For members of the sci-fi community the name Jewel Staite is instantly recognizable. From starship mechanics, to inter-dimensional doctors, Jewel brings a likability and quirky charm to whatever role she inhabits. I’ve been a fan of Jewel for a long time, but like most of you out there she first caught my eye as the unrefined starship mechanic Kaylee on Joss Whendon’s spectacular, yet short lived series Firefly. After Firefly’s tragic and unwarrented execution, Jewel went on to join the cast of Star-Gate: Atlantis, as Dr. Jennifer Keller.
A few weeks ago Matt and I made our way up to PAX:East. We had a great time and walked a few hundred miles. While at PAX we witnessed one of the best panels we’d ever seen, “The ‘Other’ Us”. The panel focused on gender, concept of community, and the “world” of gaming. It was a serious panel that addressed a bevy of very serious topics. “The ‘Other’ Us” inspired us to write some articles that hopefully you’ve had a chance to read (Ash and Matt). The mastermind behind the panel was one Allison Thresher, former CM turned junior choreographer at Harmonix. I had the pleasure of chatting with Allison this week about the panel, gender in gaming, PAX pox, and other shenanigans. Enjoy!
NA- Ash: So this interview is a bit different for me. Normally I ask about projects, rumors, and other nonsense, but this interview is unique in that we’re talking about something very specific, gender in the world of gaming, and specifically your panel The “Other” Us at PAX East. Thanks for taking some time to talk! How’s your morning going so far? PAX pox still lingering?
Allison Thresher: PAX Pox is indeed still lingering but I’m fighting through.
NA- Ash: Finally over mine.. I’m a bit more pale than usual.. bordering on albino. Question time!
Allison Thresher: Go for it!
NA- Ash: What is the process of “pitching” a panel like? Were you approached, or do you petition to have a panel?
Allison Thresher: It’s pretty straight forward. PAX puts up a call for panel submissions on their site. In the past I’ve been approached by people about various panels (like the Reverse Q&A).
NA- Ash: Reverse Q+A was a blast… very funny.
“I’d like to move the conversation from “the ‘other’ us” to “all of us” if that makes sense. There’s a lot to think about.”
Allison Thresher: (continued) then the group works together to fill out the panel proposal and sends it off. A month or so later you find out whether you’re on the docket. For Other Us I’d been thinking about it for awhile and I knew i really wanted to approach Abbie (Heppe). I waited until she was on board before reaching out to the other panelists – I kept everyone on the loop in terms of what I was submitting to PAX. I’d been thinking that I, personally, really wanted to see a panel that addressed issues of gender. There have been some panels about women in games in the past but they’d usually been focused on one very particular issue or on just the fan or industry side of things. So thinking about Abbie’s review, I hoped we could have this broad discussion using reaction to her piece as an illustration of a much larger issue in our community.
NA- Ash: Excellent – So Abbie was the first person you asked? And how did you come up with the idea for your panel The “Other” Us?
Allison Thresher: Abbie’s the first person I approached. I figured if I wanted to use her review as a case study it would be good to have her on board, haha.
NA- Ash: Like I said in my article, I’ve been to a TON of panels over the years, but this was one of the first panels that really “moved” me . Not trying to be dramatic, but it was remarkable to see such an adult conversation at a gaming convention..
Allison Thresher: I’m glad it did. I’ve gotten some pretty awesome feedback since the panel, both positive and negative. I’ve been happy that overall it’s inspired a lot of chatter beyond the show floor, which was my goal in the end. It made me pretty psyched to hear people addressing these issues from a critical perspective. I will say though that I wish, as a moderator, I’d been better about nipping the “trolls are 13 year old boys” in the bud.
NA- Ash: Explain some of the negative feedback if you will, because I’ve read a ton of the positive already.
Allison Thresher: Well the negative is kind of what I expected – and it’s fair. I wouldn’t even say it’s necessarily negative so much in that it’s very constructive as I think about future panels.
NA- Ash: I think you did great moderating. That was a very hard panel to moderate I’d imagine.
Allison Thresher: The big critique has been that we spent too much time addressing Abbie’s review, and that the panel only got to the tip of the iceberg in terms of discussing gender or marginalizations in gamer culture. And that’s all fair – we only had 60 minutes, there’s only so much that can be done, haha.
