The first Nine Worlds convention took place in 2013 and has been growing ever since. Nine Worlds is a UK-based convention covering all aspects of fandom, including everything from gaming to academia to musical theater. If you can think of a geeky interest, be it Steven Universe to Star Wars, Nine Worlds will have you covered.

I’ve only attended Nine Worlds a handful of times, but I’ve met amazing people, discovered fascinating ideas, and listened to people talk with passion about the things that they, and we, love.

Disability, mental health, gender, sexuality, race, and body positivity are weaved into many of the sessions. One of this year’s panels, for example, explored representation in Black Panther. Another covered positive images of trans representation in fiction. These panels, talks and workshops were scheduled alongside Disney sing-a-longs and discussions on time travel.

There are problems, however. Whilst I used to believe Nine Worlds made great efforts to include everyone, incidents I witnessed and blog posts that have come out during and since the end of the convention have made me question how firm this ethos is.

Academics, industry professionals, and fans can often be found on the same panel together. It’s a mix that generally works well, with detailed moderation and participant guidance sent out in advance.

Nine Worlds’ main selling point is its focus on inclusion and accessibility. There are problems, however. Whilst I used to believe Nine Worlds made great efforts to include everyone, incidents I witnessed and blog posts that have come out during and since the end of the convention have made me question how firm this ethos is.

Concerns were raised before, throughout, and after the end of Nine Worlds from attendees of marginalized identities, including many disabled and/or queer people of colour (POC). They explained they did not feel safe due to a decision by the Nine Worlds organisers. This decision mostly centred on allowing a panel from the perspective of law enforcement and/or police officers to take place.

This diary is Part one of two. In Part one, I’ll be focusing on the sessions I attended and my positive experiences. Part two will look at what didn’t go well at Nine Worlds and why this was an issue throughout the convention. In both, I’ll aim to detail what I can of my experience there, whilst also acknowledging what others experienced, and how I became aware of this. I will also include links to the posts from attendees/participants and Nine Worlds’ responses.

Thursday 9th August 2018

My Nine Worlds technically kicked off on Thursday night, when my husband, Ben, and I checked in at our hotel. Novotel West London has embraced the convention since it moved there in 2016, after there were complaints about the previous hotel (a different chain) regarding its location and accessibility issues. These complaints included comments about hotel staff who did not respect the inclusive ethos of the event.

We gave the Ice Breaker Quiz a miss due to general travel fatigue. I was disappointed, as last year the now-infamous No-Face cosplayer adorably terrorised the Quiz, and I was hoping for more. However, there was much to prepare, including my first cosplay outfits and my first panels.

Friday 10th August 2018

We came downstairs to find the hotel lobby increasingly filled with fellow attendees, many dressed in fabulous costumes. As for me, I went as Amethyst from Steven Universe and quickly saw I wasn’t the only one.

We picked up our lanyard badges and goodie bags from the registration desk. Each attendee also gets tokens to give to cosplayers to show how awesome they think their costumes are. There’s no big prize, but cosplayers can later exchange tokens for commemorative badges. I would eventually find No-Face and exchange a token for a photo, before running away.

In past years, the goodie bags have included books from booksellers sponsoring the event. However, they were limited to the first 100 bags and we sadly missed out. I later found out the books were actually stock from 2017, added to bags with leaflets from this year.

Close-up of a Nine Worlds lanyard and badge. On the badge is a she/her pronoun sticker, and an Access Ally sticker. Attached to the lanyard is a "anti-social club" pin.

My Nine Worlds lanyard and badge (anti-social club pin my own!)

The desks were staffed by volunteers who also attend Nine Worlds. They spend a certain amount of hours each day helping run the convention, and their efforts are greatly appreciated by the attendees. We were greeted by a friendly face who quickly processed our tickets.

Next to the registration area were desks where attendees could fill out their name badge with what they wanted to be called. These desks provided some other ways for promoting inclusion. Attendees could add pronoun stickers and accessibility stickers to their badges, the latter indicating if attendees need access support, or if they’re access allies and happy to provide support where possible. Yellow lanyards were available for those who wanted to indicate that they did not want their photo taken.

There were also coloured overlays for badges, with different shaped cutouts if differentiating colour is an issue. The aim is to show an attendee’s communication comfort level. I went with blue (please come say hello!), but there were also options for yellow (I am happy to talk if I come up to you or if I know you) and red (please do not talk to me unless it’s an emergency).

Having got our stuff together, we headed off to the first session of the day.

Steven Universe Sing-Along – Olivia Vespera and Nicole Chen

This event was part of the reason I’d gone with an Amethyst cosplay that day—that and I had fallen head over heels with the show in the preceding weeks. Both coordinators organised an inclusive session (e.g. explaining they could not play a couple of songs due to some non-inclusive words). I enjoyed every minute of it. There is something very liberating about singing “Stronger Than You” at the top of your lungs while in the same room as people dressed like Lion and the Crystal Gems (and Steven!).

