Science, games, comics, any part of geekdom – Are they strong parts of your identity? If so, you will love this show about the annual Seattle convention, Geek Girl Con. We had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. J. C. Lau about the mission of Geek Girl Con and video game development. We also met Dr. Adriana Ferez in the DIY Science Zone who shared the story of Chaos Theory with us.
Big Thank You to Geek Girl Con, who we invite every year to join in the fun.
Jurassic Park clip courtesy of Universal Pictures & Amblin Entertainment
To find out more about Dr. Lau and/or Geek Girl Con follow them on twitter.
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Dr. Regina Barber DeGraaff: Welcome to Spark Science, where we explore stories of human curiosity. I’m your host, Regina Barber DeGraaff, astrophysicist, pop culture enthusiast, and this is our second Geek Girl Con episode of season 5.
For those of you who might have missed the first episode, Geek Girl Con is a comic book convention with a mission to celebrate geek culture and all aspects of female identity. We were able to talk to scholars Dr. Lau and Dr. Ferez. They both have different fields and they have different roles at this convention, but they both share a deep appreciation of the mission of this event: that many people are many things, and that’s a good thing.
This show was recorded on location at the convention in San Antonio, Texas.
Dr. Jo C. Lau: I’m Jo Lau. Also on the internet I’m JC Lau. I am one of the marketing directors for Geek Girl Con and I’m also the campaign project manager.
Dr. DeGraaff: This is our fourth year. It is so amazing. I’m gonna let you, because you’re one of the organizers, kind of give us a little kind of overview of what this is.
Dr. Lau: We’re in our eighth year now. Without bias or anything, this is one of the most inclusive, welcoming conventions I’ve seen in the Seattle convention circuit. We specifically have a convention for members of underrepresented groups. It’s family friendly. We cover all areas of geekdom from gaming to comics and science, so we have a very strong STEM and STEAM focus. It’s just one of those places where you can carve out species for things that you love.
Dr. DeGraaff: Can you talk a little bit about the physical layout and how you thought about these things?
Dr. Lau: We have four floors this year in the convention center at the WSCC. We are basically a volunteer-based organization and we have to grow sustainably and in a way that still allows for our core community to be able to feel welcome. Our exhibitor floor is on the fourth floor and we’ve expanded into that space so people have more stuff they can check out and more stuff they can buy from artists who are generally underrepresented and not present at larger conventions.
We have a lot more paneling this year, so we have a lot of people speaking about what it’s like to be from an underrepresented group or creators of color who are working in comics and literature and games. And one of my favorite things is the DIY science zone, which we bring scientists in and kids can just do what’s really cool science experiments that they might not have access to otherwise. And it’s a way to encourage women and girls to discover what they love.
Our spaces are also intentionally set up. You know, conventions can be really loud and overwhelming for a lot of people. We’re expecting 11,000 people to come through this weekend, so if you need a space away from that, we have a quiet room where you can take a breather and there’s coloring books and there’s water and you can just hang out there and decompress for a bit. We also have a nursing room for mothers. And finally, we intentionally have space so you can bring strollers.
Dr. DeGraaff: I actually personally love how spacious it is. When I go to PAX or Emerald Con, all the booths are very, very close together. And I can just see very intentionally things open and more spacious.
I do want to bring up one thing. You do keep on mentioning underrepresented identities and Geek Girl Con is really ? I think on the surface people would be like, “Oh, it’s just about being female.” But there’s so much intersectionality happening at this conference and people can like geeky stuff. There’s people of color. There’s queer community celebration and representation here. I wanted to kind of bring that up to you because I know you.
We worked on a blog post that I’d written for Geek Girl Con, the website. And you yourself were a gamer ? sorry, were a developer and you were a writer. I kind of want to take a step back and kind of tell us how you kind of fit in that intersectional, “I like art stuff. I like geeky stuff. I like science-y stuff.”
Dr. Lau: I’m a game developer, as well, but before I’m a game developer, I’m a queer woman of color, so. Sometimes if you’re at a bigger convention, like if you’re at your PAX or your Emerald City Comic Con, there’s not a lot of people that look like you and that’s hard. You might not feel like you belong there. And so if you’re a fan of anything, you should have a space for that.
Games is kind of like my main area of geekdom. I love games, but I also love comics and I think also recently ? sidenote, the MCU has done a lot for getting a lot of people that weren’t traditionally comics fans into comic books and comic book stories, which is super cool.
Dr. DeGraaff: Marvel comic universe. [Laughing.]
Dr. Lau: Yeah, so the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done a ton for that. I think it’s just a place where we can have people support each other.
