The Game Jam

Creativity and Community

Jonathan Rodriguez is both an experienced professional programmer and a Ph.D. Candidate in Computer Science at the University of Waterloo. Despite trying to complete a thesis in programming languages, he maintains avid interests in game design and development, artificial intelligence, and applied philosophy.

Creativity and Community

Game jams are not without controversy. Ostensibly a community-based event that fosters enthusiasm and creativity, game jams do not always reflect these ideals in practice. As the lead organizer of two game jams in Waterloo, Ontario, I’ve had the opportunity to develop a perspective on what this event is—and no, it doesn’t live up to its hype, but jamming is not a terrible idea. The enthusiasm, creativity, and community promised by game jams are important and needed in a performance-obsessed society, and although game jams do not always deliver on these ideals in practice, they have the potential to do so.

I am a Ph.D. candidate with a rabid interest in a wide range of topics, and I write this from the perspective of an event organizer. The jams were funded primarily by admission fees, with a little bit of help from the Games Institute. We had no other sponsors.

Creative Enthusiasm

If there’s one thing game jams are really doing well, it’s fostering enthusiasm. Game-making is a business that’s littered with ideas of fun, and participants tend to come to the event pre-hyped. The promotional activities of the Global Game Jam have made this enthusiasm visible globally, and very little needs to be done to raise the level of enthusiasm at the event.

So why is there so much enthusiasm around game making? Some of the enthusiasm has to do with the fun of playing games, but the specific enthusiasm around making games has to do with creativity. The jam is an opportunity to make alive something that otherwise exists only in the creator’s imagination. This creative impulse is shared by authors and artists and makers of all sorts, some of whom find it so compelling that they end up starving for their craft.

The opportunity for real creativity is necessary in a performance-oriented world. Last year, I assisted with an experimental graduate-school course titled, “Games for Health.” The students were given the freedom to pursue a game design project of their own choosing (within a basic set of guidelines). The results were both diverse and impressive, and most students seemed to enjoy the experience. But what really stuck with me was the following: one of the students said that he really liked this course because it was the first time he had been allowed to be creative with his academic work. It is unfortunate that so many professors who hold free inquiry in such high regard should expect their students to conform so rigidly to a pre-determined standard!

Performance-oriented thinking is toxic if it becomes too pervasive. As recently discussed by Ian Bogost, long-term performance anxiety coupled with career uncertainty has serious negative repercussions for mental health, and it causes some people to resort to extreme measures to regain a feeling of control of over their lives. And control is the issue here: a push to maximize performance is a push to exert control, and an increase in performance standards reduces autonomy.

The real value of a creative activity is often obvious only in retrospect, and rather than assuming creative activity is a “waste” of time, we need to give people permission to be creative even (and especially) when we cannot predict the benefit the creativity will produce. The game jam is an opportunity to give this permission—to communicate to people that it’s okay to spend time and money on something that has no demonstrable value.

A Community Event

Game jams are a social event and a community event. Although most participants spend most of their time interacting with their computers, certain social interactions among participants do occur, and it is on the basis of these social interactions that game jams can claim to be a community event. However, community is not automatic—fostering the kinds of social interactions that produce community requires a degree of work and social risk. What I’ve observed about the game jam is the following: the idea of a game-making community is alive and well, but the kinds of interactions that produce a satisfying experience of community are not always there.

A friend of mine went to last January’s Global Game Jam in Vancouver. Despite being surrounded by some 300 people, he reported a feeling of isolation:

There were three hundred people which means, as you can imagine, there were a lot of games. On the one hand that’s great, cause games are great, but as a result it felt very… lonely. I had some chats with the people beside me, and they were cool, but otherwise I didn’t really feel like I was a part of a community. They told me I was part of a community, but that didn’t quite do it for me. Most people didn’t even walk around and check out games, they just left after the end of the jam. They did do a “presentation” period at the end, where people could put their game on the projector and show it off. That was nice, but everyone still felt like strangers.

