matt Johnson of the Haberdashery Collective – Knizia reflected on many of his own games, and spoke about his interest in hybrid gaming. I gather this was the subject of his talk at Nordic Game 2014, which sadly I had to miss: the notion of mixing digital and physical elements in tabletop and family gaming. It was especially fascinating to hear his take on prototyping, given that he’s a well-practised veteran of the non-digital games industry. It’s clear that these two arbitrarily-drawn strands of games media have more in common than I first thought.

Sunday was also my opportunity to once again enjoy social gaming with the aforementioned Haberdashery Collective. In a well-attended session, we rotated around a number of games including Lemon Joust, Engineering Corps and a chess-like battle whose name unfortunately escapes me.

Social Gaming with the Haberdashery Collective

The message of social gaming is something that this particular Nine Worlds track did well to push. It refers to those games which involve and encourage social discourse, and games like this one (in which two colour-opposed teams must cross the room, engaging in battles by revealing their value as a military unit) always prove rich in collaboration, a feeling of physical involvement in the game, and of course, laughter. If anyone’s attended the previous two Nine Worlds Geekfests and hasn’t managed to attend one of The Haberdashery Collective’s play sessions before, I urge you to fix that in 2015 (if not sooner).

Sunday

My last day at Nine Worlds began with a fascinating and wittily-delivered talk on the Neuroscience of Swearing, by the brilliant Emma Byrne. This was more a point of personal interest do me, as someone who cannot seem to utter ‘hard’ swear words. I am, however, fascinated by language and communication, so I wonder about one day applying her insights to digital media. At the risk of repeating myself: it would appear that swearing is a far more communicative and important feature of spoken language than we might first think.

Helen Gould asks us to spot the trend in character design
Helen Gould asks us to spot the trend in character design

The aforementioned Male, Pale and Stale: Character Creation in Gaming was delivered later on Sunday, kicking off a trio of video games culture talks, the latter two of which were Ideal Control Methods and No More Heroes, delivered by Joseph Gavin and Ben Meredith respectively. Gavin spoke eloquently about the types of controls applied to games, making a point of highlighting the likes of QWOP and Surgeon Simulator 2013 as something outside of arcade controls (simple, responsive) and simulation (complex, semi-realistic). Meredith’s talk was based on his academic work, evaluating the role of the hero (one which is typified by the hero’s own set of morals and rules) in spaces where the player’s own agency can lead to such rules being broken. What’s interesting is to see examples even within the same series, where games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City actually lend the player more license with the protagonist than later GTA games.

The last programme item I saw before having to leave Nine Worlds Geekfest was a talk from and with Laurie Penny, around her latest book, Unspeakable Things. While my first Nine Worlds programme item was rich in practical advice for a particular medium, this one – the one I departed with – was a cascade of inspiration for social good. Penny spoke about geek culture and how it can be a space for socially progressive ideas; about how we have media available to us which can be – and sometimes are – actively inclusive. She spoke passionately about the anger some privileged people feel, now that their world view is no longer the default. I left feeling solidarity with my geeky peers, but also encouraged that by creating in and speaking about these media, we can do good.

So it was that I left Nine Worlds Geekfest – and the UK again, but only for a short time. I had booked an evening flight to Köln, and while delays kept us in the terminal and then the gate for over two hours past our original departure time, I was able to see the top of the hotel venue from gate 5c at Terminal 1 – there to reflect on the rainbow-coloured spotlight which Nine Worlds shines on geek media.

Plane in Sight

Nächste: GDC ‘Eu und Gamescom, nach Kölnmesse, Köln, Deutschland.

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