On-rails: Train Jam 2017

Last month and for the first time, I was honoured to be able to attend Train Jam: the annual, trans-American game jam event which now drops an entire train-load of developers in San Francisco, just in time for GDC. I did so courtesy of the event’s diversity initiative, for which I am extremely grateful. As anyone who knows me personally (and a few who don’t) will have noticed: trains and game jams are kind of my thing.

My usual custom for game jam wrap-ups like this is to go in-depth on some of the lessons learned, explain a bit about the game we made, and try to keep aspects of the journey or the setting either in their own post, or confined within my Flickr gallery. With Train Jam more than most jams though, I feel as though the journey contributed too much to the process to be taken in isolation. So, now that I’ve finally been able to sift through my photographs from this long weekend in the United States, it’s time for a ‘read more’ jump:

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Lyst Summit Write-up (part 2)

Part 1 of my recap-cum-travelogue was published a short while ago; you can read it here!

There’s an unwritten rule of almost every game jam I’ve taken part in, which states that the first 5 or so hours will be devoted to anything but the final project. I’m pleased to say that with practice, this period has shifted from becoming something terrifying, to actually rather productive for me. When the jam starts, we (as a group) will tend to fixate upon an idea which seems feasible, expressive and daring within the bounds of the jam. We’ll sketch it out, start prototyping.. and then realise the idea has no traction or depth.

I panicked, the first time this happened in a jam – thinking I was a lousy designer, unqualified to play my part in a game jam team. I’ve soon learned, however, that quite often sleep will bring with it an epiphany. This is precisely what happened at the Lyst Summit game jam.

As the conference deck filled up, our team retired below to set about paper prototyping.
As the conference deck filled up, our team retired below to set about paper prototyping.

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Lyst Summit Write-up (part 1)

I’m certainly embarrassed by how long it’s taken me to get around to my Lyst write-up – things have been very busy in recent weeks – but in some many ways, it’s taken until now for me to actually process the glorious things which happened there. What follows is more of a travelogue than a simple game jam recap, split into two parts for your convenience.

Lyst Summit is a unique gathering on the subject of love, sexuality and romance in games, and its first event was held in early June aboard the MF William Jørgenson – a boat moored in København (Copenhagen), Danmark. I was honoured to be able to attend, so taking part in a fascinating series of talks, followed by a 48-hour game jam unlike any other. It was my first time visiting the Danish capital since a very brief change of trains last year, and I’m pleased to say it was as rich in friendship as it was in inspiration and creative output.

The "Love Boat" at Holmen
The “Love Boat” at Holmen

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Coming Out: Serious Gaming

I’ve not really dealt with serious games before, on this blog or elsewhere, but an idea has struck me and I hope you’ll indulge me as I share it. Many such games deal with political ideas through education or simulation. There are very few which deal with social issues, possibly because they are a complex matter. Some such issues do appear in more generalised games, however:

Half-Life 2 deals with repression, both in its cyberpunk storyline and a thoroughly disadvantageous few minutes of play at its start. I’m sure most people will remember the City 17 station ‘metro cop’ who knocks a can to Freeman’s feet. In the mocking tone of one holding the high ground, he orders Freeman to pick it up. The player has the option to throw it back in his face, but Freeman is unarmed and easily bludgeoned with a cattle prod for his insolence. This short encounter sets the tone for a whole game about overcoming dictatorial power.

Beyond Good & Evil has a more political angle, exposing the perils of state-controlled media in a fantastical setting. Protagonist and freelance photojournalist Jade falls foul of the military during a vicious alien attack and winds up with a rebel network, out to expose far more than the government is letting on. Who’s really behind the Domz attacks, and why are innocents being abducted from the streets?

Of course, this is no less than what film is capable of dealing with, and film has the power to highlight more personal issues. What if games were tackle ideas like betrayal, love and social injustice head-on?

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Monopoly’s Legacy to Gaming

Episode two of Games Britannia aired on BBC Four tonight and I’m even more impressed, both with the documentary’s content and the way board games really do have a massive influence on we players. This programme, which featured games developed (and, more importantly, marketed) from the 19th century onwards, placed a lot of topics on this gamer’s personal debate stand. It’s Monopoly‘s story which struck the deepest chord for me, leaving a very relevant legacy both in the way it was developed, and the way its players respond to it.

Game Mechanics

 Key to this era in gaming and games design appears to be the game mechanic. The games of this era borrowed, stole and outright mirrored whole devices into their play, with inescapable comparisons to modern video games design. The most famous of these games is Monopoly, which I had assumed was unique until the programme explored Elizabeth Magie-Phillips’ The Landlord’s Game. Later released in the UK by the amusingly named Newbie Game Company as Brer Fox an’ Brer Rabbit, Magie’s game featured all the familiar trappings of prospecting, rent, utilities and even the Chance cards, but in a manner she hoped would support an socialist argument; instead Monopoly achieved the reverse.

Due perhaps to a changing world climate, associated less with Quaker roots than the American Dream, players were more willing to play out a rags to riches tale – something I believe has become gaming’s folk tale. Prospecting in order to bankrupt your fellow players is less an exercise in socialism and more a capitalist one, and that strikes me as a key device in most of the games I play now. I can build a broad enough portfolio to cripple my competitors with rent just as easily as I can found a stable SimCity or dominate others using my undead warlock – potentially resplendent in expensive, auction-bought gear.

Emotive Gaming

One other topic which crept up was that of emotional gaming. Naturally, with the programme’s focus laying elsewhere, this was not dealt with in especially great detail. Still, the way Monopoly‘s competitive gameplay would spark arguments around the board was a pretty radical departure for a typical family board game. Until then, board games did encourage competition of course, but many still took aspiration and endeavour as their themes, over conquest and ruin. This competitive anger is the one emotion which modern video games can be guaranteed to inspire.

I wonder how many video game designers have sat down and thought less about the individual player’s emotions, and more about the multiplayer group’s. As far as I can tell, only Shigeru Miyamoto has ever publicly acknowledged this, in a teaser video for Wii Music which was released through Wii’s internet media channel. In it he proposed a game all the family could contribute to – Granddad, sister and mother all would chip in to form your orchestra, and your combined efforts would show as an enjoyable piece of music.

I say, “trust Wii to be the first to this idea” – after all, it is a console sold on family play, and that makes a refreshing change for new players like my parents, put off by petty and often violent interactive contests. As my fellow designers at university recognised – when we were working on a two-player game demo called Floaters – genuinely co-operative games are an astonishingly niche type in our medium. While it’s very easy to make a multiplayer game competitive, angering its players just as much as Monopoly did, can games return us to happier endeavours?