Keeping Diversity and Inclusivity Alive at AlterConf in Los Angeles

Despite being initially postponed a few months ago, AlterConf in Los Angeles overcame difficulties in securing sponsors and a venue to operate in full swing on Saturday, November 21, 2015. The event took place at the high-rise office tower of Nordstrom Rack + HauteLook which overlooks downtown Los Angeles.

Refreshments included water and a variety of scrumptious Hawaiian food from Rutt’s Cafe. We were encouraged to help ourselves, so I piled my plate with sweet rolls and braised short ribs. After savoring my food, I proceeded to find a seat and eagerly anticipate the start of the speaker series.

The session opened with an introduction by Ashe Dryden, a programmer and one of AlterConf’s main community organizers. Dryden warmly welcomed us and explained the accessibility features including real-time transcription and sign language interpreters. Moreover, Dryden mentioned trigger and content warnings since a few of the presentations covered sensitive topics such as physical and mental health issues as well as race relations.

First up was Ben Hopkins, a software developer who is partially deaf. Hopkins explained that there’s “more to disability than you can see” and described the challenges of growing up with Meniere's disease—a hearing disability that he wasn’t properly diagnosed with until recently. Dealing with an unsuccessful surgery as well as bouts of vertigo and migraines, Hopkins endured a great deal of pain.

Fortunately, Hopkins used visualization to deal with pain and elaborated that it’s akin to “escapism” which compels one to question how perception influences life. Most notably, Hopkins discussed the “nature of meaning” by portraying it as continual and “something you do, not retrieve.”

Next, Charles Babb, a seasoned game producer, took the stage with a Kanye West-inspired PowerPoint presentation entitled, “Being Young, Gifted, and Other Adjectives in the Gaming Industry.” Babb initiated his presentation with a moment of silence to honor our peers, community, and the universe.

After a very brief introduction about black culture, Babb insisted, “Black is not a defining adjective.” He then launched into his presentation featuring different adjectives and pictures of a triumphant Kanye on each slide. (For those wondering about the relevance of Kanye in this context, Babb reasoned that he and Kanye are both innovative and ambitious role models—except that Babb channels his talents into computer science and Kanye into music.)

Babb explicated the struggle of being a focused and strong black tech professional while avoiding the stereotype of the “angry black male.” He also articulated how people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals face particular scrutiny in the industry since colleagues “take your personal attributes and judge your work on it.” To confront these prejudices, Babb proposed being fruitful and producing high-quality work while being outspoken, charismatic, and industrious.

Additionally, Babb offered advice for people not involved in the video games industry regarding taking a stand to eliminate stereotypes and discrimination in games. He advised writing to developers, interacting with developers on Twitter, and getting into industry meetings. 

Babb’s advice demonstrated how even casual gamers fed up with video games’ lack of diversity can actively achieve change.  I was reminded of the words of American author and activist Alice Walker, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.”

The subsequent speaker was Achie Prakash, a computer scientist and 3D artist, who described the extremely slow-changing “brogrammer” culture in tech. Prakash explained that the “brogramming culture prevents women and people of color from entering the industry” since the culture tends to value machismo and exclude outsiders who don’t fit the “brogrammer” mold of white, educated men. “The culture begins at the college level,” Prakesh said. 

With this homogenous culture comes a lack of unique perspectives, backgrounds, and ideas that could potentially lead to more business and opportunities.

To give insight into brogramming culture, Prakash mentioned Titstare, a mobile application introduced at TechCrunch's 2013 TechCrunch Disrupt conference. True to its name, the misogynistic app features pictures of men staring at women’s breasts. 

I’m always unpleasantly surprised to learn about talented developers who choose to create products aimed to degrade and offend a marginalized group of people. In this case, it’s particularly disgraceful since a prominent tech conference allowed the obnoxious app to debut. I’m sure there were countless other more useful and less demeaning apps that could’ve been introduced to the world instead.

Moving on to calls-to-action, Prakesh recommended speaking up when faced with racist and sexist microaggressions because uncomfortable laughter or pushing the issue to the side will only continue or worsen the discrimination. He also suggested that “victims of harassment need to leave.”

He concluded that the burden of changing the tech culture and industry is placed upon marginalized people. “At the end of the day,” said Praskesh, “to see change, you have to create change yourself.”

After a short break, Indu Alagarsamy, a programmer with more than 15 years of experience under her belt, discussed gender bias. Alagarsamy began by juxtaposing the culture of her supportive family with the bleak, unaccommodating reality of the tech industry. 

