Lobna Hassan: Thoughts on the organization of hybrid seminars / conferences from Gamebooks

A repost from Lobna Hassan’s personal blog. Featured image: Picture of a few of the Gamebooks organization team, standing on stage to great and be greated by the audience, during the closing of the seminar.

This blog post was dictated to Siri a mere 72 hours after Gamebooks concluded. I did not possess any physical power to sit down and write it myself then, however, I wanted to document my fresh thoughts after the seminar.

Jaakko Stenros said it well when he opened the 18th annual Tampere Spring Seminar saying that this year “we chose to organize the Spring Seminar in difficult (aka. hybrid) mode.” It has been a long journey, full of triumphs and difficulties, and I am very proud of said journey and of the outcomes we’ve accomplished together. 

As I stand today, I would like to reflect on how the seminar was organized, especially how we manage to implement it in a hybrid/difficult format. Important to note though, that these are my own personal reflections. I tried to include different vantage points and voices whenever possible, however, I’m bound to fall short. I am only human and that is the human condition. 

I think it is especially important, as we move forward from the COVID-19 pandemic, to reflect on what we have taken out of it, how it has affected our organization of conferences and seminars in the future, and what we can do to better the accessibility and inclusivity of these communal events in the future. It is undoubtful – at least to me – that hybrid events have wider accessibility and inclusivity. It is also undoubtful that they carry their own challenges and it is because of these challenges that we may revert back to the dark days of events organized in singular access mode – physical.

To start off, the theme of the 18th annual spring seminar “Gamebooks” came about through communal discussions and decision making within the Tampere University Game Research Lab (Gamelab). Several themes were put to the discussion floor and in the end, Gamebooks was chosen. 

The idea for Gamebooks was birthed and championed by Jaakko Stenros and many of us volunteered to bring it to life, namely: Riikka Aurava, Ville Kankainen, Frans Mäyrä. and my humble self. The organization of the seminar was a product of teamwork over several months  since October 2021. Each member of the organization  team gradually found their role and how they would be contributing to the enterprise. Personally, my role gradually became, what I frame as the “relentless notification system of a free-to-play game full of bugs and typos” or what the organization team lovingly and kindly framed as “organization of the organizers”. Ville, along with Mikko Seppänen became our graphics & streaming masterminds, Riikka our volunteers and implementation strategist, Jaakko our academic overseer and Frans our Godfather and chairmen. 

A key part of our team was the Tampere master’s students, who volunteered to make it all happen. From greetings attendees, to ensuring the Zoom works smoothly, managing the audience cam, graphics design, and general crisis management, they were an integral, irreplaceable part of the organization team.

We made the decision to go hybrid early on after we considered the state of the pandemic and how it was developing and heading towards a potential equilibrium. As Jaakko often put it, we wanted the community to hang out and see each other again after two years of (relative) social distancing. Nonetheless, we wanted an event that was as safe, accessible, and inclusive as can be.

A selfie of myself, Lobna Hassan, in the seminar room, wearing two name tags, minutes before the start of the first day of Gamebooks.

The physical space selected for the in-person part of Gamebooks had to be a lecture hall big enough to allow for social distancing, and we trusted our attendees to prioritize the community and exercise personal hygiene practices to the highest standards possible. That did actually become the case during the seminar days. On the other hand, the space needed to have basic streaming facilities in terms of several cameras, microphones, and good lighting. It also needed to allow moving space for the volunteer students managing the audience cam to move comfortably as needed.

While this online/hybrid component part of the seminar is naturally challenging, we were confident that it could be actualized well because of Monstrosity, the pioneer 17th Spring Seminar that was organized online and did a lot of the ground work for us. Specifically, our tech genius Mikko Seppänen was the technical mastermind behind Monstrosity and Gamebooks, and if you ask me how he did it, I will tell you that I did not even understand a quarter of what he was setting up every time we were testing something in the physical space of the seminar. We contacted Mikko relatively early on and asked him how the hybrid setup would work, and we gave him full command of the technicalities.

We had also decided on implementing what we called an *audience cam* to provide a personal experience of the seminar to the online attendees and we worked with Mikko on technically implementing it. It is not a secret that Frans Mäyrä is an avid photographer, and so, he early on, suggested using a camera that moves amongst the audience, and zooms in on an audience person when they wish to ask a question or make a comment, broadcasting them to online people during question and answer segments of the seminar. We worked with Mikko to see how such a camera could be implemented. And we ended up using a simple mobile phone on a selfie stick. Our student volunteers would hold the stick and whenever someone wanted to comment or ask a question, they would raise their hand and the volunteer would go to them with the audience cam. Notable that this setup was not perfect. There were many instances where there was interference between the mics, and a loud echo pierced the eardrums of the attendees. But it provided the online attendees with a feeling that you were walking amongst the audience and it allowed everyone a more personal experience, which was  our intention. Many attendees did communicate to us that they felt like they were there, in the room, in-person, and for us, that was a huge success even if we had wished for a smoother, echo-free experience. This is just an example of how much thought and care we tried to put into each part of the hybrid seminar.

