This past weekend was the premiere of Portland’s BetaCon Game Expo, a two-day convention showcasing new and upcoming titles alongside tournaments, speakers and panels. I enjoyed the show, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was missing something I’d seen at other conventions in Portland: attention to what was happening in the world outside of the con.
The prospect of attending a new gaming convention always excites me, and for a first-year convention, BetaCon did many things right. Tickets were affordable at $12 for a day or $21 for a weekend pass. Street Fighter V and Super Smash Bros. Melee tournaments drew in many players. BetaCon also focused on VR, finding multiple exhibitors to demo games using the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. This gave many attendees their first taste of virtual reality, which is always exciting to see. The conventions’s strongest move was partnering with the Portland Indie Game Squad (PIGSquad), which showcased a broad range of Portland-area games ranging from neuroscience-inspired life simulator Crescent Loom to Fullbright’s Tacoma, the spacebound follow-up to indie hit Gone Home. (Personally, I adored Transfixed Games’ Code Duello, a fencing simulator in VR that was both terrifying and hilarious.) Still, these are all expectations for any gaming convention. I wanted more, and perhaps not in the ways one would expect.
I thought about XOXO Fest a lot during BetaCon. XOXO was a design conference in Portland highlighting creative works in games, film, music, and story. The conference was about more than the works though: it was about the people that created them, the struggles they went through, and the community the attendees and speakers created together. Talks from people like nerd rapper Sammus about the power of crying, podcast host Heben Nigatu on “channeling your inner Kanye”, and cartoonist Lucy Bellwood about transparency and openness still sit with me today, among others.
XOXO prioritized its attendees and community above all else, making spaces safe, inclusive, and diverse in both attendance and speakers. It also raised over $50,000 to house homeless families in Portland after hearing rumors of grievances from local homeless people near the festival’s location the prior year. The organizers, Andy Baio and Andy McMillan, addressed attendees at the opening ceremony to talk about respecting those nearby.
Given, XOXO 2016 was the festival’s fifth year, so they had time to switch gears and grow. And if this all sounds very “Portland” to you, well…that’s my point. XOXO was one of the best events I’ve attended, and I think it’s in no small part due to decisions inspired by Portland’s culture of taking care of one another. Cons of all kinds provide a great opportunity to engage fans and do good as well (even if they’re not raising $50K). BetaCon had that opportunity as well, and it featured talks and panels on the center stage, but somehow felt out-of-touch.
A friend told me about the VR hardware talk he listened to where the speaker suggested that people pay an extra $100+ dollars for a piece of hardware, saying “it’s not that expensive.” He couldn’t help but disagree. During a panel called “Fake it ‘til You Make It,” one panelist talked about the role “luck” played in getting into the game industry, defined it as a possible lack of job openings for an applicant’s dream company. This ignored the “luck” on display by the majority white, all-male panel.
The only talk I saw dealing directly with inclusion or diversity was “The Time is Now: Opportunity in the VR Industry” by Oregon Story Board’s Shelly Midthun; a talk someone might not even have known dealt with inclusion based on the title. I love the work OSB is looking to do, but I still wonder if her talk would still have been featured if it more explicitly called out discussion of diversity or inclusion. That’s not a great question to ponder.
On that note: of the scheduled speakers and panelists, few were people of color. Not a single scheduled panel participant was a woman.
BetaCon doesn’t have years of history or tradition behind it like other shows, and still has time to establish its reputation. I can hear the cries of “Get your politics out of my games” already, but denying the connection between media and society is a futile fight. If BetaCon tries to act as neutral territory by simply not talking about social issues, it ignores the reality of the game space: the developers afraid to travel to the US for fears of harassment or discrimination, the fans who finally feel represented as they play games with queer characters, the companies acknowledging issues in the industry and reaching out to marginalized voices. This doesn’t mean that every panel needs to explicitly address social issues, but sweeping them under the rug won’t help.
Games are an important part of the discussion about our world, as is the money flowing into and out of the games sector. I don’t expect every convention and conference will try to save the world, but I think each one can do its part to consciously make the world a bit better. The upcoming Revenge of the Nerd Camp, a mini-convention put on by organizer Sarah Gulde (where I’ll be on a panel), specifically raises funds for SnowCap Community Charities while featuring panel discussions targeted at social justice and change. Gulde also specifically aimed to make each panel as diverse as possible in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation at the original Nerd Camp, and I imagine this edition is no different. BetaCon could do something similar, particular with the resources of organizations like The Portland Mercury behind it.
I don’t want to forget that BetaCon took steps in the right direction during for their first year. Just creating the space drew in people from all sorts of backgrounds, and because so many people across the board love gaming. Now I want BetaCon to build on that momentum, for those fans to be able to get their portfolios/resumes critiqued, or meet multiple organizations they could join while they’re still inspired by the show’s energy. PIGSquad is an excellent organization, and Art Institute of Portland has a small booth on the other side of the show hall; I hope those are just the beginning.
In many ways. the conference felt like a video game still in beta itself: it has bugs to work out and was light on content, but a proof-of-concept for its full release. With its first year under its belt, I imagine the show will attract more talent next year. I know many of my friends who went had a great time at BetaCon; I did too, and I definitely plan on returning next year. What excites me most, though, is that BetaCon has a chance to be more than just another game convention: by learning from XOXO, Nerd Camp, and other great conventions in the Portland area, it can represent changes we want to see in the industry and the world. I hope to see that next year.