There is something unconventional coming to Peterborough this month. On September 8, gamers of all stripes will descend on the Evinrude Centre for UnCon: The Unconventional Convention, a full day of tabletop gaming, board gaming, card gaming, war gaming, and live-action roleplay gaming.
The image of dozens of people getting together to imagine throwing fireballs at each other may in itself seem unconventional to some, but what really sets UnCon apart is its intentional focus on openness, inclusion, and accessibility. Created out of a heated debate that rears its ugly head regularly in gaming culture, its creation and mission speaks to wider issues in gaming, and in our society at large.
Gaming has long been a home for outsiders. A game like Dungeons & Dragons allows players who might normally feel small and powerless to spend a few hours a week as godlike wizards who bend time and space to their will or hulking barbarians who use their might to stand up for the little guy.
But not all outsiders always feel equally at home at the game table. “Tabletop gaming, convention gaming, card gaming, all that kind of stuff has always had in its long history a very negative underbelly to it,” says Mysty Vander, UnCon’s organizer.
That underbelly can express itself in many ways. The wide open world of fantasy gaming means players can take the story in any direction they like—but what if one player decides he wants to roleplay something like sexual assault? Decisions made in-character can have emotional impacts out of character. And the complex social dynamics of the table—especially a table of strangers, like at a convention—can leave some players feeling unheard and even unwelcome.
Mysty experienced this first-hand when she attended another Peterborough gaming convention last year. Mysty found herself at a table full of white men—not uncommon, as they have historically been the largest demographic in tabletop gaming, and in nerd culture overall. It started with one male player going into great detail describing his female character’s ample cleavage. And it spilled over into a general feeling of disrespect and hostility at the table. Mysty, a very seasoned player, was ignored and bullied. Other players refused to let her act, and took turns for her. “Honey,” she was told at one point, “let the real gamers play.”
Mysty chose to share her experiences on her blog, and her post was eventually shared on the convention’s public Facebook group. Response was initially positive: other women and marginalized people came forward and share their own negative experiences at the convention, and the organizers seemed interested in hearing ideas for how to make things better. However, as so often happens on social media, the conversation got heated, and devolved. Some claimed the people coming forward were overreacting or making things up. There were arguments, then threats. The space became unwelcoming, then outright hostile.
So, Mysty and her friends decided to do something about it. “We have an awesome community of people here who are accepting and warm and inclusive. What is stopping us from building this from the ground up, so we don’t have to feel this way when we attend a convention?” An organizing group was put together, including many of the marginalized people who had spoken out, as well as people who had organized other conventions coming by to lend sage advice. Out of it came a framework for a different form of convention, with a focus on inclusivity and accessibility.
UnCon will be physically accessible. The Evinrude Centre was chosen as a venue for its accessibility, and the floorplan for the day includes wide open aisles for the passage of walkers and wheelchairs (as well as strollers—UnCon also wants to be accessible to families). There will also be accessible gaming materials available for free, such as braille dice.
UnCon has a clear harassment policy. “You have to have it very strict, laid-out,” says Mysty, “not just what’s not acceptable, but how do you report when things happen?” UnCon’s system includes multiple pathways to report issues, including anonymous and private methods, to make people feel safe in coming forward; as well as methods for immediate response, if things go really wrong at the table.
There will also be safety tools at the table, such as the ‘x-card.’ The x-card, a piece of paper with a black X on it placed at the centre of the gaming table, which any player can point to at any time if they feel uncomfortable, is gaining popularity in inclusive gaming communities. The x-card is a method to speak out quickly and easily, but more than that, “just having that there is the convention saying, ‘I am thinking about you and this is a safe space.’”
But perhaps the most important method of creating an inclusive space is the people behind the convention. “Having guests not just be a bunch of dudes. Have the game runners not be the same type of people. Having volunteers and staff be marginalized people themselves—especially the people that you have available for reporting. Having them be approachable. Having those people available on the floor and visible, so people can say, ‘I see them there and they see me.’”
Much of the unsafe behaviour around gaming and conventions comes, not out of malice or hatred, but out of simple ignorance. For those who don’t experience marginalizing behaviour first-hand, it’s easy to imagine that it never happens. After all, the great promise of tabletop gaming is that it’s already supposed to be safe place for outsiders. Bringing on a diversity of voices calls attention to these very real issues, and helps build a better gaming convention for everyone.
Says Mysty, “Some people who have been in this hobby for a long time feel very protective of it, like ‘This is my safe space. This is my space where I get to be me and have fun.’ And they’re nervous that diversity is going to take that away. But diversity only makes it better, only adds to it. There’s nothing that’s going to be taken away.”
To learn more about UnCon: The Unconventional Convention, click here.
Photo by Gabe Pollock
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