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The benefits of a family-friendly conference at Ludolunch

We talk to Simon Roth and Nia Wearn about their unconference Ludolunch, which benefited from a strong focus on being family friendly.

On a sunny afternoon last weekend, a bunch of game developers gathered in one of Oxford’s many pretty parks and had an unconference-cum-picnic. In between bites of pork pies and scotch eggs, they discussed variety of different aspects of game development.

Other than the slightly unusual setting, what made Ludolunch stand out was that while it was about game development, it wasn’t exclusively for those employed in game development. Spouses and children were encouraged to attend. Instead of compromising the level of discourse during the talks, or flooding the gamejam with amateurish junk, the result was an enriched and varied set of discussions and ideas. 

“Lots of people can’t come to events as ‘work’, because large studios don’t allow that and they won’t pay for you,” said Simon Roth. He's an indie games developer, maker of the sci-fi colonisation game Maia, and he helped organise Ludolunch. “If we had made it a big event that you had to pay for, an event that had fixed tracks, where you had to be there at a certain time, and you couldn’t just wander off halfway through to get an ice cream, people would've been reluctant to attend.”

Nia Wearn, a Senior Games Design Lecturer at Staffordshire University and one of the other organisers, agrees. “A lot of the conversations I was having with developers who are parents was about how they wanted to do something with their children that is game-centred," she says. "Those with young babies were saying how they can’t wait to teach them visual scripting, or make games with them. There’s nothing else we’ve come across that incorporates the kids into the event and the activities.”

Roth and Weam say that the presence of these relative outsiders at the unconference actually enhanced the discussions, and provided perspectives that would have otherwise been absent.

“A lot of the activities were based on creativity, and the kids were super creative” Roth continues. “One of the kids was the first person to finish the game jam. She made a full-on game with all sorts of game pieces and components. She was the only person to finish the gamejam on time, and she’d even made up a theme song, which she sang for us. And she was maybe six or seven!

In the discussions, too, the presence of those who aren’t up to speed on all of the technical details of game development forced those giving the talks to rethink the way that they communicate. They often come up with a more articulate way of expressing themselves in the process.

“Without an overhead projector and slides, you couldn’t just put up a games design diagram.” Roth explains. “You had to actually explain it to people. For example, someone giving a talk on localising games, and how you deal with the clashes of cultures and localising. And she could have done a very dry talk, but because she couldn’t even read her notes in the sunshine she ended up giving a very heartfelt discussion about how you reconcile cultures and avoid culture clash. It was really interesting.”

Having people from so many varied disciplines at the unconference also proved to be valuable. “We had scientists and archaeologists and all sorts of other people who you wouldn’t normally get if you say ‘This is a games conference for games people,'” Roth tells me.

“We had a lot of spouses saying that it was fantastic, and it was the first time they’d enjoyed a games event or met the people that their partners worked with.” Wearn continues. “There were lots of little discussions about games, but also about parenting, and aboput raising children while making games.”

This is what has really been highlighted by the success of a relatively small event in a quiet city in England; games developers are getting a little older, and with that age comes less free time. Being able to bring along the people you’ve made a life with to the events you want to attend makes them that much more of an attractive proposition.

Wearn sums it up: “This is about starting the conversation about family-friendly events within the games industry calendar. All of my colleagues are getting to the point where we are having children, and that cuts out a massive amount of our time. Increasingly conferences are over weekends, so even things like childcare are an issue. Google had childcare at their latest conference and it was a big thing.”

Roth agrees. “We miss out on really talented people, because they also have lives outside of games," he says. "Those are the people we should want in games. There are too many who live and breathe games and get into nothing outside of it, and then we get the same games being made over and over again.”

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