Conferences have become forums that measure certain kinds of social progress, whether in diversified representation in speaking or attendees or about specific speakers selected to speak and represent the event.
For example, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2018, no women keynoted at one of the world’s leading consumer technology events, which garnered press coverage asking “Why?”. In 2019, it seems CES has changed course by announcing two women leading corporate keynote addresses.
In the case of the 15th International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology (ACE 2018) conference, the question mark is about both the conference’s stated women-centric focus and one of its keynote speakers.
ACE 2018 is coming up in mid-December in the US state of Montana. It’s described on its website as a “leading scientific forum for dissemination of cutting-edge research results in the area of entertainment computing. Interactive entertainment is one of the most vibrant areas of interest in modern society and is amongst the fastest growing industries in the world.” At the top of the fold, the ACE 2018 site proclaims that this conference “celebrates the pioneering women computer scientists who made computer entertainment possible.”
Where the emerging controversy lies is in the ACE 2018 keynote, which was recently announced. Steve Bannon —an American political strategist, media executive, and filmmaker who previously served as senior counselor and chief White House strategist for U.S. President Donald Trump — was announced as a keynote speaker.
ACE 2018, The 15th International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology, University of Montana, USA
Keynote Speaker: Stephen Kevin Bannon pic.twitter.com/v8tZ6WKC8Q
— ACE 2018 (@acedimea) October 29, 2018
Bannon has garnered a storied reputation over his long, controversial career. Because it’s storied, there are a number of anecdotes about his viewpoints on any number of topics or on the firebrand media outlet he helped lead, Breitbart. We’ll briefly touch on a few points Bannon talked about over time that intersects with the ACE 2018 conference key focuses.
In terms of Bannon’s approach to women, two years ago online publisher Bustle reported, a compilation of reported quotes and allegation, that Steve Bannon may have a troubling history with his views and dealings with women over the years.
Bannon has had a touch-and-go relationship with the games industry, as the former manager of the then-struggling controversial gold-farming virtual currency company, IGE, before the company was refocused and rebranded. Gold farming, as applied to online games, is playing a game in such a way as to accrue massive amounts of in-game currency or assets, which can then be resold for real money. IGE was a leader in that business, which was considered cheating by many game developers and players.
While Steve Bannon seems quite at home with handling technology, or even using it aggressively in driving a political campaign, his relationship with other aspects of science is not as cozy. In terms of climate science, A New Republic report on Bannon’s fight with science while in the Trump administration sums up an estimation of his views, stating that “Bannon hasn’t said much publicly on climate change. His rare comments suggest not a deep rejection of the science itself, but that he doesn’t consider it a pressing issue.” A range of pundits and journalists have surmised that his approach to science isn’t as much about opposing sciences, but his oft-discussed deconstruction of governmental institutions.
With Steve Bannon’s messy, complicated relationship with the topics of science, technology, and diversity, it’s no surprise negative ire has been raised on social media about his keynote address at ACE 2018. In some posts, speakers and sponsors have been called out to withdraw from the event.
Hey @SamsungUS I recommend you take a hard look at your sponsorship of the ACE2018 conference, an academic conference that somehow magically has a political operative as its keynote speaker.
— MJ (@MichaelMJJohn) October 26, 2018
Reputable orgs need to take a closer look at aligning with this conference. @samsung @springernature @tencent @umontana please check out the serious issues involving ACE2018. When an entire steering committee resigns you should see that for the massive red flag it is. #boycottACE https://t.co/YIlh3rTw9t
— T.L. Taylor @ TwitchCon (@ybika) October 29, 2018
When asked if they might withdraw attendance or resign a speaking role if a controversial figure such as Steve Bannon was selected to keynote, a couple developers who have often spoken at conferences, who were willing to quote on the record, were not neutral when queried with this rhetorical question. While not necessarily representative of all game developers, the folks who have given voice to their concerns do represent a cross-section of voices from the game development community.
“I believe in the right to free speech but I do not wish to legitimize anyone who spreads ideologies that are, at their core, so detrimental to the majority of humanity. Not all ideas or speakers deserve equal, or even preferential, weight. I would not want my participation to confer any sense of legitimacy to speakers who, in my opinion, pose a danger to the public good,” says Margaret Wallace, frequent speaker and founder of games and experiential media start-ups KijiCo and Playmatics.
Nicole Lazzaro is another frequent game industry event speaker, who is a game designer, developer, and founder of XEODesign. On this subject, she said “I’m a big supporter of a diversity of opinions. However, it’s concerning to hear events offering a platform to someone who openly orchestrates hate and violence for self-promotion.”
Time will tell if sponsors or speakers respond to the questions they are receiving about their participation at this conference.
Given that ACE 2018’s touchpoints include science, women, and interactive entertainment, the selection of Steve Bannon as keynote speaker may represent an openness of discussion to different and challenging ideas. However, to some sponsors and attendees, Bannon leading a keynote will project divisiveness and counterintuitivity to the purported focuses of the conference.
Update (December 10, 2018): The ACE 2018 event, which was scheduled to take place today to December 14, has been canceled in November, including Steve Bannon’s keynote address that had been scheduled for December 11th. The official statement, from a Newsweek story, from the organizer of the partner event, the Congress on Love and Sex With Robots, sums up the news:
“The congress had been due to take place at the University of Montana in Missoula, alongside the 2018 Advances in Computing Entertainment Conference (ACE),” the statement read. “When it was announced that one of the keynote talks at ACE was to be given by Steve Bannon on the subject of employment opportunities for minorities in the computing entertainment industry, there were so many protests against Mr. Bannon participating in the ACE conference that it became necessary to cancel the 2018 ACE conference.”