People have been “jamming” on creative projects for centuries. Basically, people get together, decide on a deadline, a theme, and a type of creative project. Like, “Let’s stage a play about childhood by the end of the weekend!” A “game jam” is when people decide to create a game.
User Experience. When you are doing a game jam, you are choosing what kind of experience you want the players of your game to experince. If the theme is childhood you might want to make your users feel short and frustrated or you might want to make your users remember what it is like to believe in magic. Your approach to the theme, the user experience you wish to create, is the starting point for everything.
Technology. When you design a game, you choose what kind of experience you want your players to have. You can probably create this experience using a chess board, a deck of cards, or a computer. There is no real reason computers are better technology for creating the user experience you wish for your players.
Game mechanics. Mechanics provide the meaning. The cool thing is that different game mechanics provide a different experience for the game player. Risk and Diplomacy also use the same technology but their mechanics are different. The mechanics of Risk reward sneakiness while the mechanics of Diplomacy reward cooperation.
The games that get made in a weekend will not be high quality, however, they can be posted on the website. Video games can easily be played on the web these days and card games can be posted up as images that people can print out to play. The developers of the games, and the scientist involved, will describe the game, its purpose, why it is fun and what feelings, understandings and experience it is intended to provide the user. The description of the game often helps draw a wider audience into the understanding of the topic, as well.
- Adult citizens
You can do it with all those groups, but we did it with professionals from different fields like public engagement or the cultural and creative sector.
Let’s say you are a geneticist and you want to bring your audience a deeper understanding of genetics, you might hold a game jam and you would announce that the theme is genetics. Recruit geneticists who can commit to being members of the game development teams for the whole duration of the jam. This is why most jams happen on the weekends.
The benefits are that each scientist will be surrounded by non-scientists for the length of the jam, being pounded with questions about genetics. How fast does mutation happen compared to the lifespan of the animal, compared to global warming, compared to continental drift, compared to Human lifespan? You will be a team member on a project, you will be teaching deeper understanding through an educational trick called “Project-Based Learning.” It will be fun, as well. Each scientist will have a deep effect on a small number of people, so you may not reach as many people as if they gave a lecture, but you will reach people who would never have attended a science lecture! And the learning will be deeper than anyone at the lecture would achieve.
The main point is, that games are great ways to teach complex, Gestalt kinds of learning. If you want your audience to memorize the differences between elves and dwarfs you could give them flash cards, if you want your audience to love elves and dwarves, you write a great story about them, if you want your audience to know what it feels like to be a dwarf or an elf, you make a game about them.
You need a space, a theme, some scientists, and a groups of game developers who will co-host and co-recruit people to be part of your game jam.
A game jam starts when the theme is announced. Usually in the first hour of the jam, the people form teams. Teams form around user experience.
For example. If we chose the theme of global warming, each person at the jam would think to themselves what their approach to the theme would be. Person 1 might want to focus on the way weather is becoming harder to predict, and they may decide to create a user experience that demonstrates how increasing randomness affects scheduling of events. Person 2 might want to focus on the way the global warming will force some species to migrate to places where they have no food supply. Person 3 might want to focus on how chemical reaction happen more frequently in warmer environments.
After 5 minutes of thinking, Each person will say their idea to the whole group. Then everyone walks over to the idea they wish to work on. No one has mentioned technology yet, or any game mechanics. Once teams have formed around the user experience, the teams start to consider what mechanics they think would provide the user experience they are trying for and they also start thinking about what technology they can use to finish their game in the allotted amount of time.
Sometimes really excellent game programmers are attracted to an idea presented by someone who can’t even find the on button of their own computer. The point is, if you are a grasshopper geneticist, you should not shy away from a game jam with the theme of global warming. You would be a valuable team member for either person 1, 2 or 3!
How would game players learn anything about global warming or genetics? Hint: the “user experience” is the learning. In the three suggested approaches mentioned above, game players would learn to 1. understand what randomness is in a practical way 2. Understand what it means for a grasshopper when it finds itself outside the range of plants it eats and 3. Understand that warmer molecules move faster and that this might be a good thing sometimes and a bad thing other times.
Here is a link to a peer reviewed study conducted by Dr Melanie Stegman (the contributor of this format), where she participated as the role of scientist for a game jam for high school students, where the game developers were tasked with making games about cells. This qualitative research reports on how the students recorded their ideas, what questions they asked, what Dr Stegmans thought about their games, and observations about how the students interest and attitudes towards the science changed for the better, and the majority of the time, even their understanding of the facts.
Convincing a university to host a jam is not usually too difficult, because it’s low to no costs. A game jam can also be just 8 hours long, even 2 hours. Participants can create a “Game Design Document” rather than an actual game. The important part is that the scientists are with their chosen teams for the duration.
You may also want to invite expert from the field of game development to help with your game jam, to provide any technical advice or tips on how to design the game.
These sorts of events are usually targeted at an audience who is either familiar with game design, or those who are interested to learn. Depending on your intended audience you may need to look for volunteers who are happy to help with the technical aspects of this event format.
Melanie Stegman, owner of Molecular Jig Games, LLC and Assistant Professor at Harrisburg University, USA. I would be honoured to help you organize a game jam. Melanie@MolecularJig.com
The Global Game Jam is a worldwide event that has probably been happening in your city/country for years now. It happens in the last weekend of January, starting at 5pm on Friday, local time, and ends at 5pm Sunday, local time. Participants often sleep at the jam site, which is often a university campus, a museum or a company’s offices. Many sites do not offer a place to sleep, and that is also fine, since teams can connect by video chat. Many game jams occur not completely over the internet. Even before the Covid Pandemic, a game jam called Ludum Dare had been happening virtually for decades. Ludum Dare lasts for a month each time.
Both of the above sites will have many suggestions for how to host a jam site. The GGJ and JD jams also have their own theme, that is not announced until the last minute. If you want to host a science game jam, you might want to pick your own dates. You may want to announce your theme well in advance, but also try to make it so participants are encouraged not to work on their games until they arrive at the site/jam starts. This is important because you are focusing on the interaction with the scientists.
A great resource for help hosting a game jam might be your local chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Many of these chapters are organized by people who love games and are interested in hosting game jams. https://igda.org/chapters-directory
If there is no chapter in your city, contact the chapter closest to you, they likely know about game developers around. The same goes for universities: many schools offer degree programs in game development. Find a school willing to collaborate with you.
Another great example of a game jam (this time inviting developers from the games industry to create a “green game” that communicates environmental issues was https://playing4theplanet.org/the-green-mobile-game-jam/