ConFusion 2021 Eastercon Logo Banner
By Jo Van Ekeren:
This past weekend, ConFusion 2021 (Eastercon) was held as a virtual convention. Guests of Honour were author Dan Abnett, author and editor Nik Vincent-Abnett, and fan Dave Lally. The online environment was primarily in an application called Gather Town, with some aspects of the con also available through the ConFusion 2021 website.
I had volunteered to staff a Virtual Fan Table for the Memphis in 2023 Worldcon bid at ConFusion 2021. Prior to the con, the Dealers Room head Melissa Taylor gave me a demo of the Gather Town environment so I’d have an idea what to expect. Melissa was really responsive to my requests for customisation to the fan table setup, which I greatly appreciated. The Memphis Fan Table area had a link to the website at a little kiosk on either side, a pop-up of the Memphis Q&A PDF (in the vending machine), and a whiteboard where people could write questions or messages (“back in 1/2 hour”, etc.). [N.B.: I wasn’t planning on writing this report until someone (ahem!) twisted my arm, and I didn’t think to take screenshots of the various rooms, so some of the images below are mockups.]
ConFusion 2021 Gather Town Profile Bar
Right before the con, I received an e-mail with a virtual con badge, which was cool, even though I didn’t do anything with it. Members had the option of printing their badge off and wearing it, putting it in their virtual background, and/or posting it on social media.
Before dropping you into the environment, Gather Town required you to select an avatar from a variety of avatar choices and attire choices (some of the “attire” choices were wheelchairs, which was great). You also had the ability to add a line of text to your Profile with pronouns and/or bio info. After selecting their avatar, each person appeared in their current location in Gather Town with a small version of their avatar labeled with their badge name and membership number.
ConFusion 2021 Gather Town Avatar Selection
I was able to be present for around 6 hours each day Fri-Sat-Sun-Mon (since I live Down Under, the UK was 12 hours off from me, which made a pretty skewed schedule for me, but the fact that we have a 4-day Easter holiday weekend down here really helped). I spoke with people who stopped by the table in the Dealers Room, but I also took the opportunity on several occasions to go out and explore the VR environment and chat with other members I encountered. I had nice conversations with Leife Shallcross who was “next door” with the Australia in 2025 bid, and with David Stokes from Guardbridge Books on my other side.
I don’t know what the con’s membership total was (my membership, bought right before the convention, was number 438), but there was a small “people online” counter down in the corner on the Gather Town screen, and the highest number I noticed was 169 – which may or may not be close to the actual max usage of that environment during the convention.
There was a user profile bar at the bottom of the screen, which you could click on to toggle your green/red Status, change your text line, access a map to the entire Gather Town layout, change your video and audio hardware settings, and add an emoji to your profile. Unfortunately, though I tried it periodically, I could never get the map to load; the “loading” indicator just sat there, grinding. However, the designer, Alex Storer, posted a copy of the “spaceship” map on Facebook, and it’s really a clever design.
ConFusion 2021 Eastercon Gather Town Map, design by Alex Storer
I liked the Gather Town virtual-reality environment much better than that of some other virtual conventions I’ve attended in the past year. It was simpler, very much like walking around at a real con inside a video game. There were potted trees and plants and chairs and couches. There was a large “Hangar” room where the Registration and Information Desk was located, with a bunch of shuttle-sized space vehicles parked in it. There were Easter Eggs like a fountain in the Arboretum having an unmarked entrance at one specific point which led to an observation deck.
There was an “invisible maze” accessed via an unmarked doorway (which I messed with for a bit, but I could not figure out how to get through it without being continually kicked back to the start). They did a Scavenger Hunt in the Dealers Hall which involved having to visit each dealer’s area and get a single pop-up word which you had to collect to form sentences and win a prize. There was a Gaming room which had a bunch of little stations where you could play video games, but I tried one and it appeared that the functionality was poor because it made an already resource-intensive application even more resource-intensive.
There was a virtual Art Show, which was viewable either through Gather Town, or through the browser from their website in an app called “Kunstmatrix”. I thought this was really well done. It’s available to the public for a couple more days, and you should go see it!
There was a nice variety on the Programme Schedule, with panels, readings, kaffeeklatsches, virtual author “signing” sessions, and presentations by various Dealers. Programming ranged across the gamut of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, for both printed and visual media – with even some cuisine-related events!
