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Life Inside A Game Jam


March 22, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4
 

As everyone's lined up, waiting to head into the museum proper for the presentation, there's a last minute drama. Press 3 to Breed won't run on the demonstration computer, so the team is planning to demo it on a personal laptop. The only problem is the laptop won't connect to the projector. A cry goes up: "Does anyone have a VGA adaptor?" Luckily, this is a gathering of fifty computer geeks, and they've brought all their geek toys. An adapter is located and we march into the museum.

The ceremony is presided over by Jeremy Ray, aka Junglist, who's well-known in these parts because he used to co-host a gaming show on TV. He interviews the judges, who spout stuff about focus, working in teams, iteration and -- rather terrifyingly put by Derek Proud of KMM -- "the ability to execute". It's all very sensible advice, if rather predictable -- you can read the same all over Gamasutra and across the web.

But I wasn't here for them -- I was here to see the heroes of the hour. After Pluto has had his revenge, Team Decimation is clapped up to the stage. Greg gives a little background on the concept and then Peter runs us through the gameplay:

"So as you can see, we have this alien cultures coming down with their own ideologies and other thoughts and whatnot... they are attempting to pass [their culture] off into ours... and you need to try and push them away.

"As you go along, more cultures come, there's more ideas, there's more competition... as you fail, the other ideas come into your city. Your populous will start to pick them up. So you need to go back and remind them that you have a culture, you have an identity, you don't need the rest."

Ouch. Greg takes back the microphone and tries to recover by reiterating that the game is about indigenous cultures becoming subsumed by the larger cultures around them. But the damage is done.

"Immigrants..." quips Junglist, as they leave the stage.

The other games are demonstrated. Aram's game looks lovely, visually, but his path-finding problems mean that it's quite a way from being finished.

Team Decimation wins "best use of concept", which is pleasing, even if said concept backfired somewhat. It seems the judges are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. The grand prize goes to Dan Graf's team, whose game is very pretty, if a bit dark. Interestingly, it works rather similarly to Duat, albeit with a resource-management aspect and a touch less controversy.

The Accidental Racists

Chatting to the guys afterwards, they're pleased with their prize, if a bit chagrined. Peter, ever pragmatic, describes the game as "quite blatantly racist", but Greg is upset and disappointed that it was interpreted that way.

"I hate that," he says. "I'm not racist at all." And I know he's not, because I've sat with him for the last two days -- none of them are. So how did they end up creating a game that gave that impression?

My theory is this -- it all comes back to our assumptions about games, which are based on what they have traditionally done well. To be fair to Duat, it is non-traditional in a number of ways, not least in the fact that it doesn't have either a scoring system or an ending. Once enough of the "enemies" (there's that word again) have infiltrated and spread their culture across your city, you can no longer fend them off. Your culture has been lost and thus your part in the game is over, but it keeps running indefinitely.

The intended message, then, is not "foreign cultures need to be kept out", but rather "it is inevitable that cultures will be subsumed into other cultures, whether or not you try to keep them out." The trouble arises because of the way we're used to playing games -- Duat contains clear "enemies", a clear player goal, and a clear end to the player's involvement, all the aspects of a traditional video game. You "die" and you take it personally -- you feel you've failed at your goal, which was to keep the "immigrants" out.

Perhaps some differing design decisions could have changed that impression. A more abstract control scheme, more focus on keeping culture alive (rather than keeping it out), or a more primitive representation of a city -- any of these might have made a difference, but that's immaterial now. The fact is that there was very limited time, which meant that the game's design tended to drift back towards what was traditional and practical.

Conclusion

For me, the main lesson of my Game Jam experience has simply been this -- it's bloody hard to transform complex, abstract ideas into a playable game. While the two day development cycle is a fantastic way to learn teamwork and all kinds of practical skills, great ideas need room to breathe. It's easy to become blinkered while maintaining the kind of focus that the Jam requires.

In the case of Duat, these blinkers prevented all of us from seeing (until it was too late) that the little, practical decisions made in the course of putting the game together were stacking on top of one another to form a structure which veered precipitously away from the initial blueprint (which was already hastily scrawled and incomplete in places).

All of the above notwithstanding, Duat is an impressive piece of work, and one which I hope will be a stepping stone to bigger and better creations for the guys in Team Decimation.

I had a blast at the Global Game Jam 2011, and I'd like to thank Jonathan, Ben, Peter, Greg, and Aram for letting me tag along, as well as Dan for getting me involved in the first place. And congratulations to all the Jammers around the world for the extraordinary amount they created in only two days! All the people I met in Sydney were extraordinarily agreeable and (as far as I could tell) none of them are racists.

Maybe in 2012 I'll do more than just watch -- maybe I'll join you guys and be a Jammer. See you all there!


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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