From the 26th till the 29th I was busy having the time of my life pursuing some initial PhD research (into game development practices and what it means to create through the video-game medium) as a mentor at Brains Eden – a huge, inspiring and wildly exciting student game jam held at Anglia Ruskin University. This will be a doozey of a write up as there is so much to cover off (not to mention that I have a flagrant disregard for word-counts at the best of times) and as such it will be split into two parts which will be further broken down into five general sections which you should totally feel free to skip or read at your leisure. The first two sections will be hosted in Part I, whilst the second two sections will be written up over night (sleep is for the weak) and posted tomorrow!
- Let’s Get Ready to Rumble: A crash course on Brains Eden, game jams (aimed at my non-game-specialist heritage and archaeology crew for some background and context)
- Perhaps I could be of some assistance: My research topic and attempted justification (aimed at anyone who will listen to me)
Part II (which I dont yet have
witty space-jam sub-headings for):
- Mini-ethnography of the jam (what I saw whilst I was walking around watching clever people make games)
- Mini autoethnography of my own experience (self-touchy-feely reflections of my time walking around and watching talented people make games)
- Conclusions and thanks (I finish rambling here)
Let’s Get Ready to Rummmmmmbbbble
As Iggy Azalea insists, for the sake of clarity, we should start with first things first: what is a game-jam? Simply put it is a pre-organised, rapid prototyping event where individuals or teams gather in person or through a digital mediator to design, develop and produce a game (usually digital but equally can be analogue) from a given theme (sometimes specific tools or programs are also specified as a jam constraint). Whilst some game jams allow the use of stock assets it is usual for teams to create the art, code and audio from scratch. The purpose of such events is to provide a short time box and competitive environment for participants to experiment with new ideas, try new tools, practice skills, innovate and collaborate. Whilst it is normal for most participants to have a background in games development, programming, audio design or art it is possible to participate in such jam events with no formal background (provided you are motivated to learn), using it as a way to learn on the fly and play around with creating games. If you are interested in finding out more about game-jams, or even participating in one you should check out Global Games Jam, the Indie Game Jam database and of course Brains Eden (which I will elaborate more on now).
Brains Eden, which has been running for 6 years now, is a game-jam that is renowned for its focus on building bridges between industry and game-development students within the UK as well as further abroad – and this year certainly demonstrated and solidified this reputation with 150+ students travelling from all across the UK, Belgium, France, Poland, Spain and the Netherlands with demonstrations, lectures and networking events being provided from some of the biggest industry names (Jagex, Guerrilla, ARM, Play Station First, Frontier) and advice, mentoring and support being given by some of the brightest, friendliest and most helpful game development personnel in the scene (I’m looking at you staff, mentors and ground-team). The theme for this year’s game jam was “displacement” with an added bonus category of “mobile” – encouraging teams to produce games which could be played on PC, tablet, phone or a multitude of these platforms.
So , we have established what a game jam is and have an overview for how Brains Eden fits into this event-type, now it is time to pull apart why they might be interesting to study academically and specifically why someone who is studying a PhD in archaeology would be interested in them (heads up, it’s not as Iggy Azalea states because they are “da realest”). The answer to the first part of this question has been eloquently expanded on since 2004 by scholars such as Musil et al, Arya et al, Fowler et al, Preston et al and Guevara-Villalobos who’s key points boil down to the following:
- It can be really hard to study game design in AAA studios due to secrecy and furthermore,
- It can be really hard to study game design practices in full due to time frames (6months – 5years) meaning,
- Game jams provide a window into game development through a manageable time-frame and without so many hoops for NDA and secrecy clauses making them accesible for academic study.
- Game jams also lack the commercial or distribution restraints meaning:
- Innovation is prioritised and
- Experimentation is encouraged
- Game jams have many different configurations for how people structure their teams or solo creative practices meaning:
- Can study and compare solo and collaborative creation
- Can study team allocations and collaborations
- Game jams, by basing around a core theme, tool or idea give a basis for comparative practices and results
Perhaps I could be of some assistance?
My own motivations for studying and participating in games jams are drawn from issues raised during my Masters as well as the preliminary research phase of my PhD. Essentially, my Masters demonstrated that archaeologists, historians and heritage professionals are really good at producing grey-literature (journal articles and books) about why “historic representation in X game is awful” or waxing lyrical about how lazy studios must be for not “doing research”. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is all very valuable critique, but the first problem which the MSc threw up was that this criticism was rarely contextual – in other words, much of it was not situated into the development practices of the studio which was being torn to shreds (ie: looking at the outcome, but not the practice) nor was the critique being meaningfully discussed with the studio after its publication (ie: lots of yelling into the void). Whilst examples to the contrary certainly do exist (such as the fantastic “Developers Dillema”), they are very much the exception rather than the rule.