Picture from the audience cam, featuring Frans Mäyrä in the audience, during one of the seminar days.

We conducted three field visits to the lecture hall, where the seminar would take place examining the different camera angles, microphone placements, audience cam, and how we can improve on the space. From that point, Mikko noted that there were many difficulties facing this hybrid setup, specifically  pertaining to capturing and ensuring the quality of the audio and video streams from the multiple existing devices in the room. 

I will not bore you with the details of how Miko managed to fix those  issues. Again, I do not understand it myself, but after hours of testing and problem solving, he did! I am noting these challenges, however, because it is known that hybrid setups are not easy, but based on my limited experience from Gamebooks. I am of the opinion that hybrid setups do not necessarily require sophisticated equipment as much as they require implementation talent. 

Mikko was able to jump through hoops together with Ville and the student volunteers and implemented a setup that was not perfect by any means, but was sufficient and effective. If I am to improve this setup in the future, it would be by giving the person managing it, which in our case is Mikko, greater freedom and control over the existing technical setup in the lecture hall, where a hybrid event is to take place. A bigger budget for more sophisticated mixers, cameras, or microphones would also be noice. But let’s be honest, this is academia. 

That brings me to the budget of Gamebooks. We were operating under, let’s say, non-ideal conditions. However, we had some resources that were available through the existing infrastructure of Tampere University, complemented by the Gamelab and the Center of Excellence in Game Culture Studies. Without the equipment and investments that were made over the years in the lecture hall we were in, it would have perhaps been impossible to pull a hybrid seminar off with the financial resources we had. And as I mentioned, it is the talent of the individuals who were putting this together that made it all work. 

A picture of myself, Lobna Hassan, on stage, chairing one of the gamebooks sessions.

At every stage of the seminar planning, we were asking ourselves: what is the inclusive, responsible and ethical thing to do with regards to the seminar organization under the global conditions?  We were aware that our attendees have different life experiences and came from different backgrounds. And so we built on the work that was done by Monstrosity and created general participation guidelines for our presenting authors and attendees. The guidelines provided inclusivity recommendations and presentation design pointers for accessibility. 

This year, we also asked the attendees to respect the gender pronouns of everyone and provided them with pronoun stickers that the attendees could stick to their name tags. Online, we asked the attendees to add their pronouns to their names. We also tried to include as many accessibility options as possible. Granted, this year we did not have many attendees with disabilities privately disclosed to the organizers, if at all. However, we had the setup in place to facilitate accessibility. The pronoun stickers were also color coded so that participants could recognize the color of the sticker and infer the pronoun, if they could not read the pronoun printed on the sticker.

One thing, however, to note in terms of accessibility, is that it is very challenging to implement hybrid setups when there are presenters in-person who prefer to wear face masks – as is also the recommendation under the pandemic conditions. The challenge with that is that it creates a participation barrier to people with hearing impairments who may rely on reading lips in order to understand what is being said. In these circumstances, we would recommend having the presenter stand on a stage that is far away from other attendees as much as possible, so that the speaker can remove their face mask. This would also improve the quality of speaking for the speakers themselves as many would prefer to remove their mask anyway for better breathing while they speak. Another alternative would be to ensure live captioning of the event either by a human or by a live transcription service. Zoom now provides such services and while they are not flawless, they are a minimum start. Alternatively, one can hire a sign language interpreter, however, it is notable that sign languages differ and it is not easy to find an interpreter who would speak the language spoken by most attendees with a hearing disability. 

As I said before, the organization of Gamebooks  took a lot of talent – if I do say so myself – and months of dedication. Things went better than hoped for, but also with unforeseen surprises and changes. By the end of the seminar, we were all wiped out, but we were immensely happy with our flawed product. This imperfect document serves as an improvised, quick documentation of my experience as an organizer and an exhausted attendee. I hope that it would be of benefit to future seminar organizers considering a hybrid setup. Hybrid format is not without its challenges. However,  the future is hybrid. It is something that accessibility and inclusion groups have asked for for decades, and I would hate to see one of the few – if any – wins from the pandemic lost. It is worth the effort and it gets easier with time and experience. It is Monstrosity: Mikko Meriläinen, Usva Friman, and Thomas Apperley that have allowed us this privilege of building on this work and I hope that with this document, I have made it slightly easier for future organizers to build on Gamebooks.

Picture of the Gamebooks graphics, reading “Thanks for participating! See you next year!”

Read also: Mikko Meriläinen: Five things we learned from Monstrosity