SMOFcon 2021 (SMOFcon Europe in Lisboa) presented a panel on “Managing the Crisis”, with Elizabeth McCarty, Marguerite Smith, and Matt Calvert, moderated by Vincent Docherty. The speakers talked about how to manage con-related crises in an age of instantaneous, fast-moving social media, and discussed some real-life examples. This was a really useful panel, and I hope that it can be put up on YouTube, or otherwise made available to conrunners outside of this convention. (Elizabeth McCarty and Colin Harris have authored a great resource document entitled “Social Media Response Guide“, which is publicly available to conrunners and other interested parties.)
When you got close to someone in Gather Town, a little video window for them would pop open at the top of your screen, and you could see and talk to each other (your own video screen was on the lower right side). If that person’s video was turned off, you could click a “Ring” button on their little video window, and it would ring like a telephone on their side so they knew you wanted to talk. You could set the video screen of the person with whom you were speaking to full-screen mode and see a larger image of them during your conversation.
People walking by too closely, or walking up to you, would cause their little video window to pop up and they could jump in on your conversation, but there were also private spaces you could go into and talk, where random passersby wouldn’t trigger interruptions. You also had the ability to turn your green Status light to red to indicate that you were not around or were doing something privately; this also tightened your proximity bubble and prevented interruptions from random passersby.
There was a left-side menu which included a pop-up list of all attendees, showing their green/red Status and their text (pronouns, bio, etc.). You could do a search by Badge Name to find a specific attendee, or browse the whole list. You could click on an attendee’s name and Message them, or Follow them (which would “physically” take you to wherever their avatar was located). The system also included a “Block” function which you could use if there was someone you didn’t want to be able to see you or talk to you; it made you invisible to the blocked person.
There was also a popup menu item for a Discord-type Chat message feed, which included all messages to Everyone, People Nearby (if they were in the same room as you), and your exchanges with individual members. But you had to scroll back through it to read messages; there was no Search or Filter function by keyword or member.
Now for an in-depth discussion of the drawbacks:
1) Gather Town required a desktop device; you could use it in a browser or in the desktop app, but there was no functionality for mobile devices.
2) Gather Town was a resource hog and I had to pretty much shut everything down on my computer to keep it from periodically losing connection and having to reconnect (and even that didn’t always prevent glitching). I actually have a pretty powerful desktop device; I suspect people with basic laptops and desktop devices would have had a really poor experience. I’m guessing that the Gather Town developers and testers all have hardcore gaming tech hardware setups; I don’t think Gather Town will ever make it as a successful virtual venue unless they can resolve these high CPU usage problems.
3) The environment was laid out like a real convention space, which meant you had to use your left/right and up/down arrow buttons to travel through long empty hallways to get somewhere. (When I refer to “travel” in this summary, I mean holding down the arrow keys and navigating around obstacles.) This seemed like the result of an inability to re-imagine a virtual con as anything other than being the same layout as a physical con. Getting from one place to another could often take at least minute or two of using your keyboard to navigate to get there (and that was assuming you had a good idea of the route to take to get where you wanted to go). I think it would have been an especially difficult adjustment for people who have never played video games.
4) The interface needed the ability to click a specific room on a list of rooms and immediately be taken there. There were teleportals in the larger areas which would take you to a central teleporter hall with all of the main area teleportals labeled, so there was a bit of a shortcut by that method. But a way to instantly get from one Programming Panel to the next was sorely needed. And a setup where new entrants were deposited into the central registration area hub, with many labeled doors each leading immediately to different sections and not requiring travel time and extensive keyboard manipulation, would have been much better (and would have still permitted the ability to have “fun” exploration rooms like the Arboretum and the Gaming Room).
5) I went to a reading early on in one of the programming rooms. There were a dozen or so attendees, and it was set up so that video windows showed only for the person/people up front. You could also “attend” sessions outside of Gather Town by going to a section of their website and clicking on the video feed you wanted to see. But a lot of people reported having so many issues trying to attend panels in Gather Town that they just chose instead to access the video streams via the website. However, there were lots of problems with that, too, with things getting started very late, or the streaming not working during the actual panel, and the panels were only viewable later on as a recording, which prevented in-session Q&A interaction with the audience.
