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Why Game Jams Matter

We all know that games have a problem with diversity, both on-screen and behind the scenes. The 2014 International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Developer Satisfaction Survey Employment Report found that 79% of respondents identified as Caucasian and 76% identified as male, while a University of Southern California study in 2009 found that game protagonists are 90% male and 85% white.

This is all in sharp contrast with the fact that the split for people playing games is close to 50/50 male/female and African-American and Hispanic youth aged 8 - 18 play more video games than white youth. And that’s to say nothing about the representation of sexual orientations and body types…

But what can be done about the situation? Yes, hiring practices need to be examined and improved, the leaky pipelines need to be patched, but how do we get people from varied backgrounds interested in making games in the first place? Yes, the traditional route is technically open to everyone, but what if you need to test the waters before embarking on a costly and time-consuming scholastic adventure?

The answer is simple: join a game jam.

Brie Code and Aleissia Laidacker

What is a game jam, you ask? Well, the jam part comes from the musical tradition where a bunch of musicians just get together and start playing, without a setlist or even an audience. Things are left deliberately informal, commercial concerns are left at the door, and creativity and self-expression above all else are the objectives.

Typically, game jams are structured around a time constraint, usually 48 hours-although longer and shorter jams exist-and a unifying theme of some sort. How literally that theme is injected into the resulting game is 100% up to the participants. Game jams can be virtual, with participants all over the world keeping in touch over a common website or forum, or local, hosted by hobby groups and/or academic organizations.

And because of the proliferation of low-cost or free game-making tools (hello Unity!), game jams are accessible to nearly everyone.

Some game jams have even chosen to specifically target those often intimidated by the traditional video game industry. The recent GAMERella game jam in Montreal is a wonderful example of a local jam that specifically aims to encourage self-identified females and other minorities within games to get together and make games regardless of their experience levels or proficiency.

Hosted by the TAG Research Lab of Concordia University, GAMERella was the brainchild of TAG organizers Gina Haraszti and Charlotte Fisher, who saw an opportunity to encourage and inspire would-be game developers by bringing them together with the physical and human resources TAG has on offer. Some participants cited these resources as a major reason for choosing to attend GAMERella in particular, while others were more interested in getting a chance to make games in a low-stakes environment.

Game making, especially independent game making, can be a very isolating experience, but local jams encourage collaboration and force developers out of their comfort zones. Some attendees at GAMERella already had teams formed when they arrived, while others found collaborators on the day of the jam. Some already had basic concepts or mechanics in mind for their games, while others started from less than scratch, brainstorming on the fly.

These ad-hoc groupings often mean that programmers suddenly find themselves in the role of sound designers, or animators become scripters. It gives everyone a chance to try on different parts of the game-making process, bringing new perspectives and solutions to problems that can stump larger-scale game makers working in teams with rigid hierarchies.

The benefits of diverse teams was echoed in the keynote address for GAMERella by veteran programmers Brie Code and Aleissia Laidacker (Assassin’s Creed 2, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, among others). Code in particular underlined the point that diverse teams lead to more innovation, also pointing out that by deliberately making her team on Child of Light as diverse as possible (25% women, multiple ethnicities, non-gamers), her team had better morale because they were united by the project they were working on, not external interests or associations.

While the games produced at GAMERella were all in various states of playability by the end of the jam, the variety of games was truly impressive, ranging from platformers, to competitive multiplayer arcade games, to a game that was controlled by manipulating objects in a tiny apartment. Unlike other game jams, GAMERella does not have an awards component, but you can try any of the games yourself, for free, at their itch.io page.

And if you’re interested in attending a game jam yourself, the Global Game Jam is happening in January 2016. Check their official website for a local gathering near you.

Mariko McDonald
Mariko McDonald is a freelance writer and blogger based in Montreal, Canada. She likes writing about video games, playing co-op games (badly) with her husband and obsessing over her cats. Follow her on Twitter.
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Mariko McDonald
Mariko McDonald is a freelance writer and blogger based in Montreal, Canada. She likes writing about video games, playing co-op games (badly) with her husband and obsessing over her cats. Follow her on Twitter.

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