There is something very liberating about singing “Stronger Than You” at the top of your lungs while in the same room as people dressed like Lion and the Crystal Gems (and Steven!).

Forty-five-minute breaks were scheduled between sessions to allow adequate time to get to the next talk or panel, as well as time to visit the vendors. At the vendors’ room, I tried to stay within my budget and succeeded (just!). After the Steven Universe feel-good session, I bought some Amethyst and Garnet key chains, as well as a Totoro one, before rushing to the next panel.

Sexuality in BioWare – Emily Marlow and Avery Delany

Emily Marlow (a PhD Researcher with University of Sheffield, focused on Religion within Video Game Narratives) and Avery Delany (a prolific diverse book blogger and long-time attendee who has become increasingly involved in Nine Worlds) are both well-versed in the BioWare universes and led an informative session.

They discussed the relative disparity in scene lengths between different romances (30 minutes for Iron Bull versus more than an hour for Cullen) and what this says about how certain romances are prioritised. The panelists also looked at the locked sexualities of BioWare characters, including their relative pros and cons. Marlow added that certain storylines could only make sense depending on the character’s sexuality. The issues Dorian’s family has with his sexuality would not work, Marlow argued, if he was a cis heterosexual character. Alongside this, transgender representation was considered; Delany pointed out the relative ease with which BioWare could have added a “Me too” option when discussing Krem’s gender with him, allowing transgender players to also feel better represented.

The whole panel left me wanting to reexamine the BioWare games in their approach to sexuality (not like I need an excuse to replay Dragon Age). There also seemed to be agreement from the whole room that Alistair in Dragon Age: Origins didn’t deserve our Elven Hero of Ferelden.

(L-R) Emily Marlow, Chella Ramanan, and Dr. Ewan Kirkland sitting next to each other on the Game Studies in the UK panel. A projector screen behind them lists useful game studies sources.

(L-R) Emily Marlow, Chella Ramanan, and Dr. Ewan Kirkland on the Game Studies in the UK panel.

Game Studies in the UK – Emily Marlow, Chella Ramanan, and Dr. Ewan Kirkland

As mentioned before, Marlow is a PhD researcher. Chella Ramanan is a freelance games journalist, and Dr. Ewan Kirkland lectures in Film & Screen Studies at University of Brighton. Together with Marlow, they aimed to look at pathways into game studies and what work is currently happening in UK universities.

The panel consensus was not to study something you loved. Marlow particularly offered this advice: pick something that you like, but don’t pick something that you love because you will ruin it. Ramanan echoed this—being a games journalist means playing a lot of games in a short space of time which, as Ramanan explained, isn’t always as fun as it looks.

They also advised against going for degrees focused on gaming and instead finding other departments in higher education that would allow the scope for including the study of games, such as English, Media, and Architecture. They argued that this would encourage a greater breadth of experience to then bring to games design and studies. I couldn’t help but think, at that moment, about how Satoshi Tajiri’s childhood fascination with bug-catching had led to his creating the Pokémon series.

I left wondering whether I could convince my current workplace to part-fund an MA in Social and Cultural Theory at Staffordshire, one of the universities mentioned besides Abertay, Plymouth, and Glasgow as being supportive of games-based research.

That evening, there was a performance of Knightmare Live, a stage version of the 80s UK children’s TV show. As much as I wanted to indulge in a nostalgic retread of live action dungeon exploration, I chose bed, tired out after a long day.

Saturday 11th August 2018

Saturday started ridiculously early. Armed with my Kiki’s Delivery Service cosplay outfit and broom, I headed downstairs. One thing I had failed to remember whilst prepping my cosplay was what “Kiki” means in Tagalog. Growing up Filipino and White British, I had learned a handful of Tagalog words (mostly the rude ones, though I would maybe have learned more if my primary school hadn’t suggested that my bilingualism was a problem). Still, my brain should still have made the connection.

It was only after a few attendees started saying, “Yay, Kiki!” when I passed by that my brain suddenly kicked in again and I remembered that “kiki” in Tagalog means “vulva” or “vagina.” It was somewhat surreal to have people all day pointing at me in joy and shouting “VAGINA!”

Digital Storytelling and the Ludo-Gothic – Dr. Ewan Kirkland

Ben and I had got up early for this 9 a.m. talk if for no other reason than I needed to find out what the hell Ludo-Gothic was because it sounded amazing. Kirkland first introduced himself as the UK’s leading expert on My Little Pony, before moving the talk back onto how gothic themes can be found in video games (hence Ludo-Gothic).

