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What about love? Inside a game jam revolution

A recent community-led dating sim jam over social media yielded not only an explosion of touching, innovative and expressive experiences about love -- but possible lessons for the traditional community.
The portrayal of romance in games has been an open discussion in traditional game design circles, and players and creators alike have longed to see how we can explore the deep and nuanced tonalities of love in interactive entertainment. Yet while lifelike demos of faces that can really gaze at you provoke buzz and ardor, achieving the expressive, genuine sentiment of courtship, heartbreak, and sex within a medium that likes goal-oriented systems has been an elusive objective. Trust pure, wild experimentation to emerge from the fringe. Beginning over the past weekend, following up on an idea she credits to friend Eren Russo, writer, visual artist and game maker Madam Luna spearheaded the Pulse-Pounding Heart-Stopping Dating Sim Game Jam, which encouraged game makers and hobbyists from all over the realm of the internet to use whatever tools they could get their hands on to make games about romance. The result was explosive -- and fascinating for how quickly and enthusiastically a community from all walks of life and with all levels of expertise responded, uniting under the ongoing #pphsjam hashtag to produce and discuss a frankly-stunning array of expressive interactive experiences. As of now, the Jam's produced 80 games and counting. They vary in polish and some are not finished, but excitingly, that's not the point. The individuality that emerges with easy access to simple tools like Twine and Ren'Py is on full show, and the sense of community seemed to offer participants a degree of encouragement and safety to discuss their own personal experiences, often (but not always) including themes of kink and queerness. The range of voices is amazingly broad: Nina F. created a Twine game simply titled Dating Sim about the myriad interpersonal invasions one may encounter at a crowded party full of drunks; meanwhile, Lillian Behrendt submitted a MSPaint-illustrated dating sim about seducing a pink, amorphous chewing gum-like character called Princess Gloob into a romantic date followed by sex. Many known creators participated; prolific Anna Anthropy created a heartfelt Twine tale about meeting her partner over a game of Aegis Wing, Merritt Kopas shared a journey of self-discovery across several first dates in 1STDATEMEM.EXE, and visual novelist Christine Love used interactive text messages to humorous effect as the interface for Japanese magical girl-inspired Magical Maiden Madison. Popular Twine author and games critic Porpentine created a text game intended for two in-person players entitled UNTIL OUR ALIEN HEARTS BEAT AS ONE. There are even more new faces. I enjoyed the playful, occasionally-cruel writing style of NJD Somerville in Lovely Antiquing, set at the "Greater Lesser Trumpertington-on-Sea car boot sale." Someone even made a submission using PowerPoint. I myself talked a blue streak on Twitter about using Ren'Py to make a game where you attempt to court Vegeta from Dragonball Z, but got too excited about everyone else's games to focus on my own. I'll leave it to the pros. Rather, to the expressly not-pros. The jam's a remarkable example of what an expressive community can do on its own for the love of experimental games. Despite publishing individual game-making manifesto Rise of the Videogame Zinesters last year, Anthropy tells the Guardian today she's uncomfortable being seen as such a visible parent of the Twine-based authorial revolution, and instead hopes the excitement around individuality in games and the use of accessible tools will continue democratizing . "I'd rather have a movement where everyone is a leader," she tells the Guardian. An event like this makes it abundantly clear that Anna is one of many community motivators, but hardly an outlier: "This GDC [felt] tremendously different," she continues. "Because I don't really feel like I really am the only one." The increasing celebration of handmade, personal games that focus more on the act of honest creation than traditional "design wisdom" has caused some measure of uncertainty among veterans and purists. Earlier this week, in response to some Tweets I'd made in disdain for definitions, Raph Koster wrote me an open letter on his blog. He acknowledges the "uncomfortably-personal edge" inherent in taking new work -- particularly within a movement led by historically underrepresented voices -- and trying to label it, consign it to the "not a game" table, but expresses that systems and definitions around interactivity are important to some. I wrote Raph a detailed response in his comment section, republished on my own blog. But the best argument against definitions and exclusions is here in the growing list of games that emerged from this joyous online community jam, made by people wanting to convey experiences of love through interactivity. They're experimenting with a design problem that all the years of indie jams and formal industry have rarely managed to address in such a brave way before, arguably if at all, and surely if traditionalists can take some lessons from other experience designers, this is no small place to begin. With that in mind, what does it matter what they're called? Though the deadline for the jam is technically passed, submissions are still being accepted. Check out the full list of #pphsjam games here.

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