What can you achieve by organizing a game jam? The range of possibilities is more or less bounded by the game jam as a genre of event. We can play more or less loose with the definition of the term, but in any case we’ll want to insist on certain features. It will involve multiple designers constructing games in a spirit of friendly competition during a fixed development period. You can give your jam its own character by specifying additional constraints, like a theme, but the time limit is part of what makes it a jam.
Given those constraints, you could achieve any of at least three different goals:
That last goal is where The Boob Jam really succeeded, generating a great deal of press (and, presumably, a fair amount of soul-searching) on the issue of how female bodies are represented in games. In part, those wins are tied to the very form of the game jam: by making it an event of it, the jam made the notion of a bunch of developers turning their attention to games about breasts into something newsworthy.
For the games themselves, though, capitalizing on that sort of attention means acting quick. The peak of Boob Jam press came during the second week of August, when major news outlets ran interviews with the jam’s organizer, Jenn Frank. Since the event itself was structured as a “long jam,” most of the attention had wandered elsewhere by the time the games actually started rolling in. That’s not a total loss—after all, it did give the issue a hearing at Fox News and the BBC, to name just two major outlets that covered the jam—but it ends up meaning that fewer people play the actual games than might have had the media blitz come at the end of the jam, rather than at the beginning.
Which is to suggest that the game jam format may not be especially well-suited to the task of meeting the need for certain kinds of game. That’s unfortunate—increasingly, it seems, some members of the broader gaming community are scouting around for ways to meet that need and finding that the game jam is, if not the best tool for the job, at least one of the few that’s widely recognized.
Take Emilie Reed’s Think of the Children! Jam, which I’ve stumped for a bit (though certainly not enough) on Twitter. The inspiration for #TotCJam (as it’s hashtagged—I’ve been saying it “tot-see jam”) was an observation Reed made several months back. While Twine can serve as a gentle but empowering introduction to game design, its usefulness as an instructional tool for kids is hamstrung by the fact that a high proportion of its best-known games center on very adult themes. Given the relative dearth of kid-appropriate Twine games, it’s difficult to turn kids on to the creative potential of the tool. Reed announced #TotCJam as a way of encouraging Twine developers to make a few youth-oriented games so that educators would have engaging examples ready at hand.
But while game jams may be great for giving developers the impetus and freedom to prototype left-field ideas, it turns out they’re not necessarily a solid strategy for answering the need for good games on a particular topic. You can get a lot of interesting ideas out of a jam, but those ideas won’t necessarily be attached to a game that’s fun or even consistently playable. That’s not a problem specific to #TotCJam—very few game jams result in more than one or two genuinely playable games—but, then, most successful game jams succeed on the strength of one or more of those three other goals.
So the question I want to ask is this: How can we organize a game jam (or something suitably jam-like) so that it stands a good chance of achieving that fourth goal? That is to say, how can we pool our resources, as a community of people interested in making and playing games, to fill out certain critical gaps when we see them?
Maybe what we want is something like a “standing order” for certain types of game—Twines for kids is a good example, but we might also specify games that present persons of color in a positive light, or games that present an effective political critique. It’s easy enough to issue a rallying call, but the tricky part of the equation is structuring the call so that it has the immediacy of an event while still giving participants both the incentive and latitude to make fully realized games. Those games don’t have to be triple-A sandbox explorations of the topic, but we’ll be looking for more than just ideas implemented as a disposable prototype.
Beyond that, I’m not yet sure what it is we’re looking for. I’m hoping others in the community can help out with ideas or discussion. In the meantime, check out Emilie Reed’s Think of the Children! Jam, and consider putting together your own entry.