Showing posts with label pandemic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pandemic. Show all posts

Friday, May 15, 2020

Ain't No Therapy Like Poketherapy

CW: talkin' about OCD and germaphobia and all sorts of other thought processes related to mental illness.

Colorado's stay-at-home orders have technically been lifted, although the state government's official stance is "for the love of god, STAY HOME ANYWAY." The streets around my neighborhood, a suburb of Denver, are still largely empty. Anyone who is out walking around is thankfully observing physical distancing guidelines, and kids are still being confined to their homes and backyards for the most part. Heck, with my underlying physical and mental health conditions, I, too, am largely couch-bound for my own protection, and to stave off boredom I've been re-introducing Pokemon to my life.

I hadn't really thought about Pokemon much since I was a kid and the card game was at its absolute peak in the United States. I was super into it, though, and I drove my mother up a wall by watching the dubbed anime anytime it came on TV. I had the electronic talking Pikachu plushie. I knew the Team Rocket creed by heart -- okay, I still do. But I never owned a console I could actually play the video games on, so once the furor around the cards had died down and I'd seen all of the TV episodes a hundred times over, there wasn't really much of a way for me to stay in the fandom.

Now I am a strong and independent human who makes her own money and I, a fully-fledged adult, chose to spend it on a Nintendo Switch and Pokemon Sword about a month ago. The flames of fandom weren't rekindled in me; it was like they'd never gone out. My short-term memory is still shit enough that I've left the oven on and nearly killed us all more times than I can count, but show me a brief glimpse of any Pokemon and I will immediately have committed to memory its evolution path, silhouette, and elemental weaknesses/strengths. Go figure.

At this point I've pretty much filled my Pokedex in Sword, and I'm not quite ready to dive into Let's Go Eevee (the correct choice), so I found myself once again feeling the edges of that Poke-hole -- shut up -- that had been previously filled -- I SAID SHUT UP -- by Sword. And that is when I was reminded that Pokemon Go exists.

I still remember the launch of Pokemon Go.  It was... less than smooth, with the servers going down under the strain of so many folks trying to create accounts and start catching 'em all. Even once the initial zerg slowed down, there were still a handful of server and UX issues that meant I played briefly, but quickly lost interest, especially after I'd left my at-the-time job in the games industry and couldn't go for walks with my team or run across the street to the other campus after a company-wide alert that Charizard had spawned.

But now? No traffic to dodge, few if any people to avoid, and boredom. The perfect time to stage a comeback.

I redownloaded it fully expecting that this would be a solo affair, as it always is for people like me who are chronically late to the party when it comes to popular games, but I pitched my trainer code onto Twitter anyway (for the record, it's 1233 9814 1659). Within a matter of seconds I had five new friend requests and that number is still continuing to grow. It turns out my coworkers are playing it, my games industry associates never stopped playing it, and the park right across the street from my house is a Pokemon Gym that is constantly changing ownership. As I found out while walking around my neighborhood with my face buried in my phone, the folks who live here are also remarkably unfazed by someone's phone chiming followed by their stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to swipe at the screen, and in fact will yell words of encouragement and ask what you caught, so it's safe to assume that the number of extremely local players is more than Just Me.

Now here's the thing: the pandemic has sent me spiraling with obsessive-compulsive behaviors and a thorough powering up of the agoraphobia I've battled for years. Walking to the mailbox requires crossing the threshold of my nice, safe, secure house, and some days even that requires a pep talk. I avoid talking to people because I am convinced that the minute I open my mouth, they're going to detect that I am weird and awkward and make fun of me for it, or I'm going to accidentally upset them and then I'll feel all-consuming guilt over it for the next two decades. At the moment I'm also terrified of anyone getting within visual distance of me because people are covered in germs which I will inevitably contract and die from or give to my friends and family members and then be responsible for their horrible deaths. But throw some cute cuddly monsters and game mechanics at me, and suddenly... well, I still don't like it, but I can distract myself from the pervasive fear that has me wanting to run and hide the minute somebody looks in my direction.

Then there's the kinesiophobia is the fear of pain caused by movement, and considering that movement is one of the things that causes my joints to all decide they should go off in different directions at the same time, you can imagine how I feel at the mere thought of going for a walk by myself. Would I be able to make it without being in agony? Sometimes my knees dislocate while walking to the kitchen for a tea refill, so what do I do if that happens while I'm in a part of the neighborhood I'm unfamiliar with and nobody is around to help?

