Thursday, 18 August 2016

Nine Worlds Geekfest 2016

So! let's talk about Nine Worlds.
As you may know I was there representing Access:LARP as well as as a regular con goer. I was giving the Access:LARP presentation on the Friday morning, so once that was done, I had the rest of the weekend to relax, go to sessions and enjoy the experience of Nine Worlds.
I think it's safe to say that I enjoyed it. It was a place I felt at home in. As cons go there are a few different ways that they can be done, largely down to what their focus is.
Geek cons like Comic Con have a real focus on the finished product, about showing off cosplay, artwork and games. The expo and trade hall is central, cosplay is high profile and virtually an exhibit itself, and people are there for the icons, the shiny and new and the merchandise. Not that they are without panels and talks but they often seem secondary to what is on display.

Q-Con the Belfast based geek con I've been to is a smaller, homegrown version of Comic Con with a strong emphasis on gaming. It's fun, but it is loud and brash in how it displays its wares. It's not without enjoyment but it doesn't really suit me and my personality. I always came away from it feeling overwhelmed, tired and a little confused as to what had really happened.

I've talked about Thought Bubble before on this blog, so you probably know I am fond of the little Leeds based comic focussed convention. Though Thought Bubble places a lot of emphasis on the traders hall and the expo the atmosphere is more relaxed than the likes of Q-Con and Comic Con. The space is set up so you can meet the people behind the comics and really get in to what you love in a delightfully geeky and niche manner. There is also a lot of love and support for small publishers and indie comics, a move that again changes the tone; we're not looking at the big names here, we're looking at what makes you tick. It's exciting and lively but with a distinctly more knowledge hungry crowd.

And then there was Nine Worlds. At Nine Worlds the sessions, panels and talks take centre stage. There was a small expo hall and a variety of talented and clever cosplay but what people were really there for was the opportunity to discuss, listen share and learn about all things geek from sci-fi to comics, from fan-fic to game worlds, it was all covered. What rooted it all together was a real interest in the how and why of things. How is this done? Why do we do it like this? How can we make it better? Why is it changing? It wasn't all dry academia though, panels were presented with wit love and passion. The sessions and panels were often punctuated with laughter and applause and throughout the event were social events that brought people together in their love of geekiness The Wheedon Sing-along, the Pirate Knitting and of course the Bifrost Cabaret.

Nine Worlds: the inclusive fan culture convention
So let's take a look at the things that stood out, what I liked and where there could be improvement.

As already noted Nine Worlds had an approach and style that was content driven as opposed to exhibit driven. This suited me. There is only so much excitement I can muster for a new artwork or a limited edition figure and I don't spend much time with computer games. I like talking and listening though, after all I write a blog. Whether it was this build or the pushes for inclusivity (which I'll go into more detail of next) it made the place feel welcoming and comfortable to be in, indeed I felt rather at home. I'd found my people.

Nine Worlds makes it very clear on their website that they are inclusive of all comers and will not discriminate against or tolerate discriminations based on race, gender, sexuality, religion, disability or neurodiversity. Stating this so clearly and honestly is itself a big deal. I'd heard, from people who had attended in previous years, that they stick by it too. It's refreshing and welcoming. Even before the con, a brief look at the guests and sessions is enough to tell you that the content will be diverse and will be, in some cases, challenging prejudice head on. Over all topics there are a range of people of different genders, races, ethnicities and sexualities and that diversity isn't confined to sessions specifically dealing with diversity and culture. This is across all content streams. That shouldn't be a pleasant surprise but it was. It's difficult to express how welcome this was. To be in a session and not feel like an outsider was superb because this diversity in the con program was reflected in the attendees. Everybody was represented from old to young, fat and thin, able bodied and disabled, neurodivergent and neurotypical, all shades of skin, different religions, different languages and an array of different genders. It made me happy.