Citing a 2015 survey of over 25,000 responses conducted by Stack Overflow, Alagarsamy reported the software development field is comprised of 92.1% men and only 5.8% women (with 1.7% preferring not to disclose gender and 0.5% as other).

Directed to women currently working in tech, Alagarsamy proposed that they should “own their credit” and “stop saying sorry.” She also recommended that women “raise [their] concern” when snubbed or insulted since privileged people are often unaware of the harmful consequences of microaggressive comments. Furthermore, she insisted that people don’t change due to policies but through discourse.

I especially appreciated Alagarsamy’s presentation because I am too familiar with uttering excessive apologies and disparaging my own accomplishments. These actions only diminish my own self-worth and others’ perception of my value. I’m glad that Alagarsamy pointed out these seemingly insignificant bad habits. After all, the first step of improvement is to acknowledge shortcomings.

Lastly, junior developer Ash López gave a presentation about diversifying tech with strategies cultivated from Gay Straight Alliances. López extensively discussed safe spaces and how to promote inclusivity in the tech space since people of color’s voices are frequently interrupted or silenced.

“Coding can only go so far,” López said. “[We need to] teach marginalized people how to deal with harassment within the workforce… address HR with complaints.” She also suggested that individuals should be trained as activists to comprehend intersectionality and oppression to combat injustices in the workplace. 

Although there was supposed to be one more speaker, Drian Juarez unfortunately could not make it to this session of AlterConf to discuss deconstructing binary spaces.

Following the speaker series was a screening of Philip Jones and Ryan Paul’s documentary Gaming in Color (2015). The film featured prominent queer leaders such as Matt Conn, CEO and founder of MidBoss which hosts GaymerX, and Joey Stern, co-founder of Geeks OUT, expressing their thoughts about the lack of diversity and progress in the video game industry. 

While some games such as Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us (2013) and BioWare’s Mass Effect (2007) support diversity, the video game industry still has a long way to go. 

Overall, the film contended that having positive representations of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals depicted in video games serves to reaffirm these marginalized people’s existence and validate who they are.

Ashe Dryden concluded the conference by imploring us to take home leftover food as well as encouraging us to support our local communities by keeping diversity and inclusivity alive. 

At the end of the event, I was overwhelmed with gratitude and hope. I was thankful for the opportunity to be amongst such dynamic and literally game-changing individuals passionate about causes much grander than themselves. Not only did they care immensely about equality, but they were actively working toward creating a more equitable and inclusive community for forthcoming generations. 


I learned that we can’t just sit around waiting for positive change to simply emerge in the tech and video game industry—I mean, we probably could wait, but we may expire before drastic changes take place. Instead, we must channel our inner Gandhi (“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”) and Margaret Mead (“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”) to achieve a truly safe and diverse community.

AlterConf Toronto: Quietly Subversive

Near the bustle of Queen Street West, Bento Miso is nestled in a literal alleyway. No matter how many times I trek here for its many local indie game events, I end up lost and pestering passerby for what should surely be a brightly coloured building making muffled bleep bloop noises. But no; Bento Miso is in an alleyway. And that's okay, really. In fact, the locale matched Alterconf, a traveling video game conference celebrating diversity, perfectly. Away from the heady commercialism of everyone else, this is the place to be quietly subversive.

One way Alterconf subverted tradition was making their venue accessible. As someone who has done disability organizing in Toronto, the Bento Miso session was one of the most accessible events I've been to. The many ways Alterconf made the venue accessible to everyone included: live-captioning (courtesy of MVP @stenoknight), priority seating, mobility lanes, vegan/gluten-free/halal/nut-free food options, gender-neutral washrooms, bright lighting, wheelchair access, childcare on request, a safer space policy, a code of conduct, pay-what-you-can tickets and content warnings before every talk that needed them. 

Yeah, I know. That's a lot. But that's what it means to be truly diverse. Speakers themselves reflected this. Coming from the Toronto community, their stories were a spectrum of experiences in tech and video games workplaces close to home. 

“This is an event for you by you,” organizer Ashe Dryden told attendees right before the session began. 