Clearly, something was lacking, which I think is related to a limited understanding of community by participants and organizers. To me, the full meaning of “community” is much more than a group of people living in physical proximity or sharing a common activity. In a healthy community, members engage in a genuine form of sharing that creates an increasing number of friendships of an increasing depth. Members get to know one another in non-superficial ways.

Technology has both helped and hindered the formation of community. Technology has helped by making it easier than ever to find and contact people with common interests. But technology has also made it easier to get lost in an endless stream of distractions and fast and superficial messages from acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances, with never enough time spent with any one person to really get to know them. I think there are many people who feel an absence of relational depth, and some try to find what they need by attending community gatherings. Although the game jam has the potential to help people find and deepen friendships, what often happens instead is a hyper-focus on the game-making activity itself—to the exclusion of satisfying interpersonal interactions.

One thing we can do is care more. At the game jams I’ve organized in Waterloo, I instructed the volunteers to spend some time walking around, taking an active interest in what the participants were doing. Some participants just wanted to be left alone, but others were very appreciative of the effort. As a rule, participants are very interested in the games they’re making, and really like it when other people also show an interest in what they’re making. An active interest by volunteers also resulted in more mentoring activities, as participants were more likely to discuss their games when asked directly (versus the participant having to initiate the conversation). Although this push to initiate conversation is not by itself sufficient to produce community, it’s a worthwhile start. Importantly, there is a value message I want to send to participants by the act of initiating conversation: that we (the volunteers) are willing to take the risk of initiating a conversation for no other reason than we care about them.

Inclusion and Diversity

The predominant participant demographic at the game jams was undergraduate male students in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics)—if there was a racial skew in the demographics, I did not notice it. One of my objectives in running this event was to try to make the event friendlier to underrepresented demographics.

Creating a friendlier atmosphere has two components: reduction of negative elements and enhancement of positive elements. Negative elements include overt discrimination, harassment, barriers to entry, and anything else that makes the social atmosphere toxic or prevents people from participating in or enjoying the experience at the event. I do not recall any particular instances of discrimination or harassment (on the whole, the participants seemed to be a fairly sensitive and well-behaved group), but we were able to help with some accessibility issues. One team who travelled from out-of-town did not have a laptop, but we found one they could borrow for the weekend. Another participant brought a desktop (his laptop was broken), and one of the volunteers was able to help transport and store it securely at night. These are very little things, but they certainly made a big difference to the affected participants, and we were able to do them because we genuinely cared.

One of the challenges we encountered in promoting the event was a frequent misconception that “game development” meant “programming.” Despite the increasing relevance of artistry and storytelling in games, there are a surprising number of people who self-exclude because they do not see themselves as programmers. We made a point to advertise the event to non-STEM students, and we also made sure we showed gender and disciplinary diversity among our volunteers. At the event itself, we made an effort to make participants aware of the existence of game-making tools (which require little or no programming), we encouraged the development of non-digital games, and we encouraged team efforts. These are all positive elements: they are aimed at increasing the diversity of skills, design approaches, and points-of-view represented at the event. Although we have yet to attract very many people in underrepresented demographics, we did attract a few. My hope is that by fostering an increase of (and appreciation for) diverse skills, approaches, and points of view, an increase of demographic diversity will eventually follow.

A more difficult challenge has to do with the competitive and hyper-focused atmosphere at the event. Prior to my first game jam, I spoke with a few women who had an interest in games and knew about past game jams, but did not attend. Several of them said that the event felt too competitive. At the same time, many of the male STEM participants I spoke with enjoyed the competitive aspects of the event, so I attempted to strike a balance that allowed for some competition, but only to the extent that it added to (rather than detracted from) other aspects of the event. I discuss this balance in the next section.

Social Recognition and Awards

At the last game jam we offered “Jam Awards.” These awards are literally jars of jam, which were awarded for the following attributes: “Most Creative,” “Most Complete,” “Most Ambitious,” “Most Buggy,” and “Most Worth Finishing.” The selection of award categories intentionally recognizes a diverse range of results, rather than intentionally or unintentionally imposing a single definition of “best.” The economic value of these awards is negligible, and as far as I know, these types of awards have no cachet outside of a jam context. The award categories were introduced at the end of the jam rather than at the beginning.

