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Inside the disintegration of a game jam reality show
Inside the disintegration of a game jam reality show
March 31, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

Recently, Maker Studios' Polaris unit attempted to produce a reality show for YouTube called GAME_JAM, in which teams of independent game developers would jam for four days, pitted against each other in a format compared by its participants to Top Chef or Iron Chef.

In the end, production was cancelled when the game developers walked off the set after the first day due to the behavior of one of the show's producers, Gamasutra has learned.

"It crumbled because we, the developers, killed it," writes Robin Arnott (SoundSelf) in his blog post about GAME_JAM.

Alongside Arnott, Zoe Quinn (Depression Quest) and Adriel Wallick (organizer of Train Jam) have also shared their stories of the experience.

"I love game jams. I think that participating in a game jam is one of the greatest parts of game development culture and a wonderful way to truly foster creativity," Wallick writes. However, that's not how things ended up, she says: "the 'GAME_JAM' embodied everything that I find to be wrong and abhorrent about how people view us as game developers."

"I came into this event expecting to make a game, show people a glimpse into game development, and possibly have some fun. Instead, my intelligence, my legitimacy, and my integrity were all pushed and questioned. We, as developers, were being treated as desperate stereotypes, and we, as women, were treated worse than that," writes Wallick.

The flame-out of GAME_JAM is also extensively covered in a story written for Indie Statik by Jared Rosen, a contractor for the production company behind the web reality show.

"Every side was pulling for what they wanted, and in the end the side that mattered most got burned. We can’t have that," Rosen writes, in a post that details the behind-the-scenes evolution of a modest game jam into a "terrifyingly enormous spectacle."

While Arnott acknowledges that he was "prepared to make compromises for showmanship," there came a time when four participants were unable to continue with the production.

Where things went wrong

While aggressive Mountain Dew branding and the competitive, reality show production style of GAME_JAM were roundly criticized by the participants and observer in their individual blogs, a more insidious problem with GAME_JAM is alleged.

The lion's share of blame for the crash-and-burn scenario is laid at the feet of marketing consultant Matti Leshem, who is mentioned by name in Arnott's, Wallick's, and Rosen's posts. Leshem allegedly fostered a hostile environment for participants in general, and in specific created an aggressively sexist atmosphere by asking participants on-camera if teams with women "were at a disadvantage" in the competition. Leshem allegedly asked Quinn and Wallick similar questions directly, according to the posts.

"You can literally trace back the entire crumbling of this show to one individual -- Matti Leshem," Wallick writes. "Multiple central figures in multiple departments complained privately to me both before and after GAME_JAM about his conduct," writes Rosen.

Though Leshem was removed from the production, Wallick writes that there was no way to regain the trust of the participants even then, and the developers did not return to GAME_JAM.

A silver lining?

Quinn's post doesn't touch on Leshem's behavior, but it does end on an up note: "My most tangible takeaway is probably this: I want to run a game jam," she writes. "Capture the inspiration, the hard work, the 3am delirium and the dumb jokes that come with it. Show people how we all band together and support each other through the deadline. That’s what I want to show the world about game jams. That's the ambassador I’d rather be."

The participants' posts

This news post can't help to capture anything but the most general sense of the discussion around GAME_JAM. To understand the full story, you must read the posts linked below:

Adriel Wallick - Let's talk about accountability
Robin Arnott - "GAME_JAM" and the Power of Integrity
Zoe Quinn - Unreality: My Takeaways After Being On and Subsequently Walking Off a Reality Show About Game Jams
Jared Rosen - How The Most Expensive Game Jam In History Crashed And Burned In A Single Day

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Robin Arnott
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Wee correction that our posts may not have made clear - I think Adriel Zoe Davey and Myself are the most visible here, but it wasn't just us four who walked out: all eleven devs did.

E McNeill
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Indie heroes. <3

Christian Nutt
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Sorry about that and happy to correct -- I didn't understand that from the blog posts!

Jim Thompson
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Good for them. Misogyny and sexism has reached a point in gaming where zero tolerance needs to be the rule.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Unfortunately excuses such as "guys get harassed too" or "it's just part of the culture" are still rampant.

Chris Charla
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@Jim I could not agree more. It's crazy and somehow it's gotten *worse* over the past two years. I honestly didn't think social progress could make retrograde motion, but the game industry seems to be proving otherwise lately.

TC Weidner
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good for them for not allowing some outsiders to portray game making in some made up, negative, sensationalist light

Christian Nutt
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The thing that gets me the most is, if you read Jared's post, it sounds like the idea shifted from game jam to "game jam and crappy challenges that have nothing to do with game development" ... which is just ... it's almost infuriating, in a way, because it shows how out of touch the production was with what it purported to portray.

George Blott
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...And how in-touch they tried to be with the current sad state of "Reality Television"

If they had looked at the work of people like 2 Player Productions as opposed to that of Mark Burnett, they could have had a great piece of media.

Here's hoping the fuss over this misfire helps lead to a proper Game_Jam doc.

Katy Smith
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Wow... Internet hugs for all devs involved. That sounds like a terrible traumatic experience :(

Greg Scheel
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"Reality" shows, are about taking the most egotistical, overweening morons, putting them into a high-stress situation, asking them to work together, and watching the sparks fly. Not an appropriate venue for game dev.

A documentary would have gone much better, imho.

