Article preface: Topics including forms of harassment, consumption of alcohol, and similar ideas are covered in this content.
Yay, I’m going to a convention!!
Attending a games convention is exciting! Folks gather from all over to play the latest games, get exclusive merchandise, meet up with friends, and see their favorite content, creators, and experts. Others attend to speak, perform, see fans, sell goods, and network with others in the industry. These kinds of gatherings are often the highlight of our year. Unfortunately, every once in a while, less desirable aspects of gaming culture sometimes show up at cons… particularly harassment. In this article, I’m going to go over a few aspects of harassment that come up in these spaces. Particularly, who is responsible for preventing it, what it can look like, how to respond (on either side), and how to take care of our own personal safety.
Before we get into it, a note for event staff:
I’d like to start by adding a caveat to folks who plan events: The responsibility to prevent harassment should never be on the attendees. Period. If you’re an event organizer or manager, consider reading this wonderful article Cosplay is Not Consent: Making a Harassment-Free Con for ideas on how to implement systemic strategies at conventions, as well as workplace harassment recommendations from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Though the rest of this article presents common individual strategies for lowering risk of harassment and coping with harassment if it occurs, the responsibility for harassment prevention remains on the event organizers and the perpetrators of harassment themselves.
Don’t Harass People!
Like we said above, the responsibility for prevention isn’t on the individual who experiences harassment. There’s an aspect of learning how to navigate boundaries that’s fairly unique in convention spaces. Sometimes we don’t even realize that our behaviors might come across as harassment.
What is Harassment, and Why Is It Not Obvious That We Might Be Doing It?
Harassment, as we define it in our workshops at Take This, is a form of discrimination that includes unwanted physical or verbal behavior that offends or humiliates us. Sometimes, harassment even threatens or frightens us… particularly when harassment is escalated to the point of threatening personal safety. It can be outright offensive, obvious actions, like calling the SWAT team on a streamer while they’re live or catcalling someone. It can also be much more subtle, and there’s ways this happens at conventions more often than in usual life. Right to Be has a list of common forms of street harassment, which venn diagrams into this territory well:
- Following or blocking someone’s path
- Touching or grabbing part of someone’s body without their permission (e.g. hair, or by extension, cosplay or clothing)
- Continuously trying to get someone’s attention (even when they are ignoring the behavior or actively expressing disinterest or discomfort)
The difficulty with conventions is that we have chances to interact with people we’re excited to see. Whether they’re celebrities, industry icons, or even just that one streamer or online friend you’ve had a few interactions with that you recognize across the way. Yes it gets crowded and is hard to get people’s attention sometimes – but enthusiasm and urgency aren’t excuses for these kinds of behaviors.
“But I was just being friendly!” – Why Intent is of Limited Value
Now, intent is important and it doesn’t change the impact. Miscommunications and one-off stepping on toes is very different from persistent, deliberate harassment, but they both still have impact.What matters is how we respond to people when they set boundaries with us. Folks often mean well when they try to get close to others at conventions – whether it’s asking that burning question after a panel or attempting to wiggle our way into an after party. Regardless of our intent, the impact is making someone feel uncomfortable, offended, humiliated, or even threatened. Crossing someone’s boundaries repeatedly is its own form of harassment. Whether or not we meant it in good faith, forcing an interaction on someone else is absolutely not okay.
How to Respond if Someone Sets Limits
Just because we traveled across the country to see that voice actor on *that* panel does not mean that they owe it to us to say hi. They did the panel – that’s the reward. Boundaries and limits are crucial to a healthy, realistic convention experience. People, especially celebrities and panelists, get busy fast… and many times people have plans that run back to back… yet even if someone’s schedule is wide open, they owe you none of their time. Make no assumptions about how someone should or is utilizing their time, why they make the decisions around it they do, and how they protect their own convention experience. We are all unique individuals with our own needs, including physical boundaries and respect for privacy. If someone sets a boundary, we must respect it. No ifs, ands, or buts. If they don’t seem interested, we are best suited to respond with courtesy and respect rather than asking for explanations or checking to see if they’re okay. They are choosing not to share that information with us, and that’s their boundary. If someone sets limits with you, it is a great idea to take accountability for anything you may have done inappropriately, apologize briefly, and take your exit. Perhaps something like, “So sorry to have held you up, have a good day” to quickly acknowledge without making a big deal of things. Following that interaction, be sure to respect the person or group’s space and boundaries.
When You’ve Been Harassed:
The Perfect Storm
Harassment often occurs in public spaces or spaces where we generally interact with others… and this makes conventions a potential perfect storm for harassment to occur. The culture of a convention encourages sharing our schedules, especially for folks in the game industry. Whether or not we mean to, we share lots of information about ourselves in this context – topics of interest, who we affiliate with, what we look like, what we’re attending, sometimes even where we’re staying. Most events are public and accessible to anyone at the convention. Restaurants surrounding the convention center are flooded with lanyards and cosplay.
We expect convention staff to do their best to prevent harassment. While we can’t predict what others will say or do, and being the subject of harassment is never our fault, there are a few things we as attendees can do to plan ahead and protect ourselves from unwanted or unwelcome contact with others.
