Thoughts on My First Game Jam
Over the past weekend, I participated in my first game jam. The Social Justice Game Jam was hosted by the Northwest Justice Project at the Living Computers Museum, and the emphasis for creators was on providing the public with accurate information on a range of topics from rent hikes to the rights of patients in psych wards. I was immediately overwhelmed by the possibilities that were laid out before me. There were so many issues to address, and only 48 hours in which to address them.
My team and I sat down after dinner in a quiet corner of the museum. (It has been a dream of mine to spend the night in a museum since reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg in the third grade.) I snacked on the world’s best rainbow candy and asked question after question. What are we doing here? What issue do we want to support? What experiences have we had with social justice that we can bring to the table? (In my mind, I was also asking questions like: Can I do this? Am I good enough? What if I let everyone down?)
Passions sparked when we talked about The Game of Life. (“The one where you can have, like, twins and triplets and quintuplets?”) We talked about Life and how simplistic it was, how there were no real repercussions to having a low salary or eight kids. It was just about getting through. This was problematic. Life is hard, and a lot of people are disadvantaged, through no fault of their own, and can’t win no matter how hard they work. We wanted to reflect that. We wanted to talk about how all of these social justice issues that we’re passionate about seem to stem from one common place: how much life sucks.
The subject of John Rawls’ thought experiment about a veil of ignorance came up within minutes. Rawls posits that if you put a person behind a veil, unaware of their own identity, and ask them to create a new world, they would be forced to create a morally ideal world. The secret of that person’s identity means that, if they were to create a world that contained slavery, then there would be a possibility that they would become a slave in that world. The veil would encourage the person to make a moral choice, rather than a choice based on their own self-interest. This concept became the central theme for our final product.
I headed home that night feeling confident, but sleepy, eager to get started.
I was up at 6:30 for a healthy breakfast (something I’ve been trying to get better at recently) and a shower, not really thinking too clearly about what the day would bring. I finished up some writing for another team after breakfast, took a few deep breaths and was out the door by 9 am.
The first few hours consisted of a lot of waiting and a lot of preliminary research. As the narrative designer, I thought a lot about how I wanted to express our ideas to the player. I wanted everyone to think about their biggest dreams and ambitions, and I wanted those of us with privilege to realize that someone without privilege can have all the big dreams and ambitions they want, but without support from the world around them, there’s only so far they can go. I wanted to encourage everyone to keep doing their best, without saying that their best is all it takes.
The game was set up to focus on how a person’s gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class can play a role in that individual’s monetary success. It’s still an oversimplification, it’s still an insufficient model, but I think my team and I did well reflecting the role that education plays. We showed that, statistically, a person’s ethnicity and socioeconomic class determine how far they will get in their education. We showed that, even if a person acquires a high-paying job in the field of their choice, their gender can be a roadblock in achieving a higher salary. We showed that a person can work hard their entire life, and they still might not make it out of the ranks of the working poor. I like to think I was able to help reveal the injustice in that, at least a little bit.
There were so many factors, so many details, we couldn’t apply to our game. I learned about scope throughout this process, and how difficult it is for me to be realistic with my resources when I’m fired up with social justice-y passions. We dropped some statistics from the game, because they were hard to implement in the short time-frame we had. From the list of what we called our “Hidden Attributes,” we left out ability, physical and mental dis/ability, and sexual orientation. We had to cut down on potential ethnicities as well. I wanted to write special sentences for each possible outcome. There wasn’t time.
By the end of Saturday, I noticed a few things about our team. One, we were filled with love. The atmosphere we were able to create for one another was uplifting, encouraging, and generous. Two, we were humble. By the end of the day, we’d worked so hard our screens were blurry. Yet we each said that we’d felt like we hadn’t done a thing. Three, we were happy. Even when our eyes hurt and our heads were filled with fluff, there was joy there. Four, we really cared about our message. Every time we made a concession for the sake of scope, cut out a demographic, or misspoke, we paid attention to it. We apologized, we acknowledged that the problem existed, and we promised ourselves that with more time we would do better. I’m so grateful for the positivity I experienced in that space.
I fell asleep thinking that I was going to go in on Sunday and start completely over with my narrative design.
The day began much slower for me. I felt sluggish, a little cranky, and I kind of didn’t want to do the thing anymore. I arrived at the museum by 9:30 and got straight to work. The work I did for the first hour ended up being irrelevant, but I like to think that it was good practice for the future. I decided against rewriting the entire narrative, and focused my efforts elsewhere.
By 3 pm it seemed like the only thing left was programming and our presentation. The entire project was due by 5 pm. I ended up spending the last several hours relaxing, practicing drawing on my teammate’s tablet, and chatting with other teams.
The presentations started after dinner. I can honestly say I’m proud of how hard the teams worked, and how passionate everyone at the jam was about their issues. I felt inspired and grateful to each and every presentation for revealing a little more about the problems that people face within our country. What we did over the weekend was such an important thing for the game industry, and for each other.
I was able to experience so many wonderful things because of my team: Masha, Gloriane, Lauren, Vivian, and Silvia.
I learned so much from the other participants of the jam.
I discovered cool things about computers thanks to the Living Computer Museum.
I grew as a narrative designer and human being thanks to Ket and the Northwest Justice Project.
If you want to try out any of the games that were developed during the jam, you can access them here.