XX Game Jam

Donkey Kog CountryThe weekend before last was something of an historic event, certainly in my career, but also for the image of women in the games industry. I took part in the world’s first all-woman game jam, held in Mind Candy’s offices in Shoreditch. The XX Game Jam was an effort backed by many fine organisations, including UKIE, the London Games Festival and Ada Lovelace Day. It brought over two dozen female game developers together in order to form teams, plan and develop playable game prototypes within a 24-hour period.

While it was certainly a bold attempt to highlight the worth of the industry ‘s feminine minority – an issue whose very existence still shocks me – it was not, as a persistent core of blinkered critics suggest, the first in a series of male-exclusive events. If I may stand a brief protest, this sort of reaction is really beginning to vex me. I’m grateful to my team-mate, Holly, for putting this feeling into eloquent form.

My summary of the event is an unapologetically clumsy and biased one, because not only was it my first game jam, but I walked away from it as one of the winning trio. I can’t help but recap the event from my own perspective, so if I may start from the beginning…

Setting Up

Our theme was to be clockwork, as in the machinery which Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage were working on at the end of the 19th century. We were free to interpret the theme in any way we chose, and although most teams did include Ada’s likeness in some way, this was not mandatory. We then formed our teams – in amusing fashion, since there was only one sound artist in attendance and there seemed to be relatively few designers to go around. I think I’m right in remembering that every other team formed a group of 5 or 6, leaving myself, Hazel McKendrick and Holly Pickering as the only trio.

The first development session was only a few hours long, as we had to brainstorm our game and work out each person’s role before a strict 11pm deadline – making this a 14-hour game jam rather than a 24-hour one. Our whiteboard, then, was quite a hurried affair:

XX Game Jam 26-10-2012 21-05-39

Hard Graft

As lady developers trickled in the next day, we faced a solid 10-hour session armed with tea, Drumstick lollies and sandwiches. It was during this time that Holly designed and created a fully-animated character, as well as our 2D environment art. Hazel, our programmer and only team member with experience of previous game jams, had assembled a platform game framework in Unity overnight. She would go on to set up the necessary tags and behaviours for me to create the game’s levels.

I spent the first chunk of our time seconded to audio, making use of Creative Commons libraries and the web-based BFXR tool for creating game audio from scratch. When the time came to generate our levels, I was placed in the very unusual circumstances of having to learn Unity from scratch. Somehow we pulled it off, and with 30 minutes to go before our deadline, we started deploying Donkey Kog Country to PC and Android builds.

Holly and Hazel testing a near-complete version of the game on Windows and Android.
Holly and Hazel testing a near-complete version of the game on Windows and Android.

Thanks in no small part to the power of Unity, we were able to test our game multiple times throughout the afternoon on my Nexus 7 tablet, as well as on Hazel and I’s laptops. I cannot describe the feeling of delivering a .EXE and a .APK to the game jam’s Dropbox folder right on time, with wine and beers close to hand as we finally allowed ourselves chance to celebrate.

We did so first by seeing each other’s presentations, with each team showing an accomplished and really quite different take on the game jam’s theme. It’s remarkable enough that no one team failed the task in such a short time limit, but to then see such variety..! I’d felt we may have ended up treading on someone else’s toes with our simple platformer, but Donkey Kog Country sat alongside: a chase game set in a musical box; a 2D platformer starring a clockwork grim reaper; a switch-based action game; and a love story puzzle game set on rotating cogs, named Lovelace (see below).

Andrea Hasselager presents "Lovelace"
Andrea Hasselager presents “Lovelace”

Kicking Back

Presentations concluded, the next couple of hours were marvellously fun, as all five teams relaxed and chatted about the past 24 hours’ efforts. I also took this opportunity to pass my Nexus 7 around, as it ran our barely-tested, touch-input version of Donkey Kog Country. This was a first for me: being able to pass somebody a game which I helped to design, and witness their reactions as they played. My favourite of these has to be Zuraida “Zo-ii” Buter of World Game Jam fame, who’d dropped in to observe the closing hours of our efforts:

Her reaction was justified: this was an infuriatingly hard game. Hazel had coined the perfect description earlier that day, painting Donkey Kog Country as “an artistic commentary on maso-core”. Somehow it had a hold on people though, and we spent much of the night willing players to the end of level two. Thus far only four people have done it – myself, one of the game judges (!), “Zo-ii” and now my boss. You’re welcome to try yourself…

In Summary

Dr. Jo Twist announces the prize for the first all-woman game jam.
Dr. Jo Twist announces the prize for the first all-woman game jam.

Despite the unusual demographic of its participants, the XX Game Jam did adhere to usual practice, and a “winner” was declared.. to be us, for which I certainly am proud. The organisers gifted us each the delightful prize of a toolbox, emblazoned with the XX Game Jam logo and packed with handy things which I’ve genuinely found use for since.  We were also asked to contribute to a documentary which was being filmed at the event. Hazel, holly and I were each asked to leave something inspirational for 10-year-old girls who might consider joining the games industry. I cannot for the life of me remember if what I said made any actual sense, but after three solid days of GameCity booth work, that 24-hour trial and two tumblers of wine, I can at least be sure it was heartfelt and spontaneous.

I took a great many things from this event, and chief amongst those was a greater respect and affection for my fellow women in the games industry. Apart from working directly with two fabulously talented people in my own team, it’s been great to connect with the other participants since then.

Taking men out of the equation may be a controversial move in some people’s eyes, and I’m certainly a champion for equality rather than feminine superiority, but there’s no denying that women are a minority at the moment, and the event gave us as individuals a chance to work with people we can feel naturally more comfortable with. By all means, sign me up for a gothic game jam, or one for retro sci-fi fans, but as a woman I’m still likely to find myself in a room with an overwhelming majority of men at either of those game jams. I’m confident that the XX Game Jam – and the media around it – will further the campaign to boost this single sector of our slowly-diversifying workforce. Games design, those of us who work at it, and even the games themselves will benefit from that change.

"Donkey Kog Country" in its game jam-complete state, running on Unity for web.
“Donkey Kog Country” in its game jam-complete state, running on Unity for web.

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