The Game Jam as Radical Practice:

by tommy.rousse

Your humble author, in a focus-trance of game creation. Original photo by Samuel Walz.

Exile Game Jam has come and gone.  Games were seen, games were played, games were made.  I knocked off a research assignment, read up on permadeath, and got more than 100 pages of “Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7” under my belt.  Not bad.  Add two hot meals a day and enough beer to keep the whistle wet, and it unequivocally ranks as a damn solid use of my time.

More than that, I got to experience a microculture where creation is king.  The game jam had a distinctive and significant atmosphere— it lurks somewhere between LAN party, temporary autonomous zone, and hackerspace.1 It was fantastic to see so many creative and skilled people putting effort into something that was “for fun.”  In less than 48 hours, I saw teams form, develop ideas, and make a huge variety of games.  Most striking to me is how unique these games are– almost none of them fall into traditional game genres.  Some creators even eschewed the label of “games,” creating instead toys, tools, or art.

What does this have to do with the hackerspaces and temporary autonomous zones?  Consider the medium.  The industrial production of electronic games is characterized by alienation.  Many developers are alienated from their product when their creative ambitions are subsumed to the conservative pressures of reliable return on investment– games conform to the “proven model” of genre conventions.  As the scale of industrial game production has increased, extreme specialization and marathon productivity demands in the face of crucial deadlines alienate designers from the process of work.2 And of course, competition for employment in a volatile industry with a romanticized image alienates the game producers from each other as they scrap for jobs.

The game jam is a corrective to game creation as it is normally practiced. Sure, everyone still stays up deep into the night furiously working on their game to get it done before deadline, but they do so not because their job is on the line but because they want to. The game jam is autotelic creation, divorced from the instrumental motivations of commercial game design.  Developers who haven’t previously met collaborate and teach each other, building something that they collectively want to create.  The product of the game jam is an afterthought– if you’ve looked at the Exile site above, you’ll notice many of the games are missing information or have been only partially presented.  In fact, some of the products created at the game jam aren’t listed at all.  The game jam is not a celebration of product but of process.  It is a demonstration that the means of game production have not been monopolized by the games industry.  The act of production takes precedence over the product.

Why not expand the game jam format to other domains?  Perhaps there could be an academic conference where teams of co-authors are put together around a loose thesis, then have 48 hours to do the whole literature review, data collection, argument formation she-bang, culminating in a presentation and feedback.  I think it would be a great way to contribute to Wikipedia, too. Creative writing programs already have “write-ins,” but from what I’ve seen they are rarely collaborative.  By creating events that bring together creators and celebrating the process of creating, perhaps the creative class3 might recognize itself as a class and take a hand in protecting its interests.

  1. I had the opportunity to visit a hackerspace in Copenhagen with my room-mate Joon– his take on it is here.
  2. For more on alienation in the production of electronic games, I recommend Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter— an essay on alienation & the EA Spouse incident is here.  Cf. their book, Games of Empire.
  3. My usage here is similar to McKenzie Wark’s concept of the “hacker class.”