From Jam Session to Global Phenomenon

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In 2008, Susan Gold attended a con­fer­ence in Sweden to dis­cuss her expe­ri­ences in teaching game design and building edu­ca­tion cur­ricula. She left with an idea that has since become a world­wide phe­nom­enon and an inno­v­a­tive tool—one that she said improves stu­dents’ and pro­fes­sionals’ game devel­op­ment skills and creativity.

On this trip, Gold—now a Pro­fessor of the Prac­tice in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Arts Media and Design—learned about the Nordic Game Jam, where par­tic­i­pants came together to col­lab­o­rate and design new games based on a common theme. After hearing about cre­ativity gen­er­ated by the event, she real­ized this con­cept could help solve the chal­lenge of teaching game devel­op­ment in an aca­d­emic envi­ron­ment. As she saw it, a game jam is an incred­ible expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity to apply the skills and tools learned in class and make it real—and she wanted to make it global.

The fol­lowing Jan­uary, Gold launched the first Global Game Jam. Now at Northastern, she will once again oversee the world­wide event this weekend, when the sixth annual Global Game Jam kicks off—bigger and better than ever.

Susan Gold, Professor of the Practice and associate director of the Game Design program in the College of Arts, Media and Design.

“I fell in love with the inno­va­tion that hap­pens right before your eyes,” said Gold, who is asso­ciate director of the Game Design pro­gram at North­eastern. “You don’t have anyone saying,  ‘That’s not going to sell.’ It’s about where can we go with this idea, let’s take a risk.”

The number of Global Game Jam loca­tions has grown annu­ally and vary by city and country. Since it’s a world­wide event in 73 coun­tries, the start times are stag­gered based on time zone; New Zealand will be the first to get started (that’s 10 p.m. Thursday EST).

Here’s how it works: par­tic­i­pants arrive at 5 p.m. Friday, at which time the event begins and the game jam’s theme is announced and everyone watches the annual keynote address. Next, par­tic­i­pants start brain­storming ideas and forming into small groups. From there, teams have 48 hours to develop their games, which are typ­i­cally video games but can also be board or card games, as long as they can be down­loaded from the web—you can build it. Groups can also choose to incor­po­rate optional con­straints called diver­si­fiers to fur­ther chal­lenge them­selves. For example, last year’s theme was the sound of a heart­beat, and one optional con­straint was that the game should make a pos­i­tive social impact.

The Global Game Jam is growing. Last year, par­tic­i­pants came together across 63 coun­tries cre­ated more than 3,000 games. This year the event is expected to grow by yet another 20 per­cent in par­tic­i­pa­tion and loca­tions. But over the years, Gold has seen the event pro­duce much more than a slew of wild and cre­ative new games. Par­tic­i­pants have formed con­nec­tions that have led to job oppor­tu­ni­ties and building new game stu­dios. Some lucky jam­mers have even met their sig­nif­i­cant others, and Gold recalled one coder in Israel going into labor hours after par­tic­i­pating in the jam.

North­eastern will again serve as one of the Boston area’s host sites this year—growing from 40 par­tic­i­pants in 2013 to 115 in 2014; reg­is­tra­tion for the North­eastern site is closed. The par­tic­i­pants will hole up for the weekend in Snell Library’s state-​​of-​​the-​​art Dig­ital Media Com­mons, which will host the event in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Playable Inno­v­a­tive Tech­nolo­gies Lab and the North­eastern Center for the Arts. Casper Harteveld, PLAIT Lab director and an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Game Design pro­gram, will serve as the North­eastern site’s organizer.

In addi­tion, UK musi­cian, pro­ducer and dig­ital inno­vator, Thomas Dolby, best known for his 1982 hit “She Blinded me with Sci­ence,” will be on hand at North­eastern for Global Game Jam on Sunday. On Monday morning he’ll give a lec­ture on campus to dis­cuss some of the equip­ment he’s used in his 35 years in the music business.

An artist at heart, Gold joined North­eastern in the fall and has held aca­d­emic posi­tions in fine art and game edu­ca­tion pro­grams since 1999. Her work bridges art, sci­ence, tech­nology, industry, and academia.

Global Game Jam is not just for hard­core soft­ware devel­opers, Gold said. People of all dis­ci­plines and com­puter skills are encour­aged to par­tic­i­pate. The event’s inter­dis­ci­pli­nary nature is a key ele­ment to its suc­cess, she said, explaining how fas­ci­nating games can emerge when, say, stu­dents studying com­puter sci­ence, busi­ness, and psy­chology col­lab­o­rate on a project.

“Not only do you see how games are made, but you see how people think about cre­ativity,” she said. The reveal for all the games cre­ated during the Northeastern’s Global Game Jam will take place at 5 p.m. Sunday in the Raytheon Amphitheater.