In a Jam Between Community and Capitalism: A Critical Look at Game Jams

by Veve Jaffa on January 29th, 2016

January is the month of the jam, playing host to the world’s largest event of its kind. Aptly named The Global Game Jam, GGJ encourages video game developers all over the world to come together, collaborate, and produce a game that reflects the year’s chosen theme in 48 hours. Kicking off this week, there’s no better time to explore jams and their relationship to game developers and the games industry, occupying a precarious intersection between a community-driven concept and increasingly corporatized practice.

To Jam or not to Jam? It probably depends on systemic factors

Participants in a GGJ event, crowded around a table.

Photo CC-BY stephiesal853.

A game jam references a musical jam session; an opportunity to get together with fellow artists and produce a tangible game within a time constraint, often between 24-72 hours. As their popularity rises, there’s a jam for just about everyone. hosts a variety of game jams for participants to choose and work on from home, and many larger cities offer regular jams held in community centres and schools. What originated as an opportunity for artists to collaborate, experiment, explore, and unearth new material and techniques, has become the indie community’s answer to every aspiring developers question: “how do I get started in games?”

As a game designer who has served as a panelist and presenter at multiple games conferences, this is the question I receive most, and am most reluctant to answer. Participating in jams didn’t make me a good programmer or game designer; lots of hard work, sleepless nights, and dedicated support from people who could help me work through access barriers and unlearn harmful socialization did. Pointing to game jams as an ‘easy in’ ignores crucial social barriers and proliferates the myth that programming and game design are easy if you just approach them the Right Way.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the positive benefit of jams, especially for artists further along in their technical and creative process, but for newcomers there are critical resources lacking to ensure accessible and supportive entry into such a difficult and competitive new field. The ongoing process of working through insecurities, indoctrination, and the expectation to pick up brand new skills in a matter of hours sets an unrealistic standard for even the most enthusiastic beginner. The benefits of collaborating with people with varying skill sets that don’t overlap is the inevitable lessons you will all teach each other, expanding your understanding of each role involved in the project. Unfortunately, the quick turnaround required for jams means there are few opportunities to slow down, let alone outright stop and give each other a crash course in the tools you’re using.

As valuable as they can be for collaborative experimentation and growth, education and mentorship are not principal tenets of game jams, especially with regards to neurodiversity and disability. While jam sites often consider participant resources like security to safeguard belongings, and easy access to food, even large-scale jams like GGJ don’t mention physical accessibility as a requirement, or even a suggestion. Jams are widely measured by the success of the collaborative process and end product, with little thought, if any, to providing educational resources outside of knowledgeable participants, who are expected to take on the roles of teammate, teacher and student simultaneously. As a resource so often touted to both teach and integrate newcomers, where are the community members stepping up to offer accessible lessons and support?

Corporations Come Digging for Free Labour or: Crunch!

Jams conceptually possess immense potential as a resource for networking and artistic experimentation, but their sustainability as a community practice is rapidly diminishing as corporations predatorily take advantage of the opportunity to pay lip service to diversity in tech initiatives. Corporations happily sponsor non-profits organizing jams, or even create their own with the help of established cultural institutions. In September 2015, the largest gold-mining corporation in the world, Barrick Gold, sponsored the Royal Ontario Museum’s astrogeology-themed game jam. Their sponsorship heavily influenced the theme and creative discussions surrounding the jam, no doubt using the publicity to counter press calling attention to their unethical mining practices. Barrick Gold representatives who led brainstorming sessions at the Jam suggested making games that involved mining asteroid belts or planetary bodies. Corporate sponsorship ensures influence over the subject matter and critical content in games, manipulating the creative process for capital and resulting in cheap press for the sponsor, allowing them to control their public image and use the jam games as free advertisements.

The games industry also stands to profit from this community-grown concept. Game development company XMG Studio Inc. has been using competitive jams to coax free labour from creative enthusiasts for years. With an emphasis on student labour for their Great Canadian Appathons, XMG hosts 48-hour jams sponsored in part by the Canadian government and McDonalds (can you imagine any greater diet to supply the energy needed for 48 straight hours of work?) offering cash prizes to the three top-rated finalists. If your game was good enough for the judges to rate you in the top 25 however, you received this email:

Are you interested in having your game published into the [Windows App Marketplace]?

Essentially we are asking each of the teams to develop their games and in turn they will get a share of the sales revenue.

XMG will assist with project management, marketing & QA.”

After getting in touch with past winners I confirmed XMG was offering potential business partners a 40% cut of sales from their own game, for which they would not provide development financing. The emphasis on student participation in XMG’s jams highlights the predatory nature of the event and the resulting deal; giving themselves 60% profit for a 48-hour investment of free student labour, with potentially hundreds more required to complete and polish the app. Corporatized jams teach jammers that  payment for their work is a scarce reward at best, requiring the sacrifice of basic self-care like proper food and rest to stay ahead of the curve.

The inescapable truth is, game jams exist in a capitalist framework and offer the promise of professional opportunities that are both crucial and scarce in a highly competitive field. In their execution, jams closely resemble crunch, a shameful industry practice that has been exposed for its wanton disregard for employee safety, suggesting that jams are less an easy entry point for aspiring devs, and more a crash course in acclimating to exploitative work practices. While some jam organizers encourage jammers to eat, sleep, and avoid competitive attitudes, the atmosphere and stakes of the jam will inevitably dictate whether jammers feel compelled to risk their well-being. With a great deal of jams offering cash prizes or crucial publicity to the creators of the “highest rated” games, unenforced suggestions to take care inevitably go ignored, and tacit endorsement of abusive industry practices becomes inevitable.

Community vs. Capitalism: You can’t win, but you can care more

Close-up of the buttons on a video game controller.

Photo CC-BY William Warby.

These examples of corporate and capitalistic influence are unfortunate, and make the line between ‘well-intentioned community resource’ and ‘opportunistic publicity grab’ difficult to discern, but they do not warrant discounting jams altogether. Jams are a great tool to challenge or expand more established artists’ work, but have proven an unhealthy entry point (especially when corporatized) for many people starting out in games. This is especially true for  those who are socially marginalized on one or more axis. Jams are consistently recommended as the best place to start, but why?

The people I’ve seen most frequently respond positively to jams entered them with pre-established knowledge in at least one programming language or game-making software, and came from a middle to upper class background where regular computer access and relevant education was foundational to their introduction to game development. Jam participants are required to provide their own hardware and tools to create their projects, reinforcing ease of accessibility to those with socioeconomic privilege. There is a level of privilege essential to participation that continues to go unacknowledged; uncritical praise ignores the sometimes-predatory nature of jams, and assumes access is equal to all.

I would like to see up-and-coming artists receive better advice than a vaguely bureaucratic hand-wave toward the surefire solution of game jam participation, pointing people in the direction of a resource that may not even be available to them based on location and access needs. Jam have not proved to be ‘easy entry’ for those not already present and represented within the industry.

The moment game jams were treated as a solution instead of a tool, they became vulnerable to corporate interest, and lost important value as a potential community resource. Tools still require understanding, and that means resources to guide participants through difficult learning processes instead of thrusting them in headfirst without support. Artists deserve more than 48 hours to explore their interest in game development, especially when jams are a low-cost, high-benefit endeavor for bigger organizers. I’d like to see people working together on a long-term basis, establishing relationships that transcend a weekend, and whose potential is limitless, like the creativity true collaborative efforts produce.

My best wishes to everyone participating in GGJ16 this weekend – may your collaborations and creations exceed your best expectations.