Five reasons I decided not to participate in Global Game Jam this year

ggjJust to start:
-If I had participated this year it would have been my fourth consecutive global game jam. -I’ve made some games I absolutely love at GGJ.
-I really didn’t want to ruin that streak.
-I am going to be jealous all weekend of my friends jamming back home.

All things considered, this is not a decision I have come to lightly.

I also want to acknowledge that I am a game designer by training and possess many skills and privileges that make game jams accessible to me. I know jams can be even more unwelcoming to other marginalized folk and there is a laundry list of points that I am not even touching on.

My decision not to attend this particular year has to do with my current knowledge of the only site that is geographically realistic for me to participate in and past experiences with jam culture. So lets get into my main reasons for not participating.

Sponsored Prizes
What could be wrong with prizes? Everyone likes the opportunity to be rewarded for the work they’re doing in their free time, right?  First of all, when the prizes are sponsored they can create or support a particular work culture. One of the sponsors this year is Red Bull. There is a pervasive machismo in games culture that often manifests itself in sleepless pissing matches. Bragging rights are won by the weight of the bags under your eyes. Having Red Bull sponsor a game jam, a particular sort of event that is known for replicating crunch culture, implicitly condones these unhealthy behaviours.

‘Merit-Based’ Prizes
Even ignoring the sponsors all together and pretending that there can be money with no strings attached (which this lovely talk by Carolyn Jong explains is impossible) going to an event that awards prizes has its own set of implications. Especially when there are prizes for the ‘best’ games. I’ll always be a fan of superlative awards (NYU’s ‘most ambitious disaster’ seems like it could be a good example—depending, of course, on its spirit) but the minute you have judges (and necessarily judgement) the creative process is impacted. Game jams are an amazing opportunity for collaboration, and it is sad to me that the only sites I can attend this year have an undertone of competition.

Lack of Resources and Support For Learning
One of the points that resonated with me the most from In a Jam Between Community and Capitalism: A Critical Look at Game Jams is that of the expectation to “take on the roles of teammate, teacher and student simultaneously” without the support of outside resources. The participants themselves are drained as resources. This means that to be a valued contributor, you must come to the jam already in possession of desirable skills. The jams that I will passionately describe as positive experiences in my life are ones that are just not one weekend. They are a journey of smaller experiences tied together that cumulate in a weekend. They expand over weeks or months with workshops, support, and community. The jam may last only 48 hours, but properly preparing participants for those jams makes them more accessible to people who may not have the training or skills or even confidence to try to make a game in a weekend. Conversely, lacking those resources will drastically cut the comfort level of first timers (more likely to be from marginalized populations).

Lack of Resources and Support for Safety
Not once, anywhere in any of the e-mails, was there a mention of the things that let me know that a space is being made safe for me to participate in. No mention of a safer spaces policy. No wording or actions that address any of the factors that systematically can make jams inaccessible. All of the pictures trying to show just how ‘happening’ this particular site is are crowded with people in a way that creates an anxious ball in the pit of my stomach. I have had sexist experiences at GGJ in the past, and it is important that spaces advertise that they won’t stand for those behaviours. If they don’t, they are enabling them. This total lack of any mention is probably why it irked me when their email claimed that they wanted to make “the most diverse and interesting jamsite on planet earth!”. Their diversity, of course, has nothing to do with marginalization. They want you to know that “artists, musicians, filmmakers, carpenters, architects, sandwich artisans and everyone else are all welcome.” I’m glad my skills have been welcomed (though even this claim seems to lack genuineness), but how can I feel safe when when my identity hasn’t been?

Focus on Results (the Biggest and the Best)
Often in emails about GGJ, there is discussion about the amazing games that have come out of jams past. How successful they have been. The not-so-subtle cries of “Look! You too can make a game that will end up on steam!”. The emphasis on this legacy of successful results puts pressure on the product not the process. I don’t jam because I want have critically successful games, and find that pressure a deterrent to the work I would like to do at a jam. This year I also got a couple emails about the push to make the site in my city the largest in North America. I’ve seen this before, and participated in jam sites with emphasis on being the biggest. That’s where my worst experiences have happened. It’s very rarely that being bigger actually makes you better. The ability for organizers to care for the well being of individual participants becomes exponentially harder the more participants there are. But this doesn’t seem to be a main concern. Having more people means your site it more desirable and successful.

This is not to say I hate jams. I love them, which is why sitting out this year is painful for me. There are ways to promote your jams in a way that would more people comfortable with the idea of attending. I have been to amazing jams. Jams that prioritize self care, learning, and the creative process. I want to go to jams like that in the future. This jam, sadly, just hasn’t led me to believe it will be one of those jams.

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