by Colleen Macklin, John Martin, and Seann Dikkers
If you want to truly understand a topic, design a game for it. This chapter provides a framework for running your own ‘game jam’ — or, if you only have a small chunk of time — a game design challenge. A game jam is a game design tradition to gather a range of prospective game designers that work in groups to make a fully– functional game, from idea to iteration, within a set amount of time. The advantage of community– based design models like this one not only builds creative collaboration, but also allows for playtesting and natural enthusiasm around game design. It reminds all designers, no matter how accomplished,
that an idea is only as good as its execution, and that productivity is measured in moments, not months.
A decade ago the first game jam took place in Oakland, California prior to the annual Game Developers Conference as a means to encourage experimental game design around a theme. The 0th Indie Game Jam’s theme was “10,000 guys,” or, how can one design a videogame with 10,000 computerized characters? The idea caught on. Since then, game jams have taken place at schools, game design studios, and basements around the world. Ten years later, in 2012, the weekend Global Game Jam included participants from 47 countries around the world. Over 10,000 designers created games themed by an image of the Ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail. Locally we have used game jams to address civic challenges, explore digestive systems, or simply to have a good time and build relationships. We suggest that this basic approach can be used in a variety of ways.
First, the official breakdown of a game jam:
Official Game Jam Rules:
Officially at each site, the Global Game Jam runs continuously for 48 hours in each time zone, beginning at 5:00 PM on the start date, and ending at 5:00 PM two days later. The recommended schedule includes a short planning and team creation period, followed by development time until 3:00 PM on the final day. The last few hours are set aside for teams to present their creation to each other. However, sites are not required to follow this schedule.
At the beginning of the event participants are given a theme, such as “Extinction”
in the 2011 Jam or “Ouroboros” in 2012. Participants are asked to create a game that in some way relates to this theme. Additionally, participants are given a list of “achievements,” also referred to as diversifiers. These are designed to drive creative development by adding a unique or limiting factor to their game’s design. Examples include “Both Hands Tied Behind My Back,” in which a game should be designed to be played without the player’s hands, or “Picasso Lives,” in which game art must be cubist in style.
Of course, any and all of these rules can be modified to fit the local game jam context and goals. Themes and achievements can both be used as ways to challenge
jammers further, or to promote a learning agenda by the organizers and differentiate the challenges.
Collectively we have organized and facilitated jams of various kinds involving university students, teachers, researchers, hobbyists, storytellers, and even game designers. There’s no design experience necessary and no technical expertise either. Jams can be done on paper or in computers. Really, all that’s needed is a willingness to set aside some time, a space to meet, and let folks know. Customize the rules, themes, achievements, time, and other variables to make the event as stimulating as possible for participants — together we call these pedagogical tools constraints.
The framework in this chapter uses both technical and conceptual constraints. Constraints are the designer’s best friend; they provide challenge and provocation, just as rules provide players with a framework to play and innovate within. The constraints in this framework are modular so that they can be reconfigured to provide new types of challenges and creative prompts.
In fact, the framework presented is modular enough to enable shorter or longer jams and the ability to string together a series of activities over the course of a couple of hours, a day, or a week. It’s designed with the assumption that many might not want to stay up all night drinking Red Bull and debugging code (although this is rewarding, to some). Core activities include:
1. Ideation. How to create “generative constraints,” brainstorm, and identify one idea for your game. We have both had participants throw themes into a hat then draw two, and chosen idea prompts ahead of time and advertised them so participants can start to generate ideas ahead of time.
2. Prototyping. How to build a paper prototype in the first few hours of the jam and use the remaining time iterating and refining your core concept. Paper prototyping is one of the most important techniques for all designers, even if the final design is paperless. In addition to paper prototyping, specific prototyping techniques for location– based mobile games will be described, from a walking prototype to using scaled– down versions of the game’s location(s). In these cases available resources (string, sticky notes, markers, maps) also serve as a variables.
3. Playtesting I. The only way to truly understand the dynamics of your game is to playtest it. And the key to playtesting is early and often. Playtesting will help you/your team “find the fun” in your game and prioritize design decisions so that your project stays within the scope of something you can actually make and something people actually want to play.
4. Prioritizing. Figuring out what is the most important aspect of a game and building from that, while slashing everything else, is one of the most painful endeavors even for the most experienced designers. It’s also a secret to the success and failure of most games. During a fast– paced game jam it’s even more critical to prioritize. The activities in this section will help make it easier to get into production with a design that is actually doable!
