Dispatch from a Computer Science Conference: My Time at #AIIDE14

Updated 10/8 to add specific thank-yous.

This weekend, I was at NC State in Raleigh, NC, for the Tenth Annual Conference on Artificial Intelligence for Interactive Digital Entertainment. I’m not a computer scientist with any work to present at an AI conference, but I was able to attend nonetheless thanks to funding from the Workshop on Diversity in Games Research, the first such workshop held at AIIDE. I had some anxiety leading up to the event: “a humanities postdoc walks into a CS conference…” sounds like the perfect lead-in for some raucous fun at my expense. But I had no reason to worry. Turns out AIIDE 2014 was an incredibly productive way to kick off the academic year.

A landscape photo of a long glass and metal building, mostly rectangular with some curves.
James B. Hunt, Jr. Library

I have a lot to say about the diversity workshop, but I’ll save that discussion for last. First impressions first: the James B. Hunt, Jr. Library at NC State is one of the most beautiful institutional buildings I’ve ever visited. Sleek and contemporary, with a book robot (!) and curvaceous, scrolling screens, it was an amazing backdrop for a tech conference. And the book readers weren’t forgotten: the space was positively cavernous, with plenty of natural light pouring in through glass walls and seating available for a variety of comfort preferences. When I got in the elevator, I noticed that the fifth floor housed a Digital Medieval Studies group, which I dropped by but didn’t find anyone home.

Against a paned glass wall, colorful lounge chairs cluster around a round bookcase.
Reading space at Hunt Library.

The research I encountered at the conference was rather exciting, and I have some new ideas for future projects and hopefully some collaborators as well. NC State is home to the Liquid Narrative research group, led by R. Michael Young, which develops systems for the procedural generation of game content informed by a range of science, social science, and humanities research. Those interested in the politics of biometrics technologies would have been fascinated, as I was, by the research using facial expression recognition to automatically adjust game difficulty for maximum player enjoyment. There was also industry presence: Peter Ingebretson, the lead game play engineer for The Sims 3 and The Sims 4, gave a rather fascinating talk about constraint-based multitasking in those games. It plucked many of the strings of my interdisciplinary heart: avatars, human behavior, simulation, animation blending, and games that I have loved since I was a kid. Here’s a tidbit my book nerd friends would love to know: software blocks Sims from reading a book and watching TV at the same time because the designers found it was unrealistic for user expectations.

There were so many great research moments that got me thinking, but one of the real highlights for me was meeting Michael Cook and his AI, ANGELINA, a computer program that creates her own games. I call ANGELINA by feminine pronouns against Cook’s own practice using it/its, but he is still working through what Angelina’s potential gender means. She was named on accident, a seemingly innocent acronym, but my conversations with Cook about the history of feminized AI and the potential for commentary by developing Angelina’s gender performance were quite exciting. One particular line from Cook’s talk got me thinking: he said one of his struggles is to get Angelina recognized as a legitimate game designer.

Against a backdrop of human women struggling to achieve legitimacy in the games industry (and games journalism and gamer culture), the accident of Angelina’s gender becomes quite a bit more complicated – and potentially problematic. But Cook is sensitive and aware of the problems in computer science in both academia and the industry, and the truly strange and wonderful games that Angelina creates are really quite queer. I’m looking forward to watching how this project develops and thinking about how it might have a place in commentary or even intervention on the current troubles in game development.

Which brings us around to the diversity workshop. Diversity initiatives at AIIDE are sorely needed: of 92 registered conference attendees, I only encountered eight separate women over the weekend, and usually there were about 3-5 of us in the room at a time. Racial demographics were similarly uneven. I spoke with a lot of scientists there who held various professional ranks, and they all were eager to find solutions to these gaps but also at a loss for what those might be. The structure of the diversity workshop was telling: mentorship, early career advice, general tips to help the women and people of color attending the workshop gird their loins for an exciting but likely tough career in computer science. There was very little conversation about politics or current events.

One of the things about diversity initiatives (and really about the discourse of diversity in general, which I use here because it is the most legible vocabulary to speak about this rather than, I think, the most useful) is that merely targeting population statistics is not an effective way to change a culture into something more welcoming and sustainable for a broader group of people. It is likely to help, of course, but what the Diversity in Games Research workshop lacked was more meta conversations about the unique challenges facing minority groups in the profession, the importance of organization and community support, and a primer on progressive politics.

The limits of identity politics are such that filling quotas does not necessarily find individuals with the appropriate politics and experience to improve the chances of those who come after them. Climb and kick is an empirically observed phenomenon: you get to the top despite overwhelming odds and struggles specific to your identity group and kick the ladder out from under you so that others can’t benefit from your experience or potential to change things for the better. It’s a complicated phenomenon underwritten by stereotype threat and other anxieties born out of certain types of career struggles (and also by expectations to work for individual success), but the bottom line is it takes more than getting people from underrepresented groups into positions of power to improve the life chances of others.

Anyone can learn how to shape their institutions in ways that are more accessible and fairer to a broader number of people. It’s certainly easier to understand what changes need to be made if you’ve been on the struggle end of things, but the struggle in itself doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a good person for the job – or that it’s fair to put the burden on “diverse” individuals to spearhead these initiatives.

A personal anecdote to drive the point home: one of the conference attendees made an offhand racist comment on stage, which was challenged on Twitter by a person who had attended the diversity workshop. I retweeted the challenge. Later that evening, when our post-conference social time was winding down, the speaker very respectfully began to ask me about why what he had said was called out for being racist.

I was the only woman, and possibly the only non-white* person, at the table. Everyone else left immediately. Guess that conversation was my job.

Reflecting on the incident with a computer science professor the next day, he lamented that engineers aren’t trained to have these kinds of conversations, and that keeping the focus on technology (which is often seen as devoid of culture) means that students are unprepared to tackle other matters of interest to the profession, such as diversity. White men feel uncomfortable talking about race with people of color or about gender with women, and I sympathize: these are difficult conversations to have, and the chances of saying something problematic are pretty high, especially when you are unprepared. However, when 90% of your event attendees are male, it is necessary (and inevitable) for some men to have to step up to the plate.

It is completely possible for those who fall outside of “diverse” categories to educate themselves enough to have meaningful and impactful conversations about diversity with their peers and even with the people that they are hoping to bring into the profession. It is also important to have a range of mentors and people in visible positions of power, but this is only one step in a broad-based approach.

I don’t want to end this blog on a sour note, because I really did have a fantastic and productive time at the conference and found myself and my work embraced by the community. The first Workshop on Diversity in Games Research was a necessary step for this group of researchers, and I do hope they hold it again next year. I am grateful for the opportunity it provided me to meet a wonderful new group of scholars, and for the fresh ideas they gave me and encouraging conversations I had. Perhaps I’ll even try to sneak a panel on STS/humanities perspectives on AI by the next review committee. Only time will tell.

Particular thanks to Professors R. Michael Young and Tiffany Barnes for organizing the workshop, and to Professor Monica McGill, director of the game design program at Bradley University, for being my buddy through most of the event. I should also mention the workshop participants, who are doing the brave work of entering a field that they love despite the challenges ahead.

People stand under a curled screen suspended from the ceiling, like a green ribbon.
Ribbon screen in the Hunt Library.
A gigantic warehouse of drawers, with a yellow robotic frame, resembling a ladder, towering in the center.
Book robot!

*Though I identify as mixed-race, I am almost always read as white, which means I am in what can be a useful position to talk to other white people about race.

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