The Oxford-London IF Meetup has now been running for a little over two years, and I thought I’d stop and talk a bit about what we’ve experimented with doing and how it’s worked, and what I think could be better.
First of all, I should say that the meet has been more successful than I had imagined at the beginning, and I’m very grateful to everyone who’s come and contributed their ideas and input. I’m especially grateful to Failbetter for supplying a venue; without access to their space in London, we would have had to find (probably expensive) meeting rooms in central London, which would add quite a lot to the overhead of running the group. Having a supplied venue means that we can continue to offer the meetup without charge to members.
From an organizational perspective, though, it’s also been more challenging to run precisely because of the interest level. What I expected to have happen was that I’d announce a meetup, I’d get six or eight diehard IF community enthusiasts showing up, and we’d grow outward starting with a small set of committed volunteers who could help me figure out how to scale and who wanted to pitch in for what. In practice, we routinely have 30ish signups for London meetings, and people are coming from a range of backgrounds. So I’ve had to improvise a bit from the outset.
But I did have a set of specific goals in mind, which were
- create social connections between people interested in IF (basic networking)
- build a peer group to support people working on games and tools — which in an ideal world would mean everything from mentoring/encouragement for new authors to expert feedback for advanced tool-builders
- educate myself and other people about the range of work currently being done
and — informally but importantly —
- have enough fun that people come back
Here are some thoughts about what has worked and hasn’t:
Purely social meets. For a while I ran most of the Oxford meets simply as no-agenda hangouts in a restaurant or pub. Conveniently, that required very little setup on my part; on the other hand, attendance dropped off. I think it’s far enough to travel for many of the people involved, and the group is loosely-enough constituted, that we need some particular aim to bring people together to make it appealing in the long run.
But this is still probably a good thing to do when a group is first getting rolling, or getting rolling in a new location; we did a no-agenda pub meet in Cambridge earlier this year because it was the first time we’d met there, and that went well.
Our meetups do always include at least some social component — loosely for the Oxford group, and in London more formally, in that we go to the pub at the end and members can meet additional people and discuss what we just saw/did. Providing a context for networking and friend-making is important, I think: some people have gotten jobs or internships through the connections they’ve made there, and also it’s just harder to make a community run without some sense of individual interconnections. But this isn’t always enough to sustain a meeting, and having other content is an important ice-breaker.
Presentations with an audience. This seems to be a pretty standard style for tech-y meetups in general, but it isn’t necessarily the standard for live IF gatherings, so it wasn’t my first go-to idea about how to approach this.
We’ve done one or two things where we had one person talk for most of the meetup and then split to discuss, and that’s probably just a bit too much — too much work for one person, too much focus on a single topic. (I hasten to say I think this is about the format, rather than about particular speakers.)
It’s been more successful having several people each present on a related set of topics: we did a tools meetup in Oxford a couple of years ago that introduced new work on Inform and TADS 3 advlite, and just did another in London in April that looked at some more choice-based/experimental tools.
Large-group discussion, which consisted of declaring a topic in advance and letting 20+ people chat about that topic. In practice, this tended to mean that the most assured people in the group talked a lot while others didn’t say much at all; and while I don’t mind if some people are more comfortable being quiet, I wasn’t sure we were delivering a lot of value or letting people get to know one another.
At some point, it might be worth exploring the idea of doing intentional panel presentations, but framing something as a conversation if only a few people wind up talking is probably not great.
Unconference-style small groups. We experimented several times with letting people announce topics at the beginning of the evening and split into small groups to discuss. I think this worked better than the large group discussions in terms of getting more people involved and encouraging more interaction. However, it isn’t always a compelling pitch, and I find we get more RSVPs with a topic or activity better defined in advance.
Still, I think this does serve some portion of the group. I will probably experiment with cycling this back into our schedule, but as an alternative format, not as the main thing that we do.
Playing games together. This has generally gone very well, especially if we actually have the author present and have someone who is willing to function as a narrator and read the text aloud. We put the game up on a screen at the front of the room and let participants vote on what should happen next. This was a lot of fun as a way to go through the IF Comp games written by our own Meetup participants, and I am already planning that our October meet will do this again for IF Comp 2016.
We also did an evening of storytelling board/tabletop games, and that was well received also. That evening had the advantage of naturally distributing people into groups of 4-6, which is a good size of group in which to have a connected social experience. I’ll probably do some more like this in the future.
At the same time, I feel like we should do some other things besides just this in order to provide adequate substance and theory/craft discussion.
WIP exchanges. I suspect this works best with a relatively small group of people, but possibly you’d have just a few people bring WIPs and get feedback from the rest of those present. We did this before — once in response to a meetup member’s request — and it worked well enough that I’ve scheduled another session for this summer, which I hope will be about the right time that people working on IF Comp entries can get some helpful feedback.