NA- Ash: I can see that, but you’d need another few hours to really dive into the issue. I thought Abbie’s review was a great focal point.
Allison Thresher: Yeah, I think for a first panel it was important to have something like that to focus the conversation around. The other critique, that I found interesting, was the we (the panel) didn’t bring up the Dickwolves controversy, and the thing is, we were prepared to address that, but we felt that it was important that it be something that the audience discussion participants brought it into the conversation.
NA- Ash: Before we get into the “sequels” to this panel.. let’s take a trip back in time .. so to speak.. I have to admit I wasn’t expecting a totally packed panel. The Naga ballroom was pretty damn big, and it was at capacity. What was your initial reaction when you looked out and saw all of those people?
Allison Thresher: Initial reaction? I hope I don’t barf on my shoes…and there’s no way I’m going to picture all of these people in their underwear.
NA- Ash: ha ha ha, nice one.. (too much partial mental nudity can be a bad thing)
Allison Thresher: I really wasn’t expecting all those people myself… When I got upstairs and saw the line I was pretty shocked. I think I was better prepared after hearing about how full “Females on Female Characters” was. I think it’s awesome that panels like this obviously have an audience at PAX.
NA- Ash: Do you think PAX is more female friendly now? Is that why these panels had the turnout that they did?
Allison Thresher: hmmm…that’s kind of a loaded question, haha.
NA- Ash: I really didn’t intend it to be.. haha..
Allison Thresher: It’s interesting, me personally, I’ve never felt unwelcome or unsafe at PAX – but that’s just me – that’s not the experience of every woman or even every person with this convention. especially in light of things like the dickwolves debacle. It’s an interesting sort of dichotomy in terms of this year’s PAX: East.
NA- Ash: The issue of Booth Babes was brought up during the panel, I think by Eric Pope. And it was also one of the only times you seemed to get a bit “heated”.. Do you think they should be a part of PAX?
Allison Thresher: There were tons and tons of booth babes suddenly on the floor, which would suggest that we’re taking a step backwards as a community but then you look at the turnout of these panels and the (largely) productive and supportive conversations that they turned out The booth babes thing is interesting. I would actually put the “blame” if that’s what we’d call it on the vendors and booths that employed them.
NA- Ash: I agree totally… And some things you all said during the panel sort of opened my very male eyes to the problem.
Allison Thresher: There’s a policy in place and it’s a voluntary compliance thing – but it would be interesting to me to find out why so many exhibitors suddenly felt it was ok to use them.
NA- Ash: I wonder if it’s just financial in nature.. IE.. girls with little clothes sell stuff better than girls with many clothes.
Allison Thresher: I appreciate that PAX has the policy in place, but I also recognize that it is a voluntary compliance policy. I hope that people who felt put off by the presence of booth babes let the exhibitors using them know. Interestingly, I interacted with more men who were uncomfortable by their presence than women. but here’s the thing – yes, booth babes do attract a crowd, but I’d be really curious to know whether they translate to sales. I mean, DnF is going to sell regardless of booth babes.
NA- Ash: Excellent point.
Allison Thresher: (continued) and a vendor selling a shitty headset isn’t going to suddenly trick people, especially at this level of education/enthusiasm, into thinking their product is awesome just b/c they have a hot woman in booty shorts in their booth.
NA- Ash: I think games will sell no matter what the marketing is like… word of mouth has so much to do with it.
Allison Thresher: It was interesting for me, that just upon casual observance, that other than Duke Nukem, most of the booths employing models were actually accessories vendors, not developers.
NA- Ash: Okay serious question: As a girl who makes, as well as plays games, why do you think the gaming industry is still so incredibly behind in terms of gender equality?
Allison Thresher: I think Jennifer made a great point during our panel about this – we’re still a very young industry. and there’s still this very prevalent stereotype that the average gamer is a white, straight, male in his twenties – so that’s how things are geared but as we have more women enter the industry and assume leadership positions, the product will change – and I think as gamer culture grows up we’ll find (hopefully) that the consumer base will demand more and demand better of the industry it’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s possible to see pockets of change here and there.
