“Wanna come over and jam?” was a sentence I often heard, back when I spent long hours in basements with a bass guitar strapped to my shoulder. To jam is to play, to experiment, to mash different things together in order to produce something without over-planning or over-thinking. It is meant to be an exercise in experimentation, requiring little organization or formal structure. Ultimately, it’s about having fun with others who share the same artistic excitement for creativity.
When I first heard the term game jam a few years ago I figured it was something similar to the jamming I did in those basements and backrooms: the nonchalant sharing of creative ideas in real time without the pressure of deadlines or worrying whether the final production would even be any good. Replace a beer with an abundance of Starbucks coffee, add a strict time limit, and the artistic link between the dingy basements and the well-lit classroom becomes illuminated.
Earlier this summer I participated in Molyjam Boston — my very first game jam. Though my team didn’t finish our project within the time limit, I did learn a lot about the game design process firsthand. The Molyjam simultaneously revealed the best and worst parts about game design. I felt both the frustrations of my limited technical knowledge and the absolute joy of seeing, hearing, and playing something that was only a vague concept 48 hours ago. Despite the problems, going through that process within such a small time frame gave me ownership over my creativity and inspired confidence in my abilities, two important qualities educators hope to see their students acquire.
Not even three weeks later I was lucky enough to observe student game jam participants from the administrative end. As a moderator for a game jam hosted by Learning Games Network, I witnessed incredibly bright middle and high school students go through the same frustration and joy by jamming their own games.
“Add a problem that the students need to solve or address with their games and the educational value of the jam exponentially skyrockets.”
In partnership with SLAMdiabetes and MIT, three teams consisting of 2-3 students set out on a mission to create games that would help raise awareness for type 1 diabetes research and care. Even though the majority of these students never created a game before, by the end of the week, each group came out of the jam with a fully fleshed out concept and paper prototype. Some even emerged with a playable digital prototype.
Even though the Diabetes GameSLAM and the Molyjam were catering to different age ranges with different time limits (the students had over a week to conceptualize, plan, and create their games) and different goals, both game jams required a certain level of dedication to avoid falling into problems and pitfalls that derail the design and production process. They are wonderful ways to engage students in creative controlled endeavors that are not only fun, but also provides collaborative production experience that transfers to real world skills. Students emerge from the jam with a product that can be used for a portfolio — a piece that can be assessed and critiqued. Add a problem that the students need to solve or address with their games and the educational value of the jam exponentially skyrockets.
Yet despite the potential for game jams to provide amazing educational experiences there are some caveats to keep in mind when deciding to organize a game jam. Though this list is far from all inclusive, here are some hot tips to successfully make your jam experience awesome, for both participants and organizers.
1. Jam in a comfortable, accessible, and intellectually stimulating space.
Both game jams, the Molyjam and the Diabetes GameSLAM, took place on MIT campus. Participants had unlimited access to internet, comfortable/productive desks with power outlets, accessible dining locations, and bathrooms. Being secluded inside a room with other jammers helps to isolate one from the outside world and keep you from getting distracted by non-participants.
I found the combination of excellent facilities combined with that isolation extremely helpful for staying on track. When you are jamming alone at your house or in a busy coffee shop, for example, it’s easy to forget your workflow or get too caught up in the outside world. Great places for jams are community centers, libraries, or university campuses, but anywhere with these basic amenities will work wonders for creating a productive atmosphere.
2. What are you trying to achieve? Stay focused!
As an organizer of a jam, it’s important to have a basic premise as to why the jammers are there in the first place. It is okay to simply have a game jam without a theme, but giving jammers a problem to solve or an aesthetic to follow helps drive interest. For example, the Diabetes GameSLAM required all the games to raise awareness for diabetes type 1, while the Molyjam had participants create games based off a famous game designer’s tweets.
Having a direct focus also helps bring people into the jam who may not primarily be interested in making games, but might be interested in seeking unique ways to raise awareness for a particular issue or problem, and through that, discovering the potential of the medium. Games, after all, mount arguments through play of their systems. Giving a person the ability to see that first hand is an incredible way to understand how games operate in the larger rhetorical discourse.
As a jammer, remember to keep focused on your project and make sure it doesn’t slip too far away from your jam’s “call to action.” You can do this by designating one person as the “producer” or “creative director” who takes a lead on what the game is going to accomplish. Then, all the other jammers act as collaborators who provide important feedback for shaping the game in the direction that the team feels is best. Having a leader doesn’t mean authoritative control, but simply gives the team a point person for organization and making “final decisions.” Likewise it’s also important to designate loose roles within the team. Depending on how big the team and/or project is going to be, having a lead artist and a lead programmer will help provide a structure for your workflow. Just remember that an artist can help program and a programmer and help write, etc.
3. Advocate for and practice consistent, open communication within the jam teams.
So you have an idea for a game, have your roles designated, and you are ready to create the game. Great! But does the rest of your team understand what you are trying to accomplish? Is there honest, productive discussion happening between you and your team members?