Dr. DeGraaff: I kind of want to go into the world of game developing and being part of STEM, which is Science, Technology, Engineering, Math. And you talked about STEAM; putting art in there. I’ve been thinking about the question that I always get: how do you feel about being a woman in STEM? How do you deal with those questions?
Dr. Lau: When people ask me, my first response is, “Oh, God. How much time do we have to talk about this, because I could talk about this for three hours.” You probably don’t need a three-hour answer, so the short response is it is one of those things where games and tech in particular are at this cultural crossroads and we can move in a direction that makes it more inclusive, but we have to move in those ways. And I think that my day-to-day experiences are things that I hope one day are a memory for future generations of people in games and tech. And I want it to be the case that, when people ask me what it’s like, I can be like, “Hey, it’s actually pretty good.” Most days it is. But there’s also the, “Hey, you need to go into these things with your eyes wide open.”
There is certainly room for everybody. And in the industry, I think we have room to improve and we are slowly moving in the right direction. And it would be great if there were more people to help it move in that direction.
Dr. DeGraaff: But it’s exhausting to be on the front lines and some of the first people.
Dr. Lau: Yeah. I think there is an element of that and it’s really important to kind of not burn yourself out because in games, at least, the average lifespan of a game development is five years. I suspect at least for women and people of color and members of the queer community, it’s probably a lot shorter than that. Part of this is ? it’s a couple things.
Games in particular have grown up historically being really, really, really heavily skewed white and male and even before you get in the door of a game studio there are challenges you have to kind of face to get there. So even getting to an interview is hard. There’s a whole bunch of studies that show if you have a female-coded or a non-white-coded name, you’re less likely to get an interview.
Once you get in the door and you are a game dev, then having people question your legitimacy to be there is a challenge. Or you go to a launch party for a game that you’ve worked on, and people are like, “Are you someone’s girlfriend? Are you here as someone’s plus one?” And I’m like, “No, I actually work here.”
It’s like those kind of death by a thousand cuts things that I think causes retention problems, at least for women and people of color in these fields. And I know that there is a push in the industry to try to improve that, but it’s one of those things where I think being diverse and being inclusive and getting people in the door is one thing. Keeping them there is a different thing. And you kind of have to tackle both of those things together.
Dr. DeGraaff: Those are all things that I think I’ve heard before and probably most of our listeners have heard before. I think what I’m having struggles with is trying to insert the narrative that people can be both those things or multiple things. Whenever I’m in academia and they have charts that are like, “This many women are doing well or poorly in physics,” or, “This many people of color.” One person could be in both of those charts, and they’re like [makes explosion sound]. [Laughing.] I just blew somebody’s mind that you could be a woman and a people of color or part of the queer community or first generation or.
In your experience, how have you woven in intersectionality into kind of those narratives without confusing people?
Dr. Lau: People are really confused about that all the time. And part of that is, I think ? so there is an element of this being a constant uphill battle. It’s like, “Hey, let me remind you that…” For example, we make decisions about which characters get to be in the game. It’s like, “Hey, do they all really have to be white dudes?”
But all of it is, for me, it’s framing it in language that people can already understand, which in some cases might be a business aspect because for games, money is very important for studios because otherwise they can’t stay open. “Let me spell out the business reasons for why you should have diverse characters in your game. Let me remind you that there are more types of people out there than just your very kind of narrow experience of people that you’ve met.”
And this isn’t just for straight white dudes. This is true of everyone. Everyone has their own narrative and I think just being mindful of that and reminding people that there are more than one ? there’s always more than one way to understand an experience.
If we abstract away from that a little, there’s this exercise in empathy-building that goes on when I’m in a room and I’m like, “Hey, just so you know, I am aware that I’m the only woman of color in this entire meeting. Hey, just so you know, that there is no one in your leadership that is a woman,” or, “Hey, just so you know, the people that wrote this story about this queer relationship aren’t actually queer and maybe you should talk to someone that is and see how they think about this.”
So just doing those and making people more mindful of that I think overall will help in the long-term just so people can kind of make those connections that it’s not you’re either a woman or a people of color or you’re a game dev or you’re a woman or whatever. So they can make those connections for themselves because the more they do it, the less I have to do it for them.
Dr. DeGraaff: I love that. Tell me more about what you do now in the game development world.
Dr. Lau: I am a producer at a game studio called Harebrained Schemes. We make a game called BattleTech, which ? BattleTech was a tabletop board game in the ’80s and we’ve made it into a video game version where it’s a turn-based strategy game. And we have a team of giant robots that go down and fight another team of giant robots. So there’s an element of robots punching each other which everyone loves.
