Apr 202013

Dear Twitter…

Name my book.


The book has lived in my head for far too long as Developers in the Mist that I can’t really imagine it as anything different. I posed the question to the Extending Play community today and received some very helpful suggestions.

The book is an ethnography of the “AAA” videogame industry. It explores the everyday work of game development practice. The numerous technological, cultural and political-economic structures that surround it, support it and hold it back. It is about a pervasive structure of secrecy and the intense creative collaborative work that goes into building the complex systems that get labeled very simply as, “videogames.”

The text is structured in a way that tips it’s hat to the NES and Super Mario Bros. in important ways. Thus, there is a tendency towards thinking about pipes and pipelines.

It needs a name that is accessible, yet cuts to the quick. Lend me your wit:

  • Manufacturing Fun: An Ethnography of the Modern Game Industry
  • Manufacturing Fun: The Creative Collaborative Work of Videogame Development
  • GAMEDEV.DOC: An Ethnography of the AAA Game Industry
  • Coding in the Dark: Inside the Secret World of AAA Game Development (thanks: @jesperjuul)
  • The Secret Code: An anthropology of AAA Game Development (thanks: @jesperjuul)
  • Pipe Dreams & Pipelines: Secrecy in Game Development Culture (thanks: @ladybethel
  • Feature Creep: ??? (thanks: @miguelsicart
  • Pipe Dreams: ???
  • Lost Levels: ???
  • This is not a Pipe Dream: ???

Thank you.

Feb 162012

[Cross Posted over at Culture Digitally]

It has been a strange couple of days in #GAMEDEV land. For those that haven’t followed Double Fine’s Adventure on KickStarter, now would be a good time to start.

The short story is that a small studio run by a game development luminary employing other game development legends managed to secure a great deal of fan and game developer funding in a very short span of time. Crazier still is that the KickStarter project remains open for another 28 days. Included in this whole production is one that is particularly appealing to me, as an ethnographer of game development, that of a documentary team focused on those developing this game. No longer will I ever fear being asked of my anthropological presence, “will this distract my employees?” Now I can reply, “Double Fine had an entire documentary team.” Of course this wont be “normal” development either, it will be a team focused on a project that was KickStarted, not funded by an external publisher, to whom they are accountable.

As someone that looks at the political economy of the game industry as well, this signals a very strange shift in the game industry that I don’t think (and neither does Tim Schafer) fits into the kinds of questions being asked currently. For many, the question has been primarily, “Did Tim Schafer just break the game industry?” I’d say it was already broken. Steam, The Apple App Store and Android Market saw to that. It doesn’t mean that traditional form publishing is dead, but it was already undergoing a sea change. The old models that once dominated the game industry, rooted in high-priced media and distribution channels hamstrung by large retailers is now changing.

Rather, this is about the maturation of game development and games as a form of media still attempting to find itself. Recently, Ian Bogost on Gamasutra wrote about Game Bundles as a form of entertainment and patronage (among other things). That is certainly part of it, but I’m interested in it as a form of co-production. Many of these recent KickStarter campaigns at the upper echelons offer the opportunity to act as a co-developer, designer or character. It offers another avenue into the game industry, or an avenue to demonstrate one’s existing success as an opportunity to influence or partake in the projects of others with little risk. Or it is an opportunity to get to know a famous game developer who one might not otherwise have the chance to interact with. In an industry so dependent upon social networks, it allows those with enough money to insert themselves into those networks.

Thus, it is part co-production, part entertainment, part patronage and something else. It is the ability to buy your way into a game’s credits, design process or even development team. Isn’t that precisely what so angers gamers about gold-farming? Yet, there has not been the same reaction to these activities for small developers. There has been some negative backlash against Double Fine’s initiatives, but the majority have seen this as a win for game developers. As senior designers leave established studios to begin their own, many will likely explore the KickStarter option as it taps into their fan’s desire to be part of the action and willing to fork over the money for that experience.

I also wonder what this means, long term, for game development projects on KickStarter. I’ve funded several small projects by people new to the game industry, many working on their very first game. KickStarter is used as a means to justify the adventure capital necessary for creating a first game. In many cases the primary fans tapped for these projects are friends and family. In many cases these projects go unfunded or are funded near their deadline with a great deal of the support not from the “crowd,” but rather from those closest to the individuals proposing the project.

For me? I backed it so I could get the documentary. ūüėČ

Jan 272012

As usual, I’m chasing the Ice Cream Truck.