The organisers had also taken this diversity in to consideration with their logistics. The con was spread over several floors and several rooms of a hotel. However, all floors had step free access and all floors had some sort of seating area. They had designated several areas as priority seating and several areas as quiet areas, for those who needed less excitable social spaces. The session rooms had priority seating, wheelchair space and areas for those who prefer sitting on the floor. There were colour overlays for your name badge to show if you were comfortable be talked to or not (though I understand there may have been some issues of clarity with these). People could add stickers saying they had access needs as well as their preferred pronouns (and it wasn't just trans and NB people stating their pronouns, which I always think is a good move). Staff were helpful and informative. There were sign interpreters available for sessions as well as large print hand outs.
Plus, there was a quiet room for those who needed a complete break! It had beanbags and soft things, a little bed area and eye masks, colouring books and pencils. It had low light and was of course, quiet. When my fatigue hit badly on the Friday and again on the Saturday and I was awash with neuro symptoms, I don't think I could have got through the day without being able to have a lie down and switch off in the quiet room.

Xuiting Christing Ni
But what of the actual panels and content I hear you ask?
Overall, they were good. One or two were perhaps not quite what I was expecting but that doesn't mean they were bad. Stand outs to me were the Exploring Chinese Science Fiction panel in which Yen Ooi, Michael Rowley and Xueting Christine Ni talked about the differences between Western and Chinese sci-fi, why it is becoming so popular here, difficulties in translation and the roots and history of Chinese sci-fi. The panellists were knowledgeable: Xueting Ni bringing the perspective of a Chinese author, Yen Ooi an academic who has looked at the subject in depth and Michael Rowley who works for a publisher and offered the context of Chinese sci-fi in a UK market. Very well balanced and thought out and considered answers from all which made me even more interested in the genre.
Building Better Dreams and Nightmares had a full panel of authors: Mark de Jager, Alex Lamb, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Maria Lewis, Angela Slatter, Jamie Sawyer. Between them they dissected why we love old monsters and what goes in to making new monsters and beings for a modern audience. It was particularly entertaining to listen to proponents of new terrors, Alex Lamb and Adrian Tchaikovsky, debate and exchange ideas with fans of reinventing and subverting traditional beasts, Angela Slatter and Maria Lewis. On top of that Maria Lewis gave me some new ideas for how to think about werewolves. I also came away from that talk with a list of books I want to read.
Alex Lamb made another appearance in his talk on Psychohistory. It was one of the most engaging and excitable talks I have ever seen, with Alex getting the whole audience involved and caught up in his passion for the subject. He raced through the material, no small task for the sign interpreter, but through his demos and examples I think I learned something and became even more a fan of statistics and mathematics in world building than previously. My brain did feel a little like it was dribbling out of my ears by the end though.
My last session of the weekend was "Mathematics: The big game behind the little tricks" given by Marta Maria Castti. Now this was one of the sessions that wasn't quite what I expected. I went in expecting something about the exciting way mathematics can be used but what I got instead was a delightful introduction to mathematics and logic for those of us who have in the past struggled with maths and on occasion baulk at sums. I know I've said I like statistics, but in reality I find a lot of maths very difficult and I had a horrendous time of it in school with teachers who wanted to force feed algebra without any context or reason. Marta instead shared with us her love and passion for the subject, took us through some of the history, shared her favourite quotes and then, with even more enthusiasm took us through a logic problem and encouraged us to think mathematically. All this was suffused with the ways maths relates to the world and therefore of course how it relates to the made up worlds we enjoy. I've never found a maths teacher to be so lovely and strangely calming as Marta Casetti was. Honestly, if you have the opportunity to talk to her about mathematics, then you absolutely should.

There were other panels that I attended and enjoyed but I could be here all day writing about them. These are just a selection of what stood out.

I briefly mentioned earlier cosplaying. As a LARPer it is no surprise that I enjoy costumes however, I've never really cosplayed before nor has it been something I've particularly got as a form. I'm not going to lie, whilst I love seeing some of the amazing and stunningly detailed costumes that people make I've always found cosplaying at cons a little off-putting. It almost creates an “us vs them” situation, especially in places with the really big pro cosplays and hoards of photographers. Whilst some people are at a con to see the exhibits, others are there to be seen. They are the exhibits, and it creates a barrier between them and their surroundings. Worse (and this is certainly something that is more in my mind that what is actually going on) there is a fear that those who are not cosplaying are somehow lesser or less important than those in costume. Those in costume are elevated to “special”. So Nine Worlds was interesting for two reasons. First of all, I actually took part and donned a costume. A low key, fairly basic and pretty obscure cosplay sure, but still, I put a wig on. Secondly, the cosplay atmosphere was markedly different than I have experienced elsewhere, even at  the relaxed Thought Bubble. There was a genuine feeling of people cosplaying for the love of cosplaying. Due to being a smaller con that doesn't attract much in the way of photographers or day trippers there was little of the standing for posed photographs. Standing for pics happened of course, but it was always with a measure of friendliness and respect. The cosplayers mingled with the non-cosplayers easily with no boundary or exclusion. Nine Worlds also had a lovely system of giving tokens of appreciation to cosplays we like. All attendees were given five blue tokens they could hand to a cosplay they appreciated over the course of the weekend. Any cosplay that collected 15 tokens could trade them in for a badge. It was a low stress, low impact way of interacting, but actively encouraged interaction. I found it utterly charming.
If you are curious, nobody handed me a token. But Kieron Gillen did recognise me as Klem from the comic Fuse and took my picture to show to the comic's author. That was as good as 15 tokens to me!

