Skip directly to content

Global Game Jam Unites Gaming Community

on Mon, 02/04/2013 - 00:00

Gaming may be a multi-billion dollar industry, but it is more than just another couch-potato form of entertainment. The games crafted, marketed, purchased and played are intricate combinations of graphics, animation, sound and narrative. They enable one to escape into fantasy worlds, solve intricate puzzles, think and interact, and even learn in the process. The designers of these games are a combination of computer programmer and artist, sound engineer and storyteller, and use an assortment of interdisciplinary skills to create these intricately detailed experiences that have become a global phenomenon.

In 2008, Susan Gold teamed up with Gorm Lai and Ian Schreiber of the International Game Developers Association to launch Global Game Jam, a 48 hour game development marathon where gaming professionals, students and novices from around the world come together for one weekend in celebration of video games. The event is not simply meant to stir creative juices, however, but as a way for the global gaming community to share the same experiences and individually express themselves in the process. As the Global Game Jam (GGJ) website states, video games are “universal” and offer the perfect means to unite “today’s heavily connected world.” The first Global Game Jam was held over the weekend of January 30, 2009, with 1600 participants in 23 different countries—and one of those initial cities was Pittsburgh.

Four years later, the Global Game Jam is as strong as ever, and so is the Pittsburgh Global Game Jam. “The past three years we’ve grown from about 60 jammers to 120,” Steel City event organizer Sabrina Culyba explained in February 2013. “Every year our signups fill up by mid-January and we end up with a long waiting list so we think we still have room to grow. We have a good number of participants who jam every year, so it seems like the jammers themselves have really adopted the GGJ as an important event here in Pittsburgh.”

Global Game Jam is held the same January weekend for all cities participating in the event, with a late Friday afternoon/early evening keynote speech and explanation of the guidelines that includes and unveiling of the “secret” theme that must be utilized in the final products. Groups of teams are then formed and given approximately 48 hours to design an original video game. At the conclusion of the weekend, the participants gather in a farewell ceremony, where they are able to show their creations to their fellow gamers and even play the finished games themselves. Global Game Jam is not meant to be a competition, however, but merely a means for local gaming communities to socialize, interact and hone their skills as part of a worldwide undertaking.

“This is a great event for everyone—hobbyists, professionals, but especially students,” Sabrina Culyba said. “With both Carnegie Mellon and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in such close proximity, we get a lot of strong student participation. On top of that, there is a growing game industry community here in Pittsburgh and it’s full of people interested in taking games in slightly new directions. One of the goals of the Global Game Jam is innovation, and I think that does attract people from our particular community.”

Although Global Game Jam is not a competition, the Pittsburgh version does hand out prizes for everything from “best art design,” “best use of web technologies” and “biggest risk-taking,” to both Audience Choice (voted on by those in attendance) and Judges Choice (selected by a trio of judges) Awards. Pittsburgh likewise goes further than most other cities by holding several workshops in the area throughout the year in order to help participants prepare for the actual event, and even serves pancakes at midnight during the Global Game Jam weekend itself—adding local Pittsburgh traditions to the worldwide event in the process.

“I think it’s fair to say Global Game Jam has become one of the cornerstone community events for game developers here in the city,” Sabrina Culyba further elaborated. “I see it as a mixing pot. Even if jammers choose to work on a team of people they already know, there is a lot of conversation and intermingling over the 48 hours. Jammers, our jam staff, our judges, and our other guests, get to know one another, see each other’s work, and start building relationships. It’s a great way to kick off the new year in our community.”

And Pittsburgh does indeed have a video game community. In addition to educational opportunities offered by Carnegie Mellon University and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh (AIP), there’s the CMU Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) and the local chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). The Steel City even has a number of start-ups and established video game companies, such as Schell Games on the South Side—which was established in 2002 by Jesse Schell and is where Sabrina Culyba currently works as a developer—and the more recent Jetbolt Games, formed in 2012 by Rob Schillingsburg.

“We are still small, especially if you measure size by fame,” Culyba offered as an overview of the Pittsburgh gaming community. “But we have a robust academic environment that seeds new local developers including the ETC, AIP, and also the Game Creation Society at Carnegie Mellon. We have a strong ‘tech + art’ heritage here in Pittsburgh that the city has really embraced. And Pittsburgh has a lot of economic and convenience benefits for companies and individuals that make it attractive for new startups. The current community has some distinct pocket communities and I think we are starting to see these disparate pieces start to build strong connections with each other. Certain community members, including Pittsburgh IGDA, Sprout Fund and others, are being very intentional about fostering these bridges so we can grow the game ecosystem here in Pittsburgh.”

Considering how popular the Pittsburgh edition of Global Game Jam has become—the Steel City held the fifth largest game jam in the United States in 2012, and ranked 22nd in the world for 2013—that “ecosystem” appears to be taking roots. Or at least Sabrina Culyba believes so. “The conditions are right, so I think we are poised to see Pittsburgh’s gaming community make more of a name for itself over the next ten years,” she said. Given the many positive indications that already exist, her declaration appears to be right on the money.

Anthony Letizia

Follow Geek Pittsburgh: Facebook - Twitter - RSS Feed