He presented examples of Ludo-Gothic works, such as Silent Hill, BioShock, and Gone Home. I had never considered these games to be gothic, but as Kirkland listed the features of gothic fiction, such as gloom, crumbling settings, and the inability of the past to stay in the past, the parallels became clearer. Side note: he also argued that, under these circumstances, Scooby Doo was also gothic.

Kirkland concentrated primarily upon Night in the Woods as an example of “rust-belt gothic,” a subset of gothic that focuses upon post-industrial communities experiencing physical and economic decline. Kirkland’s analysis of the game threw up many intriguing details and sharpened my desire to finally sit down and play it.

Toxicity in Fandom – Jamie (moderator and panellist), Rammi, Morgan, and Rhona

This panel was made up of several people heavily involved in various fandoms. Discussion centred on creator and fan relationships, and how these could easily turn problematic without clear boundaries. The panel also covered some advice on how to manage health within fandom (i.e. knowing when to walk away and trying to keep to that). One audience member helpfully shared that they set “limits” before engaging in fandom so that it would be much easier to pull away from a bad situation.

Before the next session, I dashed to the vendors’ room, picking up some Fenris-themed Dragon Age tea and a couple of NSFW Hannibal prints because… of course I did. Unsurprisingly for Nine Worlds, the Dorian Dragon Age tea packets had pretty much disappeared.

A flipchart paper listing several anime shows contain queer or queer-coded characters.

One of the lists of queer anime, or anime featuring queer-coded characters, that audience members could add to.

Queer Characters in Anime – Zoe Burgess-Foreman, Jen Peake, and Gianni Ceccarelli (moderator)

This panel was a rapid but thorough tour of queer and queer-coded characters in anime. One thing I took away from the talk (apart from many, many recommended shows) is that anime is self-funded by creators until they can take a finished product to various channels to sell, and the implications this has on why there is more subtext than explicit representation.

Representation in Dating Sim Games (or, Dragon Age is a Dating Sim: Fight Me) – Angie Wenham, Avery Delany, and Emily Marlow

I was moderating/speaking in the panel, joined by Avery Delany and Emily Marlow. One of the audience members, Susan, has done a great write-up, which I very much appreciate! The idea for the panel came out my annoyance with several April Fools’ Day jokes that had featured “normal game but DATING SIM!!!!” Added to this was the recent discourse on how queer representation in visual novel games seems to be growing.

We wanted to look at the relative respectability afforded to mainstream games that heavily feature romance (i.e. Dragon Age) compared to the somewhat patronising way dating sims are treated. I presented the statistics from my Very Scientific Twitter Poll, showing that the majority agreed Dragon Age was a dating sim. We also discussed why dating sims/visual novels were increasingly seen as one of the main places in the video game industry to find progressive representation… although, maybe not with all kinds of representation.

It was a (hopefully!) useful panel where we concluded that, while there had been some encouraging steps forward, there was still some way to go before any of us felt truly represented in these games, or any video games. Among other things, we and the audience talked about having a dating sim game where you just had to accept someone saying “No,” despite your many gifts and manipulative remarks. I also got to mention Hatoful Boyfriend as the first dating sim I fell in love with, explaining the gimmick (you, a human, have to romance birds) to a room full of people. I eventually dissolved into laughter at the fact I had just, very seriously, mentioned that one major selling point was “But you get to date a wide variety of birds!”

As we walked out of the room, Emily Marlow and I began discussing whether a cheese dating sim could work (the smooth but tortured Brie-n, the mature but vulnerable Ched Dar, et cetera). Really, it writes itself.

Video Games and Mental Health: How to Stop Worrying and Find the Cake – Vanessa Thompsett and Robin Bates

The speakers in this panel first explained that they are not medical professionals. They instead displayed names and contact details of professional organisations, as well as resources that could be used. The panelists wanted to share their experiences of mental illness, what helped, and some feedback about the role video games can play in this. The latter focused on a survey of 183 people—it’s worth noting that this isn’t a very large sample to make generalisations about those in the UK population who play games and have experienced mental illness.

Nonetheless, it was interesting to see how some players used video games as a coping mechanism (e.g. allowing total immersion, access whilst on the move to deal with stressful situations, etc.). The information and personal experiences were also helpful in removing some stigma around mental illness.

The Bifröst Cabaret beckoned, filled with comedy, poems, songs, and pole-dancing, all with a geeky theme. One performance stood out for the novelty of it, namely augmented reality poetry readings. Whilst unique, there was a slight technical issue: the performer, Dr. Suzie Gray, needed to walk around to fully display their AR poetry, but the iPhone had to be plugged in to display on the large stage screens. Despite this snag, it was one of the most fascinating examples of AR I’d seen and speaks to how it can be a new creative outlet.