With how rare events like this pop up, it's no wonder the session sold out. If you weren't there, here's what you missed:


Omosola Odetunde
Loving Your Job And Why It (Actually) Matters

Burnout is so real. A software engineer, Odetunde's been head over heels for programming since she was a wee Computer Whiz Kid. But there was a time in her life where she was close to becoming a statistic, another women of colour who left STEM. Her talk explored the reasons why people feel disengaged –  such as lack of self-autonomy, useful feedback and supportive relationships – and how her experience with bad internships and great behaviour science classes made her realize she didn't hate computer science after all. By reflecting on what she loved, Odetunde completed her masters and rekindled her love with tech.
What to take away: Write what makes you feel fulfilled and what doesn't about your work. And if you're not too keen on reflecting, taking a motivation quiz on Google is a low-energy way to figure out what you dig, Odetunde advised. 


Christina Truong
Don't Just Talk About It, Be About It

Diversity shouldn't be just a word. Despite being a professor and a front-end developer, Truong has always felt excluded from Toronto's tech industry. She's had to put up with microaggressions, like being told she doesn't “look like a developer”.  And after giving two diversity talks, Truong felt discouraged by low turnout and being derailed. After all, just giving a tech talk would be tweet-friendly and good for her career. But when attendees later told her about how important diversity was to them, she decided to filter the noise. “Cities like Toronto lead people to be lulled into the idea that 'this doesn't happen here,'” Truong said. “Being inclusive of everyone's experiences means being aware of how different people are discriminated against in different ways.” 

What to take away: Truong notes that diversity often becomes a white women in tech narrative. As well, examining our own behaviours for bias shows us ways we internalize problematic ideas.      


Lauren Voswinkel
Let's Talk About Pay 

Voswinkel laid down some real truth early in her talk: lie to your employers about your former salary. Really.  The main goal of a capitalist society is to make money and discriminatory pay is a way businesses take advantage of marginalized people. One way Voswinkel urged people to disrupt the cult of silence around salary was #talkpay, a hashtag that sparked dialogues sharing how much people made. “Open conversations about pay make it so all workers get paid what they're actually worth,” she  said. 
What to take away: Linking moral value to pay is a mistake that suggests underrepresented individuals in fields just aren't working hard. As well, putting faces to names rather than collecting anonymous statistics highlights who exactly is not getting paid enough. 


Gabriela Aveiro-Ojeda
Preserving Culture Through The Power Of Games 

Warnings: Discussion of non-consensual interactions, race, dysphoria

A third-year animation student hailing from Paraguay, for Gabriela Aveiro-Ojeda playing video games meant learning English through sketchy emulated CDs loading on a slow computer. It wasn't until she played Never Alone, a game about an Inuit girl that featured Alaskan Inupiak storytelling, did Aveiro-Ojeda realize video games could preserve ways of life. Never Alone reminded her of Paruguayan literature about Guarani people, that also preserved their stories, except because Never Alone was a video game it was on a whole other level of immersion and interaction. “Video games are cultural agents,” Aveiro-Ojeda said. “Culture in games should not just bring profit. They can leave behind story to pique interest in people's narratives.” 

What to take away: It's important to support culture in games, and especially in developers. If there are elements of a culture in a game, but no one from that culture involved in development, it further mystifies and disempowers that people. 


Haleigh Sheehan
Y/N? Binary For Humans

All the world's a stage.exe, so it's not any surprise to gitHub manager and performer Haleigh Sheehan that the worlds of open source and improv are pretty similar. Saying yes is essential to creativity and expanding life's scope, so the goal is to feel good about it so you can say it as much as possible. And how do you say yes? By saying no. Setting boundaries is key to collaboration, and Sheehan used the laws of coding to show that. Consent culture, much like circuitry, relies on active participation and not silence. “Consent is your Terms of Service,” Sheehan said.
What to take away: Maybe is a “squishy” word that doesn't clearly state your needs. If you hear someone using squishy words, they may not be running on the same operating system as yours. As well, knowing boundaries and using low-level yes and no language helps you know when to take care of yourself. Agreeing to more than you can handle leads to problems in the long run.


Leisha Riddel
Creating Characters Based On Ethnic Dysphoria 

Content warnings: ethnic dysphoria

While watching Orange Is The New Black, illustrator and designer Leisha Riddel wanted to apologize for Piper before realizing something. 

“Oh yeah. I'm not white.”

Born in the Philippines, Riddel was adopted by a Scottish/French family. Sailor Moon and Final Fantasy, with its white-passing, racially ambiguous characters, influenced and resonated with Riddel's ethnic dysphoria. In turn, that disconnect was visible in her art: she'd draw original characters who would have white appearances and backstories, but ethnic names. They were also learning experiences, ways Riddel explored identity and learned the importance of conscious design. 

