How to run an online event that isn’t horrible (Part 1)


As we enter the inaccurately named ‘post’-COVID era, many of us are returning to in-person conferences and symposiums for the first time in years—for many junior researchers, for the first time ever.

While seeing our friends again and listening to talks and informal discussions in the same room as someone else is wonderful, this has also quite rightly led to a lot of discussion about the persisting inaccessibility of in-person events for both those still disproportionately vulnerable due to the very much ongoing pandemic and those who can’t afford to travel—never mind the increasingly difficult-to-justify carbon cost of flying around the world for such events.

Online events during the pandemic provided many of us with amazing opportunities to network and collaborate with peers across the world. Sometimes, we had even more opportunities during the pandemic than in more normal times. But, as anyone who had to do online teaching over the past few years can tell you, online is without its fair share of issues.

For one thing, as most Australian researchers are acutely aware, timezones exist.

For another, while online events allow you to hear the talks you would have heard at an in-person conference, they’re notoriously bad at providing the informal and unpredictable opportunities that make in-person conferences so valuable: a chat with that senior professor in your field at the pub, that random comment at the coffee cart that turns into your next collaboration, the brief introduction to someone that a year later is sitting on your job selection committee. In a Zoom room, only one person is ever talking at a time, and the lack of simple spatiality makes the nonlinear and divergent nature of actual conversations very difficult.

And, as parents especially found out, the rest of your life rarely stops for an online event the way it does when you are travelling across the world for an in-person conference. Very few of us successfully cleared our calendars for an online conference the way we would’ve for an in-person one in 2019. Instead of heading to a conference-bubble parallel universe on the other side of the world, we all effectively ran double shifts: marking and teaching and doing service work during the day, attending North American or European conferences at night.

Still, despite all this, there was something tremendously positive about some of the online events of the past three years that allowed us to develop or strengthen our international networks without having to get on an airplane. As many of us start returning to in-person events in one form or another, it would be a shame to lose the convenience and accessibility that online events showed us was possible.

In December 2020, I ran one such event which, as arrogant as it sounds, a number of attendees still tell me it was the best online event they attended during the pandemic. It used a combination of real-time and asynchronous approaches that made it easier for people to collaborate across timezones, meet new people, and participate in the event around their daily work. It was incredibly easy and cheap to set up, but also quite experimental.

Now, two years later, I’ve still not seen another event use a similar method. I’ve wanted to write up how I ran it for some time now, and am thankful to The Research Whisperer for offering me this opportunity to finally do so.

The event

The event in question was called Researching Gamemaking: Skills, Cultures, and Politics. You can find the program here and the virtual space created for the project (more on that later) here.

From 2018-2020, I was undertaking an ARC DECRA fellowship looking at skill transferability in the Australian videogame industry. Something I promised to do (when I wrote my application in early 2017) was run a small symposium at QUT in Brisbane in late 2020 at the end of the project. The idea would be to invite game studies researchers from around the country, and my budget included funds to fly a couple of important international researchers out. Of course, the pandemic meant this couldn’t happen.

The pivot

So, instead, I decided the symposium would be run online. I’d already attended a few frantically-made-online-at-the-last-minute conferences and had seen the way online does and doesn’t work, as per my above pre-amble.

As soon as I started planning the online version, I decided on a few rules early on:

  1. The event can’t happen in real-time (or else international folk won’t engage)
  2. The event can’t require a full-time commitment (or else no one will engage)
  3. The event needs to facilitate informal discussions and networking in the exact same way that online events typically suck at (or else what’s the point)

I especially wanted the event to feel like a workshop, not a conference. That is, everyone in the same room presenting work-in-progress research and getting feedback from their peers and having conducive, relatively undirected discussions. Not just a straightforward broadcast of ‘here is my paper’.

After a lot of thinking and brainstorming, and trying to adhere to those above rules, I decided the following:

  1. Talks would have to be pre-recorded to watch at any time
  2. Discussion would have to take place via a text-based platform that allows you to join a conversation that started 8 hours earlier
  3. The amount of content that would have been appropriate for a two-day in-person symposium should be stretched over an entire week.
  4. Some opportunity for real-time discussion should exist, but not be crucial

This led, ultimately, to an event that took place across three freely available platforms: Youtube, Discord, and Zoom.

Youtube – Pre-recorded video talks

Before the event, I had all speakers pre-record a talk and provide me the video file. I then uploaded all talks to a single Youtube playlist. The playlist was ‘unlisted’ so that anyone with the link could access the videos, but you couldn’t just find them randomly on Youtube. Since the end of the symposium, I’ve made the playlist public as an archive of the event.

creenshot of the pre-recorded talks on a Youtube playlist. Image courtesy of Brendan Keogh.

Videos were split into thematically aligned panels, just like they would be at an in-person symposium. I created a recommended viewing schedule that attendees could choose to either follow or ignore, that assumed approximately 2-hours of video watching a day over the five days. So, whenever people were available around their other personal and professional responsibilities, the workshop only demanded 2-hours from each attendee, rather than an entire day.

The positive of pre-recorded talks was that any attendee could watch any talk at any time. The downside was that pre-recorded talks don’t typically allow for much discussion or feedback. That’s where the next element came in:

The Discord Server

Discord is an online chat system primarily used by gamers for online play. It’s very similar to Slack, or IRC if you are old enough. It has an unfortunate ‘gamer vibe’ to its visual design, but if you can get past that it’s an incredibly versatile and easy to use tool for running a small community.

I created a Discord server for the Researching Gamemaking workshop, and it effectively became the main hub of the event.

First, there was a simple ‘#general’ channel, where people could chat about anything they wanted. And an ‘#introductions’ channel where people said hi at the start of the workshop. Most important was a separate chat channel for each of the panels the talks were divided into. These channels functioned effectively as slow-motion Q&A sessions. After watching a panel on the Monday, you might go and leave a comment or a question to one of the speakers on Discord. Twelve hours later, when they wake up on the other side of the world, they would see the question and respond. Two days later, someone else might finally watch this panel and jump into the Discord to see what other discussions had already occurred and make their own contribution.

The effect was a slow snowballing of discussions over the course of the week, with an easy archive to see what discussions had already taken place before jumping in with your own comments.

There was no risk of missing out on an important discussion because it was all there in writing. It’s hard to stress how effective this was, and it is a structure I would still encourage all online or hybrid events to exploit.

The last two years, DiGRA Australia’s national conference has been a real-time single-track Zoom conference, and we use a similar method of having Discord channels for each session.

While the Zoom chat and real-time Q&A are great, the Discord channels provide more long-term reflection and discussion that you can’t get in a short Q&A.

This is the crux of this event: pre-recorded videos and a Discord server.

But several other elements ensured it ran smoothly and I talk about these in PART 2 next week.

Author Bio: Brendan Keogh is a Brisbane-based academic and critic. He works at the Queensland University of Technology where he is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Communication and a Chief Investigator in the Digital Media Research Centre.