Game jams are like a game about making a game. Participants meet in out-of-school spaces to create a game in either one day or over a weekend. Often, game jams center on a theme. For example, in spring 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) organized a climate-themed game jams about water. The topic of water was part of a White House call to action regarding building a sustainable water future. I helped facilitate the climate jam held in New York City. Students met at BrainPOP's headquarters on a Saturday afternoon. While there, they created games using free design tools, like Scratch, from the MIT Media Lab. To learn more, visit Climate Game Jam.
Last year I began to volunteer with the Moveable Game Jam initiative, a series of student game jams that—as the name implies—move about different locations in the New York City area. The first Moveable Game Jam I attended was held on a Saturday afternoon at the Quest to Learn, a school in New York City co-founded by the Institute of Play. And this year we are teaming up with the nonprofit Games for Change, which will run the Moveable Game Jams as part of its Student Challenge program!
How to Host a Game Jam
In a game jam event, begin in a common space with all participants present. Start with a brief, whole-group warm-up. We often use one of the 3 activities in the Moveable Game Jam guide: 1) Hacking tic-tac-toe; 2) Using a part of your body as a game component; and 3) Using everyday objects—like cups and rubber bands—as playful objects. The idea is to get everyone familiar with the parts of a game's system: goal, rules, components, core mechanics—or actions of play, and the space games are played. In tic-tac-toe the goal is 3 X's or O's in a row; the rules include the game being turn-based, with one letter per space; the components are paper and pencil; the core mechanics are drawing X's and O's and blocking other moves; and the space is the grid. After this discussion we then ask students to add a rule or drop a rule to the tic-tac-toe, or to make it a 3-player game. The idea of the warm-up is to get everyone familiar with game-based literacy. A colleague of mine likened it to teaching the rule-of-thirds or lighting to a photography student. You wouldn't just give someone a camera and expect him or her to take perfect wedding photos!
The main part of the game jam takes place in smaller groups. We create a menu of 3-4 activities, running a couple of hours each. Students self-select where to go, and then rotate at some point. You should have at least one facilitator per room, and each game design tool should be different. For example, try the free digital game application like Gamestar Mechanic, or the interactive fiction authoring tool Twine or inkleWriter. Also have an analog—or tabletop board game station. Or try a fully nondigital game station, like modding (changing the rules) of musical chairs.
At the conclusion of a game jam, every team should share-out their games. This helps focus students on a goal to complete a prototype in the allotted time. At Moveable Game Jams we find that students who arrive in the morning as strangers leave as friends! It is a fun day for all: students, facilitators, and educators. After all, play is what occurs within the structure of a game. For more on the Moveable Game Jam activities you can run in your out-of-school program, check out our Moveable Game Jam Guide.
For breakfast, I had french toast and turkey bacon, with coffee. Lots of coffee!