How to Organize Game Jams to Promote Skill Inclusivity and Make Better Games
Game jams are an indispensable force for creativity, innovation, and growth in the gaming industry. These event-based development challenges each provide opportunity and structure for anyone, from up-and-coming talent to seasoned developers, to explore new ideas, get experimental with themes, and put skills (new and old) to the test.
While game jams have no problem drawing in the participation of programmers, writers, and artists, contributors from other supportive disciplines like audio often wonder if there's space for them as well. A quick skim of game jam message boards brings up countless threads by sound engineers, musicians, and audio implementation experts wondering if their participation would be welcomed or dismissed.
As a studio that's home to composers, sound designers, implementation gurus, and voice experts who have eagerly sought out and participated in game jams, we know creative contributions beyond the art and code are always appreciated and lead to more fully realized submissions at the end of any sprint. Now, we want to help game jam organizers champion greater inclusivity to attract more diverse skill sets with these simple tips.
Roll out the welcome mat early
As a game jam organizer, breaking down barriers to participation starts as easily as making the open invitation a part of your announcement or event description. It's a simple step, but that makes it all the more easily overlooked when submitting themes and event timeframes to game jam aggregators and communities. However, the promise of an exciting challenge alone isn't always enough to ensure the eager involvement of new and unusual faces with skill sets outside of the norm.
Here's how organizers can take more inclusive initiative upfront. Make a clear pitch for the type and breadth of participation you would like to see. Something as simple as mentioning "all skill sets welcome" can go a long way to alleviating someone's doubts about whether their unique capabilities or contributions will be embraced. The less anyone has to question the value of their contributions before getting involved, the more likely they'll feel encouraged to chip in from the start.
Leave no free agent unmatched
With your efforts to draw in a diversely talented crowd paying off, it's now important to make sure every eager participant finds their place. Be proactive about facilitating connections and matching solo participants with teams who could benefit from a particular free agent's talent set.
Share word of available participants and their unique skills or goals as a way to encourage teams to invite members into their fold. Or, gather information on teams' concepts early and let solo contributors detail what they can bring to their favorite potential submissions.
Having some sort of system or plan in place to get unplaced people onto teams can go a long way to building your reputation as a welcoming organizer who supports all sorts of industry talent, all while creating an especially engaging game jam experience with huge potential for more surprising and fulfilling submission results.
Give recognition beyond rank
While ranked submissions can create a fun sense of competition among jam participants, the diversity of individual contributions is best celebrated beyond a popular vote. Even ranked game jams can dole out recognitions for personal and team accomplishments, unique interpretations of the themes, and other creative successes.
Show appreciation with a variety of "superlatives" that call attention to unique aspects, contributions or even challenges overcome throughout your jam's fast-paced development window. Or invite teams to make their own nominations or commendations, especially for those whose members may not have worked together before, as a way to share the spotlight. This can be a great way to inspire new connections, cross-pollinate talent, and encourage future collaborations across different teams both within and outside of the jam circle.
Elliot Callighan is a composer and sound designer, and the owner of Unlock Audio. He is also a Captain in the Army National Guard and teaches music and audio curriculum as adjunct faculty in the game and film programs at DePaul University in Chicago.