The “Most Buggy” award requires some explanation. “Buggy” has a negative connotation, just as “failure” has a negative connotation. But what this award recognizes is not the defects or failures themselves, but the experimentation, the ambition, the effort, and the learning that occurred. I recall hearing Ed Catmull (computer graphics pioneer and co-founder of Pixar) once draw a distinction between two types of “failure,” for which we unfortunately use the same word. One type of failure is a breakdown: failure of a business, a career, a relationship. The other type of failure is creative failure: the thing you’re attempting to achieve fails because you’ve never attempted something like it before. The “Buggy” award is an attempt to recognize and reward creative failure.

Initially, I was apprehensive about introducing awards at the game jam. Awards (particularly awards of high perceived value) can trigger unnecessarily competitive behaviour. The game jam was never intended to be a highly competitive event, and too much competition can disincentivize free sharing of knowledge and ideas.

However, the risk of competitive behaviour notwithstanding, it is important to provide social recognition. We are never fully independent of one another, and we require participation in a community to remain emotionally healthy. One of the functions of community participation is social recognition—we want to know where we fit. And we know where we fit when we are able to arrive at some conclusion about how we compare with others in the group. D. J. Siegel of the Association for Psychological Science had this to say about our need to compare: “the need for comparison with others is so great that the very absence of physical or social comparison can lead to unstable subjective evaluation. Having people around us is therefore necessary to provide an effective point of reference that enables us to understand ourselves.” We cannot live our lives in isolation.

My intention with the awards was to enable participants to arrive at some evaluation of their own skill, without causing anyone to feel threatened or excluded by the process. The awards are a systematized way to perform recognition and comparison. By keeping the economic value and prestige of the awards low, we were able to keep the competition in the “fun zone,” where winning or losing was seen as less important than the experience of participating.

There are very real dangers to offering awards of high perceived economic or social value. Such awards are incentives to compete rather than share, and to perform rather than freely create. Participants are incentivized to “game the system,” preparing in advance of the jam and looking for loopholes in the rules. The organizers become burdened with the responsibility to define and enforce rules to promote “fairness” and prevent “cheating.” The feeling of pressure at the event rises. The winners tend to be those who are most skilled and best prepared, which has the unfortunate effect of drawing attention to (rather than helping reduce) the gap between the best and the worst. Competition is only motivating for those participants who see winning as achievable possibility, and for the rest, seeing exemplary peer work can undermine performance. At the game jam, I would rather see the most skilled participants pushing in new creative and experimental directions rather than trying to win yet another prize.

Selection of award winners was not done by a panel of “experts,” but rather by a peer voting process. At the end of the jam, the ordering of activities was as follows: announcement of award categories, then presentation of games to the entire group (2 minutes per game), then an opportunity to play each others’ games, then an opportunity to cast one vote per award category, then announcement of winners. The voting process was informal and open, so all participants could see how they fared relative to other participants. I was pleasantly surprised by how appropriate the selections made by the group were—I myself couldn’t have made better selections. Although an expert opinion is valuable where the expert’s knowledge and experience far exceeds the knowledge and experience of any other member of the group, this is not the case at the game jam—participants arrive having already played many games, and in the process developed informed opinions and tastes. Furthermore, even experts are not immune to individual biases and pet peeves that skew their evaluations. By obtaining evaluations in the form of votes from nearly all participants, the individual biases tend to average out, resulting in final evaluations that are remarkably stable and well-balanced. Apparently democracy can work. Who knew?

The Game Jam

The hype around game jams seems to be a response to a need for creative outlets and deeper community. However, community is not automatic, just as an appreciation for diversity and different points of view is not automatic. As an organizer, I felt it was very important to watch out for threats to the community experience: threats to accessibility, threats to creative breadth, and threats posed by participants’ own competitive tendencies, among others. Although I cannot claim any great successes, there were a few small successes, so I remain optimistic.