5. Production. This is where all of the elements come together and the true test of the technology — and your skills — come into play. For the Locative Game Jam we’ll narrow down the technology to choices that beginners will be able to work with and more advanced designers will be able to push further. Look for tools that multiple people can use at the same time like butcher paper or Google Docs.
6. Playtesting II. Playtesting your game while in production serves several functions: it helps you see whether the technology is working before you build too much, it helps you find bugs, and it keeps you honest. The proof of a game is not in its graphics, code, or concept, but in its play(test).
7. Show and Tell. At the end of the game jam, typically there is some kind of large group sharing of games made, features created, and a collective introspection of the process.
By the end of the jam, participants will have learned the design process from start to finish and will have made a fully– playable game. Whether the jam takes place over 24 hours or 24 days, it’s a great introduction to the elements of game design and to thinking like a designer. Even a 1– 2 hour activity that focuses on prototyping, with some time for reflection, can be a valuable exercise in design thinking.
organizing your own game jam
Game jams are best mastered through practice. We want to make that as clear as possible to encourage those of you interested in organizing one for yourself. You will learn the benefits, fun, and management of game jamming as you do them. With each one, you’ll add ideas, style, and specifics that will make the next one you do even better. If you have access to a room, basic office supplies, and a group of willing, creative people, you are set to put together a game jam of your own. In the words of the Nike ad campaign — ‘Just do it’.
At each stage, the following points provide an overview of planning considerations before, during, and after you run your own game jam.
Before your jam:
1) Goals. As noted above consider the goals of the jam. Whether you are motivated to build community, learn game design, or engage with content, your goals change the specifics. Goals affect time allocation, space, and materials that are needed below. For each point below use these goals to guide your decisions.
2) Audience. Audience also affects the planning of the jam, yet, in our experience,
not that much. For younger audiences, part of the appeal of a game jam is that the workflow resembles adult work teams and project– based careers. The high energy of deadlines and creativity are a good fit for younger audiences.
On the flip side, adult audiences are attracted to the low– stakes, playful, and also high energy environment.
The background and motivation of the participants are more important than age. Consider before you begin the reason for attendance on the part of participants.
If you have willing volunteers that have previous jam experience, much less needs to be done up front to explain and contextualize the jam. If your attendees are there because of a class or other requirement, you’ll need to plan for more explanation, clear goals, and think about motivation for participation. As in any creative space, unwilling group members can stutter or stagnate production. In compulsory settings, plan accordingly to allow for free participation in groups and an alternative activity in the rare case that someone wants out.
3) Space. Select and reserve space for the jam that best maximizes the process. Game jams are best done apart from day– to– day work. Consider moving off– site, or rearranging the site, if you have a group that works together already. For larger communities that may not already know each other, a quality space adds to the excitement and prestige. We’ve seen that large open spaces work well, especially when you can easily break off into smaller planning groups without losing line– of– sight of others. When one group starts using butcher paper, whiteboards, or index cards to organize thought, other groups should be able to look across the room and get ideas for collaboration and process.
Your space should facilitate central focus for initial kick– off presentations and projecting final game projects at the end. Chairs need to be generally tolerable
or plan for stretch breaks. Check for available parking, clear directions for commuters, and provide signs inside the building with clear directions to the room. Game jams that take longer periods of time will need easy access to food, restrooms, and perhaps hotels. Finally, we encourage that food be allowed in the room for groups that want to work through meals together — wrappers can make fine decorations.
4) Materials. Our game jams have ranged from entirely paper and marker to full digital builds of games. Using your goals, audience, and space consider what materials best meet your goals of design time. For a non– digital jam, make sure you provide a ready supply of sticky notes, markers, string (to show links between game elements), tape, and paper. In addition, groups that have whiteboards or flip chart paper can easily share ideas and keep plans ‘in front’ of them. Consider other fun elements like board game pieces, stickers, and anything that can add a flair to either idea generation or planning.
If using digital tools, have provision for everyone to plug into an outlet and access a wireless connection. Be wary of the capacity of the wireless network. Find a way to test it, contact IT, or find another space where you can confirm the network will handle the work flow. We have found it best to avoid computer labs because, as a space, they generally are set up for individual work, not group work. Of course, if you are providing laptops or mobile devices for the jam, make sure these are fully charged and access to charging stations is available.