I’ve been thinking a lot about users / producers (and for me this continues to be game developers) and procedural rhetoric(s). Ian’s comments in particular spurred my thoughts on this. I’m going to omit much of the broader conversation around a certain recent essay, but I want to address two things. Thingness and power gamers (Taylor 2006).

I’ll start with power gamers, which I think the afformentioned essay doesn’t get right. In T.L.’s work, power gamers partake in “instrumental play.” I like to think of instrumental play as an alternative narrative to the dominant discourse surrounding “casual” versus “hard core” gamers. Many game developers no longer count as “hard core” within this dichotomy; nor are they casual, either. Instead I posit another term, instrumental players, who are dedicated not to a particular genre or subset of games, but who consistently and persistently attempt to dissect their games from the mechanics up. This may very well be what Gina refers to as a kind of “emergent” understanding/knowledge (and one that I maintain that current educational models of knowledge simply cannot accept).

Many designers play very few hardcore titles because the mechanics are instantly recognizable, and their interest lies in uncovering structures. Many so-called casual gamers are adept instrumental players. Their ability to strategically change their play based on knowledge of the underlying system is precisely the kind of instrumental rationality and sensitivity for the underlying game mechanics that are so crucial for game developers. However, many instrumental gamers find it difficult to simply observe or play games because they have difficulty resisting the urge to determine how a system functions. They continually see the underlying systems and may find it difficult to participate in either casual or hardcore attitudes, immersing themselves in a particularly complex game intensely until they feel adequately satisfied that they understand the underlying systems that make it function.

This is where I really disagree with the characterization of instrumental play in Sicart’s essay: Instrumental play should be distinguished from a kind of “instrumental rationality” or “instrumental reason” as it might be defined by critical theorists of the Frankfurt School (Adorno and Horkheimer 1976). Instrumental play is distinguished from these theoretical categories in that it has no claim to the irreducible or absolute. In fact, instrumental play would continue to probe into the structures of what is considered irreducible.

Instrumental play is about searching out associations, analogies, and relationships, much like “Enlightened” scientific inquiry, but it makes no assumptions about the absolute character of those suppositions. This is where the “play” component of instrumental play is crucial. There is always the assumption that what you are working on or working with will swerve and send you in new directions. This is more in line with the idea of the game developer as “bricoleur” (L√©vi-Strauss 1962, p. 17), adept at performing numerous diverse tasks, “mak[ing] do with whatever is at hand,” (L√©vi-Strauss 1962, p. 17). The concept of bricolage, or the bricoleur, is not new to the studies of technological development, but instrumental work/play plugs into the bricoleur‚Äôs underlying drive, which is to push one’s tools to the brink and pull off “risky” moves, doing what others have thus been unable to do. Put another way, instrumental work/play is what pushes bricoleurs to attempt creations that strain their understandings, no matter the extent to which that bricolage understanding appears to be “reality.” There is always a time and place to question the bricolage system that one has constructed in an effort to pull off a new feat of creative work.

Like with “thingness” and materiality. Ian’s comment, that it isn’t one way or the other, but both is important. Designers DO implement underlying systems. There are limits, particularly for game developers, where they bump into both silicon/electrons/hardware/firmware/software. The design process for game developers — that push and pull of negotiated development — determines where the bottom is. Games are based on something that must be felt out and determined by the players. Much like developers run into the limits of electrons and silicon. Specifications are made, but they are not made up; they‚Äôre the result of a negotiated process, which is frequently the product of instrumental play.

Instrumental work/play is rooted in the culture of gamers, who place significant importance on the act of working through the complex problems found in videogames. Any circumvention of this labor is often seen as a circumvention of the rules. Players are expected to play within the rules of the system, though circumvention through legitimate play is often seen as exemplary play (Consalvo 2007). Personally and deeply exploring the systems one works within is at the core of instrumental work/play. These same motivations also seem to plug into the ethic of secrecy that dominates the videogame industry. Much like “walkthroughs” are seen as the tool of the less adept videogame player, most game developers expect one another to understand the processes and practices that are, for all intents and purposes, undocumented.

Thus, it is both, right? The emergent, but also the very real algorithms, like Tarleton talks about. I do agree that not every player is so dedicated, but I wonder… Maybe moreso than we give them credit for. Its an empirical question that Hector and I have discussed examining around Fold.it. For me, the power gamer lies at the boundary between “normal” user and producer. They really negotiate this tension.

Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. 1976. Dialectic of Enlightenment Translated by Cumming, John. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Consalvo, Mia. 2007. Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lévy-Strauss, Claude. 1962. The Savage Mind, Edited by Julian Pitt-Rivers and Ernest Gellner. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, T. L. 2006. Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Gaming Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Oct 072011

[Cross Posted from Culture Digitally]

My Cow Clicks

My Cow Clicks

I’ve clicked a cow. Twice. One Kotaku article and a game designer’s reflections on that article got me to thinking about Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker, again.

I first clicked a cow when I added Cow Clicker as a Facebook application. I’m sure Ian could even tell me the day that occurred. That’s the strange thing about Facebook applications and the kinds of access they provide their developers. But that isn’t the point here. I clicked my cow for a second time during the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) in 2011. This was an interesting moment for Cow Clicker and for Ian I suspect. Its a moment that isn’t mentioned in either of those articles. It was the time of Cow Clicktivism. Ian partnered with Molleindustria and Oxfam to ostensibly turn cow clicks into real cows. It was hard to tell if, or where the irony ended and seriousness began.

Perhaps it was a first volley in what eventually landed in a pile of bull-shit. I’m not sure. There are certainly enough allusions to broken realities, Gamification and tongue-in-cheek revolutionary game designers. But this wasn’t the first time a struggle was being waged between ironic accounts of shit and sincerity about shit. It was the subject of his GDC talk, “Shit Crayons,” because he was also taking it seriously. The subject of Wole Soyinka haunts the entire thing, much like I suspect prison haunts anyone who’s had to partake.

So why cows and cyborgs then? Because I see, in all of this, parallels to Donna Haraway’s cyborgs. As I read about Cow Clicker and reflect on players and the designer’s intention, I see an old problem. The tension for the academic working in an ironic mode isn’t just that someone might not “get it.” But that in making that ironic turn, we’re also making a playful commitment to the very object we critique. It enters one into a game of cat’s cradle with another player or group of players that are going to take up and read / re-read / interpret it in ways that are unpredictable. Of course Haraway jettisoned her cyborgs for dogs and companion species.

The ironic mode is seductive, playful and fun… at first. But there is also a commitment that one makes in good irony that demands something in return, almost a blood oath. Indeed, if Cow Clicker, like A Slow Year, is a meditation, then it demands commitment to think deeply and carefully about something even if one’s conclusion is to jettison Cows to heaven. Of course I wonder, if Cows are Cyborgs, what is Ian’s companion species?

In the end, it is the Cow’s creator and rapturer that summarizes it best:

Or, it’s both. Or all of them.

I do think this account is a particularly generous, designer-oriented reading. It’s not wrong. It’s beautiful. I see it like that sometimes. But it’s not the whole story either. Like so many things.

Jul 112011

[This post is cross-posted from over at the Culture Digitally site.]

This one has been brewing for a while. Perhaps, as¬†Stephen Totilo¬†notes, ever since¬†Raph Koster¬†voiced his concerns back in 2006. I believe that there is a storm coming between “game people” and educators, precisely at a moment when money is flooding into these realms. So, perhaps, that is reason enough for a storm. But the foundations for a battle have been laid.¬†My concerns, as a participant and researcher, are really fourfold:

  • Technological Determinism
  • Obsession with Literalism
  • Obsession with “Content” Delivery
  • Epistemic Disinterest in Game Design/Development

I wasn’t able to attend G4C or GLS this year, unfortunately due to classes/research/budgets/life/etc, so some of what I have to say addresses second-hand accounts of those events. At the same time, however, I think there is growing awareness and concern about the intersection of games/game design/education that I have been thinking deeply about for the last two and a half years that echos the concerns of others.

Now for Some Serious Education

Now for Some Serious Education

The first concern I have is kind of banal. That much of the conversation is rooted in a kind of¬†technological determinism. “Games will make crappy educational practices better.” I think all of us working in this area know that the issue is much broader than this. That there is the entire context of education that needs to be examined in addition to making educational materials more interesting/engaging/fill-in-the-blank.

