Mikko Meriläinen – Five things we learned from Monstrosity

Monstrosity seminar information and hashtag

In April 2021 we organized Monstrosity, the 17th annual Tampere University Game Research Lab Spring Seminar. There was a fair bit of excitement, as this was the first time the seminar was organized fully online. With the 2020 seminar cancelled, also a first, due to the pandemic, there was an added incentive to make this event special.

For context, the Tampere Spring Seminars are something of a thing. While they are high level academic events, the convivial atmosphere is what makes them. Games scholars from grad students to professors travel from all over the world to Tampere for what is typically a two-day event, for both the people and the scholarship. It’s casual, it’s fun, it’s inspiring, and capturing some of that in an online event was more than a little daunting.

In the end, the seminar was a great success. In addition to the excellent keynotes from Jaroslav Švelch, Sarah Stang, and Aino-Kaisa Koistinen (see here for videos), we got to hear, see, and discuss high quality games research, and spend time together with likeminded peers. As in the planning stages of the event we utilized what we had learned from others, in the spirit of sharing we put together a list of five things we learned organizing an online academic event.

  1. An online event is a duck. The seminar went very smoothly, much like a duck gliding on the surface of a pond. Also much like a duck, there was a lot of work going on to keep things moving: discussions between organizers, tech tests and communications with presenters and so on. Despite our fairly meticulous planning, there were moments of panic, last-minute fixes and quick changes of course, yet most of this was invisible to participants.
  2. Online is not “light”. While an online seminar might seem like less labour-intensive compared to a traditional face-to-face event, we found it to be more work as there were more moving parts. Long days and accommodating participants from different time zones necessitate sharing hosting duties, you need more tech support on call, and last-minute changes to schedules are much more tricky than in face to face events.
  3. Backchannels are essential. In our seminar, the presentations as well as comments and questions to presenters were on Zoom, while all of the other discussion was on Discord. This turned out to be an excellent call in terms of seminar participation and atmosphere. Discord became a space of its own, and allowed for an informal channel for participants to introduce themselves (and their pets), discuss presentations, share references and just chat away. In an online event with no shared coffee breaks, lunches or evening activities, these interactions were crucial – they made the event feel like a Tampere Spring Seminar.
  4. Small things can make a big difference. Three days of online seminar is a lot, so we did our best to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Things like easy communications between participants and organizers, tech tests with each presenter in advance of their presentation, dedicated Discord channels for each presentation so that presenters could come back to the discussion of their work, custom seminar graphics, and cheerful and mildly entertaining Eurovision-style hosts (that would be the trio of Usva Friman, Mikko Meriläinen, and Tom Apperley) all helped elevate the event. Additionally, we aimed to make the event as accessible as possible, for example by writing accessibility instructions for the presenters and utilizing the automatic captions provided by Zoom to make the presentations as easy to follow as possible, and by creating and enforcing code-of-conduct guidelines to support a safe and amicable seminar atmosphere.
  5. The people make the event. It might sound a little cliché, but holds true nevertheless. With around a hundred people coming together online – and face to face in the case of the organizers – over the course of three days, it was human interaction that made the event. The Tampere Seminars are not just work or sharing research. New connections are made, relationships are formed, and existing ones reinforced. Regardless of technical solutions, it was the people – commentators, presenters, student volunteers, streaming crew, organizers – that made Monstrosity what it was, a much-needed friendly, comfortable event of social connections in an era of stress and isolation.

Next year, 2022, hopefully sees the Spring Seminar return to a face to face event. However, there are many things we would like to retain from our online experience. Not everyone has the resources to travel to Finland, and the things learned this year can hopefully be put to use to enable people all over the world to enjoy the Spring Seminar experience.

A selection of the papers presented at Monstrosity is currently being developed into an edited volume.

Article pictures by Matilda Ståhl and Usva Friman, used with permission.