What to take away:  Characters with various body types and sizes and backgrounds are important. (Also Steven Universe is a really cool show.) 


Hinna Yusuf
Barriers to Access: Web Literacy and Resulting Fears Among Gatekeepers
Content warnings: Parental concerns regarding sexual content or sexual predators in online environments 

Unlike the other talks, educator Hinna Yusuf chose to hold a roundtable. Her research into technology use in Pakistani immigrant families led her to discovering dueling discourses: parents wanted their children to be exposed to technology, but they wanted them to be safe. They'd have consoles and cell phones, consumer lifestyle gear, but no tools of creation or development. The discourse on video games needs to change, so parents can see how skills are nurtured rather than time wasted.
What to take away: “Parents will read a book first before giving it to kids, but won't go on the Internet with them,” Yusuf said. As well, there was an interesting throwback to a previous talk on preserving culture in video games,:Yusuf's research showed that parents viewed technology as culturally neutral, rather than maintaining culture. 


Ivanna McConnell
Inclusion Before Diversity: Putting Self-Care First

Kill your role models. In a let's-stop-putting-people-on-stressful-tokenizing-pedestals kind of way. 

After falling ass backwards into a great career at myplanet, Ivanna McConnell realized that true diversity is only possible with an inclusive foundation. “Always being looked at can be dangerous,” McConnell said, criticizing tech companies who expect diverse employees to be role models. Forcing that kind of responsibility and attention turns the spotlight on what's different about them. Jumping straight into diversity leads to marginalization, and McConnell saw that happen to her wife – after winning a national engineering award and touring schools to inspire young women, she felt exhausted always performing. 

What to take away: It's the workplace's responsibility to make employees feel safe. Don't be afraid to make that clear. MccConnell, who learnt English through Wishbone and played hockey because “that's what you do in Canada”, didn't want to stick out. She wanted to belong. 


Kara Stone
Feelings And Video Games 

Video games about mental health don't have to be shoot-em-ups. Developer Kara Stone makes games like Medication Meditation and Cyclothemia to explore emotions in a way profit-motivated games don't. Feelings, which have been aligned with the femme, the racial, and the Mad, are only useful to developers if they make money. The binary of good and bad feelings is messed up, particularly how games punish you for having them. An example Stone gives is of an anxious moment in the game causing shaky hands, which you'll be penalized for; it's supposed to get rid of your feedback. Says a lot about how detached from your body games like these want you to be.
What to take away: The possibilities of affectiveness in games: making games that make you feel and are aware of the consequences of those feelings are important. Involving those from mental health communities are a way to make game development more open. 


Elizabeth Ferrao
How Not to Lose Friends And Alienate People: Generating Physical And Language Awareness In The Workplace

Forget resumes, how chill are ya? Ferrao's interactive presentation had attendees stretching and talking with each other in activities that explored how physical confidence and word phrasing makes us people  others want to work with.
What to take away: Phrases like “yes and” or “tell me more” open opportunities, rather than shutting down people's creativity. 


merritt kopas

Hard Out Here For A Dyke: Being A Lesbian In Games


Even though it's been a queer year, it's not really been that great for everyone. Developer merritt kopas says umbrella terms disguise and obscure different experiences. So while it's good that we're seeing Gaymer Con and Concentricle, being vague makes it hard for variants to be visible. Lesbians are getting more playtime, but aren't the ones behind the games, earning less and with less access to success. “We need to make labour sexy,” kopas says. “Actual people are behind the work.” One way of supporting lesbian developers are incubators and organizations like Dames Making Games that invest in building skills of participants, which better the lives of real people.
What to take away: Gay life is being stolen by straight people and sold right back. Only one kind of sensibility can be valuable, as per the laws of Executive Pinkwashing *insert catchy non-political TD Bank-sponsored gay club anthem here* 

Fund Club: a project from AlterConf & Model View Culture

We've been thrilled with what we've been able to do with AlterConf thus far - we're not only providing opportunities for marginalized people, but we're compensating them for their work. So often marginalized people are asked to do unpaid or underpaid labor, don't have access to the same sorts of funding that their more privileged counterparts do, and on top of that are already living on a more limited income.

To that end, we've partnered with Model View Culture to launch Fund Club. Fund Club sends a new organization or project to your inbox every month to which you'll donate $100. Your donation is made directly to the organization, which insures they pay minimal fees and keeps overhead of the project low.

We'll be announcing the first Fund Club round at noon PST today, June 15th. Register now at and fund important work in tech.