During your jam:
5) Opening ceremonies. For veterans or newbies, game jams should start with opening comments from the host. As you prepare your notes, include appropriate “Thank yous,” welcomes, housekeeping, and rules for the facility use. Point out where participants can find food, restrooms, and any needs once the jam starts. The guts of the opening comments should include the parameters of the game jam or the design constraints. Include the times and overall agenda for the session, what the goals of the jam are, and the overall constraints placed before the participants. You can also use this time to organize groups, but we recommend having groups established ahead of time. Your opening comments should end with, “...and GO!”
6) Brainstorming. Plan for groups to meet and begin brainstorming around the design constraints of the jam as soon as possible. Allow roughly 20% of your time for this process and use any number of available strategies for keeping it fresh and pushing generativity beyond the initial rush of ideas. Many game jams have a period of large group sharing of ideas from each group to help narrow the ideas that they are excited about and compare, adopt, and redesign based on hearing ideas from others.
7) Prototyping. After groups settle on an idea, they should begin a process of fleshing out the game idea into specific stages of play. Allow 20%– 40% of the time for prototyping. In shorter or non– digital jams, a well worked paper prototype may even be the final product. A few ideas for prototyping include storyboards or ‘maps’ of the game, level concepts, ‘wire– frame’ drawings of screens the player would see, scripts, slide shows (with buttons!), or index cards organized to show game options. Prototyping can be non– digital or digital. By visiting the jam groups, organizers should be able to quickly get a feel for the game that is to be made, where the ideas have challenges, and how the group is solving problems. Be prepared to clarify and answer questions, encourage teams, and drop in additive ideas as you visit the groups. For younger jams, you will need to address group dynamics more, help them improve collaboration skills, and resolve conflicts.
8) Build the game. In larger game jams, building the game is the core of what motivates participants — taking up to 50– 70% of the scheduled time. For mobile media learning, building the game requires programming skills or the use of a rapid prototyping tool (like ARIS) to build working versions of the game.
9) Test the game. The benefit of having multiple groups designing together, is that you can stop everything, bring the large group together, and play each other’s games. This may only take 3– 5% of the time. Having the same constraints, groups can learn from each other’s ideas, solutions, and resources accessed. Develop a process or direction for playing games by either assigning a rotation, picking groups, or any method designed to have jammers playing other games. We suggest having the groups split between “stay with your project and present it” and “rotate to the other projects” so each group has a mix of interactions.
10) Refine the game. After building and seeing other teams’ games presented, groups need a chance to return to their own game and apply lessons, ideas, and suggestions to their own game design. This time should be roughly a third of the time they took to build the game or 10– 20% of the jam time. This is also time to add final polish and prepare to present the final product to the large group.
11) Closing ceremonies. Bring the full jam group together for final presentation of the games. Plan for a central location for others to access and play games (e.g. a website, social document, or public display space), and time to get feedback for future jamming. We’ve tried and largely abandoned awards, finding that they don’t necessarily fit with the motivation and goals for coming to a game jam — namely community, production, and fun. Yet, depending on the size of the groups, highlighting each game is a fun way to tie things together.
12) Follow up. You learn how to organize jams by doing them. Take time after the jam to contact participants for suggestions for the next one. Because they are fairly informal, most participants are more than willing to help you design or even help plan the next one. Those with the most comments may be unwittingly volunteering to lead the planning committee.
13) Audience. Find a way to highlight or make game jam products accessible
(with permission) to a larger audience. If you have an online site, this may mean populating it with links to games. If you are working with school groups, the local library may be willing to set up a kiosk or endcap with your games. Building an audience and community is important; more people means more relevant games, but it also increases connections between designers and encourages new participation.
but I don’t have a weekend!
“This is all well and good,” you say, “for people with weekends to burn. But what can I do within a classroom schedule?”
It’s a fair question. And it’s one that we’ve been thinking about and experimenting with for years. Remember what we wrote about constraints, “Constraints are the designer’s best friend; they provide challenge and provocation, just as rules provide players with a framework to play and innovate within.” We hope that in reading the final section of this chapter you are encouraged that:
1. Great learning can happen through prototyping;
2. You can prototype a game in a couple hours (see lesson plan below); Then we hope that in running a game jam you we see for yourself that:
3. Learner reflection during a game jam is potent and worthwhile, and
4. Learner reflection after a game jam has remarkable staying– power.
a shorter ‘lesson plan’
Let’s be clear — this isn’t as cool or immersive as participating in a Global Game jam for a weekend; nor is it even as good as a 3– 4 hour design jam. If you can do either of those, don’t even bother with this! But if you’re like many educators we’ve encountered over the years, who are interested in having their students design games, but have to operate within a couple school days or a school week, here’s a game jam plan that has worked fairly well:
students will be able to (SWBAT)
Work together to design and present a systemic understanding of the content through gaming media mechanics that models the topic.