The Seattle IF group used to do something where they’d get together in a coffee shop and just work together in the same space, which sounded cool, though I only went to one of these sessions. In practice, the Oxford/London participants are so widely spread geographically that I’m not sure they’d want to commit to that much travel just to work in a shared space with other people: London is immense; Oxford is of course a lot more compact, but a lot of its regular attendees are coming in by train from Reading or other adjacent towns, so again it’s a bit of a commitment.
Open problem sessions. We’ve run one of these in Oxford so far, very loosely on the model of the one at PRACTICE: the idea is that participants come with at least one reasonably specific and well-defined question about something they’re trying to solve or accomplish, and the others offer feedback and suggestions. If we have time and get through everyone’s first questions, we allow people to ask a second question.
This worked well enough that I’ve scheduled another for later in the year. We did this as a small group around a pub table, and that worked; it could also be scaled for a larger group if not everyone had questions they wanted to ask. At PRACTICE, there’s a whole auditorium of people responding to the questions, and those who want to ask sign up for a place in line.
Going together to external events. I tend to mention local IF-related events on the IF Meetup calendar even if we’re not organizing them, so that interested participants can find one another and go together — AdventureX, for instance. This almost doesn’t count as a Meetup activity, except in the sense that it provides an opportunity for group members who want to to spend more time together. We also organized an escape room trip for a few interested people, though this is more of a spinoff than the main meeting activity.
Things I have thought about but not tried:
Jams. This is straight-up an issue of personal preference/organizational capacity. I don’t enjoy game jams much, at least not the in-person incarnation with long hours and unhealthy snacks. I find them stressful physically and emotionally; I’m too old to be able to skip a night’s sleep without being headachey and sore for days afterward; and I feel on the spot to perform being a game designer. I’ve occasionally been in professional situations where I needed to participate in a game jam, at which point, I try to do as good a job as I can. (It still helps if they’re not all-nighters, though.)
Other people’s mileage obviously varies immensely, though! So if someone wants to run an IF jam in affiliation with our Meetup, I’m not going to discourage them, but I’ve not been motivated to try to arrange one myself. But generally I see this as an activity for young, able-bodied people whose external responsibilities are somewhat flexible, and that cuts out a lot of people including myself.
Workshops. I could imagine workshops that focused on teaching a particular tool, helping people get it installed and get used to it, etc., but I haven’t felt there was much call for this yet: some of our participants are very experienced, others are comfortably hacking away with Twine, and I’m not sure I’ve identified places where there’s a common need that would appeal to a significant subset of participants. But I’m open to it.
Streaming/recording talks. I’m not expert in what would be involved and also haven’t put the time in to figuring out what equipment we’d need; and mostly we haven’t been doing the kind of content where I felt it made sense to record and stream content. However, I do periodically get people asking me if we are streaming or if we’re going to start streaming, and I understand the desire. I do like the idea that there could be some larger community value or some lasting product produced by some of these conversations. So we’ll see.
Panels. Notionally we could do a panel discussion rather than having short speaker presentations. I would want to approach this carefully because, in my experience, panels tend to be all over the map in quality and amount of information per hour. Sometimes a panel is just an exercise in watching three or four genial but unprepared people have a nice chat about random stuff. Other times, they’re basically separate presentations anyway; or you get panelists who violently disagree, which is colorful but can be stress-filled. Getting a useful, insightful presentation that really builds on everyone’s expertise would be great, but I don’t feel I’m an expert in achieving that outcome — I’ve only moderated a couple panels in the past — so this might be another area where I’d need to educate myself more in order to be able to do a good job.
Reading room. I have loads of IF-related books, games, and other resources, some of them kind of rare or esoteric. I’d love to make those available for people to look through. This would make a very boring and uninteractive meetup, but it might be an interesting way to provision a chill-space at a larger event.
Demo fairs. This would be an opportunity for people to show off what they’ve made or are making: a kind of combination of WIP exchange and expo floor, since complete games and tools would be welcome alongside things still under development. I ran one of these years ago, and it worked well, but the ideal context is probably an event that people are going to otherwise anyway, because you want more than 30 people’s worth of foot traffic. So this might be something that the Meetup could notionally try to coordinate alongside an existing, larger event.
Crossover events. I talk a lot here and elsewhere about the need for more communication between different communities of thought and practice. Lately I’ve been speculating about the value of “collider” conferences — a violent term, I realize, and maybe I should think of something more pleasant.
The basic idea would be to pick two adjacent fields that aren’t really in communication but have significant shared craft concerns — IF and LARPing, say, or immersive theatre, or tabletop RPGs, or academic interactive storytelling studies, or procgen, or botmaking.