NA- Ash: Do you think it’s harder for women to break into the business than men? What was your personal “road” like?
Allison Thresher: I don’t necessarily think it’s harder – but again, I’m just speaking from my own personal experience. And I’ve also only worked at Harmonix during my time in this industry and it’s an exceedingly progressive place.
NA- Ash: I looks like a ton of fun.
Allison Thresher: One thing I will say and it proved true for me, is that this is an industry where making connections and knowing people is a huge part of getting your “in.” I mean on paper I had all the experience necessary to step into a CM role here but being able to talk to my first boss here, Sean, face to face, was a huge step in being able to get my foot in the door.
NA- Ash: Okay, more probing questions (dramatic music). This was briefly touched on during the panel, but do you feel like same games promote community while others do not?
Allison Thresher: hmm – I guess it depends on your definition of community. I think some games definitely promote an “inclusive” community (rock band, cough cough) while others for one reason or another are more polarizing b/c they just simply attract a different audience.
NA- Ash: I have to admit, My friends and I have had some of most amazing Rock Band parties over the years… endless set list parties with full costume (and Kiss makeup)… thanks for that!
Allison Thresher: You’re welcome – and hooray – that is how it’s supposed to be done.
NA- Ash: Hell yes!
Allison Thresher: But back to the topic of community – community is what you (the general you) make of it. If you play shooters or beat ’em ups and you don’t like hearing exclusionary language or hate speech, don’t just accept it as part of the price of admission of playing those games. Say shit about it. Call people on it.
NA- Ash: If you could have changed anything about The “Other” Us panel, what would you change?
Allison Thresher: hmmm…that’s a good question.
NA- Ash: Thanks, that’s what they pay me the big money for (pennies).
Allison Thresher: It’s weird because there’s a ton of stuff that looking back I’m like, I wish I had done x differently, or y differently but at the same time I like the way that things ran in the end. If I did do it all over again I’d definitely have tried to re-gear the conversation earlier and would have not let the kind of ageist comments about “trolls” continue – I think I should have moved the conversation more towards “how do we combat trolls?”
NA- Ash: Good point, they are hard, if not impossible to stop. (You have to burn them with fire – AD&D)
Allison Thresher: (continued) or maybe I would have asked the audience at the start what they hoped to get out of the panel. but there’s always stuff you can look back on and want to change.
NA- Ash: So.. Is there going to be a follow up panel to The “Other” Us ? Perhaps at PAX prime?
Allison Thresher: I’d like to do a follow up panel – and I hope others submit panels for PAX Prime as well. I think for a follow up we’d be able to focus the conversation without using a specific moment as a jumping off point. I’d like to move the conversation from “the ‘other’ us” to “all of us” if that makes sense. There’s a lot to think about.
NA- Ash: A wider discussion. I like that idea.
Allison Thresher: Good thing I have about four months to get my head on straight before submissions reopen. I’d be curious to see, at PAX Prime, for those that attended or listened to Other Us what, if anything, have they done or been inspired to do in terms of changing their own interactions with the communities they participate in, or it things are still just business as usual
NA- Ash: Well as a teacher I see the number of female gamers growing. I talk games with my students on occasion and there appear to be more female gamers every semester. Guys don’t find it as jarring as they used to. I’d like to think it’s generational.
Allison Thresher: I’d hope so – but there are so many layers to unpack in this whole conversation about gender. We could probably have an entire conference about gender, games, inclusion, combating – isms (heterosexism, ageism, racism, etc…) I’m really hopeful after “Other Us” that these conversations continue to happen at events like PAX. I mean PAX is a fan focused, community focused event, it’s the perfect platform for having those conversations.
NA- Ash: The panel was fun, but educational as well. Nothing wrong with getting more intelligent on occasion. Any final words? (That sounds so ominous)
Allison Thresher: hmmm…final words…how about “eschew obfuscation.”
NA- Ash: (Googling that) Thanks so much for taking the time to chat. I think your cause is a great one, and it’s totally a step in the right direction; Not only as “gamers”, but as people too.
Allison Thresher: sweet, my pleasure.
Thanks for reading gang. Be sure to follow Allison on Twitter, and stay tuned to the site for more glorious mayhem!
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