A Brief History of Game Jams
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
[The following is reprinted from The Game Jam Guide, available from ETC Press. Download your copy now for free.]
At any given weekend, there is a game jam happening somewhere in the world. Professionals and students alike converge on these game jam sites to further their skills, to foster community, and to experiment with game design. These game jams may focus on a social cause or a specific technology. The developers may want to explore a theme and use a word or some starting point to spark creativity. No matter the direction, the goal of the participants is to create a playable game within the constraints in a relatively short period of time.
The earliest known game jam, dubbed the 0th Indie Game Jam, was founded by Chris Hecker and Sean Barrett in March 2002. Intent on encouraging innovation and experimentation within the game industry, they invited a select crowd of well-known designers and programmers to develop games for a specialized engine. Indie Game Jam, which continued in subsequent years, tended to focus on technology-driven constraints. Participants worked on their own, on multiple projects, or in a team.
The following month, in April 2002, Ludum Dare (from the Latin "To give a game"), the first virtual game jam, was launched. The idea for it had grown organically from the Internet forum of the same name. Ludum Dare, which now has solo and team tracks, challenges participants to create a game based on a theme rather than conforming to a technological constraint. Themes are suggested and voted on by the Ludum Dare community. Its community also determines which games are the winners, according to various judging standards. Though source code is required to be uploaded, participants retain all rights to their games. In more recent years, participants have broadcast livestreams on Twitch or created a time-lapse video of their game development progress during the event.
These early examples from 2002 were informal affairs. Nordic Game Jam, which would later grow to be one of the largest single-site game jams in the world, began in 2006 as a collaboration between the Denmark chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), IT University of Copenhagen, and local game companies. The organizers there emphasized the spirit of collaboration and sometimes would not release the theme until teams were formed. Once given the theme and restrictions, teams had just 48 hours to complete a working prototype. Participants of all skill levels were encouraged to come, stressing the educational aspect of the game jam.
Inspired by Indie Game Jam, Ludum Dare, and Nordic Game Jam, Global Game Jam (GGJ) holds the Guinness World Record for the largest game jam in the world. Founded by Susan Gold, Ian Schreiber, and Gorm Lai in 2008, GGJ is a multi-site game jam with many of the same characteristics of its predecessors. Participants may work alone, though teams are more common, to create a game based on a theme and optional diversifiers. In 2017, over 36,000 participants in 702 sites in 95 countries attended, making over 7000 games in one weekend. The games, all available for play on the GGJ site, range from tabletop games to virtual reality, Kinect games, handhelds and tablets, console games, and traditional PC games.
It's clear why educators often recommend that aspiring game developers attend game jams. Not only do the events foster creativity, collaboration, and community, but they also instill the fast prototyping and iterative design culture found in many game companies. Participants learn the lessons of "failing early" in order to perfect a game. They must work with teammates within a time constraint and are exposed to a diverse set of skills and personalities. They come face to face with production realities, which force them to decide which game features remain or must go. There may not be any monetary gain from game jams, but the entire experience of completing a game and learning from others may be priceless.
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.