Inclusive Streaming Workshop Builds Community to Advance Research

October 2, 2019

The Inclusive Streaming Initiative recently hosted a two-day workshop, bringing together leading scholars in areas such as game studies and cultural anthropology, to promote diversity and inclusion in livestreaming. Funded through an Exploration Grant of $75,000 from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), the workshop tackled challenges related to identity-based harassment.

Obstacles to Diversity

“On the first day, we focused on sharing ideas and identifying the most pressing issues,” says Informatics Professor Bonnie Ruberg (they/them pronouns), who specializes in queer issues in video games. Ruberg is leading the initiative — focused on interdisciplinary research into diversity, discrimination and inclusivity in video game livestreaming — with Ph.D. candidate Amanda Cullen and Ph.D. students Kat Brewster and Spencer Ruelos.

The workshop covered a variety of issues, including obstacles to diversity in terms of who has visibility and who is vulnerable to hostility, and the complexities of the streaming process itself. As Ruberg explains, the discussion wasn’t just “there is harassment, we need diversity.” Rather, they note that the group was “looking for the complications” and asking questions such as “how are people pushing back against harassment and what tactics do they use?”

The conversation continued into the evening with a public panel discussion featuring four of the workshop participants:

  • Dr. Samantha Blackmon, an associate professor of English at Purdue University who is a games researcher and is passionate about making the games community a more inclusive space;
  • Dr. Mia Consalvo, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Game Studies and Design at Concordia University in Montreal who runs the mLab, a space dedicated to developing innovative methods for studying games and game players;
  • Alexandra Orlando, an alum of the Games Institute at the University of Waterloo who is a lecturer and researcher exploring esports and Twitch streaming; and
  • Dr. T.L. Taylor, a professor of comparative media studies at MIT who is a qualitative sociologist focused on the intersection of culture and technology in gaming and online spaces.

Notably, both Blackmon and Orlando have a robust streaming history. “They were able to give us some really helpful insight into not just what it means to study this topic,” says Ruberg, “but to actually be on camera and be in front of people, day to day.”

The panel discussion was moderated by Cullen, who works in the Critical Approaches to Technology and the Social (CATS) Lab. “What became clear during the conversation was that the complexities of livestreaming are reflecting the complexities of everyday life in other contexts,” she says. “There are tensions — in livestreaming as a labor and as a topic of research — between a potential for autonomy and the pursuit of doing what you love, and the harnessing of this potential for commodification.” According to Cullen, these tensions are further complicated by the social and technological practices of the streaming platforms themselves and their users. “I think what makes livestreaming an important area of research is that through streaming, these tensions of everyday life are broadcast to the world, opening them up for critical analysis and reflection.”

The panelists discussed everything from esports, parental concerns and the increasingly “corporate” role of streamers in the gig economy, to game development, the culture of platforms such as Twitch versus Mixer, and the importance of creating welcoming spaces for diverse streamers and audiences. The full panel discussion is available to view online.

The panel discussion at the Inclusive Streaming Workshop: (from left) Amanda Cullen, Mia Consalvo, Samantha Blackmon, Alexandra Orlando and T.L. Taylor.

Action Items for Inclusion

Ruberg notes that on the second day of the workshop, the conversation turned from challenges to solutions. “The second day was more about taking our ideas out into the world and making change, whether through academic work or community action.”

The workshop participants split into groups and focused on items such as new research directions and possible grants, potential collaborations and publication opportunities, and the development of conference panels and educational materials. For example, T.L. Taylor and Morgan Romine — co-directors of AnyKey, an organization that promotes diversity in esports — wanted to put together a packet for universities launching esports programs. Romine, who received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from UCI, is on the board of advisors for UCI’s collegiate esports program. She and Taylor worked with others to develop guidelines for fostering a culture of inclusion.

In the end, the participants gained not only new knowledge and research directions but also a sense of support for their work. When asked about key takeaways from the event, workshop participants left comments that included “affirmation that my work is interesting and matters,” “a new network of valuable contributors,” and “energy for my next project and possibilities for future success in academia.”

Online harassment in games in general is an ongoing problem, and this two-day event helped solidify a community of scholars determined to find solutions. Ruberg emphasized the collaborative spirit of the event and the ongoing Inclusive Streaming Initiative. “We were very focused on building a community around livestreaming research.”

Next up for those running the initiative is to write a report about the workshop and continue their large-scale, mixed-methods study of the experiences and needs of diverse video game livestreamers. The team recently conducted a survey and is analyzing the data, but based on feedback received during the workshop, they now plan to conduct interviews as well. “People were saying the survey is great, but there are a lot of people who aren’t going to respond to a survey,” explains Ruberg. “So it was a really good learning experience for us that if we want to tackle these big problems, we need to think about what different methods capture which pieces of it.” The overall goal of the study, similar to that of the workshop, is to “illuminate the complexities of the issues around diversity, and to point us towards concrete ways to make livestreaming more inclusive.”

Shani Murray