The second critique is more subtle, and I was particularly sad to miss Eric Zimmerman’s GLS keynote entitled, “GAMES ARE NOT GOOD FOR YOU.” One element in particular that I struggle with and clearly Eric does as well, is that many people currently interested in games are obsessed with a kind of topical literalism. If the area of interest is diabetes, then the game should be about diabetes. If its about energy management, it needs to be about energy management. My experience has shown that this leads immediately to players, “looks like education, smells like education, not interested.” The line that I’ve used time and again in my work is, “lets make a game about X, without making a game about X.”

Unfortunately, actually doing that well is a difficult and collaborative process. Thus, the next response becomes turning to commercial games and leveraging them into curriculum. Portal, WoW, Civilization, then become our answer. Except that I’d argue that is the equivalent to giving up.

I’m not saying that Portal, WoW, Civ, etc aren’t educational. Or that they can’t compel people to learn in really important ways. Clearly, they can. I am saying that they’re only going to address a very small aspect of what its important for people to learn in school.

More specifically I wonder about the epistemic divide that exists between these communities. A game designer would never dream of putting a quiz into a game, but examine any number of “edutainment” titles or educational games made (often with government support) and often times you’ll be asked to complete a quiz prior to then playing some game like Tetris or Asteroids with an educational venir slapped on top. Which isn’t to say that quizzes can’t be a¬†legitimate game mechanic, I think they can be, but they ought not be your go-to one.

The other option is to really¬†not even make a game, but make something that looks enough like a game that you can get players to pay attention long enough to get your point across. This is really about content delivery. Consume content we have identified as good for you until you realize what we’re doing. This is third criticism, which is why so many educational “games” actually look like workbooks or interactive encyclopedias, sometimes with interactive elements, but little of what game players would recognize as a game or actually call a game. Yet,¬†content delivery is much of what school has turned into.

However, policing the word “game” is problematic, especially when you consider the fraught ground between “casual” and “hardcore” distinction. Yet, the ability to judge something as “not a game” speaks to the issue of epistemic authority, which largely remains in the educational camp currently. Game developers tools and perhaps visual appeal are being leveraged, but does that make it a game?

A good game designer can assess the player at any moment. Do you know how this is game is working? No? Dead, or restart, or try again. It happens all the time in game play. Failure is used to help a player come to understand what they do and their relationship with the game. A game designer can construct a situation where they know the player knows/understands something, otherwise they would not be there.¬†This is a fundamentally different kind of “knowing” than most educators recognize and as such it is discounted. That would explain the, “newcomers exploring a thing they don’t yet grasp.”

The funding for games and education, however, remains rooted in an epistemic community that understands knowing only through traditional testing and is quite disinterested in actually coming to understand what game design means or what the epistemic context of that community actually looks like. It is for reasons like this that I have serious concerns about the future of games that are educational. There remains a tendency to fall back or defer to educators, who clearly haven’t realized that their perspective on knowing isn’t actually working all that well.

Which is where we come back to my recent work, where I’ve taken up the role of the game designer, in a context where educational software (and some games) are being developed. It has become ever more important for me to fight for a kind of game design epistemology that can speak authoritatively. It has also become important to police boundaries in ways that, as a researcher I find not totally unproblematic. “No, that is not a game.” “No, we can’t have a quiz.” “Why does it have to be in the body?”

More and more it seems to be a clash of world views, except for the fact that game designers could ultimately care less. There are some that are committed to making games (that just happen to be educational), but games are the thing being sought and their production ought to be treated more respectfully than some simple technology to be thrown at broader social problems.

Good serious game design is really hard because it is a bridging of these worlds that requires a commitment to both on the part of both sides.

Apr 082011

I’ve found myself relaying to students recently, a story of my experience at GDC this last year. I wound up at the Scandinavian Indie Games Party watching and playing the 2008 Vertical Slice of the Xbox 360 Game Limbo. It was actually one of my primary reasons for going to this gathering. I was interested in learning more about the tools and production practices that resulted in Limbo. What I got instead was a really valuable and heartening experience of someone else’s work-in-progress. [I also had the chance to reset the game several times as it sort of hangs after you beat the game. Leave it to the anthropologist to observe Arnt reset it once and then step in to fill the role so others can continue to play.]

Its hard to convey to someone how much one can treasure those creative/intellectual endeavors that one undertakes. Books, essays, games, movies, music, etc can each fall into these categories. When we set them in front of others, we place those stories on display in a very vulnerable way. Its made even worse by the fact that we often only see the faults in these artefacts. As a player moves through a level, all we can see is the hiccups and jumps and jerks and flaws in the system. I find it almost humiliating and yet it is a necessary part of the creative process. We learn and improve based on those resulting critiques and conversations.

