For six years now, UCI has participated in the Global Game Jam (GGJ) — the world’s largest hackathon for game development. During the last weekend in January, GGJ 2020 included more than 48,700 jammers at 934 jam sites around the world, including 160 participants at the UC Irvine site, led by Informatics Professor Theresa Tanenbaum. One of the main goals of GGJ is to “bring new emerging voices and talent into the game making space,” and Tanenbaum has consistently realized that goal by building a jam site focused on inclusivity.
A Space for Everyone
“Our site is an anomaly when you look at the statistics of who participates in gaming, and that’s something that I’m super proud of,” says Tanenbaum. “It comes from the reputation we’ve built.”
The UCI site welcomes artists, designers, musicians, engineers, programmers and writers from UCI and the local community, from all backgrounds and all walks of life. “We had a lot of trans people at our site this year,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m very visibly trans,” she continues, “but we also had a lot of queer people at our site, we had a lot of people of color, we had a really diverse set of ages, and we had a really good gender balance.”
She stresses that the UCI site encourages kindness and support, which was apparent in many of the 29 games developed during the free, 48-hour game jam.
Innovative Ideas Build on 2020 Theme
“I was really happy with the degree of emotional exploration people did with the idea of repair,” says Tanenbaum, referring to this year’s GGJ theme of “Repair.” For example, the Thorns around a Rose game deals with managing mental health issues, while Sea Turtle Rescue involves reuniting baby sea turtles with their families. Staurabo Mea focuses on self-improvement, Fox Heart is about relationships and how to recover after a breakup, and Repair builds bridges to restore the bonds of mankind. Ecosymulator helps you balance nature as you introduce animals into your ecosystem to maintain the right number of plants.
One of the games, Get Ship Wrecked, was “just silly fun,” says Tanenbaum. Working to repair a ship on the ocean, you and the other players each have your own key to tap or hold down on the same keyboard, so it’s a bit of a twister where “you’re trying to work around each other’s hands.” She says Roomba Rumble is similarly a “simple, fun, two-player, competitive arcade-style game” in which “you’re recycling a crumbling building into your own trash truck.”
GGJ participant and UCI student Riley Park, president of the Video Game Development Club (VGDC), created the interactive storytelling game Repair Shop, where you’re a mechanic in a cybernetics repair shop helping to fix prosthetic limbs. For those who would rather “repair time,” Time Rewind lets you turn back the clock and return to a past state.
Versatile is another storytelling game, where you’re an archeologist repairing hieroglyphic symbols from tiles that have fallen off a wall in an old archeological site. This was the first-ever analog game built at a UCI GGJ. “It is just delightful and adorable and there’s lots of room for replayability,” says Tanenbaum.
A team that included Blizzard developer Linden Reid created a narrative-based game, Green Tea, that takes place in a magical forest. You need to restore the grave of one of the residents and, in the process, put their spirit to rest. “It’s really sweet and thoughtful,” notes Tanenbaum.
Positive Energy Throughout
Tanenbaum is still working her way through all the games developed at the jam, but one observation she makes is that there’s not much violence. “I never said, ‘don’t make a violent game,’” she explains, “but when you scroll through the page of screenshots, there are no guns or swords; there are hearts, there are puzzles, there are people.”
The most “violent” game seems to be Arena Smiths, where you “dodge and slash spiders” while repairing equipment. Even the more action-packed “Emotionally Intelligent Network” game, E.I.N. is Sad, centers on keeping your sentient AI happy. While using blasters to protect the E.I.N.-controlled ship from incoming asteroids, you must keep track of a unit of measurement called “diggity.” As Tanenbaum explains, “If you have a fair amount of diggity, you’re doing okay!”
So, from rescuing baby sea turtles to keeping AI happy, the jam site vibe remained positive throughout. “It had a really good mood and energy, and people were clearly enjoying themselves,” says Tanenbaum. “This tradition remains one that I’m happy with, six years in.”
It is through this tradition of welcoming new voices into the design and development space that Tanenbaum, slowly but surely, is helping to change the face of gaming.
— Shani Murray