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Read the Game Developer team's GDC 2023 coverage here, including Talk writeups and interviews from the show, as well as our favorite GDC Vault videos covering 2023 Talks.

As the invasion of Ukraine escalated, these devs found solace in a game jam

At GDC 2023, GDBAY co-founder Elene Lobova talks about her experiences during the invasion of Ukraine while maintaining a gaming community.

Alessandro Fillari, Contributor

March 24, 2023

6 Min Read
a slide that says code red, introducing the talk

"I could never imagine that at some point of my life, I would need to organize an [gaming] event when everything would be quite literally on fire," said co-founder of GDBAY Elena Lobova about working on a game jam just as Ukraine had been invaded by Russian forces in 2022.

At GDC 2023, Lobova spoke about her experiences working as a game dev in Ukraine, which was a growing field for upcoming creatives and developers. However, during the sudden and fierce invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, Lobova and her colleagues at the GDBAY institution faced a tough choice—should they abandon their planned game development community event or stick with their plans to proceed with their annual event?

A Divergent Path

At the beginning of her panel, Lobova showed off a meme that joked about the reality of being an event planner. "Being an event planner is easy. It's like riding a bike. Except the bike is on fire, you're on fire, everything is on fire, and you're in hell," it read. Lobova also stated that she almost couldn't make it to her GDC talk due to passport issues stemming from her ordeal in 2022.

For Lobova and the collective of developers in Ukraine, the GDBAY organization—a 2400+ online community of global game industry professionals to communicate and plan events— and its Hyper Casual Game Jam was an event to hone their craft and lead to potential projects done the road. With the sudden invasion of Ukraine just days before the game jam, this unfortunately put the development team in a troubling and dangerous situation.

Ukranian developer Elena Lobova talks about her experience with running a game jam during the 2022 invasion.

On the day that the event was set to begin, bombs had gone off in the early morning. During the panel, Lobova shared the DMs and text messages from team members about the first attacks near their homes. Throughout this traumatic period, Lobova and the rest of the team in Ukraine participating in the jam debated on whether to proceed with the event.

"It was important for me to make sure that everyone was on board with the decision; it was important for me to make sure that everyone understood that it was completely fine to cancel the game or to postpone it to an indefinite period," said Lobova about the talks to proceed with the event. "No one would ever say a [bad word] about us [if we canceled]. However, if we could make it work, I had to make sure everyone was on board 100%. I was lucky in this regard, my team members turned out to be much braver than I was. So I had so many concerns, but we decided to move forward."

"We decided that we had done our preparation, and we are prepared for some of the possible disruptions, so we decided to do it anyway," she continued. "Even in these circumstances, it would be easy to act like nothing was wrong. We didn't do that. We were very transparent with developers, with our event sponsors, and with all the stakeholders about what was going on. [We considered] where we were, what the situation was like, what were the risks, and how to deal with those risks."

Finding Solace in Games

According to Lobova, there were many reasons why they decided to proceed with the event. Much like many civilians in Ukraine, not everyone was able to leave the country for safety at a moment's notice, which grounded many people, including Lobova and some other developers participating in the Game Jam. Traditionally, game jams offer developers the space to stretch their creative muscles by creating a product from scratch in a limited time, which could either lead to continued work on the new game, or even potential interest from outside publishers and developers looking for talent.

Keeping the game jam going also meant that resources for the team would keep coming in, allowing them to pay for necessities and donate to humanitarian causes. It also provided a distraction from the bleak events in the days following the invasion: "to avoid doom scrolling," as Lobova said during the panel.

Zoom was a primary method of communication, where they could talk progress and check in on the team.

The GDBAY game jam had over 230 attendees worldwide, and they ultimately produced 28 prototypes during the multi-day event. During this time, Lobova and the team members in Ukraine moved around to find safety, either staying at different homes or traveling to bomb shelters where the work continued. All the while, they were participating in the jam. Lobova explained that during this turbulent period, they still adhered to game development practices and techniques to keep on schedule.

One tech/game development strategy she highlighted was "bus factor" which is a practice in which developers evaluate risk from information that members of the team weren't sharing and how it can impact work. The name derives from the common saying of "in case you get hit by a bus, " which carried a more morbid meaning considering their circumstances. Finally, a tip that Lobova shared about her experiences participating while their country was being invaded was to keep up spirits amongst the team.

These included setting priorities amongst those working, which meant that they would check in with team members on their present status, communicate with them to ensure safety and well-being, and how they would try to keep a "good news" practice to keep members in good spirits. Lobova stated that her time during that period was particularly harrowing given how sudden and violent the invasion had gotten, as some of her friends and colleagues had joined the effort to keep their homes safe.

Following the jam, Lobova had an opportunity to leave Ukraine in early March and made it to Bratislava, Slovakia. This trip took several days, with her finding safety in the bomb shelters and the homes of people she had met. However, many of her team members had remained in Ukraine. Eventually, Lobova helped her other colleagues flee the country by using the influence she built with GDBAY to raise funds to help displaced and refugee developers.

Near the end of her panel, Lobova stated that the work still continues in supporting Ukrainian citizens, including developers who are still working on games in bomb shelters. She closed out her panel, encouraging attendees to donate to humanitarian aid for the country. Lobova also stressed why it was essential to find some creative outlet and a form of solace in harsh times.

"It was important not to ask too much of ourselves and our colleagues, we were all involved in a lot of other things, keeping our close ones safe or volunteering," she said. "Still, for us working, we had to keep our eyes on the prize, and understand why we're doing what we're doing. It was very easy for us to fall into survivor's guilt. But it was important to remind each other that we were doing the right thing by continuing our work, that we were helping our country in this way that we were. It was extremely important"

The Game Developers Conference is a period where many game developers and the industry at large can learn about the latest changes in the industry, and how the experiences that people have making games can shape their outlook. For Lobova, game development during wartime became a reminder of the human effort that goes into making interactive entertainment.

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About the Author(s)

Alessandro Fillari


Alessandro Fillari is a writer/editor who has covered the games, tech, and entertainment industries for more than 12 years. He is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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