- Do some research before attending
Be sure to check out the website for the convention itself. Do they have clear statements and policies about behavior that is or is not tolerated? Does the website offer clear guidelines on what to do if you experience unwanted behavior from others while attending? You can also look into what security measures are available from local hotels, most will be able to provide security measures on their website or through a quick phone call to the front desk.
- Check your privacy settings on social media
It feels like an obvious piece of guidance – but trust me, it’s well worth your time. A lot of personal information can be shared unintentionally through social media. For example, having geolocation tagging active in your photo apps means that other people can see exactly where you are and when. By making sure we’ve got a sense of what all we’re sharing, we can be empowered to share what we want – and only what we want – with confidence. We can limit who gets to contact us, and who gets to know about what we’re doing.
- Share plans with trusted supports
I’m a big supporter of the buddy system. Even if we don’t have our buddy with us, it’s a wise choice to have at least one person who knows what our plans are. So if something goes wrong, we have some we trust ready to act as backup. This is especially important in riskier situations where we might be under the influence or out late. This is also useful so we can think ahead of if we need to create social or physical barriers between us and other people – whether it’s through a private table at a restaurant or strategic planning of the perfect panel seats.
- Protect the panelists!
Speaking of panels, I’d like to add a special shout here to anyone who may speak or plan them. Don’t be afraid to ask panel coordinators if you can have particular safety measures in place ahead of time. As someone who has had to do this, I can attest that it can make all the difference for panelists, moderators, and attendees alike. Moderators, remember that Q&A is a privilege and not a right. For panelists, remember that not all panels have to end in hallway chatting. Boundaries, when set and upheld, are a beautiful thing.
Reacting to Harassment
There’s no right or wrong way to respond to harassment. No matter what course we choose, our needs and feelings are of utmost priority. Everyone’s needs are different, but here’s a few examples of how to take control of our own situations.
- Lean on your resources
Here’s that arbitrary permission some of us need to ask for help from others. A safe con experience is important, and our feelings are valid. Bringing our concerns to the attention of our trusted friends and resources is an excellent way to find support. Talking to convention staff, enforcers, security, and supports can absolutely increase our safety and the safety of others as well. Don’t be afraid to contact the Games and Online Harassment Hotline. This is what they’re trained to do!
- Trust your gut
If a situation doesn’t feel safe, or someone is giving us that *feeling* that something just isn’t right, it’s okay to take an exit. By telling our friends about our gut feelings, we can get more support around safety too. They may have also noticed the same person showing up everywhere too, and you sharing your concern helps them share theirs.
- Keep those receipts
Beyond our own tracking of where we ate and what we bought, a paper trail can help with any kind of protection and justice relating to harassment. Even if it’s just a note we keep, marking down when/how/where/who (including witnesses) can help if we end up needing to pursue further protections against others in the future.
- Strength in numbers
Being strategic in a group of people can be as good of a barrier as a physical wall. By sitting amidst friends and colleagues, we create both physical and social boundaries and are less susceptible to uncomfortable social pressure. In a similar light, it can be helpful if we have a friend (at the con or not) who is a designated caller in case we need a quick exit from conversations. Most importantly, keeping trusted friends aware of harassment can help prevent further harassment and exposure to harassers through coordinated planning and communication.
- Establish and maintain boundaries… if it feels safe to do so!
Even if we’re well-known and have fans in the industry, it isn’t rude to set boundaries and ensure others respect them. Setting boundaries in the moment can be intimidating, but it also calls attention to an unwelcome or inappropriate behavior. Doing so and sharing this information with others gives us an opportunity to potentially prevent repeat behaviors.
The ultimate goal is to have the above tips become irrelevant in the future. We all contribute to a health convention culture, games culture, and games industry. We get to set the tone of expectations, and must know when we’ve reached a point where we feel unsafe. I hope that readers can go forth to conventions feeling empowered by these tips, ready to tackle anything that we encounter.
This article is not a substitute for medical advice or professional counseling. While we at Take This want to provide you with resources, we do not recommend or endorse any particular site, treatment, therapy, or resource. We provide these links at our sole discretion but have not necessarily vetted or reviewed any particular resource. We assume no liability for the use of the information or resources on these sites and encourage you to use your own best judgment when reviewing these resources. If you live in the US and you’re having suicidal thoughts, reach out to the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or call/text 988. If you’re outside the US, you can find local crisis lines at Suicide.org. If you’re even debating whether you should call them, you should call them. The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline handles all psychological crises, not just suicide.
Sarah Hays is a doctor of counseling psychology and licensed mental health counselor in Washington State. Her passion for serving the gaming community has been clear since before she started working for Take This in 2018 as a clinical contributor, and focusing heavily on her passion of delivering live, educational content like workshops, panels, and co-hosting Take This’ Twitch stream. Never satisfied with limiting herself to serving one part of the gaming community, Dr. Hays is an outpatient therapist for the game-based mental health nonprofit Game to Grow, specializing in working with games industry, ADHD, and LGBTQIA+ populations. She also serves as the Director of Programming for Queer Women of Esports, is an advisor for the Games Hotline, and is one of the editors of the groundbreaking book A Clinician’s Guide to Geek Therapy. She has authored a number of other works, including a chapter in Video Games and Well-Being.
Dr. Hays can be found on Twitter here.