In other words, it seemed that there was a significant issue with how archaeology and wider heritage practices understood, talked about, presented material for and used the video-games medium – a set of observations which were in part due to video-games being a comparatively new form of expression and documentation (ie: academic understanding and practices are still forming for it), further in part it transpired that the careers of “games developer” and “archaeologist” were fairly mutually exclusive (in other words, there aren’t a huge number of people walking around who have been involved in making games and who are also active in archaeological things), in part because it is actually rather hard to understand an outcome if you don’t understand the formula that goes into its creation and finally in part because it transpires to be quite difficult and time-consuming to gain the knowledge, skills, access and experience needed to create (or watch people create) games if you have spent numerous years of your academic or commercial career situated with a trowel in a trench, meaning most people from archaeological or heritage backgrounds simply didn’t have the time, energy, effort or desire to uproot, learn the required skills, sign away their souls to several NDA’s and go without sleep for days in the name of #archaeogaming (which is a great hash tag to follow if you have any interest in how archaeologists are engaging with games).
I am however, as my own mother tells me, slightly insane and so for my PhD I am diving head-long into making games through what Lave and Wenger describe as “situated learning” – or in simple English, the act of learning, studying, up skilling and developing understanding through doing alongside those who already know how to do. Whilst it would be totally acceptable to “situatedly (definitely a word) learn” by creating one game with one group over three years it seemed to me that creating 36 games over 3 years through a range of different approaches might yield a bigger and arguably better set of results for understanding how video-games as a media form might operate for archaeology alongside what the process of game creation means for archaeology / ists. I make light of it, but in reality there are some pretty fundamentally solid reasons as to why (at least in my case) exploring games and game development as related to archaeological practices through game-jams is preferable to a single case study:
- The previously mentioned benefits of having creativity, experimentation and innovation as your core values in production.
- Game jams are ridiculously fun (discounting the sleep deprivation)
- Developing solo is hugely different to developing in a group. Doing one game in one team for 3 years gives great insight into that teams practices. Doing one game solo for 3 years gives you insight into your own practices. Doing 36 games in a mix of solo and team, with different compositions of contributors, gives insight into how various configurations and structures operate within this space.
- Failing is a part of creating. My good friend and ingenious quest-designer at Guerrilla, Luke Botham, told me last year as part of my MSc interviews that it is important in game dev to “fail often, but fail quickly”. It is definitely possible to fail both often and quickly over a 3 year project, but the very nature of game jams is set up to box that creation and failure into a short time, allowing you fail as often as you need to, but by necessity providing the space to fail quickly. This point will become particularly important with regards to the next section.
- I can code (averagely). I can make sad attempts at “art”. I can write goodly (though whether this applies to games is untested). I can make even sadder attempts to “music”. etc etc. I am not a specialist in the conventional game-development-category sense and that’s cool, because I actually want to flit around different roles. I want to experience what the constraints and demands and workflows are for them all so I can ask intelligent questions of people who specialise and then can write from an informed perspective. To do this I will need to fail often and very quickly before shifting roles and failing often and quickly once more. Being on a single team for 3 years and doing this would be hugely problematic. But the set up of a games jam allows for it (within reason).
- Developing one case study means focusing on one engine, a small set of mechanics, a single art direction and one narrative approach. The research question is about games as a whole, not one instance. Games jams means I can pursue different engines, tools, themes, narratives, art styles.
- There is the scope to include other traditionally non-game-pro’s into the creative practice (ie: an archaeologist or a novelist or a philosopher or a lion tamer) which is largely not possible in larger scale projects due to the fact that:
- Hiring a team of game developers for 3 years to create with me is outside of my budget and most are clever enough to not work for free / candy bribes. Expecting game developers to work with me for a profit split of a released game means needing a clear role for myself in development, a guarantee of quality and clear indication of market reception, which probably wouldn’t fly, given the fact that there is no precedent for significant capital gain from games made by PhD’s in archaeologists.
I mean, there are a veritable ton of other reasons why, for my project at least, creating through game-jams is a neat, sustainable (provided I have access to coffee) and practical idea.
BUT what good is creating a game a month they all still exists abstract from the practices of those who are doing this as their studies, careers and enjoyment? How do I compare my embedded experiences to the other creative practices existing in the industry? Thus phase 2 of my PhD kicks in – by attending game jams as a mentor / helper / or ground-staff I get to see the processes, outcomes and practices of those participating and thus build up an understanding of how my research questions for archaeological / historic applications are pursued or are applied in the parent discipline. I also get to talk to friendly, helpful and amazingly creative people about what they are doing and, in the case of Brains Eden, eat a lot of pizza, beer and LAN-ing in the name of networking. A second section to this is running my own and collaborating on running additional game jams with a specific focus on heritage and archaeology (HINT: watch this space for an upcoming announcement regarding The Heritage Jam) as a means to start pulling apart how archaeologists engage and develop through this practice and how existing game-development professionals engage with our discipline as well.
The dream, if you will, is for me to be able to interface intelligently with the practice of games design and subsequently to be able to bring that practice (if it makes sense, which my preliminary research indicates it would) over to heritage on a larger scale. Or in other words: there will be a basis for archaeology and heritage to understand game development practices and a space where they can begin to engage in it together.
PHEW. OK. 2,350 words is already far, far, far too many. So will cut this Part I off here! Tomorrow we get down to the nitty gritty of what I saw and experienced at Brains Eden – spoilers, it was amazing.