6) Programming sessions were recorded, and were available for later viewing via the convention’s website. The quality of these recordings was pretty good, but I had to set the video playback quality to the lowest level to avoid “hiccupping”. And strangely, though I tried several things, I was never able to route the audio from these recordings through headphones, either through an audio jack connection or through a USB headphone connection (although both of these worked just fine for me in Gather Town). There was no automated captioning on anything, and no transcripts for the panels. (Members still have access to these recordings until midnight [GMT+1] on 12 April.)
7) I think that the environment design for the convention was done with a goal of cleverness, cuteness, and “real-world emulation in a video game” – and there’s something to be said for that, parts of it were rather fun. But I’m very vision, hearing, and hand-dexterity abled, so it was easy for me. I thought the environment showed a real lack of awareness of the accessibility issues which accompany such an interface for those with impaired vision, hearing, or hand/finger dexterity. Labels on person icons were quite small, and navigation was by keyboard keys. (The accessibility problems with Gather Town are well known; ACM’s Ubicomp had to apologise after using it for their convention in September 2020.)
8) I saw someone somewhere say that Gather Town costs $1 per person for 2 hours (which would be $24,000/£12,300 for 500 people for 4 days). This meant that it was so expensive that everything was set up only right before the convention started, and there was no ability to do a “shakedown cruise” and revise things based on user feedback in the days leading up to the convention. Aside from the expensive cost and the poor performance quality, the inability to do that shakedown cruise without any additional cost would seem to me to be a real deal-breaker for using Gather Town.
Based on all of these considerations, my recommendation for a virtual convention would be for the environment to be something that is mainly text and menu-based with a little bit of artistic embellishment, but with the primary emphasis on functionality and accessibility, rather than on impressive visuals or virtual-reality effects.
I “attended” the Eastercon Bid session which was done over Zoom and moderated by Vincent Docherty. There was one bid for 2022 by Phil Dyson, to be called “Reclamation“, which they expect to be in-person but with some virtual aspects for members who can’t attend. It was selected in a vote by 98% of the members at the session. They then announced their Guests of Honour: Authors Zen Cho and Mary Robinette Kowal, Artist Philip Reeve, and Fan Nicholas Whyte.
There were two bids for the 2023 Eastercon. One, for “Persistence”, was by the current chair, who is understandably wanting to put on a real convention in 2 years because their convention last year had been cancelled at the last minute due to the burgeoning pandemic, and they’d been forced to do this one (its replacement) virtually. The first bid presentation lasted about 3 minutes and amounted to “I want to put on an in-person convention, and I promise to do a good job, but I don’t have any specifics yet”.
The second presentation was a spur-of-the-moment “bid” by Alison Scott, who wanted to speak at length regarding the other bid, but was told that she was required to be an official bid to do so. Scott’s presentation was civil but quite impassioned regarding the lack of consideration shown in the planning of the current convention, saying that it called into question whether the other bid was really a good choice without first being forced to address the problems with the current convention as part of their bid planning presentation, and without being willing to commit to at least planning for a partially virtual convention, because she thinks that will be necessary. She said the convention was incredibly expensive for what it actually delivered, due to lack of planning, poor choices (some of which were strongly opposed by committee members who resigned after being overruled), and no testing or feedback.
Scott made the case that the Eastercon convention should not be a fancy show, but rather a community-building and sharing enterprise with much better communication than had been done this year, and that members should either vote for her bid (with the promise that she really would put together a well-run convention should she be selected) – or more preferably, vote to defer the awarding of the 2023 convention to next year, so that the bid(s) presented could make use of the feedback and lessons learned from this convention to really do an excellent job of planning (and that bid might very well be the bid of the current chair, if they showed a marked improvement in their planning a year from now). There was a vote of the members attending the session, and the result was 16% for the current chair’s bid, 10% for Alison Scott’s “bid”, and 69% to defer to next year the selection of the 2023 bidcom.
Farah Mendlesohn and Pat McMurray announced they would be presenting a bid for the 2024 Eastercon at next year’s convention, with team members David Cooper, Fiona Scarlett, Jude Roberts, and John Coxon. Their slideshow and the audio of their presentation are available on Dropbox.
Further information on ConFusion 2021
In spite of the issues, I really enjoyed getting the chance to interact with European fans at ConFusion 2021, and even though I won’t be able to attend in person, I’m hoping that Reclamation 2022 will have a virtual component in which I can participate.