Pencils, colored markers, 3x5 index cards, scissors, assorted dice, 11x17 paper (game boards), small sticky notes, assorted playing pieces and tokens such as glass beads, stones, and poker chips. (The dollar store is your friend here.)
Introduction (15 minutes)
• Briefly explain the activity: each group of ~4 will design a game for the others to play at the end of the hour.
• Hand out small scraps of paper and ask them to write down potential game themes such as “Dinosaur Ninjas” (we found that if you don’t seed semi– ridiculous themes, students tend to submit recent course themes, which tend to make the challenge too complicated — see above). Pick one at random to be the theme for the games. (These randomized constraints help even the field of game ideas by eliminating themes that participants might arrive with.)
• Break into groups of about four people.
Ideation (15 minutes)
Come up with many ideas, and choose a “doable” one — not necessarily the best one. As they come up with ideas, groups should consider the following:
• Guiding metaphor: Components. Break it down.
• Game play: What will it look like when they’re playing?
• Prep: What has to happen before anyone starts playing?
• Game board: Where is it played? What are the physical constraints of play?
• Rules: What are the rules of play? Keep it simple!
• Winning: How does one win? Or, When does it end?
Prototype 1 (15 minutes)
• Stop planning and make something!
• Try it! — Play along; it won’t be great yet, but give it your best optimistic try.
• Is it fun? What could be better?
• Adjust it, or try something else, but remember that in this constrained time frame, a single
“okay” idea is better than a pile of discarded ones. One strategy that we’ve seen work surprisingly well is when groups embrace what they might think is a bad idea, and pump up the ridiculous parts of it to make it so bad that it’s fun! A mediocre game mechanic can be amped up with other constraints (e.g. “player must be blindfolded” or “all in– game communication must be sung in operatic style” etc.)
Prototype 2 (15 minutes)
• If the first prototype was really terrible, here’s your chance to take what you learned and go in a new direction with it.
• If the first prototype was workable, here’s your chance to supplement it with a additional factors that enhance it.
If you have to spread this over two periods or sessions, here’s a good place to stop. If participants are into it, the next step “Finishing Touches” (or even a third prototype) sometimes happens before the next meeting. If not, give the designers a few minutes at the start of the next session to refamiliarize themselves with their work, and add some finishing touches to it.
Finishing Touches (15 minutes)
• Give your game a title if you haven’t already. How does the title affect the game play, or pieces, or general look and feel of the game? Tie it all together!
• Give the latest version another quick playtest. Look for dead ends or actions that break the game and figure out how to roll them in to continued gameplay.
• Write down the rules. As much as possible, the rules should be as intuitive or implicit as possible, with clues on how to play built into the title (“Ninja Dinosaur Teradactyl Toss!”), or theme, or gamespace — but any additional rules should be clearly written.
Group Play! (30 minutes)
There’s a lot of room for customization here. You should allow at least 10 minutes for each game. That said, we’ve seen some great 2– player games that one can get a good feel for in a few minutes, and some great 12– player games that participants want to play completely through. The underlying goal is to provide enough time to get enough of a sense of the game that one is able to provide feedback to the designers in the “Reflection” section.
Reflection (15 minutes)
In many ways, this is the most important part. Provide some time for groups to give each other feedback on the game, both individually, and as a group. Discuss what worked, and what didn’t, and what might work better. This is where designers learn from each other and where you get to bring home more complex points and issues that you noticed during the process.
Before you take off and start planning, we have a couple closing thoughts to share. First, we hope you can sense the enthusiasm that we have for this process. Group work isn’t new at all, but game design and the process for game jamming has taken off because it is a fresh way to enjoy a weekend, after– school program, or even a classroom activity.
Game jam planning is relatively easy and the payoff has exceeded our expectations.
However, as with any new approach to learning, you will most likely run into snags and challenges. We haven’t spent as much time discussing challenges
because we just haven’t run into many, and because the mobile project chapters cover many of them well.
Finally, if you are setting up a game jam and want to reach out for someone to
talk it through, look at your agenda, or just to share your experience, we are
available. Look us up online and send us a quick note. We want to emphasize
that we see mobile media learning as an emergent and growing community of people innovating — we’d love to meet you!
In the meantime, enjoy your game jam.