Prepared for PAXsims by Chris Weuve
Connections Online 2021 (hereafter CO21) was held 12-14 April, through the mechanisms of Discord and YouTube. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first professional wargame conference designed not as simply a replacement for an in-person conference, but as first and foremost an online event, optimized for that environment. For that reason (and, I admit, because I am proud of what we pulled off), I’d like to tell you what we were trying to accomplish and how we went about doing it.
CO21 was really an experiment to see if a small group of people could put on a professional conference. The origins of this conference went back to May 2020, when it really became clear that we were not going to be doing in-person events any time soon. At that point I envisioned an online, recorded, 3-5 day “single room” (i.e., only one event at a time) conference, modeled after but separate from Connections US. Originally I planned to use a tool like Zoom or Go To Meeting with a direct-to-YouTube livestream, but about the same time I discovered StreamYard, a subscription website designed to do video streaming. Add in Discord to support text communications amongst conference members, including distributing StreamYard links and last second communications to panelists, and I had the technology behind a plan.
With a couple of people (largely Merle Robinson and Stephen Downes-Martin), we scoped out the rest of the format: The core conference would take place from 10am-4pm each day (“London to Los Angeles”), with events starting at 10am, 11am, 1pm, and 3pm. The early morning hour-long sessions would be generally solo talks (e.g., keynotes). The two 2-hour blocks were conceptualized as topical panel discussions of 3-4 presenters (plus a moderator) giving 10-15 minute presentations, followed by moderated discussion and Q&A. The last hour-long session each day would be 2-4 panelists who will comment on and lead a discussion on a set of previously viewed YouTube movies whose URLs have been sent out in advance. (This last format is an experiment, and I was fully prepared to declare after we tried it that “The experiment was a success — we learned to NEVER do that again!”) The conference theme of “distributed wargaming” seemed pretty obvious, as did what I call the 60-40 rule of Connections conferences: the goal is that somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of a Connections conference is about the theme, the rest is other relevant topics. In addition, we could conduct an “extended” events schedule — basically, put out a call for people who wanted to run games or other events outside of our regular hours and who could provide their own IT solutions, which we would had to the schedule.
At that point the day job intervened and, after targeting March or April 2021, the idea was largely put on hold until sometime around December 2020, at which point we re-lit the engines and got to work. As Merle Robinson and I started divvying up the work, Brant Guillory joined us. At this point I was pretty confident: Merle is a fellow Connections US committee veteran used to running large wargame events through the National Security Making Game, and was conducting his own experiments with online events; Brant and the Armchair Dragoons had run multiple game conventions (two online in 2020), and had an excellent handle on the registration side of things; and I knew how to make the technology work and had spent a LOT of time thinking about the operating procedures.
All we had to do at that point was, you know, get moderators and speakers.
In the end, we had three days of core events for 10am to 4pm EDT, plus extended events running two days before and four days after, usually in the evening.
I don’t have time to discus all of the excellent panels our moderators put together, but I do want to go back to the two experimental YouTube panels I mentioned above. The first was on Monday, when Brian Train and Mike Markowitz sat down and discussed their Georgetown University Wargaming Society videos on the practical aspects of wargame design. Brian and Mike are second to none in their field, and the panel basically designed itself.
The Tuesday YouTube panel required a little more work, and exemplifies the hands-off approach I used as conference director. Back in 2020 I had read Simon Parkin’s A Game of Birds and Wolves and Mark William’s Captain Gilbert Roberts R.N.and the Anti-U-Boat School, on the Western Approaches Tactical Unit. While reading the Parkin book I saw a name I recognized — Tom Mouat. So, when it came time to spin up for the conference, I sent Tom a note and asked him if he had the time to put together a panel on WATU; I briefly outlined an idea of a panel consisting of him, Simon Parkin, and maybe a YouTuber who had done something on WATU. I also asked Nick Bradbeer (the only other British wargamer I had met at a Connections conference) if he could back Tom up, since I knew Tom had been deployed and might be too busy.
So, an important thing to keep in mind — at this point I really didn’t know much about WATU, other than it was a wargame success story. That’s okay, because it wasn’t my panel — it was Tom’s panel, and I was specifically asking Tom to use his contacts to take charge and make it shine, as I was trying to organize the conference and didn’t want to be in the business of organizing each panel, too. I told Tom what I told all of the panel moderators — “here’s an overview of what I was thinking, but you are fully authorized to do whatever you want to do to make the panel as good as it could be.” It took about a week or so, but Tom got back to me, telling me that Sally Davis had largely reconstructucted the game rules and had actually run it sometime previously, and that some of the players might be available as well. Truth be told, I had forgotten the event and totally missed that Sally had run it, but it seemed like a no-brainer to me. (PAXsims has a lot more about WATU than I realized. I missed a lot and need to get caught up.) From the conversation during and after the panel, it’s clear Sally has thoroughly researched WATU and the Wrens who worked there, and I hope she publishes on the subject.
Overall, here are my takeaways:
- The “StreamYard to YouTube” model worked amazingly well. Training sessions with panelists in advance is a must.
- Discord is a little quirky, but will do, and we’ve got a better handle on what it should look like next time. More Discord help resources are needed, and we need to rethink how we organize the Discord server.
- The two YouTube panels seemed to work well, but I think I need to be more proactive about getting URLs out in advance before I declare the format to be a success.
- The key to making this work is writing everything down in advance. Before I created the first session in StreamYard, I had planned out all of the core events — titles, panelists, descriptions, et cetera, in a Word document, organized from the last event to the first, so that when I created an event I could take the YouTube URL and paste it into the description for the previous event. Information was grouped (and in some cases, duplicated), such that the document became the go-to reference document for cutting and pasting into Discord as well.
- Finally, this was essentially a proof of concept, a beta test to demonstrate that a small number of people (three core players for setup, plus a couple of people during the conference, all doing this part time) could organize and execute a professional, online (with video and chat), recorded wargaming conference for a couple of hundred dollars. That beta test was a success.
I look forward to seeing other reviews of the conference — feedback encouraged! — and I am really looking forward to doing it again next year.
Thank you again to our moderators and panelists, and to my colleagues who made it happen.
— Chris Weuve