Atypical Approaches to Horror in Tabletop Roleplaying – Ben Wenham

The last session of the day was presented by Ben, my husband. We had killed the scariness of traditional monsters, he argued (think glittery vampires). The old monsters were no longer as frightening as they used to be. However, (un)fortunately for us, there are plenty of other choices. Economic horror, architectural horror, horror of (and loss of) identity, and the horror of the unravelling world were some examples he gave. After the talk, several people came up to chat with Ben about how much the identity horror (namely, having that identity lost or overridden) resonated with them. As one said, being trans, having your identity denied is a common experience.

Downstairs, the Bifröst disco blared out Jurassic Park remixes and Janelle Monae as we made our way back to our rooms.

Sunday 12th August 2018

Beyond Marvel and DC: What Could You Be Reading? – Dr. Tony Keen (moderator), Kate Barton, Stephen Lacey, Ram V, and Angie Wenham

I’d been asked to participate in this panel as a fan of comics, alongside other fans and those involved in the comics industry. This included Ram V, creator of Black Mumba and Ruin of Thieves, and whose other current work (Paradiso) I’m quickly consuming.

Besides sharing our favourite titles outside of DC and Marvel, we also brought up ShortBox, the curated comic collection from Zainab Akhtar, and how this collection could be an excellent way to find new and interesting comics. The great thing about these kinds of sessions is that audience members are always able to suggest other things to look into. I furiously scribbled down as many of the recommended comics’ titles as possible, and Stephen Lacey later tweeted out a list of these comics plus the ones the panel had discussed.

Using the Social Model of Disability to Inform (LARP) Game Design – Emma Round

Next came a talk from Emma Round, a well-known LARPer and disabled queer gamer. She explained how the Social Model of Disability could be used to make games more inclusive. I don’t attend LARP (live action roleplaying), but I was intrigued to know more about her suggestions. I work in Disability Services, and we try to follow the Social Model ethos, i.e. rather than a person having a disability, the Social Model argues that people are disabled by their environment and societal attitudes.

Round’s talk was one of the most positive and practically useful sessions I attended, in that she not only gave clear advice on what LARP designers could do, she also presented how she had put this into practice by running an accessible LARP event.

Round recounted how quests were often inaccessible at LARP events, either due to poor location planning or not accounting for participants’ needs. I could sympathise. As someone on the autistic spectrum, the idea of being in situations where there’s constant noise fills me with dread. It’s not like I can just slip on my wireless headphones as per usual whilst walking round a field at Empire.

Round’s talk was one of the most positive and practically useful sessions I attended, in that she not only gave clear advice on what LARP designers could do, she also presented how she had put this into practice by running an accessible LARP event. One of her suggestions was that, if there is an inaccessible space, just don’t use that for the most important or main quests. It was a simple enough idea, but one that ensured inaccessible spaces had minimal impact upon the players’ experiences.

The next session I attended was The Future of Nine Worlds. However, I will be addressing this session in Part Two. It was at this panel/Q&A that organisers responded (or rather, didn’t) to the concerns of marginalised groups.

The convention was nearly over after that session, but there were still more sessions to attend. I was feeling a bit washed out after the Future of Nine Worlds panel, but wanted to try and make the most of the remaining convention.

Women in Star Wars – Mia Violet, Katherine Fabian, Jeanette Ng, Alex NicLauchlainn Gray, and Avery Delany (moderator)

This whole panel was incredibly informative and positive. Mia Violet, in particular, opened my eyes to just how much material there is in the Star Wars Extended Universe, even if its representation of women isn’t fantastic—think Twi’leks in leather bikinis. It was great to hear them discuss their love for Star Wars, what Star Wars has done poorly in its depiction of women, and the slow progress it has made. Until the panel mentioned it, I hadn’t realised a fundamental flaw in Rogue One. While it was awesome to see Jyn Erso, a woman, as the leader, the panel pointed out that it was strange there were no other women on the team. There was an implication that she was “the woman,” and that woman was white.

I had planned to see the Disability in Comics panel, but after a long weekend and the upsetting Future of Nine Worlds panel, I left just before the start and decided to head to the Quiet Room. I relaxed in a chair, hugging a small cushion and trying to decompress, whilst others around me quietly crafted things or coloured in illustrations. In the corner, there was a little beach shelter tent, and I could hear the sound of soft snores coming from it.

The convention technically finished for me around 6 p.m. as we headed home. However, during the following days and weeks, the fallout of The Future of Nine Worlds session (and the question of police officers on panels) continued. In Part 2, I’ll be talking about what other attendees reported, what I observed, and the responses after Nine Worlds.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article listed Mia Violet’s name incorrectly. The article has been updated with Violet’s correct name.