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Indies Did This: Viva la Game Jams!

This week, Cassandra Khaw gets on her soapbox and breaks down why game jams rock.

By Cassandra Khaw. Published 6 months ago

"Because MAKE WEIRD SHIT."

Someone shouts at me over Twitter, so quickly and so unabashedly that it's impossible not to picture coke-bottle glasses, brilliantly punk-colored hair and gleeful, double thumbs-ups. This is last week. I'm asking Twitter why it is so enamored of game jams and the answers are piling in. 'MAKE WEIRD SHIT' is, easily, one of the best answers I got. Like game jams, it's concise, celebratory, earthy and utterly unapologetic.

On the off-chance this is the first time you've heard of the idea, game jams are essentially the entirety of a development cycle compressed into an absurdly short amount of time. Traditionally, this can range anywhere between 24 to 48 hours but there has been at least one that span entire months. If consumed separate from all the proof that such a concept could work, it can seem ludicrous. For years, games have been the province of big budgets, big names and teams bristling with professional accreditation? How can a handful of people do the same, let alone solitary individuals?

It's because game jams are like magic tricks. On one hand, there is the illusion, the improbable feat, the disappearing Statue of Liberty, the functional game that must be delivered in a weekend. On the other, the misdirection necessary to make this happen. In the art of conjuring, this is the dramatically rolled up sleeve, a puff of smoke. With game jams, it manifests as the narrow span of hours available, the high-octane pressure, the communal atmosphere, the hundred of tiny nuances that must be accounted for to ensure success - all elements necessary to distract you from realizing the impossible is being achieved.

"It's a good training, and you learn a lot! And for the fun to make a game in only 48 hours :D" @erich_hanussen

Game jams aren't about winning. They're not about manufacturing something commercially viable. They're about new ideas, new environments, new spaces. They're about creation, not doubt. In March 2002, video game luminaries Chris Hecker and Sean Barrett, along with an assortment of other notable figures, came up with a specialized engine. Rather than employ a traditional QA team, they summoned a group of 'creative programmer-designers', gave them the engine and then set them loose.

"The hope is that people will be able to do incredibly strange, wacky, and most importantly, different games when the codebase is already done and the core technology is slightly strange and new in the first place, " Hecker wrote in the 0th Invitation.

People loved it. People loved it so much they did it again. The Indie Game Jam went on to see another three iterations, with the last exploring human interaction through characters in the Sims, before finally fizzling out. And while the Indie Game Jam itself didn't survive the turning of the years, its gestalt flourished. Other game jams began cropping up across the world. In 2006, the Danish International Game Developers Association and the IT University of Copenhagen launched the first Nordic Game Jam. It, in turn, would eventually help catalyze the Global Game Jam, an annual event that is unanimously regarded as the biggest - there 16705 registered participants, 319 sites and a mind-blowing 3248 entries in 2013 - , in the world.

"Because I can say I was apart of something bigger than just me. It's not a project, it was for a jam." @DevEarly

Game jams level the playing field. Most require its participants to both frame their work around a particular narrative, one that is usually revealed mere hours before the event begins, and to not recycle old material. The experienced artist, who might normally be armed with ready-made sprites and environments, will have to begin from ground up - just like the novice entrant. It's a practice that helps enforce the understanding that game jams aren't about grandiose amounts of polish. Game jams are about the GAME. As @LorenBednar puts it, the focus is on idea iteration and rapid prototyping. The end goal is to provide a clever interpretation of the chosen theme, regardless of whether it's something as silly as the Ludum Dare 20's meme-rific 'It's Dangerous To Go Alone! Take This!' or as contemplative as Jenn Frank's amusingly named Boob Jam.

(In spite of the bawdy title, Boob Jam actually posited a serious challenge: to create a game about breasts that does not incorporate the traditional male gaze.)

The biggest thing about game jams though, at least for me, is the way they promote accessibility. Making a game can certainly be easy. A crash course in design here, a $50 license there, a few hours each day behind the screen somewhere in between. But there's a reason why the industry is so devoid of minorities and people outside First World territory. Not everyone can afford to make games. Not every country has an education system or a government capable of shouldering the needs of a fledgling indie scene. When push comes to shove, when regular meals become a luxury rather than a staple, few will be willing to fork out that $50 even if it's just a one-time expense.

But game jams have the power to surmount these hurdles. Some circumnavigate this challenge by providing temporary licenses to participants and the opportunity to work with more experienced folk, others like Porpentine's Big Chaos Twine Jam, simply shrug and tell you your silly preconceptions about what you can and cannot do are irrelevant.

"Because it's a freaking drug °____°" @deepnightfr

There are a thousand reasons to participate in the next game jam and a thousand more to be excited about the results from each new one. Game jams are composed of spontaneity, of ideas undiluted by marketing concerns. No longer useful novelties, they've become a part of the industry's dialogue, a breathless solution to questions like 'What if we made a dating game jam?' or 'What if we did a game jam to the tune of a parody account?'.

Indies Did this is all about cool things that indies have been doing. If you've got a lead on any cool games or have one of your own that we should totally be talking about, don't hesitate to drop us a line. E-mails, comments and tweets work best. Smoke signals and carrier pigeons are more hit and miss.

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