It’s not often, but sometimes a disaster results in a happy ending. Or if not “happy” then at least “satisfactory”. We very nearly had a nasty, messy, brutally ugly controversy on our hands that would have brought a lot of bad press and bad blood to the hobby in general, and to a small group of indies in particular. Instead we got this much smaller controversy and a little sliver of justice.
GAME_JAM was originally envisioned as a pretty standard game jam. A small group of indies would come together, make some games, and show off the fruits of their efforts. These events don’t usually produce shipping products, but they do create interesting and conversation-worthy experiments and give the audience a chance to see how indie development works. But in this case the event was a victim of its own success. Corporate sponsors came in, the budget shot up, and the whole thing was given a new focus. Instead of “Let’s make video games, and see if it results in something people want to watch” it became, “Let’s make a reality show about people who make video games.”
Note that everything I have to say here is based on the lengthy write-up How The Most Expensive Game Jam In History Crashed And Burned In A Single Day by journalist Jared Rosen and “GAME_JAM” and the Power of Integrity by Robin Arnott, one of the indies who participated. To my knowledge, the sponsors, backers, and organizers of GAME_JAM have yet to speak up in defense of the event, and I’m not exactly holding my breath.
But first let me put my cards on the table: I HATE the manufactured drama of faux-reality television. By “faux-reality,” I’m talking about stuff like Survivor, Real Housewives, and everything MTV has ever done in the genre. This is different from actual reality shows like Mythbusters. In the latter the goal is to attempt X and see what happens, and in the former the goal is to use X to generate a bunch of interpersonal drama. In Mythbusters the entertainment the is the project. In the other shows, the entertainment is the drama, gossip, infighting, and sniping between the participants.
Understand that there is very little reality in reality television. The handheld camera and subject matter give it a look and feel of a documentary, but that’s not the goal. Here is how it works:
1) Get a bunch of people together of varying dispositions and personalities, and group them in such a way as to maximize friction. Stick the Johnny Knoxville type person with the Martha Stewart type person. Pair a alpha male brogamer with a feminist. A foul-mouthed snarker with a stuffy academic. A rural outdoorsy type with a bubbly metropolitan. Ideally, pick a young cast. Young people are more likely to blurt things out without thinking and their emotions are a little closer to the surface.
2) Put the group in a stressful situation, ideally one that puts them out of sorts: Fatigue, hunger, tiredness, public scrutiny. Get their stress levels up as high as possible while at the same time creating artificial friction between them.
3) Follow everyone one around with multiple cameras for hours at a time. Record everything. When the event is over, interview each person and ask them leading, confusing, and irritating questions to find out who they don’t like, who they’re pissed off at, and who they resent. (And of course only show their response to the audience, not the questions themselves.)
4) Take the hundreds of hours of resulting footage and find the 40 minutes with the strongest emotional impact. Maybe Bob was a stalwart and selfless member of the team for 95% of the time, but if we’ve got a few minutes of footage where he loses his cool and says something nasty to someone else, that’s going in the show. The part where he apologized later? That isn’t. Not unless it fits the narrative we’re trying to build as we cut the footage to create heroes and villains. Have you ever watched an episode of a reality show where they play the same clip several times? Think about that. They had days of footage, and yet they couldn’t fill a single hour of television without reusing stuff.
Basically, the whole thing is disgusting. It creates real strife, gossip, and misery and then processes it into fake stories under the pretense of showing you “reality”. Sorry if you’re a fan of this sort of television, but I needed to make my position clear before I talked about GAME_JAM.
It would have been bad enough if GAME_JAM turned an actual game jam into this kind of faux-reality drama, but they actually aimed even lower. They tried to manufacture sexism-based drama. As if we didn’t have enough of that in our hobby. One of the questions they asked Robin Arnott was, “Do you think you’re at an advantage because you have a pretty lady on your team?” This is classic “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” type question. If I say “no” then it might sound like I don’t value her as a member of the team. If I say yes then I’m reducing her to a pretty face and ignoring her technical and artistic abilities. A proper answer is likely to be long and frustrated and easily misrepresented in editing. Keep in mind the “pretty face” in question is Adriel Wallick, who left her job programming weather satellites so she could make quirky, experimental indie games. It’s like having Neil Degrasse Tyson on your team at the science fair and having someone ask how having a “black guy” impacts your chances of winning. It’s mind-bogglingly offensive.
Meanwhile the other teams were asked, “Two of the other teams have women on them. Do you think they’re at a disadvantage?” It’s pretty clear the organizers wanted to work this angle – painting game developers as either sexist or preoccupied with gender – as a way to generate conflict. There’s no winning move here.
This is the kind of drama the show was going for. Gossipy, mean-spirited, and inflammatory. Imagine if the plan had worked. The resulting show would have turned these talented, daring, slightly eccentric artists into a bunch of bickering Gen-Y gamers. It would have reinforced this notion that gaming is awash in sexism and that gamers are mostly howling man-children. It would have hurt their careers, and it would have made our entire hobby look bad. And for what? A couple of hours of shallow YouTube entertainment and some absurd Pepsi sponsorship?
The happy ending (happy for us in the audience, not for the developers) is that the developers banded together. They’d been organized into competing teams, but instead they stood as a group. They refused to answer those gotcha questions. They didn’t sink to bad-mouthing people or lash out when their projects were shoved aside. They stonewalled and refused to sink to the level of the organizers. They were here to make games, not drama, and no promise of “exposure” was going to make them compromise their ideals.
I find this really admirable. I know that in my 20s (which was during the Clinton administration, if you’re curious) I would not have been this media-savvy. I’m sure I would have blown the “pretty lady” question when the time came. There are just so many wrong ways to answer that. (“No comment” and “F you” are really the only correct answers in this context. Anything nuanced is just asking to be slandered by sound-bite editing.) Maybe I would have gotten mad and tried to fight “the system”, which could have just been spun into another narrative. (“Entitled idealist can’t work with others.”) But they not only saw through the manipulation, they also correctly identified the only proper response, which is non-participation. They refused to take part and denied GAME_JAM the chance to make any narrative at all.
Even after the event, the devs are showing a lot of integrity. They’re talking about what went wrong, and not using the fallout as a chance to promote themselves and their own projects. (Which would be fine if they did. They entered because that’s what they wanted, and the fact that they’re willing to walk away with nothing rather than muddle their message says a lot.)
It’s sad that GAME_JAM didn’t work out. I would have loved to see some clever people come together and build some games. But the rebellious teams saved us from a worse fate. The industry isn’t perfect, but it’s also not always the zoo it seems to be. There are good people who are in it for the love of games, and their efforts give us countless hours of entertainment whether we watch them make the games or not. Thanks to the devs who put principles above publicity, and stood with each other instead of bickering for the cameras.
Shamus Young is a programmer specializing in procedural content. You can read the really long version of his story if you’re interested.