Thursday, October 29, 2015


I'm just recently back from the New Ways of Analyzing Variation (NWAV) conference, the top variationist sociolinguistics conference in North America. This was NWAV44, hosted by the University of Toronto, and as usual it was a lot of fun, and really exhausting.

When you go to a conference regularly enough, you start making conference friends, people who you only know and really only ever see in the context of the conference. Seeing my conference friends again is always one of the things I look forward to when going to NWAV, and it's what makes it all the more disappointing when I can't go for some reason or another. Of course, nowadays, if you can't make it to NWAV in person, you can always follow along at home on the Twitter hashtag. Really, it's almost like a parallel conference going on on Twitter. I go to a lot of conferences that get tweeted about, but I feel like NWAV tends to have a much higher rate of twitter traffic, and this was especially true of NWAV44. The Manchester LEL twitter account speculated that this might be the most tweeted about conference of all time.

It definitely spawned the most parody accounts (@GreatHallBird@nwavAVghost). But, I thought I'd take this up and pick over the Twitter traffic on the #NWAV44 stream. I pulled down all the tweets I could with the twitteR package, excluding retweets.

In the 4 days of the conference, there were 3,196 tweets on #NWAV44. Here's the distribution of tweets, binned into 10 minute intervals, color coded by what was happening at the conference at the time (according to the official schedule).

The highest number of tweets in any 10 minute period was 53, for a rate of 5.3 tweets a minute, during the second paper session on Saturday.

There wasn't much tweeting during the poster session, which is too bad. First of all, it means a bit less exposure for people in the poster sessions. Second of all, posters are an intrinsically visual medium, and conventional wisdom is that tweets with pictures attached get more attention. I can't tell whether a tweet has a picture attached in this data, but I can tell if it has a link. I broke tweets down into two categories: tweets with an "https" link and does not contain the words "slide" or "talk", and all others. Winds up looking like this:
might have image n average retweets average favorites
yes 378 1.29 3.31
no 2,818 0.82 1.89

Maybe something to think about next time you're live tweeting a conference.

Another thing I was interested in was what the average tweeting rate was during any given 20 minute talk + 10 minute question period. So, I took each talk period, and counted up how many tweets were sent each minute. Here's what it looks like.

During a talk, it looks like there's a pretty steady average of 2 to 3 tweets per minute persisting into the Q&A period, dropping off precipitously during the lat 5 minutes of Q&A as the speakers switched over. It's really pretty striking that during the meat of any given talk period, the most common number of tweets in a minute is something like 1 or 2, not 0.

One last thing I looked at was tweets about the birds. In the Great Hall in Hart House, there were at least two birds flying around the rafters and eating the crumbs after coffee sessions. It was a major topic of twitter conversation, and spawned the parody account @GreatHallBird. The volume of tweeting about the birds reached its peak on the third day of the conference, when about 8% of all tweets contained the string [bB]ird.

There was initially some competing ways of referring to the bird. Some people originally decided to call it "Ferdinand", but midday on the 24th, the @GreatHallBird account started tweeting, and eventually that standard became the most popular. Here is what people were calling the birds out of the options of just "[bB]ird", "[fF]erdinand" and "[gG]reat\s?[hH]all\s?[bB]ird"

Unfortunately, I don't have access to historical twitter data to check how #NWAV44 compared to other large conferences, like maybe #ICPHS2015.

UPDATE: I just realized that I didn't filter out tweets by the @GreatHallBird account itself when estimating the rate of tweets about the birds. When I exclude its tweets, as well as any line initial @-mentions, nothing really changes that much qualitatively, but the third day of the conference tops out at about 7% tweets about the bird, instead of 8%.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Gender in the Wasteland

One thing I do with the bit of leisure time I have is play video games. I feel like I need to be a bit self defensive about it, given my age and place in life, but according to surveys the average age of gamers is somewhere between 30 and 37, so I fit right in there (although, the age distribution probably has a strong leftwards skew, so it'd be nice to know the median age). Many mainstream games have socially problematic themes, like violence being the only available recourse to progression in the game. A really cool video series on that point is the Grand Theft Auto Pacifist. Another common problem games have is their portrayal of gender (the topic of this post), and on that topic, you should obviously go watch Tropes vs Women in Video Games.

I think these socially problematic themes are a bigger deal than when they show up in other media. Video games are unique in requiring an alignment of the audience's motivations with the main character. For example, the experience of watching Breaking Bad and observing Walter White's moral descent would be very different from playing a Breaking Bad game and controlling Walter White. What I've learned playing video games is that while it may be projected on your TV screen, the game is really in your head.

