Global Game Jam enthusiasm keeps growing

Staged in Vancouver and in countries around the world this weekend, the event lets participants flex their intellectual and creative muscles
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The east atrium of UBC’s Life Sciences Centre is going to be a hive of activity this weekend. The location of Vancouver’s fifth annual Global Game Jam will be abuzz with upwards of 250 professionals and students creating brand-new video games over the course of 48 hours.

The event is produced by Kimberly Voll, an instructor at the Centre for Digital Media at the Great Northern Way Campus. The software engineer helps organize and host other jams and hackathons, but she calls the Global Game Jam the “flagship” event of the local software industry’s year.

“People show up with inflatable mattresses, they bring their gaming rigs, they bring all sorts of snacks and different things,” Voll told the Georgia Straight by phone from her office. “When you get to this size, it’s a little bit of a technological shantytown that forms over a weekend. It’s incredible to see the bonds and connections and the sense of community that cuts through the whole event.”

It’s also large enough that some sponsors have taken to setting up information tables and recruiting at the event. According to Voll, job interviews and even offers came out of last year’s jam. She noted that companies have been started around games created at the jam and that more than a few of those games have been further developed for release.

The Global Game Jam concept was conceived by Susan Gold, who was inspired by the Nordic Game Jam, an annual event that has taken place in Copenhagen since 2006. In a phone interview, Gold told the Straight she brought the idea to North America and expanded it globally in 2009. At the time, she was an instructor at the Centre for Digital Media, and she held one of the first events at Simon Fraser University.

Four years later, more than 10,000 people have participated, creating more than 2,000 games worldwide. The 2013 Global Game Jam is being staged at 270 locations in 58 countries around the world this weekend. Gold noted that there is a game jam of some sort somewhere in the world nearly every weekend, and the format is being used to solve problems and as a means for teams to challenge themselves. According to Gold, even studios are using the structure of the jam to come up with ideas 
and prototypes for new games.

“We aren’t just for students anymore,” said Gold, who now teaches at Full Sail University, near Orlando.

Gold views game jams as “transformative” experiences that are changing the way people work. She’s not advocating the work binge as a daily occurrence, but as an occasional tool that can drive creativity. “It’s about people flexing the intellectual and creative parts of themselves,” she said.

It all starts Friday evening (January 25). A global keynote video presentation will reveal to participants the theme for the event. After that, the assembled will get to know each other over a catered dinner. Then comes the rapid-fire pitch session, in which people with game ideas share them with the group in an attempt to attract interested developers.

“And then we let natural selection basically take care of the rest,” Voll said. She and the volunteers help to find places for the unattached, and fill the essential positions on newly formed teams. “And then they’re off and running.”

Voll said that work then begins in earnest and usually proceeds late into Friday night, with most people going home to sleep. The first part of Saturday, when participants still feel like they’ve got lots of time, tends to be more relaxed. But by Saturday night, Voll said, people realize they have to finish their projects in less than 24 hours. “It’s very common to do a Saturday night all-nighter,” she added. Work stops at 3 p.m. on Sunday.

While judges check out the games that have been created, participants eat pizza. “I hate calling them judges,” Voll said, “because the idea is to have everybody’s game played and some feedback given.” It’s a way to acknowledge the work that’s been done, she added, and a reward for the effort. The Global Game Jam is explicitly not a competition, Voll said. She has witnessed teams helping each other out to solve problems, something she said wouldn’t happen if groups were competing against each other.

Voll, who has been running Global Game Jam Vancouver since 2010, said that since making games is hard, by coming together to help one another, developers can create more and better games.

“That’s what we want,” Voll said. “We want to make more games and we want to push the state of the art—realize, in a lot of cases, a lot of personal dreams.”

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