Sometimes the idea might not be the best idea, or even an idea that can be conceptualized within the time frame provided. Being able to foster a space where communication and criticism is valued, and not discouraged, is incredibly important.
As an organizer, you can help this process through the organization of teams. Sometimes it’s better for the jam leader to create teams themselves, especially if they are familiar with the participants and know who would work well together. This approach would be great for teachers who have a class consistently and therefore know how their students work. If you are running a jam and aren’t familiar with the group, a simple prep speech on the value of teamwork will help set the tone of the event.
You could also have jammer centered approach to team formation. After a designated amount of time, anyone is able to pitch a game idea. Then, after all pitches are written on a whiteboard, people can choose which team to join or have others join them. I’ll admit that it becomes a little awkward when you are standing alone next to your idea with no one willing to join you, but it is democratically the best way to allow for everyone to have a voice. The Molyjam organized teams this way and it encouraged jammers to break out of their friend circles and work with others they didn’t originally know before the event.
4. Keep the game in scope according to the prescribed time limit.
When my team was conceptualizing our Molyjam game “Death of the Goldfish,” we thought for sure we were keeping our idea small enough to complete within the weekend. We thought, “Of course we can tell an experimental narrative with multiple play patterns in multiple environments! It’s 2D! No problem!”
Well, there was a problem, because our game never was actually finished, at least in the way that we felt it was conceptualized. I learned that even if you think your game is within scope, you probably should cut it down a bit more. Keep the concepts, and write them down, but focus in on one game mechanic (or one way that the player interacts with your system in a meaningful way) that you would like to create and go for that. If you do have time to add additional content, that’s great. If you don’t, at least you have something playable, paper or digital, that’s both creative and thematic when the jam is over. Even though it’s important to encourage jammers to emerge with a completed project, it’s also really important to remember the next tip:
5. You did great, you CREATED SOMETHING, even if the finished product doesn’t meet the original expectations.
One of the biggest things coming away from the Molyjam was trying not to be disappointed when we emerged with a game that was broken, incomplete, and not fully realized. Our concept document (where we stored all our ideas) was brimming, yet the product was almost barren.
Being proud of what we did achieve was something I had to really work hard on the week after the jam was over. I had to remember I went into a room and came out with something, even if that something was tangibly an unfinished game.
As an organizer, it’s extremely important to consistently remind your jammers that trying to make a game in a short amount of time is an accomplishment in itself. A short presentation on typical length of time and amount of workforce it takes to create some popular games that the jammers might recognize (ex. Call of Duty, Super Mario World, etc.) is a good way to give your participants an idea of how awesome they are. Even after a week of working, many of the diabetes game jammers only had a concept and a paper prototype. But that’s an incredible achievement. Make sure they know how great they are.
Perhaps the most important tip of them all:
6. Always remember that everyone DOES have something to contribute to the team.
On the first day of the Boston Molyjam there were over 25 people. On the second, less than half of the original attendees showed up. Many dropped out thinking they couldn’t provide any help to the design process since they had no coding or artistic skill set. When everyone responded with what skills they can offer to the design process many simply said they have none. I say nonsense.
At least, it’s nonsense that so many people believe they can’t offer anything to the creation of a game. A misguided cultural myth within the game design community is that only those who are privileged with a specific skillset can make a game. I personally don’t feel this created and enforced by secret council of horrible people, but instead has evolved out of the increased complexity of modern games; the ones that are heavily marketed and visible to the majority of the public are incredibly sophisticated technological machines.
“Everyone has the ability to help in some way, and even if you think you can’t create art, you can.”
But the truth is that there are a number of successful games, under the moniker of “indie,” that are created with significantly less time and money than the big commercial titles sold in retail stores, yet are still amazing games. These games are usually created by solo designers or small teams and typically by people who have loved games so much that they decided they wanted to make their own. The dedication, commitment, and energy needed to create a game no matter what the scale, is still high, but the game design industry isn’t some unattainable abstract place that only those who are incredibly skilled can go.
Everyone has the ability to help in some way, and even if you think you can’t create art, you can. Even if you think you can’t write, you can. Programming is a bit tricky, but with the help of some extremely accessible game development tools (most of the time offered up for free) and a willingness to learn, you can whip up an interactive experience in no time. It’s sad to see so many people still believe they can’t make a game, and it’s only for those who are specifically technically inclined. I felt that way myself last year, thinking because I write poetry and teach I don’t have what it takes to make a game even though I love them. I learned that the skills that you do have can and most likely will contribute to a team. That’s the beauty of games; almost all are made by multiple people combining their skills to create a fully realized exciting experience.
I’ve learned, after participating in the Molyjam and helping to moderate the Diabetes GameSLAM, that the bigger purpose of a game jam is to promote the idea that anyone can make a game if they are given the right tools, support, and creative inspiration. As an organizer, that should be the undercurrent to the entire event and something that should be reinforced throughout the time spent leading up to the jam and through its completion.
I hope these stories and tips help inspire you to run your own game jam within your educational community or even join a jam yourself!