It’s been nearly two weeks since the end of Breakout Con 2019, and I think I’ve recovered enough to reflect on my experience at what I believe is one of the best indie gaming conventions in North America. In my experience, Breakout Con is reliably one of the most inclusive and safe spaces to run and play games in the Greater Toronto Area. Now, this doesn’t mean that interesting incidents can’t happen.
I am a firm believer that convention panels are places for productive dialogue between the panelists and audience members. Yes, it’s great for people with expertise to talk at the audience. But in my experience, the best panels I’ve been on have been those when the audience becomes fully engaged and the conversation flows both ways. During the Designing Asian Themes in Games panel I moderated with Agatha Cheng (my Asians Represent co-host), Banana Chan, Sharang Biswas, and James Mendes Hodes, our open conversation was derailed by a question we weren’t necessarily expecting.
“What do you mean by white games?“
This was met with a near-unanimous “excuse me!?” followed by a brief moment of confusion as we attempted to process this person’s question. As the moderator, I was treating this panel as I would any podcast I host. I was here to not only moderate the conversation, but also the tone of the conversation. My fellow panelists (myself included) were at a crossroads. Do we react negatively? Do we shut this person down for a “silly question”? Do we call them out for their ignorance?
Things were getting tense.
To put the reaction of the panel into context, our discussion featured the following questions:
- How do you deal with performative wokeness?
- How do you demonstrate that you’re doing good without being problematic?
- What is diversity? What does it look like?
- What are our opinions on call out culture? Where is the line? Who should do it? Is it always the solution?
As a moderator, I took it upon myself to practice what I believe to be one of the most important aspects of being a good GM and Player – assume positive intent. At my tables, and in my life in general, I try to assume that someone generally means well despite what they say. By giving people the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intentions, a bigger picture emerges and we are met with an opportunity to have a true interaction. Now, let me be clear – ignorance isn’t a crime and should not be met with aggression. While the question this member of the audience asked was certainly not the kind we were expecting, it’s still one that deserved an answer because ignorance should be met with compassion. When we assume negative intent, we foster a culture of suspicion and ostracization. This is not the goal. I have the ability and emotional bandwidth to take care of this situation, so I offered to chat with the person after the presentation so that we could allow other audience members to ask questions. As the moderator, I felt that it was my responsibility to do so.
So after the panel ended, the audience member and I went outside to avoid disrupting the panel that followed ours to continue the conversation and answer their question. I so strongly believed that their question came from a place of ignorance, rather than hate. I was determined to turn this moment into a learning opportunity so that they could come out of the panel in a positive way. So we talked about what the panelists meant by Asian games – those that feature Asian cultures, motifs, and experiences. As we talked, it became clear that they honestly did not know anything about the types of games we were discussing, how many were problematic, and why their question struck a nerve with the panel. Assuming positive intent put that all into context. As we concluded our conversation, I politely invited them to our Asians Represent meetup that was happening that evening and encouraged them to purchase or learn about games designed by my peers.
As very visible members of the design community, assuming positive intent when interacting with people does wonders to building trust in the community, fostering mentorships, and helps all of us grow and earn new opportunities. My fellow panelists at Breakout Con are amazing people and the perfect public-facing representatives of the Asian design community. Interactions like this are so very important to fostering a more welcoming and tolerant community. What could’ve been a negative interaction turned into a positive outcome – we welcomed someone new into our amazing community.
So take a moment if you can, breathe, and try to dive deeper into the conversation.