The first morning, start with some 101 sessions that introduce core vocabulary and canon of each field to members of the other, and try to get everyone to a point where they can usefully talk to each other. Next, move on to more advanced talks, ideally ones prepared with expert members of each field working together, that focus on challenges common to both fields. So things like “how do our mechanics allow players to express the idea of character change?” (to pick something that is currently on my mind).
But this sounds like at least a full-day event, or maybe a weekend; and it would need space and food and probably money for speaker fees and travel costs; probably it would have to be ticketed, or else sponsored to make it free to attend; I’d need co-organizers; and after putting in the effort to get good content, we’d definitely want to record and/or stream the results, so I’d need someone with the AV tools and savvy to set that up. So this is a high-ambition project and I’d need to think a huge amount more before trying it.
In the meantime, a much easier prospect for crossing (in this case literal) borders:
Bringing in speakers by Skype. So far we’ve only done this in one case where the speaker wasn’t able to get to the meeting at the last minute, as opposed to Skyping in people who were never going to be able to come to London.
Still, I’d like sometimes to hear from people from abroad, and provide content our group members can’t get elsewhere in London. And this is one way of addressing some of the accessibility and speaker-circulation issues I’ve talked about elsewhere. I don’t want to go to having this as the main experience of the group, since live interaction can be more compelling, but as a mix-in with live presentations I think it has promise.
Groups I’m not sure we’re serving well (yet?):
People with no IF experience at all. It would be hard to run our events with the expectation that we need to explain IF from scratch each time, but we do sometimes get participants who have had the group recommended to them and who aren’t very familiar with interactive fiction.
I’ve tried to address this a little by bringing some resources to the meeting — postcards about parser IF and about Seltani (because those are the postcards I have, not as a diss on choice-based IF!); a handout with URLs of resources; a list of upcoming competitions and events. I’m not sure that this completely addresses the issue.
People who want to use the group as a resource to get a snapshot of the current State of the IF Union. Again, because we’re not doing a recap every meeting, someone who comes wanting to get a high-level overview of current tools, commercial studios, active independent authors, etc., might be disappointed in the experience. I sometimes give some announcements at the beginning, but these are more like my blog link roundups than anything else.
I’m not sure I could fix this without making the meetup less useful for repeat attendees, though, so maybe it’s not a good idea to alter the format in order to accommodate the occasional drop-in visitor.
Instead, it seems like an area where we could put together occasional outreach presentations that give that kind of overview, and advertise that and hope interested parties find it. I’m still thinking about this.
Experts. This is the other end of the spectrum from the no-experience issue: conversations (especially in the unconference-group format) can wind up covering a lot of intermediate-level information, or consist of people describing to one another examples of a particular game style or narrative technique. That’s valuable for some participants; it might not be as compelling for people who are already familiar with the relevant canon and want to discuss advanced or experimental methods. I usually do enjoy these conversations, but I can understand the need to go deeper.
I’m still thinking about this one as well, though trying to make sure that speaker-based events are introducing genuinely new material seems like one approach, so going to more of those may help address the issue.
Not all meetups run this way. The People’s Republic of IF, which is what I envisioned trying to emulate when I started our meetup, is much more informal; typically there are fewer than ten people, and the participants talk about what they’re working on and what has happened lately in the IF world.
Other resources about running community events:
The website for Oxford Indies Ludolunch, a picnic with talks that was designed to be family-friendly.
Here’s Evan Czaplicki on running community hack nights rather than presentation/audience nights: why it’s productive (and builds connections between people) to let them work together on projects.
Dames Making Games runs a range of different events, including jams and workshops, and provides mentoring; the organization accepts donations.
Here’s a podcast I did with Victor Ojuel and Ara Carrasco, mostly about community building. They asked me about this as though I know something about the topic, which was very sporting of them!
Mike Schinkel on Meetup Best Practices, in general. I have not been charging, in contradiction of his advice, but we still get decent attendance — typically around 70% of signups. I don’t actually want to hassle people about this; I have times when I don’t have the energy for something I wanted to go to, or where a client’s needs come up and prevent me attending, so I understand why people might miss a meeting.
I do make a point always to tweet about upcoming meetups; typically when I set up the meetup date, I will schedule a tweet one week in advance and another tweet one day in advance, so that I don’t need to remember to do that later.
If you are starting your own IF meetup, I would be very happy to tweet/post and help get the word out to people in your area who might be following my blog or Twitter account. So feel free to let me know about that.
If you think you have something you’d like to share with the London IF meetup, please do get in touch with me about your pitch and we’ll see if it’s a good fit. Or, likewise, if you have feedback about what we’re doing or you’d like to see more/less of something.
Thinking of putting together a different type of event? I’ve also collected some summary information about running IF competitions; about putting together a one-off showcase of IF demos; and about running a content drive to produce cover art.