me in cosplay as Klem Ristovich

No event is without room for improvement. I am aware that some con-goers who had been to previous Nine Worlds events noted changes to how it was run and particularly the location: this year was a hotel in London's Zone 2 were as previous years had been at a larger venue near Heathrow. I However, can't make those comparisons so am going purely off my own experience.
To start with the venue, I'm not convinced it worked. I'm not sure it was a flop – I actually liked being spread out over different floors and rooms as it avoids the cattle-shed feeling of larger more homogeneous spaces. On the other hand, it was difficult to forget that we were in a hotel and thus sharing the space with non-con-goers. The main social area, near the registration desk, was in and around the bar area and foyer of the hotel. There were always confused hotel guests nearby and I was conscious at least of not making their stay horrendous and simultaneously, not wanting to feel restricted by their presence. The organisers may have intended for the main social space to be elsewhere, but given the layout of the the con, I think this was inevitable.

Also a let down with regard to the hotel was the food. We were assured (as I am sure the con organisers were) that the various catering options within the hotel would be able to provide for all diets and tastes and would be affordable. This was a necessity as the hotel did not allow people to bring in outside food. It also proved not to hold up to testing. The bar food was reasonably priced, but was limited and of course, could only be ordered and eaten in the busy and often full bar (I should not that there was also a more formal restaurant available as well). Vegan, dairy free and gluten free options were limited, not always advertised and again often expensive. There were additional issues with staff not always knowing what was available, so one person may be turned away from the Expo hall cafe because there are no vegan options, while half an hour later somebody manages to wrangle a baked potato and beans out of them. It was frustrating as the busy session timetable and mobility issues meant nipping out to find somewhere else to eat wasn't always possible.
People who needed food due to health reasons were allowed to bring food in, but in reality that means carrying snacks, not bringing in a whole meal. People really did struggle here and it's an area I expect the organisers to be looking at for next year.

Though the focus of this con was the sessions, there was actually and expo/traders hall as well as the Nine Dice Lounge – the board and card games room. The expo felt too small for the space it was in and was a little underwhelming. This may just be because Nine Worlds isn't well known on the traders circuit so there wasn't enough take up, or perhaps the broad scope of what the con covers didn't draw in enough traders. Either way, it felt a little hastily done. I'm glad it wasn't the shiny, polished corporate sales floor of comic con, and I'm glad it wasn't heaving with gamerbois and reps, but a little bit more oomph wouldn't have hurt.
As for the Nine Dice Lounge, well I can't comment. I never made it in there. It just seemed too out of the way and with not enough time between sessions I couldn't make it there. Was it underused? Was it integrated in to the con enough? I'm not sure. Perhaps having some scheduled demos or games would entice people up there, and add an extra dimension to the con.

NB: 26/08 since writing this I have noted several people enjoying the games lounge and seen photographs of people enjoying it. It would seem that any fault there is down to my own lack of attention or ability!

And that's about it. Maybe reorganise the schedule but scheduling is a dark art and there is often only so much that can be done. There really wasn't a lot to complain about from my point of view.

Now I admit, my convention attending pedigree isn't long. I've more or less covered it in my opening paragraphs. However, Nine Worlds would appear to occupy a space all by itself on the geek culture con roster. It's focus is different. It's set up is different. It's atmosphere is different.
The result was something I enjoyed immensely, am eager to get back to and have already jotted down ideas for future sessions.

If you want a con that is a but more cerebral, celebrates differences and really wants you to be a part of it, I can't recommend it enough.

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