[As an aside, perhaps this is my deepest critique of the double-blind peer-review process. Wouldn’t it be more constructive to read a fellow person’s work with them sitting there (or nearby) after which you can have a conversation about the work. Much more meaningful and connected that what most peer-review looks like now.]

What I had an opportunity to do was to see a game, which despite some linger critiques, I quite enjoyed playing. Limbo’s aesthetic and production quality are stunning. I’ve been deeply curious about its development, their production, tools, and numerous aspects surrounding the game. What I was able to do, was to see the flaws in something that were otherwise invisible. The 2008 vertical slice of Limbo made possible the game released in 2010.

Now recently, I came upon a video of Jonathan Blow talking about the Xbox 360 Game Braid. The discussion and dissection of his design process is excellent, but it’s the first few minutes of the talk that got me. It’s his first playable version of his game, created in “7-8” days and how it encapsulated the design of what became Braid. He showed Braid to several of his close friends and we’re not sure what happened after that point, except for this line:

“The Only Difference Between that and the Shipped Game is Three Years of Development” – Jonathan Blow

But this is precisely it right? It speaks directly to the “90-10” rule. The idea that the “last 10%” is really 90%. While the numbers might not be quite that skewed, the idea is. It’s also what makes Chris Hecker’s plea all the more heartfelt I think.

One really needs a commitment and time to bring a game to where it should be or ought to be to “explore fully” a particular mechanic. But you also need to finish it. So I ‚ô• the vertical slice, precisely because it’s not “the game,” it’s a moment in time where a developer has really found the game and now has some arduous task ahead of them trying to really coax that game out of the hitchy-glitchy thing that was the vertical slice. But one really does develop a commitment to that.

I ‚ô• vertical slices.

But also know when to break up with your vertical slice. ūüėČ

Apr 072011

[Note: For those of you getting this link because of your “(baby)alexis” notifications, I couldn’t help not including you. :)] Osy (“Osy Osmosis”), a game cooperatively developed by myself and members of a research team at the University of Georgia hit the App Store late last night. Osy’s development has spanned just about two years now, though actual development time was about three months to vertical slice, which was the deployed widely for preliminary testing throughout schools in Georgia. It is this version of the game featured in the documentary piece found on the Osy website. Little happened with the game after that point until April of 2010, when the UGA OVPR provided a VentureLab seed grant for our freshly created company IS3D, LLC. A portion of this money was used to port Osy to iOS and move the game into full production. It paid for bringing in wonderful folks like Ben Throop in to tell us what we’re doing right and wrong.

What makes Osy special, for me, is that it is my stab at thinking about making games… that just happen to contain concepts that educators are interested in teaching to students. I often say very deliberately that Osy is not “edutainment.” Put more academically, the procedural rhetoric of Osy is the story of osmosis. Too often, educational games ignore the procedural rhetoric and only thinly layer educational images/concepts on top of game mechanics that have nothing to do with the message they hope to deliver. In far too many cases it is actually worse, “gamelike” visuals are layered on top of quiz/test systems and it is referred to as a “game.” In part, this is because testing/quizzing is the primary procedural rhetoric (or game mechanic) of schools. I recall one day during the design of Osy where I said something to the effect, “If you put a quiz in my game, I’m done with it.” This is an approach, that I think is conscientious of the kinds of critiques that some are leveling at the Game-ification of Education.

I’ve also been somewhat worried about many people researching games and education becoming too focused on only the importation of off-the-shelf standard game industry games into the classroom. Isn’t that the equivalent of giving up the ghost? Why not create high quality games with education sitting in the back of your head? Clearly, game developers draw on scientific concepts for the systems within games (physics, evolution, …) though it comes secondary to the overall game. Why not have it as an equal on the field of idea-battles that occur during the development of a game? That I want a player to understand/feel/know X where X includes some scientific knowledge becomes part of the design process.

Go Osy go!

Mar 152011

Well, I’m going to quote Tom over at Oh No! Video Games! on this, “This one is going to get messy.”

The Game Developers Conference (GDC) was an exceptional one this year. There are numerous bits-and-pieces that I should comment on, though largely haven’t here because it takes a great deal of time to digest my notes and instead I’ve had to catch up on my return to work. However, several events, like the Game Educator’s Rant and the Game Design Challenge have had a life of their own outside the conference.