"Reality" killed my MTV, I WANT MY MTV BACK!

mike madden
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I have to disagree somewhat with what I am seeing. Yes he may have tried to portray stereotypes, but instead of correcting them during the interview, everyone walked out...that shows Developers in a better light. not so much.

Why not answer the question of "Is a team at a disadvantage with women on the team?" with the truth. Heck no, if they have the skills and talent to fill the role, who cares.

Opportunity lost in my opinion to correct some of these perceptions.

Corey Nolan
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Even giving that question any air time gives it far more legitimacy than it deserves. It's easy to say these questions are stupid and dismiss them summarily. But the damage would be done as soon as the question was aired.

A viewer of the show would have to at best find themselves looking for a way to prove his statements untrue. It singles the women out and forces them to be evaluated from a critical "guilty until proven innocent" perspective.

Christian Nutt
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I didn't make this explicitly clear in the post, but according to several of the reports, people did give responses of this nature -- only to have the cameras switched off when they did, because they refused to give reality show-style drama.

This then lead to further attempts to manufacture drama.

E Zachary Knight
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I believe that one of the other articles from a participant shows that she did try to correct him. Unfortunately, he just went on to the other teams with the same sexist questions.

"He is also the one who asked my team the following question:

"Do you think you're at an advantage because you have a pretty girl on your team?"

All love to my teammates as they declined to engage. But, after pushing more - he got a rise out of me. He got me to, with an embarrassed and flushed red face launch into a statement about how his question is indicative of everything that is wrong in our industry in terms of sexism. That no, we weren't at an advantage because we had a woman on our team - we were at an advantage because I'm a damn fine programmer and game developer. We were at an advantage because my skills allowed us to be at an advantage - not my "pretty face"."

followed by this statement:

"I spoke with my team, and as a group decided to not engage any further lines of questioning about the women participating in the jam (out of the 11 people participating, there were two women. This means that there were two all male teams and two teams with one woman each). We wouldn't give him the rise he was looking for out of us. We were there to power through and make a game.

So there I was - at about 99% capacity of what I could deal with in terms of corporate bullshit and sexism - and then the final straw. The two all male teams were questioned in a similar fashion:

"Do you think the teams with women on them are at a disadvantage?"

That was it."

Andy Lundell
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The narrative of a TV program is created in editing. The on-screen players can't change it unless they have the cooperation of the producers.

Once it became clear what kind of narrative they were going for, their choices were to help them produce that show, or not help them.

If you believe the on-screen participants could have changed the direction of the show, then you've fallen for the great lie of reality tv.

Stephen Horn
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Yeah. Honestly, if they wanted to turn it into a competition, it seems like it would be more in line with Food Network Challenge: 4 teams have to execute a game based on a theme (possibly make it a mystery theme). The drama would come directly out of the group's experiments, failures and the time pressures. No prodding necessary. The prize could just be a lump of cash, winner-take-all.

Too bad someone, at some point, decided that wasn't "real" enough, and brought on "that guy".

I suggested on Twitter that someone should just hire 2 Player Productions to film a real game jam. Turns out, they have! I now need to find some time to sit down and enjoy Amnesia Fortnight.

David Navarro
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What makes you think a straight, well thought-out answer would have made it into the final cut?

Kenneth Blaney
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I wonder if the producers of the show, now left with a number of hours of footage of a half finished reality show, will try to retool it as a documentary looking to chase some of that "Indie Game: The Movie" fame by saying something like, "Look at how tight nit this community is... even when actively encouraged to rip each others' throats out they don't."

Probably not...

Jonathan Ghazarian
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Luckily for everyone, it sounds like they have so little footage due to how quickly this fell apart, that any sort of "retooling" will be next to impossible.

Frog Wind
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Also, several of the participants walked before they signed their contracts, so any footage of them can't be used at all.

John Wallace
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Sounds like this show was designed to potentially damage game designer careers, manipulate public opinion about the industry negatively, and hurt friendships, all for the sake of an entertaining reality show...

Sponsored and promoted by Mountain Dew!

mike madden
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Thanks for some clarity on my previous post. I certainly understand they have ultimate control over what footage gets aired and edited. Quite happy to hear teams did take a stand and not just shut down and walk away. Giving him the right answer is better than staying quiet, even if they didn't like what they heard, or would have chosen not to hear it. He cant post the question in the show if every answer was following a similar train of thought, and it appears it was the case.

Thanks again

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Michael Mullins
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The format for this was awful. There is a competition, but team engineering should be portrayed in a documentary-style format or at most a friendly throw-down. There's plenty of dramatic tension to be edited in by production. You see it all the time in hardware competitions like FIRST robotics and even larger engineering competitions like Formula SEA, the solar races, or even DARPA contests. I won't even focus on Lesham who, from what this sounds like, is a known quantity who likes to throw his weight around. This was a fubar and speaks to project mismanagement by allowing Lesham to gain so much production influence.

Michael Mullins
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I should add by illustrating contrasting reality formats by THE reality guy: Mark Burnett. Survivor is classic offensive cut-throat office-politics (and an absolute turnoff for me; I hate the format). Eco-challenge, while it was on, emphasized rivalries and manufactured marginally real stories but generally respected the professionalism and physical capacity of the competitors. The latter is what they should have done. If the format isn't lurid enough to gain the views producers wanted, then the project should have been killed in the first place.