Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Interview with ConTessa organizer Stacy Dellorfano

by Randy

Howdy, gamers! Over the last couple weeks, I have followed the progress of really neat gaming convention called ConTessa, which will be happening June 21st-24th. The gaming convention is online and free. I decided to reach out to the organizer, Stacy Dellorfano, and see what it's all about. Stacy was very kind and answered a few questions for me.

Growing Up Gamers: Let's start with ConTessa. So, what is ConTessa?

Stacy Dellorfano: ConTessa is a four-day online gaming convention put on exclusively by women, but open to anyone to attend. We're gathering on Google+, where we'll be using Hangouts On Air to broadcast all of our games and panels to anyone that wants to watch. As of right now, we have 33 events registered for the four day run, and registration is still open until June 17th, so I expect to see even more!

GUG: What was your inspiration for doing ConTessa? 

SD: I first came up with the idea for ConTessa when I forced myself to go on a Social Media diet over the holidays when visiting family and friends out of state. I found that while there were many excellent advantages to being a part of the overall Google+ tabletop gaming community, there was also a great deal of snark, negativity, and meanness - especially when discussing such emotionally charged topics as women in gaming. I engaged in many of those debates and conversations, and frequently felt myself coming away disappointed with the tone and caliber of the conversations. To further exacerbate the problem, I also discovered that after gaining a reputation for being someone who talks about those issues, those were the only issues I was ever asked to talk about. 

It was frustrating, and I kept going back to the idea that what we're really fighting for is the ability to play games, and we often spend so much time fighting that we don't get a lot of chance to play the games. Plus, it can be exhausting to be a woman in the land of tabletop gaming always expected to have an opinion on everything "as a woman" rather than "as a gamer". As I was detoxing from all the social media negativity, and having a lot of fun playing games with our friends in the flesh, it dawned on me that I probably wasn't alone no matter how lonely I felt. So, I whipped up a first draft of what ConTessa could be, which unfortunately reflected a lot of my own bitterness and caused another crapstorm of negativity. 

Since that initial draft, there have been a lot of changes primarily in tone and how I choose to broach the subject, but the core message is there. We're here to game and talk about gaming, and nothing else. There's no set agenda, no political bias or motivation ... ConTessa is just here to provide a space where women can be celebrated and highlighted as gamers first and foremost. 

GUG: Safe spaces are important. Putting together a conference seems like a big undertaking. What was that experience like? I understand it's still unfolding, but what are some of the challenges you have encountered?

SD: I had no idea what I was doing when I started. None, and I tried not to go into it with any preconceived notions on how things like this should be done. If you've watched/listen to/read Neil Gaiman's Keynote Address going around entitled 'Make Good Art', you can kind see my general approach to all my projects. I had no idea how to create an online convention, or any convention for that matter. I didn't know what the rules are, what the limitations are, or what the impossibilities are, and I'm a huge fan of dreaming as big as you can and then paring things down to reality as you start hitting deadlines, so I had a huge dream and I went about trying to figure out how to do that. 

I've been working on ConTessa for about six months. At first, I thought I'd have a whole fleet of volunteers, and some showed up initially, but I quickly found that I had a huge disadvantage because I had no idea what needed to be done, so I had no idea how to delegate these things. So, the volunteers went on hold and I put my head down and started plugging away at what I wanted to do, seeing what worked and what didn't work and making adjustments in-flight. 

I think the biggest challenge was actually in creating a fairly simple registration system for creating events that anyone can use and a web site with a listing of events that show up in the time zone of the person viewing them rather than the timezone of the person who created them. It took me close to a month to put together all of the pieces just for that tiny little piece, but it's had an enormous impact on the convention since everyone is joining in their pajamas at whatever time works best for them. Getting everyone in the same place at the same time when you're running a convention that is truly worldwide can be tricky, and I knew it would help the convention a lot - especially in bringing new people to Google+ - if I could figure that bit out. 

Beyond that, it's just been a matter of getting the word out, maintaining a consistent message, not boring community members or page followers with dull content, and lining up sponsors willing to give away their PDFs for prizes. A lot of work and organization, but it's very much been worth the work. 

GUG: We're definitely impressed with what we see! Online cons seem to be picking up steam. Aethercon happened last year, and is happening again this year, for instance. Why online? What do you see as the benefits of doing this online?

SD: The benefits are enormous. First, you don't have to convince people to spend a lot of extra money and take a lot of extra time out to travel to the convention, so we have a truly world-wide audience and world-wide convention. This brings a lot of new ideas and styles and lets people who are in places where there aren't many conventions have the fun experience of going to a convention. Second, the barrier for entry is quite low being a free convention online. I don't have to secure money to rent out a hotel or other convention venue, and since we're using all free services provided by Google+, we can keep the barrier of entry very low to get the maximum amount of involvement - even by gamers who may may not make gaming their full-time hobby. Third, because all of the panels and games are recorded via on air hangouts and placed on YouTube, you don't have to be present to enjoy the panel. Missing a panel just means that you watch it later when you have a little more time. 

I'm sure there are a ton of other benefits, as well, and they're a big reason for the 'Why'. We'd have to achieve a much larger audience to fill a physical venue, but here even if we only had ten convention attendees, it would still be worthwhile. Of course, we have MANY more than ten... :) 

GUG: Is your vision to make this an ongoing thing? If things go well, should we expect a ConTessa 2014? And do you see there ever being a physical gathering?