I've recently been playing Fallout Shelter, a mobile game set in the post nuclear apocalypse Fallout universe from Bethesda Studios. Fallout 4 is maybe the most highly anticipated game coming out in time for Christmas this year, and Fallout Shelter is fun diversion for fans to play in the meantime. Your role is the overseer of a Vault-Tec vault where dwellers escape the radioactive wasteland. You build out and populate your vault, and assign dwellers tasks like food, water and energy production.
It's kinda like an ant colony.

Our story begins when I assigned a dweller to the Science Station I'd built so she could produce RadAways (a treatment for the omnipresent radiation). I wanted to equip her with the Professor Outfit, which would boost her Intelligence stat, speeding up the production of RadAways. I scrolled through the inventory a few times, and couldn't find the Professor Outfit. The only possibility I considered was that I'd forgotten to unequip it from the dweller who was wearing it before. But as I messed around, it became clear that you're unable to equip female dwellers with the Professor Outfit... Yeah, I know.

Here are two dwellers, Alexander and Judy, in the Science Station.

When I select Alexander and scroll through the outfits inventory, the Professor Outfit is right there between the Nightwear and Radiation Suit. When I select Judy, it's just absent. It's not even greyed out, just invisible.

This is a problem. There is a very strong cultural expectation that "Professors are Men", and this expectation gets visited upon my female friends and colleagues in really unfortunate ways. The most common and obvious day-to-day experience I've been told about is people assuming that "Prof Smith" is a man in e-mails. Or it's assumed that they're administrative support staff instead of faculty at meetings. Sometimes people assume female profs are students showing up for the first day of class, instead of being the instructor. One friend of mine said they got student feedback on a course saying that they were a great teacher and would doubtless be successful "in whatever career she pursues."

These are all obvious examples of women not being taken seriously in their professional roles, and the "Professors are Men" expectation has some obvious impacts on their careers. Women are grossly underrepresented at the highest faculty levels, and get paid about 90% of what men at equivalent levels do. So what's it matter that in Fallout Shelter, Alexander can wear the Professor Outfit and Judy isn't even presented with the option?

An all too common scene.
Well, first, it's just re-enforcing the "Professors are Men" expectation. Who is this message reaching? For one, me, and probably many of my students, and we're the ones who do a lot of the damage with the "Professors are Men" assumption. But it's also probably reaching a larger portion of women than even other games with poor gender portrayals do. It's a mobile game, and mobile games are disproportionately popular among women. Also, it has an undeniably The Sims-like element to it, a game which was also disproportionately popular among women. So, it's a fairly negative message about women, in all likelihood being disproportionately directed at women.

This is also a game with a bit of cultural reach. There is some speculation that it's out earning Candy Crush Saga, and it topped the App Store charts for a while. Bethesda is also a really big and popular game studio, and Fallout Shelter bears the "Editor's Choice" badge.

Preventing female dwellers from equipping the Professor Outfit is also the only gender based equipping restriction I've come across in the game. All of the other outfits can be worn by male and female dwellers. Both Alexander and Judy can wear the Combat Armor, but it's drawn a bit differently for their different bodies.

Sometimes, with things like gender representation, there is an in-game explanation for why things are the way they are, and we need to have a conversation about why gender representation in fictional worlds is an important issue for our real world. But I don't think that's what's going on here. The fact that the outfits are drawn differently for male and female dwellers, and the fact that the Professor Outfit is just unceremoniously absent without any kind of in-game explanation suggests to me that they just didn't bother drawing a Professor Outfit for female dwellers. That is, we're observing here a real world instantiation of the "Professors are Men" assumption rather than some kind of intentional fictional representation of that assumption.

But just because it isn't intentional doesn't mean it isn't sexist, and doesn't mean it shouldn't be changed. Being unintentionally overlooked is exactly the problem my female colleagues are facing. I've sent Bethesda an email briefly outlining this, and asking them to rectify it in an update. Don't know if I'll hear back from them, or if I'm better off yelling at no one in the Wasteland.

Edit: The pregnancy mechanics are also pretty messed up too.

Video games are a broad medium though (this is more self defensiveness), and can be utilized for all sorts of purposes. For example, the IƱupiat Cook Inlet Tribal Council had the game Never Alone made, in which they embedded parts of their oral traditions for their younger generation. It's a really pretty and fun game. There's also the episodic game Life is Strange, which is essentially a game about friendship, family, the near constant threat of vitimization women face, and the anxieties we all face in trying to make the right choices in life.

Disqus for Val Systems