Last month, I attended the Science Game Jam at the Field Museum. The event brought together game developers with scientists from the Museum’s Biosync department. The research topics included: migratory behaviors of animals, the evolution of birds, and how ecosystem adapt to change. The goal was to create educational games based on their research. The event brought in 28 developers from across the Chicagoland region. The experience ranged from hobbyists, to independents, and everything in between. Like the name suggests, the theme involved communicating scientific theories through fun game mechanics. Over the next 72 hours the teams set out to accomplish this mission. What follows is my first hand account and my takeaways from the event.
Everything is a System
Both game development and science experiments use systems. Scientists use these systems to test theories. Game developers use systems to create intriguing game experiences. On the first night of the event, 8 scientists got a chance to pitch their research. The game jam participants were then able to ask questions to gain further insight into that scientist’s field of study.
The Selection Process
Before selecting a scientist, the game developers formed teams. The team selection process is part auction, part speed dating event. Some developers came with teams, opting to pair with friends. Others campaigned to find team members that filled needs. The beauty of a game jam, is that every skill is valuable. Artists sought to find programmers; while programmers looked for sound and visual artists to breathe life into their code. Once teams were set, each team discussed which scientist’s research best appealed to them. Teams brainstormed on what would make a fun game, and how they can communicate the scientists’ message.
After settling on a game concept, the teams started developing quickly. During the second day, a representative from the Chicagoquest charter school showed up to meet with the teams. The school specializes in using game systems to teach children in grades 6-12. Meeting with the professional allowed the jammers to test the educational integrity of their game. The scientists also checked in with their teams to provide guidance as the teams honed their game mechanics.
Bumpy Roads Ahead
A game jam is great because it allows people to quickly come together and test ideas. They also highlight the same challenges that exist in longer development cycles. The only difference is, the problems appear faster. Most game jammers came in with their own set of tools. No matter much expertise they had, games break. Code has bugs; an artist runs into an issue with their art package. This is when the original concept of the game started to change.I experienced this on my own project. Advisers loved our concept, but we struggled with the technology. These roadblocks didn’t allow us to execute the concept as well as we would have liked. All teams faced similar challenges, and found creative solutions to their problems. This is when those fun ideas turned into fun games.
Teams scrambled to finish their games, as the hours of Sunday afternoon quickly ticked away. At 5pm, the teams presented the fruits of the weekend’s labor to a panel of judges. This panel was made up of game developers, teachers, and scientists. The criteria for judging was based on the creativity of the game, and how it tied into the scientist’s work. The judges selected two winners, and the audience got to select a third. Despite working nearly the entire weekend there was still a buzz of energy in the room. Some vowed to expand on their projects post jam. Both scientists and developers walked away with new knowledge.
A game jam is a bit like a marathon. During the event it is common to hit a wall. This wall can come from a difficult problem with the game or just pure fatigue. Here are a few takeaways from my participation in the event.
Don’t Fight Technology:It is best to choose tools that you are familiar with. Game tools have steep learning curves, and a 48 hour game jam is not the best time to experiment. I chose to use Unity3d, which I was more familiar with. Despite this familiarity, it instantly made everything more difficult to implement. In hindsight, using a 2D tool like GameMaker would have allowed my team to get to a playable product faster.
Get something on screen fast: The game is not a game until it can be tested. The good game concept is just a theory until you can play it. Once the game demo is on screen, you can see whether your ideas are actually fun to play. Changes will inevitably need to be made. Playtesting is what makes a good game idea into a fun product. It is much better to have a game to show during the presentation, instead of having to talk about the concept.
Eat Healthy: Pizza and beer are typical game jam fair. A greasy food coma makes the already difficult task of creating a game that much harder. Audrey Aronowsky and Rob Lockhart did an excellent job of providing healthy eating choices during the jam. Chips and Soda were offset by energy bars and tea. This kept the hackers from succumbing to a sugar crash.
Rest: During game jam weekends, there is a temptation to not sleep for the length of the jam. This is a bad idea. At a certain point the brain slows, and work is done in diminishing returns. On Saturday night, the game jam location was closed. This encouraged participants to get some much needed rest.
It would be nice to see more developers paired with people who are outside of games. I was personally impressed with the creative products that came out of the jam. Many of them looked more fun than the ‘edu-tainment’ games I grew up with. This game jam would not have been possible without Co organizers Audrey Aronowsky and Robert Lockhart. Special thanks also goes to the Chicago Field Museum BioSync department.
For more information visit the Field Museum Biosync department Website: http://fieldmuseum.org/explore/department/biosync/
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