Well, as luck would have it, Pokemon Go means I've got my phone with me, and my husband is working from home, so in case of emergency all I have to do is make a call and tell him what street I'm on. Sidewalks are everywhere here and extremely well-maintained, so even if I did collapse while walking, I wouldn't have to worry about falling in the street and getting run over by a car. And as far as the pain goes, I noticed that around the time I'd start feeling those creeping "please stop whatever you are doing if you want to remain upright" signals, I'd find a Pokemon and have to stop to catch it, anyway. Those short intermittent breaks were enough to help refresh me on my way to the nearest PokeStop a couple of blocks away, and since PokeStops themselves are usually public areas -- most of ours being playgrounds and parks here -- I was able to sit down on a bench once I got there and chill for as long as I needed.

This is around the time that I realized if I tossed a lure down to attract more Pokemon, this particular stop was close enough to houses that a decent chunk of the neighborhood would probably be able to catch them without ever having to go outside or at the very least leave their yard. So I did, and not long afterwards I heard a little kid's voice shrieking in joy, "WILL! GO GET YOUR PHONE! IT'S A LURE!"

A note to Will: I hope you got your phone, and I hope you and your sibling/child/friend/etc. caught some damn good Pokemon over the following half hour.

One of the things that's been bugging me is that because of my own health situation I've been unable to do much to help in my community. The sense of powerlessness and uselessness has led to feeling like a burden, which led to some serious depression for a while that I've thankfully been able to shake off, but it's still lurking in the proverbial tall grass. But realizing that with this small gesture I gave at least one other person something to occupy their time, I decided to expand my planned route as far as my joints would let me to hit up all of the PokeStops and gyms I could reach and put down lures where I could. It was a cheap way to get some much-needed dopamine hits for feeling like I'd done something good, and maybe given some parents and kids a break from everything going on in the process.

Okay. Yes. I also sat there and caught the crap out of some lured Pokemon, so it wasn't all entirely altruistic from the very beginning. I never claimed to be a saint.

By the time I got home from my adventuring I was feeling calmer and happier, and not just from the Skinner box effect of the game itself. I left my house. I did it by myself. I had positive experiences with other humans just from the "hello!"s and friendly waves and smiles. I completed a whole walk without struggling or suffering. That walk itself counts as much-needed physical therapy to lessen further pain. I did a small nice thing for other people. I got fresh air and quiet.

Niantic, the makers of Pokemon Go, couldn't possibly have foreseen how chronically ill and neurodivergent folk like myself would benefit from their game -- but I'm more grateful to them for making it than I can ever express.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Need a Conference Venue? There's No Place Like

As I write this, the world is on Day We-Have-Lost-Track of quarantine due to COVID-19. Although the infection curve is finally beginning to flatten, countless highly-anticipated conferences and conventions have already been forced to reschedule or cancel altogether to align with social distancing measures.

But a savvy few have taken Option 3: go online.

And I'm not going to pretend otherwise -- I could get used to this.

Before the 2020 pandemic, I averaged a whopping two tech conferences per year and maybe a couple of local meet-ups. We're only four months into this year and already I've attended easily double that. My calendar is littered with reminders for more conferences and meetups yet to come, some based nearby, some coming from a continent away. I can join friends from Amsterdam in their local meetups, or show up to my Indiana-based employer's weekly Google Developer's Group meetups with the rest of my team. At this very moment, I have Deserted Island DevOps streaming live in another tab.

It isn't just me. Nearly everyone I know who hosts a meetup or helps to organize a conference has been overjoyed to see their attendance doubling or sometimes even tripling since moving to an online format. The extra attendees aren't bots or trolls poised to cause trouble; they're people like myself, who have desperately wanted to attend more events, but been largely unable to.

In my case, the main thing that holds me back from in-person attendance is my health. I'm susceptible to illness, and when I do pick up even a simple cold, my body overreacts in grand fashion. We're talking two miserable months of symptoms and associated agony on average. The severity of those symptoms can easily send me to the emergency room. For me, "con crud" isn't a rite of passage. It's a straight-up deterrent, because as much as I may love the events themselves, none of them are worth months of being unable to function.

Getting around with fibromyalgia and *SHINY NEW DIAGNOSIS ALERT* hypermobile-type Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome sucks even within my house, which for some reason has entirely too many stairs. I've previously had to attend conferences in a wheelchair just to make sure that I could last a full day without being taken down by severe pain and exhaustion, which required extra help from others because older venues hosting these events are not necessarily accessible for folks with disabilities. I'm fortunate enough to be able to make do with a cane these days thanks to physical therapy and an updated medication regimen, but it still doesn't completely eliminate pain and fatigue, only lessens it. I move a bit more slowly and can't walk longer distances, so I end up isolated from friends who can easily walk a mile each way for lunch or socializing opportunities. Morning blocks are out of the question, because I can't reliably get out of bed for an 8 a.m. keynote; evening blocks are always a "maybe" because they depend entirely on how worn out I am from struggling my way through the venue and its host city.

