Mariam Asad, Sarah Schoemann
The field of HCI research has been increasingly interested in civic engagement and the full spectrum of activities that entails, from hyperlocal neighborhood message boards to the Arab Spring. Across this work, researchers have focused on how we might leverage existing technologies or design new tools to better support the mechanisms of democracy. We contend that, along with social groups and digital interventions, grassroots conferences are sites where civic engagement takes place. Different Games (DG) is one such organized conference, concerned with diversity and inclusivity in videogame communities . Here we use DG as an example of how democratic principles can manifest through interactive events and practices, in addition to interactive artifacts or systems.
Grassroots social and cultural events are rich sites for civic engagement. Participants do politically informed work in these spaces toward different goals, which are diverse in scope and content. Examples include the Boston Skillshare, a collectively organized open-education event; the Allied Media Conference for media-based grassroots organizing; the U.S. Social Forum on ecological and economic justice; and Color of Violence, which addresses violence against women/trans/queer people of color. These conferences are intentional spaces for particular communities of concern, often collaboratively organized by volunteers, and dedicated to enacting fairer and more just social change. The organizational structure of grassroots conferences is strongly informed by a set of democratic qualities, including transparency, participatory decision-making mechanisms, and accountability. We focus on these events to broaden the scope of what might be construed as civic engagement in HCI and to consider the ways that information and communication technologies (ICTs) can support the values and organizing principles of grassroots events. DG in particular is a site for us to explore the question: What would democratic practices look like if they were practiced through technology-supported, community-organized events?
On Democratic Practices
We emphasize democratic principles—as opposed to simply democracy—to make clear that this kind of civic engagement is largely self-organized, existing outside traditional democratic structures and institutions such as political parties or voting cycles. DG could be compared to other existing groups that also claim to be guided by democratic principles. The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, for example, was known for its strategic uses of networked technologies to drive protests against undemocratic principles like corporatism and systemic inequality. There are similarities across DG and OWS, such as both groups incorporating social justice into their mission statements; a focus on building a grassroots, bottom-up community; and a heavy reliance on ICTs to facilitate more participatory decision-making processes.
One key distinction is each group’s organizational structure. OWS self-identifies as a flat organization, viewing leaders and hierarchy as oppressive structures and its constituents as equals. Technology facilitated that flatness; OWS was famously labeled “leaderless” because it relied on ad hoc impromptu networks rather than a centralized means of communication. By contrast, DG may use similar technologies like cloud computing or social media, but its organizers eschew the idealist, emancipatory rhetoric of digital democracy and instead incorporate ICTs through self-critical, reflexive processes. As Jo Freeman observed in “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” a structure without hierarchy is also one without accountability ; a structure without accountability has the potential to reproduce exploitative power dynamics because there is no authority to consciously keep those oppressive systems in check (e.g., patriarchy, heteronormativity). Below, we elaborate on ways in which computing platforms and ICTs were intentionally and strategically employed at DG as a way to challenge these very structures and commit to our democratic organizational practices.
Different Games as a Community Response
The first Different Games conference, held in April 2013, hoped to foster a more inclusive space for independent designers, critics, and fans of videogames. At the time of its founding, many issues in the games community had become contentious, including lack of diverse game content and hostility toward women. “#1ReasonWhy” was a hashtag campaign that emerged in response to a tweet by a representative of a prominent crowdfunding platform asking why more women weren’t creating games . Women organized behind the hashtag, highlighting the threats and abuse they experienced while involved with videogames. This behavior continued through the more recent #gamergate phenomenon in which self-identified gamers—mostly male—launched harassment campaigns against what they perceived to be threats to their culture, community, and identity. These patriarchal paradigms do not only exist online: Women (and other marginalized persons) involved in the games community continue to find themselves excluded and alienated from local in-person game spaces (e.g., conferences, competitions). DG has maintained itself as an intentional space to resist these oppressive power dynamics (e.g., misogyny, racial exclusion). We used ICTs to support fairer internal organizing processes in hopes of realizing our equitable vision.
Tools for Democratic Organization
DG committed to upholding certain principles—such as inclusivity, safer spaces, accountability, and empathy—throughout the execution of the event. This created two avenues by which our group incorporated more democratic practices through strategically deploying ICTs: Internally, DG organizers used Google Drive and WhatsApp as tools for increasing transparency and better distributing knowledge and power across the group. Externally, DG organizers used ICTs to support accessibility during the event through Twitter and Twitch.io. Online participants ensured that programming aligned with the values of the conference and that we as organizers were accountable to conference participants.
Internal mechanisms for collaboration and visioning. Organizers used Google Drive in three main ways: to share planning resources in the months leading up to the conference, to empower group members to participate in decision-making processes, and, ultimately, as a means of transparency to keep the organizers accountable to each other. The shared resources, such as tracking logistics, budgets, fundraising campaigns, and promotional materials, were fairly standard for a conference. Making all the documents accessible across all DG members was a step toward a more democratic structure as it made the organizing process more visible and transparent; a member could participate in whatever discussion or decision they were invested in because they had access to the relevant knowledge and skill sets.
We used ICTs to support fairer internal organizing processes in hopes of realizing our equitable vision.
One example was a member who wanted to take leadership of fundraising campaigns. Because all our promotional materials were in the same Google Drive folder—including content from previous years—the member was able to learn the relevant outreach skills for the role (e.g., letter writing, building PR contacts). Cloud technology served a very functional and pragmatic purpose: Sharing documentation was a way to offload some time and energy that would otherwise be spent on volunteer training. However, it also contributed to a more participatory structure: Informed group members could offer input on organizing practices, feel ownership over particular tasks, and have the necessary context and background to participate in decision-making processes.
