What Other Conventions Can Learn from London’s Nine Worlds GeekFest (And What Nine Worlds Can Still Do Better)
Nine Worlds Geekfest is a London convention that is --- and let’s just get this out of the way now --- unconventional. The event was born out of a Kickstarter in 2013 which sought to put on a “weekend-long, multi-genre convention” with a note that they are “founded on the radical belief that geekdom should not be restricted by class, age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, or the ability to cite Wookieepedia in arguments.” This is the kind of lip service you see at most conventions, despite actual attendants finding the truth to be slightly different.
But Nine Worlds puts its money where its mouth is.
To give you an idea of the kind of place Nine Worlds Geekfest is, I’ll walk you through how my check-in process went. I gave my name and my email address, picked up my badge --- and then was directed to an area where I could write down my preferred name on my badge and pick up a button that indicated my preferred pronoun. The small buttons read, “My pronoun is” with a number of options --- including “he,” “she,” “they,” and “zie” --- as well as blank badges for attendants to write a pronoun in if they didn’t see theirs represented.
Though my personal experience of cons is relatively limited (I’ve only attended five different ones, including Nine Worlds), this is the only con I’ve ever seen or heard of that demonstrates this level of consideration for its attendants. Beyond its comprehensive anti-harassment policy, at a much more structural level than its cohorts, Nine Worlds is all about support, respect, and accessibility when it comes to populations who may not have seen those things at other conventions.
This extended not just to people’s pronouns, but other considerations as well. Yellow lanyards (as opposed to the standard blue ones) are available to any attendee who does not wish to be photographed --- and journalists are all given strict instructions that all photos, even without a special lanyard, must be taken after receiving consent from the subject.
There are also badges available that indicate communication preferences, for attendees who sometimes find social interaction overwhelming. Different colored badges indicate that a person is happy to speak to anyone, that they would prefer only to speak with people they know, or that they would prefer not to talk unless they initiate. In addition, attendees who required other accommodations could receive a badge for priority seating, allowing them to sit closer to the front or near the doors during panels.
These patterns of support, respect, and accessibility are also displayed in convention programming. At any given hour, there are available panels discussing issues related to feminism, disability, the queer community, and many others. And of course, there’s other stuff available too.
This con leans much more heavily on academia and discussion-based panels than others, but also has a much greater breadth. For those more used to a “comic con,” Nine Worlds GeekFest does what it says on the tin --- it’s an event for all forms of geekery, not just comics. There are events and panels available related to podcasting, fanfiction, Star Trek, Tolkien, A Song of Ice And Fire, and more.
There are also tracks built into the con such that you can, if you choose, follow one particular aspect of fandom throughout the convention and attend all its panels. In addition: for those attending with young children, there are “kid-friendly” panels or events that go through most of the day --- and conversely, there are panels that contain adult/explicit content.
Also, I know I’m making it sound like a very serious academic event, but I should be clear: it’s really fun! Like at any con, there’s great cosplay, exciting workshops (like Water Dancing classes with the actor who played Syrio Forel on HBO’s Game of Thrones), and also parties! In keeping with the Norse Nine Worlds theme, many attendants look forward to an evening event called Bifrost, a queer cabaret that features a lot of dancing and a lot of good times.
I enjoyed each of the panels I went to--especially a thought-provoking one about wordless comics --- and it was notable that at every panel I went to was at least 50% cis and/or trans women, if not more. Keep in mind: none of the panels I went to were focused on addressing feminism; an effort was clearly made to have women equally represented on all topics.
Of course, there are still lengths to go. Though women were well represented, people of color were not nearly as visible. There were concerns from some con-goers that, despite the systems put in place to make Nine Worlds a trans-inclusive space, language and rhetoric used by some panelists did not reflect that. From personal experience, one panel I attended indulged in conversations that were Western-centric and very much othered cultures that didn’t espouse similar values.
These are things that happen at any con, really, but the expectations are higher at a convention that has made a name for itself as going above and beyond to be inclusive. That being said, it also feels like these aspects are, potentially, fixable. Nine Worlds does offer guidelines to panelists and moderators and, while the convention certainly can’t control each panelist, it --- and other conventions --- can perhaps offer more detailed guides and training to avoid problematic terminology or troubling patterns of discussion. Considering the efforts they’ve made thus far and the seriousness with which they take their feedback, if there’s any con that can do it, it’s Nine Worlds.
Now, there is one thing that might hold some back from attending the con--and that’s price. This year, buying an adult ticket for the full weekend at the standard price would have set you back £95 (~$150 USD) with the price going steadily upward as the date of the con creeps closer. In the end, you could buy a weekend ticket at the door for £130 ($200).
The con is expensive because its model is significantly different from others. There are very few vendors or paid autograph sessions to subsidize costs. Still, considering it’s one of the most unique, queer- and woman-friendly, and educational cons I’ve ever attended, I think it actually is worth its asking price --- but it’s a barrier nonetheless.
Fortunately, Nine Worlds is partnered with Con or Bust, a non-profit that aims to increase racial and ethnic diversity at science fiction and fantasy conventions around the world by providing financial assistance.
All in all, I was really impressed and moved by my experience at Nine Worlds GeekFest 2015. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve access, openness, and inclusivity for marginalized groups. Much of the time it can seem theoretical, a thing that won’t be accomplished for another 20 or 30 years, so it’s both shocking and inspiring to see an event that is so far ahead of its counterparts --- especially given how young it is.
At this convention, these things were not just possible --- they were easy (or at least their seamlessly coordinated volunteers makes it seem that way) and the results from the efforts made are apparent.
To other nerd-related conventions: step it up. You could definitely stand to take a leaf from the Nine Worlds book.
And to the UK nerds, I can’t say it enough: you’re making a mistake by passing this con up.
Tickets for Nine Worlds GeekFest 2016 are on sale now.