SD: I've already started thinking about what I'd do differently and how I want to expand for the 2014 ConTessa. I'm pretty sure we won't have it in the summer, though. It's a period of time when a lot of people go on vacation, and some of my favorite personalities won't be able to attend because of that. Next year, we'll likely aim for sometime in the spring. I hope by then that we'll have added a whole lot of new stuff, and since it'll be the second year I'll have a better idea of what needs to get done when, so delegating responsibilities will be much easier and more likely. 

As for a physical gathering ... I've considered it, but I'm not sure I want to go down that route. We'll have to see how things go. :) 

GUG: As an attendee of ConTessa, what can I expect? What sort of experience do you hope to deliver? And what should I not expect?

SD: You can expect days and nights packed with games and panels meant to get and keep you excited about gaming. We've got panels broaching many subjects, and games that span a variety of systems - many of which were actually created by the women running them! We're hoping for four days of non-stop fun, including some of the more standard trappings of conventions - door prizes, contests, and free stuff! 

You should expect some new experiences. Many attendees have told me that they've never had a woman as a GM before, and they're excited to experience that. Plus, the events have come out with strong gender parity, so you'll get to enjoy games where the male/female ratio is about 1/2 and 1/2. Not to mention the chance to meet some new people. I've already made several new friends and networking opportunities during the whole process, and I've seen women get together and network with each other totally spontaneously, which is pretty awesome. A lot of us have experienced what it's like to be the Only Woman in the Room, and now we're getting to experience what it's like to be amongst a good mix of women and men. 

What you shouldn't expect is a feminist convention. While many of us would describe ourselves as feminists, this isn't the venue for discussing those sorts of things. Despite what some have suggested, that in and of itself is not a political comment on feminism, feminist critique, feminist discussion, or anything along those lines. Even the most dedicated feminist warrior needs a break to recharge her batteries every once in a while, and ConTessa offers that oasis, along with a cool drink and a whole lot of gaming fun. 

Ultimately, though, I've done my best to allow ConTessa to mean different things to different people. I've read a range of opinions on why ConTessa is important to various people for various reasons, and that's a wonderful thing. 

GUG: Great answer! So, what are your favorite games to play? What do you find on your table most?

SD: I started my gaming career on the floor of the band room at lunch in High School, playing with my friends. I was the one who would blow her whole paycheck on gaming books or Magic cards, then run back home and run a game for her five closest friends having only glanced through the books once. I cut my teeth on 2nd edition AD&D, then in the middish 90s, got all caught up in Vampire LARPs and White Wolf games. 

I currently run a new World of Darkness Changeling: The Lost game via hangouts weekly, play in a Swords & Wizardry game, and a Changeling game, and a 1:1 game that a friend of mine is writing. I go back and forth and really love lots of variety in my gaming. For the foreseeable future, after ConTessa, I'll be putting a lot of my energy into writing my own game called Precious Dark, which I'm debuting with Alpha Playtests at ConTessa.

GUG: What advice can you offer for people who would like to create an online gathering? Any wisdom to impart on those who want to create online events? 

SD: Decide what you want your online event to accomplish first, then work towards relentlessly towards completing that goal. A big goal of ConTessa was to inject some fresh blood by getting new people onto Google+ gaming via hangout, so our website and registration system were created to take down the barriers that learning a new online service generates and making sure all of our events were displayed both on the website and within Google+. Your event likely will have different goals, but decide what they are early because that will inform what you need to do in order to accomplish your goals. 

Grow a thick skin. There's always some uninformed person on the internet ready to tell you that you won't have any success. Don't let that get to you. Who cares what they think. Shut them up by making the most awesome event ever. It's the equivalent of pointing at the scoreboard when the rival team is trying to trash talk you. People who say these things are seldom people who actually do anything, so as a doer you're already doing more than they could ever do. 

Make great big goals that you'll likely never complete and just complete as many of them as you can. I had dreams of a Vendor Hall that would aggregate the listings of several geeky crafters, allowing them to display their merchandise on ConTessa and then when the user clicks through, they go to the original point of sale, where they can purchase the item. I ran out of time to make that an actual reality, but I'm glad I dreamed big when it came to that because now I have something to work towards for next year. Plus, you never know what you might actually be able to get done! A lot of the promotions, contests, and door prizes came from these big and grand ideas that seemed impossible at the start. The reverse of that, of course, is that you're going to have to let go of some of your favorite ideas in order to complete your project, so don't hug those big ideas TOO tightly. 

Listen to what your detractors are saying, but don't let them rule you. This goes along with growing a thick skin, but a little differently. It can be difficult to swallow something a detractor says, but there may be a kernel of truth in there. Do your best to figure out what that person is really saying and ignore the rest. 

GUG: Thank you so much, Stacy!


Well, that was the interview! I'm pretty excited for this convention, and I'm hoping to make a couple of the panels. I encourage you to pop over to and check out the ConTessa site. If you're super excited and want to get more involved, there's still time to register your own events; the deadline is Monday, June 17th. Stacy can be found on Twitter at @StacyRex and the official Twitter feed for ConTessa is @ConTessaOnline

1 comment:

  1. Amazing! I never would have thought of something like this - great idea for a con!