But one of the things that we put into this game intentionally was character creation. When you create your characters, there’s the little avatar, overview of your character, and you pick your name. We also made it so you can pick your pronouns. And in a way, it’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s so obvious. You should be able to do that.” But you can take he/him, she/her, or they/them and that was just kind of a no-brainer for us.
Being a producer is part cat herder, it’s part team mom, and it’s part cheerleader.
Dr. DeGraaff: Is there a story you tell over and over that’s awesome that comes to mind that you would wanna share with our listeners.
Dr. Lau: Oh, wow. I think it was the second convention I did here. So this was maybe four, five years ago. I’ve been on a panel for a couple of years and it’s called Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling and it’s about Asian American representation in the media or in games or in comics. And we kind of go through what’s been on TV in the last few years or what games have come out and talk about representation and white-washing and yellowface and that sort of stuff.
At the end of that panel, I had an attendee come up to me. And I think at the time she was maybe 15 or 16. And she was like, “Hey, I’m half Asian and I’ve never heard a panel like this before. And everything they said resonated with me, but I’ve never actually heard anyone say that. It was just that kind of moment where you’re like, “Oh yeah, this thing that I’ve known all along. I am not the only one and I’m in a room of people that are also not the only one.” Having her tell me about that experience in that moment was just like, “Oh my God, my heart!”
For women, for people of color, for members of the queer community, members of the disabled community: you are not the only one and that’s kind of why we have this gathering in the first place, so you can find other people that are like you.
Dr. DeGraaff: Fortnite is so incredibly popular but my husband just started ? because we just got the Switch and it’s free, so he just downloaded it and it’s the top game in the world. But I don’t understand. There’s no plot! There’s no story-telling. Literally you’re dropped and there’s nothing there. There’s just supplies. Where are the people? What is the story of Fortnite? I don’t get it!
Dr. Lau: I think there’s a certain type of game like Fortnite, and Minecraft also falls into this category where, “Here’s a world. Now go do stuff.” A lot of it is you make your own story. So that’s one of the beautiful things about games. You can do whatever you want with a game. I’m just thinking there’s a particular category of narrative-driven games, like Gone Home comes to mind for me. So some people are like, “Oh, this is a walking simulator.” But it’s a walking simulator where you learn a story about this character and her relationship with her sister and you’re just walking through her house.
Dr. DeGraaff: It sounds awesome!
Dr. Lau: Yeah, it’s amazing. Everyone should go play it. It’s lovely.
Dr. DeGraaff: I never even thought about that. That’s such genius. And of course it comes from you and who is a game developer who is in the world because I saw Fortnite and I think the greatest game ever made was Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which I’m playing for the third time. Almost done. Gotten all the shrines. But I love that! I love being immersed in a world that has great character development and just a ton of background. So when you drop into Fortnite, there is no background. But, I mean, you just said it. Not everyone’s like me. They want to make their own story.
Dr. Lau: Yeah. So I also super love Breath of the Wild and I think I’ve spent 200 hours just walking around in the game, which is ? like, not even doing anything in particular. Just like, “Oh, there’s a mountain over there. That looks cool. I’m gonna go over there and climb the mountain.”
Dr. DeGraaff: You get to cook, too. It’s just the best game ever.
Dr. Lau: Oh my God, the cooking mechanic in that game is amazing. Also, I gave Link food poisoning about 12 times because I would just randomly be like, “Let’s just try this out and see what happens.”
Dr. DeGraaff: I like to cheat and I like to look up stuff. But Fortnite’s the thing now. What’s the next thing?
Dr. Lau: Oh. That’s… wow! There are so many directions the gaming world is going in. Eventually some of these will be in tension with each other. But I feel like the bar to entry for game dev is going down everyday. Kids are learning how to code. Now you can go to school for that. You can learn how to code when you’re five years old in class, or whatever. So I feel like we are going to see this explosion of new games and new types of games out there. I mean, that’s kind of part of the reason we play games.
We want to be able to explore and we want to be able to discover things for ourselves. And so I think there’s room for more stuff in open world games. But I also think that, as we see future generations of game devs come outward, we’re just going to see things that I can’t even imagine right now, which is really exciting.
Dr. DeGraaff: Spark Science will be back with more from Geek Girl Con.
Welcome back to Spark Science. In this episode, we are at Geek Girl Con, a conference focused on all things geek, talking to Dr. Ferez about math and chaos theory.