Then there's the severe social anxiety. Crowds freak me out in a very real way. I'm aware of my general awkwardness thanks to a lifetime of regular bullying, so every time I talk to someone, an undercurrent of "OH MY GOD THEY HATE YOU, SHUT UP, THEY'RE JUDGING YOU, THEY'RE GOING TO YELL AT YOU" is running through my brain. Last year I had this fear of mine realized at a conference I attended when somebody inserted themselves into a group of friends I was talking to at the pre-registration event and began to pick every single thing that came out of my mouth apart without provocation, until I ended up fleeing the area in tears and calling for a ride home. I skipped a couple of days of the conference as a result and when I was finally convinced to come back, spent the rest of my time there looking over my shoulder in case that person returned for Round 2.

For any event that requires traveling, amplify all of these issues by a very high power of 10 and add in Financial Strain. I can't drive due to witnessing a suicide-by-traffic during my childhood and a history of absence seizures, and I'm a 20 to 30 minute drive from the major city center, so every meetup I attend by myself costs $60 per day for travel (the nearest bus stop is also not walkable and requires some sort of car service to reach). My almost non-existent executive function makes managing travel schedules and Important Adult Things Involved With Traveling almost impossible for me to do without help, so I either have to pay for another person to go with me, or if that's not an option, spend extra money on things like more expensive hotels closer to the venue to be sure that a.) I can physically make the walk to it and b.) I don't get lost in the process. Also, TSA has some kind of proverbial hate-boner for me, resulting in highly stressful body searches and extra screening because they claim I have "something in my pocket" despite the fact that I'm wearing leggings on a solid 95% of the flights I take. Thanks, security theater and racism!

So let's compare and contrast to Right Now: I'm sitting comfortably wrapped in my burrito blanket, wearing PJs, watching a slew of fabulous talks and knowing that if I want to join a conversation, I can wander over to the conference's Discord server and do that. If I need to take a break, I can rewind the stream. I can play with any fidget toy I want to help maintain my focus without worrying about other people being distracted or thinking I'm being rude. I missed the first two hours today because of my inability to wake up early, but since the online format means that talks are available on-demand almost instantaneously, it's not a problem at all to get caught up. No pressure. Total cost: $0, unless I decide to order lunch, and then maybe like $15. No fears of "but what if I can't make it the whole day?" or "what if somebody's a jerk?" And maybe most importantly, no TSA agent patting down my delicate lady garden.

Now guess which event attendance option I'm going to aim for 100% of the time!

Smaller conferences, especially, can benefit greatly from an online format. Imagine being able to run a successful event with no overhead for catering or venue rental, no contracts to sign with local hotels, no having to worry about sponsoring travel and accommodations for speakers and staff... and yet, being able to expand the pool of potential attendees to Literally Anybody With Internet Access.

It is true that networking in-person, especially for job-related stuff, is a big part of the conference experience that can't be fully replicated through a Slack channel. It's cool, I get it, and in a way I do agree, even with my anxiety surrounding talking to other people. But hear me out -- what if, instead of being fully on-site or fully online, events started offering an online component in addition to their usual venue?

When I worked at Blizzard, one of the projects I worked on was the Virtual Ticket stream for BlizzCon. For those who aren't gamers, BlizzCon is the massive annual convention in Anaheim, CA specifically for Blizzard games. Fans wait anxiously all year for tickets to go on sale and scrimp and save and do whatever is necessary to be able to attend. But those who can't make it to the convention center for whatever reason have the option of purchasing a much cheaper Virtual Ticket, which gives them access to live and on-demand video of the majority of the panels, contests, etc. from the comfort of their couch. They can still buy commemorative swag from the online shop. If proof is needed that you can run an event in both the real world and online and do so successfully, I'm going to go ahead and point to the 50k in-person attendees and probably equal or more online attendees of BlizzCon 2019 and let you draw your own conclusions.

Deserted Island DevOps has just concluded with over 7,000 individual viewers to the stream.

Why hasn't this become a mainstream option for hosting an event? It may be tempting to blame laziness or apathy from the organizers, but I'd wager the more likely reason is that they don't know how to set it up. We have folks who consult on nearly every aspect of tech and those who consult on event planning, but I have yet to stumble across anyone offering online event planning consultation. Figuring out how to do it well requires a team of organizers with experience in streaming platforms, software, and graphic design at the very least -- that's not even factoring in having the ability to manage and flag accounts for folks who register to attend online, which will require some measure of development work.

As someone who's helped organize livestreamed charity gaming events and used to do personal streams on a regular basis, I'm inspired to put together some resources on how to get started. I want to do whatever I can to make the concept of online events like these a reality for myself and folks like me. Who else is with me? And conference organizers -- who among you is willing to learn?