Using Google Drive was also an opportunity to help co-shape values within DG itself. In addition to logistics and planning documents, the shared folders were used to host more value-sensitive documents, such as the conference inclusivity statement and the personal details of our speakers (e.g., preferred pronouns). These documents served as manifestations of the group’s values. The inclusivity statement, in particular, contained guidelines for the kind of safe and respectful behavior we hoped to see during the conference. Making these documents accessible was not only a form of skill-sharing but also offered an entry point for group members to collaborate and iterate on the principles that the organization engendered. In this context, the online documents were less a way to distribute information and more a means to help shape the shared vision for the event.
Sharing documentation was a way to offload some time and energy that would otherwise be spent on volunteer training.
The mobile messaging app WhatsApp was another important platform used for mediation and collaboration across the organizing team. During the event, DG members used WhatsApp group chats to communicate in real time. The main chat contained 14 organizers and more than 20 conference volunteers. Because the application can support multiple chat groups simultaneously, there were also smaller chats dedicated to specific tasks or projects, such as the volunteer coordination chat, the photo-video documentation chat, and so on. This tiered structure offered both organizers and volunteers some agency over their participation; organizers could opt in to smaller, project-based chat subgroups to participate in more focused tasks, while still staying informed through the main group chat.
WhatsApp created a distributed and elective communication method that allowed group members to have equal access to one another through a shared network. Compare this structure to more traditional ICT-based organizing tactics such as an emergency phone tree, which operates by sending one-to-many messages, communicating through a kind of snowball effect. Opting in to a phone tree means opting in to receiving messages, but transmitting them only through a top-down structure. By contrast, WhatsApp worked such that no single organizer was tasked with consolidating a wealth of contact information or with disseminating group messages. Like the use of Google Drive, WhatsApp created a separate delineated space for lateral collaboration across group members.
External mechanisms for mediation and accountability. We hoped to make the event accessible to the widest possible audience. One strategy was to broadcast a live feed of our programming on Twitch.io, a livestreaming platform, so online viewers could participate (livestreams contained real-time chat in a sidebar). This was one of many strategies to reduce financial barriers to attendance: Conference registration included sliding-scale/pay-what-you-can options; game developers applied to our exhibition without a submission fee; and we offered travel funding to all speakers in need. While there were still material barriers to participating—for out-of-state attendees, attendees with illnesses or disabilities, parents, attendees with service-industry schedules—the livestream offered points of access to those unable to be physically present by offering programming after the fact.
As an event dedicated to creating an inclusive space, Twitch played an important role in mediating participation from afar. This mediation was as important to the event’s accessibility as any physical provision, such as providing accessible spaces compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or designating gender-neutral restrooms. DG organizers were conscious of concerns both in the physical conference space and online. One example is being sensitive to attendees for whom photo or video documentation of their presence might be considered unsafe or harmful (e.g., revealing protected or marginalized identities). Participants were offered lanyards during registration to visually signal to videographers or photographers that they were opting out of any recordings; organizers offered this option to acknowledge the importance and potential risk of unwanted or unsafe attention. For each instance of someone opting out, DG members worked closely to accommodate these needs, such as positioning a speaker outside the frame of the Twitch stream, requesting the deletion of an Instagram or Facebook post, or editing out someone’s presence before archiving a video online.
Volunteers monitoring the livestreams were also responsible for moderating chat streams on the Twitch channels, ensuring that online discussion of the conference remained respectful. Similarly, many of the conference organizers were monitoring social media backchannels, primarily through Twitter, which has historically been a place for people to participate in conference discussions during the event itself. Recently, Twitter has also been useful for highlighting unsafe and problematic practices, such as questionable language by speakers and invasive security procedures at the venue. Organizers were looking for online responses that could be construed as unsafe or hurtful (e.g., personal attacks on a speaker); they were also trained in conflict mediation strategies to respond as necessary. Twitter participation can also be positive and validating, expressing solidarity and praise for programming, which can help strengthen an online community. Twitter functioned as a barometer through which organizers could remain accountable to the expressed conference values.
DG organizers implemented a suite of ICTs to actively practice democratic values across various levels of the event’s design, from internal organizational structures to external dialogue to iterating on articulated values. DG’s combination of these strategies and platforms addresses concerns in videogames—such as the exploitation of marginalized populations, concentrated positions of power and control—alongside the community it aims to serve. The capacity for these democratic practices is not limited to grassroots organizations. The tools we used during DG were mundane and familiar; our conference organizing processes were routine and typical. They are platforms, practices, and events that are well known to us in the ACM community, not only because we research them, but also because we use these tools, are part of committees, and attend conferences. Our intention here is to gesture at how plausible it can be to be more democratic in and through our work. Civic engagement is not—and should not be—just a topic of research. We can incorporate more democratic tactics into our own spaces to introduce new and challenging perspectives, increase understanding and empathy in our various communities, and, ultimately, create a stronger, better connected HCI research community.
2. Freeman, J. The tyranny of structurelessness. 1970; http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm
Mariam Asad is a Ph.D. student in the Digital Media program at Georgia Tech. Her work focuses on activism, design, and social justice. Through her research, she explores how technology design can offer opportunities for civic participation through both policy- and grassroots/community-based initiatives. firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Schoemann is the founder of Different Games and a doctoral student in Digital Media at Georgia Tech. She researches digital tools for personal expression and social critique within various communities of practice, and how these tools might speak to social justice and equity issues, both online and off. email@example.com
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