Welcome to Spark Science. We’re at Geek Girl Con for the fourth time and I’m inside the DIY zone, so the Do It Yourself Science Zone that was created by Dr. Raychelle Burks. And there’s probably about 10 or 11 science experiments or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) experiments, and I’m here at a math one. And I want you to kind of let me know about what this booth is about.
Dr. Adriana Ferez: Okay. So my name is Adriana Ferez and it’s my first time here at Geek Con and my booth is about trying to explain chaos to kids and people, which is a very complex concept and I’m trying to build it up simple and see if they can understand. And to do that I use a simple model, that’s the double pendulum. So a classical pendulum it just one have one swing let’s say that goes. If you couple two of them, that is a very simple example and you can create chaos or you find chaos.
And the question is, what do you understand by chaos? Most people think that chaos is craziness or something wild and from a mathematical point of view, it’s not that. It’s the fact that you are not able to predict things on the long-term. So with a double pendulum, there’s initial states that if you put them and you just separate them by a millimeter or less, like very, very close, one to the other, and just let the system evolve, they’ll behave completely different. How does that happen? Is it because I’m tweaking the system? Or is that something that will happen freely?
But that really happens and you find chaos in many other places. I always put the example of meteorology, trying to predict the weather. Some people think it’s just because we’re not smart enough and it’s not exactly true. Even if we had all the conditions and everything, things that are very, very close by will have very different behaviors. So we’re always only able to predict weather with seven days or even less. More than that, it’s impossible to know because the system is chaotic. So things that start together end up being completely different. And that’s essentially what I’m doing here.
Dr. DeGraaff: So what do you think about the pop culture representation? Because we’re at a Geek Girl Con, so this is pop culture central. But when I think of chaos and when I think of mathematicians in pop culture, I think of Jeff Goldblum, Jurassic Park.
For those listeners unfamiliar with Jurassic Park, or maybe just want to hear it again, here is the clip where Jeff Goldblum talks about chaos.
Ellie: Um, I’m still not clear on chaos. Wh-What does that mean?
Malcolm: Oh, oh, it simply deals with, uh, unpredictability in complex systems. The shorthand is the – the butterfly effect. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine. Did I go too fast? I go too fast. I did a fly-by. Give me that glass of water. We’re going to conduct an experiment. It should be still. The car’s bouncing up and down, but that’s okay. It’s just an example. Now, put your hand flat like a hieroglyphic. Now, let’s say a drop of water falls on your hand. Which way is the drop going to fall? Of which finger or the thumb or the other side?
Ellie: Thumb, I’d say.
Malcolm: Aha. Okay. Now freeze your hand. Freeze your hand. Don’t move. I’m going to do the same thing, start with the same place again. Which way is it going to roll off, do you think?
Ellie: Let’s say back. Same way.
Malcolm: Back the same way. [Gasps.] It changed. It changed. Why? Because tiny variations: uh, the orientation of the hairs on your hands?
Ellie: Hey, Alan, look at this.
Malcolm: Um, the amount of blood distending your vessels, imperfections in the skin–
Ellie: Imperfections in the skin?
Malcolm: Microscopic, microscopic. And never repeat and vastly affect the outcome. That’s… what?
Malcolm: Right. There, look at this. See? See? I’m right again. Nobody could have predicted that Dr. Grant would suddenly ? suddenly jump out of a moving vehicle.
Ellie: Alan? Alan!
Malcolm: There’s another example. [Laughs.] See, here, I’m now by myself, uh, talking to myself. That’s ? that’s chaos theory.
Dr. DeGraaff: So, what is your perception and what is your reaction to that representation of your field?
Dr. Ferez: I never know the name of the guy on Jurassic Park, but everyone quoted Jurassic Park because it’s the one that everyone remembers. I really don’t ? they always get it wrong, I’d say. And I think there’s some misbehaviors and I think mathematicians, we’ve never been very well represented in pop culture. We’re either the geek guy that just crunches numbers and that’s all. There’s a lot of misunderstanding of what maths are important and where they appear. And that’s maybe because of mathematicians didn’t do a good job explaining what we do exactly. So that’s always hard.
What I do, because I am an applied mathematician, and if you remember the movie The Martian??
Dr. DeGraaff: Yes, yes we’ve had several shows about that.
Dr. Ferez: Okay, yeah. So I apply math to aerospace engineering and to predict trajectories of all those things. My work is the same as the girls in Hidden Figures and also the guy that saves the day on The Martian. If you remember the movie, at some point they say, “Ooh, we have a cool trajectory that can help us bring back them without saving fuel or without having any problems.” And that’s what maths are for. You have those complex models. You need to understand them. You need to know how to work with them. And there’s where the maths are.
