Last weekend I went to a Game Jam in Amsterdam. It was a lot of fun and as a total amateur at making games it was quite the challenge. The theme was diversity, about gender issues in gaming and a lot more, you can read more here: http://www.gamesjam.nl/about/about-games-4diversity-jam-14-europe/
We worked on the game for two days, from 9 AM to 8 PM and it was a lot of fun. Even though me and my team worked in a suboptimal way, we learned a lot from our mistakes. The most interesting was being in a room with 50 people who wanted to make games about diversity. That creates a really interesting mood.
We started the day off by being one of the first groups to get there at the Amnesty International building in Amsterdam. They allowed our little geeky event to be held in one of their halls. I think it was quite an honor to have AI back us up for our cause. It was a great space to work in. A lot of windows, a beautiful garden to relax in after the code starts dancing in front of your eyes and good ventilation. I know nerd-gatherings, things can get uncomfortable.
The first thing I noticed was that quite some people didn’t speak Dutch at all. Some of them asked to join my little group, but we declined. Not because we didn’t want them to join us, but because we already chose how we wanted to work and what kind of game we wanted to make. In hindsight this was not the best plan, but still with a good intention. Co-operating with different people would have given us a chance to incorperate more experienced developers into our team, which would have helped out immensely. There were only three of us and only one knew how to code. We used Game Maker to save us some time, but me and the other artist weren’t used to working with the software.
Our game would be a simple RPG where a male hero would use his sword to slay enemies and kill them dead to progress. However, the [q] key would turn the player character into a woman. Why? Because we wanted to make a game about being transgender and about how women are portrayed in the game industry. The main thing we would use would be to have the controls feel slightly different between the male and the female. The male would be stronger and more tough than the female. The female form would be faster, and more important, more precise with her movement. We made the male controls more clunky on purpose (at least, that is what we tried) so that the player would feel less at ease with playing the male character. If we could give the player the feeling that being the woman was easier in the game, they might get the hint that that is the way it should be played.
Our story idea was even more meta. The game itself would explain to the player how to play. Via tutorials and a guide-like character. This character would be symbolic for the game industry, forcing the player to play the game like we are used to, like they want us to. In the tutorial, for instance, this guide would tell the player “not to press [Q]”. This would turn them into a woman. The game mechanics would enforce the idea that the game could be played both as the male or a the woman. However, at a certain point the player would be confronted with the guide again. He would tell the player not to mess with how the game was meant to be played. He would tell the player to continue onward and not change anymore. The player could do this, and pressing the [Q] key wouldn’t change him anymore. The game would progress become slightly harder with more of the same mechanics and enemies, and at the end the player would kill some kind of boss to win and receive a trophy of sorts. An idea we had was to then lock the player into the last room, to remind the player that he has locked himself into this playstyle, this acceptance of the way things are.
However, next to the guide would also be a path that led up a mountain. A mountain where the Spirit of the Game, the King, the Manifestation of Social Pressure would sit. The player would be locked into the female form, and the gameplay would alter radically. The game itself would try to stop the player from reaching the top by breaking down game elements. I’m not sure how we would do this, but we had purposefully added glitches and bugs in mind. A cool concept, but we never got anywhere with it.
If you reached the top you would find this King-like character, who would berate you for ignoring the game’s advice, to blame you for paying a suboptimal experience. “Why would you want to ruin your own game? Why did you do this? This is not the game is meant to be played. Did you not understand we had this whole other part made for you? We know what you like!”, and other things the King would tell the character to make her feel guilty. Then we would like the King to accept the player as she is in a non-violent manner. We never really worked this out, but I was firmly of the opinion that if we got the player to beat the shit out of this character that simply didn’t understand the player character, then we would fail with our message. What our message was exactly I’m not sure anymore.
Here is the trailer of our game. I did the quick voicework.
After pitching our idea Zuraida Buter, the Executive Director of the Global Game Jam, came up to us. I did the little pitch, and wasn’t able to say everything in 30 seconds. She wanted to remind us that the whole transgender issue isn’t black-and-white and that a simple button that changed you might give the wrong message. We assured her that that was not the idea, but it did remind me how little I actually know about the most issues that we attempted to make a game of. Next time I try to tackle such interesting concepts I should do research first.
A while later I talked with Meggy Pepelanova, a researcher of board games and digital media who also participated in the Game Jam. She was wondering what made me join this Game Jam and how the subject spoke to me. I had to confess. The college I’m attending gives us ECT for participating in a game, so I’m being rewarded for it, even if I don’t make anything good. That doesn’t mean I don’t take the issues seriously or that they don’t mean anything to me. I am really interested in the depiction of minorities and sexual preferences in games. Sady, being a straight male offers me little perspective in most of these cases. I should talk about this with people, I’m really interested in what others think. She was understanding about it all and I have her card, so I think I’ll e-mail her sometime soon.
There was also quite some interest from the press. As in: any. I had never experienced being interviewed about anything, so it was really interesting. There has been a piece in the Volkskrant, but I’ve been unable to get it.
The other teams made quite interesting games. One was of a flock of birds that got stronger by adding more different birds, really enforcing the whole “diversity” ideology. Another game was more focussed on how people judge you by appearance by making you dress for a specific type of party. All of it was really cool and inspiring. Most of all, almost everything was playable.
The game that won the Game Jam was called Queer, where you are a person who gets chewed out by your boss on superficial things and you are supposed to keep your job and your dignity. I REALLY dislike that they called it Queer. The game was really great, don’t understand me wrong. Their graphics were cool, their music was great and the dialogue was amazing. I don’t like a game that turns into a “GAY MAN SIMULATOR”, it just doesn’t feel right to me. I want to deal with the issues in a less forced way, where the game’s message isn’t clear within 5 seconds. The truth is, we all had limited time and resources to make our games, so to have anything finished is a victory of itself. I don’t feel like I should judge them harshly based on just their title, I just feel that a pokemon-like approach to these issues is wrong.
Our game ended up hardly working and far from finished, but we learnt a lot along the way. For one, starting off with a more realistic end-goal would have been a good idea. Other than that, I could really work of mastering more efficient and better software so that I can be more productive. It would also help out if I would join up with other people to work with more universal software like Unity and Maya.
All in all, a wonderful experience where I met great people, worked hard and learnt valuable lessons! I would recommend it to anyone who has any game developing qualities and the motivation to spend a weekend working really hard.
I would like to thank my teammates Dinah Siebers, for finding and organising our trip to the Game Jam, and Ernst de Bruijn, who worked so hard on the development that I almost literally broke down at the end of the second day. They were the best!
Also, big thanks to Menno Deen and all the people involved with the organisation, the weekend was a blast!