The Centre for Digital Humanities ran a game competition, the Spooky Shapes Game Jam, with a non-frightening core: the desire to promote learning and self-care in young game developers.
The competition spanned the entirety of the department’s spaces, with groups working in several rooms to program, design, record audio and take breaks when needed.
Every team received three USB drives, each with a 30GB storage capacity and served as an official memento for participants. The drives contained assets for use in Unity, the design platform used in the competition. The assets, like bricks, could be used to construct games differently depending on team intent.
Despite the technical terms used in conversation around the competition, the event was not exclusive to students in Digital Humanities programs. All students were able to apply, and the event was designed to support students of varying levels of game design and programming experience. That being said, the 43 participants, separated into 14 teams, were almost exclusively students in Game Design, Game Programming, or Interactive Arts and Science.
Teams could ask other participants or event mentors for assistance. If the help needed took over two minutes, students needed to submit a candy wrapper to their assigned bucket. There was no penalty for assistance, and the buckets served only to show students how much outside help was needed to meet their deadline.
“There’s a lot more bonus in learning in a more practical environment like this on top of the classroom environment,” said Jonathan Lopes, a second year student in Game Design.
“Plus, they have helpers here. The help is always great,” said Lane Gingras, a second year student also in Game Design.
One such helper was Agusia Krzywinska, a third year student in Game Programming and Vice-President of the Game Research and Development Club, which is known as GRDC. As a former game jam participant, this was her first year as an event mentor.
“It made me feel like I know what I’m doing, and that I do have an understanding of this. Knowing I can impact and help others is a great feeling,” said Krzywinska.
The emphasis on learning at the event was highlighted by program coordinator and event organizer Justin Howe.
“The stakes are controlled. Even though you’re showing off your work, people will see what you’ve done and you’ve got competition in that place, the stakes are a bag of candy and bragging rights amongst your peers,” said Howe.
Howe compared the game jam to other game development events such as Level Up, an annual student games showcase boasting partnerships with tech giants AMD and Ubisoft. Compared to the game jam, events like Level Up have higher stakes and higher pressure.
“The stress levels shift. You don’t do that for learning. You do that because you’re really trying to execute on things you already know and are refining,” said Howe. “Game jams are much better about trying to keep that at an accessible and generally friendlier tone for onboarding knowledge,.”
The friendly atmosphere was notable during the judging period. As each team presented the game they created via a brief pitch, allowing the judges to test out the game they developed. Spectators cheered, gasped and at one point even screamed when a judge fell victim to a horde of digital zombies in Zombie Shooter One.
Zombie Shooter One was one of three games given honourable mention after extensive deliberation. Both Drive and The Shortcut were also commended. Ultimately, it was The Bat that won the day.
Developers Kyle Gianmarco and David Cheong, both third year students in Game Programming, cited games designed for individuals with visual impairments as inspiration to create The Bat.
“I thought we could change that to utilize sound with echolocation, and that’s the basis of our game. You throw rocks and you see surroundings and your location,” said Cheong.
While Gianmarco had previously competed, this was Cheong’s first time at the game jam. Working as a pair, they created a game lauded by the judges for the experience it provided.
According to Justin Howe, there were several factors considered, including the quality of experience and nature of interaction. The other factors were technical fidelity, commitment to theme, cohesiveness and working within the constraints.
With participants presenting games ranging from survival horror to Super Mario Bros.-esque platform games, there were a wide variety of submissions despite the constraints. Each game had the same building blocks, which they then used to create several different projects.
One such game was called Trick-R-Treat, which utilized local area network technology to allow one judge to play a ghost and hunt down the other two judges, who played children trick-or-treating.
“The rules they give aren’t limits. Think outside the box. There are a lot of tools you can use,” said Cheong.
The rules were designed to provide structure for the competition, but also to combat the normalization of poor working conditions for game developers. With recent controversies such as developers claiming to work 100 hour work weeks leading up to game releases, the game jam organizers sought to prove that crunch time, as developers call the pressure just before launch dates, did not inherently require such lofty personal sacrifice.
The event occurred over the span of two days, with a total of 12 hours spent working.
“Pushing you to create this whole world in such a short amount of time actually helps us to learn faster and understand better what we’re actually doing,” said Ronnie Taylor, a second year student in Game Programming.
Between the end of Friday and Saturday morning, participants were forbidden from working on their projects.
“This prevents crunch time. We make sure everyone eats. The key is to change the norm of having to work overnight,” said Howe.