Dr. DeGraaff: Right.
Dr. Ferez: And that’s appearing a lot of physics, biology, and different areas. But just the abstract part is always very hard to understand. And at school, I think you always stay with the simple math. People at school, they only show you that math is ? do some weird computations and derive functions, learn about the sins and the cosine. You don’t ever see where they’re applied to, and that’s probably why people are kind of scared of ? ooh, math. I don’t know.
Dr. DeGraaff: I feel like the more you’re saying this, the more I think of ? you don’t get enough credit. The mathematician’s always in the back and then the physicist gets the credit or the biologist or the pilot of the spacecraft.
Dr. Ferez: I agree. And I think it’s teamwork. It’s not that ? one cannot exist with the other. Maths always live with cool physics problems. So I always think of math as more like a language that helps you understand physics problems. It also has weird abstract math and have very interesting problems, but I have a feeling that those are very hard to get kids involved to because it’s things that they’ve never asked themselves about.
Dr. DeGraaff: So what is your perception of this kind of space? Have you ever been to a place where they celebrate science and kind of all these intersectional identities of being a woman, and maybe being a woman of color, maybe being a queer person of color, like all of these things? Have you ever seen this before?
Dr. Ferez: No. So I’ve been to science fairs and that where I explain the chaos thing on science fairs, but I’ve never been mixed with this pop culture and different side of more geeky part because I’m not from the U.S. I’m from Spain. I’ve never seen these two things mixed. They usually either put the geeky part or the ? I don’t know how you call it. That part on one side?
Dr. DeGraaff: Celebrating people’s identities.
Dr. Ferez: Exactly. There’s one is celebrating people’s identities and the other part is science. They never mix them together. It’s like something that is like they don’t mix, or that’s how we think. Maybe. Or I’ve never seen them mix. And I think it’s interesting, yeah.
Dr. DeGraaff: Do you have any stories about your field?
Dr. Ferez: I think I’ll go back to the chaos. It’s how we discovered about chaos, right? Back in the ’60s when the first computers came on, everyone thought that, “Okay, we have computers. Now we have the equations. I’m able to crunch numbers fast enough and I’ll be able to understand what happens.” Right? And they thought that two things have started together would end up being always together, right? Because the only thing accounting for the unpredictability was things that we couldn’t model.
And it was Lorenz that ? what he did is he got his computer. He was doing simulations on atmospheric drag and on atmospheric convection and he had his numbers. He got the paper and he said, “Ooh, I’ll start again but I won’t start from the beginning. I’ll start from the middle.” So he got the results. Got the number, typed it in, see what happen. And he saw something completely different. And he was like, “Ooh, what happened here?”
And what had happened is that he just had changed ? so that the numbers that he were getting out, printed them, only had four decimals. And internally, it was?
Dr. DeGraaff: Oh, it was summation! I’m sorry, it was rounding.
Dr. Ferez: It was rounding, yeah. He rounded up. But he thought rounding up shouldn’t have that effect. And, well it ended up that yeah, rounding up has a huge effect on those chaotic systems and that’s where everything started. The rounding adds up and that just generates error that just behaves completely different.
Dr. DeGraaff: Wow.
Dr. Ferez: So that ? when they told me this story, I was like, “Ooh. That’s kind of neat.” [Laughs.] And actually that made me think about all the computation I had done in high school where you start rounding up everything and you’re like, “Ooh! Maybe I didn’t compute anything right!”
Dr. DeGraaff: That is so awesome. Actually I’ll stop there because people are coming to your booth, but thank you so much for talking to me. It was great meeting you.
Dr. Ferez: Great to meet you, too.
Dr. DeGraaff: We’d like to thank Dr. Lau and Dr. Ferez for taking the time to talk to us at such a busy convention. You can follow Dr. Lau on Twitter @drjclau. If you’d like to learn more about Geek Girl Con, check out their website, geekgirlcon.com. Jurassic Park clip courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Spark Science is sponsored by WWU and created in partnership with KMRE. Spark Science is recorded on location and in Bellingham, Washington at Western Washington University. The producers are Suzanne Blaise, Regina Barber DeGraaff, and Robert Clerk. Student editors are Julia Thorpe, Andra Nordin, and Zerach Coakley. Additional editing is done by WWU Video Services. If there’s a science idea you’re curious about, post a message on our Facebook page or tweet us @SparkScienceNow. Thanks for joining us, and if you want to listen to past episodes, visit sparksciencenow.com.
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