But first a story.

Having heard Jason Rohrer speak several times now, I knew when he took the stage at the Game Design Challenge this year, I was in for a treat. He proceeded to tell us about his grandfather and the impact he had left on the town in Ohio of which he had been mayor. The story he tells is about someone who has passed on and the traces that they leave on the world and their family and friends. All of this got me to thinking about my grandfathers. Sitting there listening, I heap meaning onto his words. I think about how for many in the room, grandparents may have been immigrants, making their way spreading across the midwest. This was certainly my family’s story and as such meaning heaps on meaning, I become invested in the sermon.

Of course as the story that Jason is telling progressed, it became clear that he was leading up to something that touched on Minecraft, which made it all that much more engaging. I’d cracked the code. I had been brought along the path of Jason’s design. In many respects it was a tribute to the idea of his grandfather, as much as it was his response to the design challenge. I don’t think I was the only one in the audience moved by the story.

In the end, Jason holds out to the crowd, dangling from a small lanyard, a USB thumb drive, which contains several scripts that customize the behavior of the standalone version of Minecraft. From the crowd comes an individual who takes the drive and walks back into the crowd. At the time I was somewhat aghast. It was too soon for that, I was still soaking in the talk. But rapidly the presentations moved on and I simply wondered what would happen in the future and thought quite clearly to myself, “I bet I wont have a chance to leave a trace on Chain World.” However, I wasn’t saddened. I was hopeful and still thought the whole idea quite beautiful. Even when in Q&A someone asked the commodification question, I erred on the side of faith, that everyone in the room had also been moved and that commodifying the idea immediately was too quick, too gamified. Eventually it would happen, but later after the glow had dimmed, at least so I hoped.

It happened immediately, which is when people began to get upset. Of course I don’t fault those involved or think that what they are doing is wrong. Clearly they are all people with the best of intentions. But they could have pushed it further? Why not actual volunteer work? Why not community changing work in the real world? There were so many options that spoke to the story that Jason told. Instead we get to click a button on Ebay to make a difference? Really? This from someone who does on-the-ground humanitarian work?

What really happened is that a modification for good was simply poorly designed. It failed to consider the context. In short, they should have attended Miguel Sicart’s GDC session. Even Jason has spoken out on Twitter encouraging the winning bidder to be unfaithful to the rules that do not fit his original design. Of course I wonder if the addition of Ebay’s legal context forever hack the game.

Of course, in many respects, this only proves the design. Chain World already has followers, people that care intimately about it, forks, interpretations, commodification, … But so many of us were hoping for something different. My friend Darius (who I didn’t get to hang out with!) seems to see along the same lines as I do. What is happening is legitimate, it simply isn’t faithful. Chain World was already beautiful. It didn’t need any help. Of course now I sound like a devout follower don’t I? I still don’t get to make my mark, but for a very different reason.

Feb 112011

Clearly, I am not a very good blogger. The Global Game Jam (GGJ) ended nearly two weeks ago and I’ve been silent on the matter. The buzz is dead, and I’ve only now had enough time to really digest my experience.

The GGJ has become a significantly important educational and creative event for the game industry. It puts professional, independent, and would-be game developers together in a bounded 46 hour event with the goal to create a game. I have participated in every GGJ since its inception. I have organized two. I have stolen the idea at a local level and run local “summer jams.” Everything about the idea appeals to me.

The GA host site this year, SPSU, did an exceptional job, and ended up being one of the most attended locations in the world. As hosting the combined site may fall on my shoulders next year, my first question is, “how do I ensure that people make it up to Athens, when only a handful of our folks made it to Atlanta (Marietta)?”

My only real event-level frustration was the number of games now posted, which have interesting aspects that I’d love to see how they were produced, except that teams did not post the source code or art assets for their games. This is a requirement for the GGJ and it seems to have been dismally enforced this year. Here is one example of that. Though I could probably find a lot of other examples.

Reflections on SuperMegaTurboX64Box:

A group of us from Athens in concert with a handful of students from the Art Institute in Atlanta created a goofy little game, which we came to call SuperMegaTurboX64Box. The theme of this year’s GGJ was “extinction,” which means that you’ll find a significant number of games about animal extinction, human extinction, meteors, the game of life, evolution, and the death of punk/rock. I was pleased that our team attempted to tackle something a bit abstract. SMTX64B, which you can play online, was a game about the extinction of ideas, game consoles, gameplay mechanics, and variety amongst the mainstream game industry. For a project conceived of and created in a very short period of time, I was pleased by the kind of reflexivity it exhibited. Of course, we could be accused of navel gazing, but I’ll take that as a compliment for a weekend project.

I was particularly pleased by the way our team formed and collaborated. We were the most gender-diverse group at the jam and delivered a relatively polished gameplay experience. The overall design was collectively decided upon and had buy-in from everyone working on the project. My only frustration with the game was the additional features that we started adding near the end of the jam, which I think added a level of polish, but also felt a little tacked on.

Reflections on Would-be Developers at the Jam

More than anything, this proved difficult for me. Having been a member of the game development community for more than a decade now, I was surprised by how often I found myself rankled by the behavior of some of my fellow jammers. Perhaps having thrown jams in Athens, I had a distorted view of the situation. Our sites have always felt very inclusive, with voice actors/actresses, musicians, engineers, artists, designers, educators, and even people that just don’t know yet feeling welcome.

Maybe I’ve just become older and crankier, but it made me somewhat worried about the kind of culture bred amongst the majority hoping to become game developers. Volume was often a substitute for know-how or experience and bravado was used by many to ensure that others knew how awesome they were at game development. Of course the opposite was more often the case.

Especially infuriating was observing one young jammer ushering a visiting young boy away from our team of three female artists with the dismissive comment, “They’re just doing some pixel art,” to show him the 3D model he had created. Our artists were distressed and insulted by this jammer’s actions and it bothered me in a way I have trouble articulating. Of course later I came to realize that his 3D model was simply rendered out as a 2D image to be used as the background in the game he was working on.

I also observed a rather large group of young students, all from the same school, who banded together to create an art asset intensive 3D game. The core mechanic of the game, based on magnetism and puzzles was actually very interesting, but what was produced by the team didn’t actually reflect the work of such a large team. I observed many members of the team spending hours raiding on WoW while waiting on assignments from other members of their team. It was clear that their imagination of what a game jam game was was different from what they were able to produce. It also didn’t really speak to the theme of the jam.

Reflections on Production

I’ve heard that some people have criticized the GGJ for “simulating crunch,” which I can see, but it actually doesn’t make much sense. Crunch occurs over an extended period of time and is compulsory, rather than voluntary. A 46-hour period doesn’t even fit the definition. Further, the GGJ is scheduled more than six months in advance. People are capable of planning for the event and are aware of the demands it will make on them over that period. For example, this year, we planned to have my mother-in-law was in town, which provided me the opportunity to immerse myself in the event in a way I had not yet been able to.

There is also the matter of this being a fun activity. I’d compare it to a camping trip, or a bike rally. People interested in the same thing converge on a single location to have fun with others who are passionate about the same thing. Then we all go home feeling good about what we accomplished (or didn’t). How is that crunch?

In many ways it is an opportunity to also understand, even over 46-hours, the importance of sleep, rest, and breaks while working intensely. It could be that our team was on average older and more experienced, but I think that would be oversimplifying it too. Each night myself and another jammer who I’ve worked with before would pack up about 3AM and head over to the dorms to sleep (the best idea SPSU had). I’d wake up at 8:45AM, shower, and head back over. Prior to leaving each night, I’d talk to everyone and encourage them to sleep, letting them know it was what I was going to do and that I’d return at a sensible time the next morning. This helped establish the thought that we would be working during the day and not starting in the afternoon. All of our jammers slept both nights. All of us were back on the job by 10AM each morning. This meant we were rested and collaborating throughout the day.

This was quite different from what I observed on other teams, where people crashed in the wee-hours of Saturday morning and slept throughout the day. These people would then wake up, ready to work by mid to late afternoon (or even evening). Other members of their team would have filtered in throughout the day. This meant that the real Saturday work didn’t begin for many teams until after 5PM and those members who got up earlier in the day were left struggling to stay awake later to accommodate others.

Our collective project management was quite good. Though the marker boards were “claimed” early on by several teams, we managed well with our “redneck” marker boards, which were pieces of paper in plastic sleeves. They actually worked well, as they forced us to keep things small and focused. Perhaps I just assume the production role automatically, though I try to defer it every time. I enjoyed it this time around, as the game concept was clear from the beginning and we were able to parcel out work effectively.

All-in-all it was my favorite GGJ thus far.