Tuesday, July 30, 2013

While you were sleeping, 7 new science-based games were born.

Update: Rob Lockhart and Marvin Hawkins have both written their own great accounts Science Game Jam since this post went online.

This weekend, I had the great pleasure of taking part in the Science Game Jam sponsored by the Field Museum's Biodiversity Synthesis Center and Chicago-based educational game studio Important Little Games. Starting Friday evening, roughly 20 developers (myself included) and a handful of scientists teamed up to create science-themed games over the course of 48 hours.

Anyone who has been through the experience of a game jam may think calling it a "pleasure" is a peculiar choice of terms. Game jams are intense and hectic frenzies--caffeine-fueled hazes of tiny triumphs interspersed with moments of quiet panic as the all-too-soon deadline looms large. But the payoff for all that sleep deprivation and hours spent staring bleary-eyed at a computer screen is getting to see the amazing game prototypes that each team has created. The 2013 Science Jam, however, had even more of a payoff than usual.

Not only has the Field Museum has always been my favorite Chicago-area museum (I cannot deny that part of me felt like a giddy little school girl just knowing that I was hunkered down in the same building with dinosaur fossils and bioluminescent fish long after all the other visitors had to go home!), but the unique opportunity to partner with actual Field Museum scientists and researchers in developing a game concept was an amazing development experience and something that I wish could happen more often.

The seven teams created games about all manner of fascinating biologic topics: from the biomechanics of fish fins (Sticky Outie Bits) and bird beaks (Hungry Hungry Finches), to the life-cycles of rove beetles (This Game is Buggy) and army ants (Army Ants!). Jammers also made games about resource competition writ large(Something Fishy) and in tidal zone ecosystems (The Tide), and one game even tackled the grand project of illustrating evolutionary change over an entire bird lineage(Birds Eat Everything). After only 48 hours, the results may have been a little rough around the edges, but I would say that every one had the potential to turn into a fun game--useful for the classroom or available to play from a museum website--given a little more development time.

Of course, the tragedy of game jams is that when the adrenaline rush wears off, few teams have the resources or opportunity to continue developing the game into a polished public release, and many great ideas die at the end of that 48 hours. If I would change anything about this particular jam, I would say that the prize should be the offer of some modest support for the winning team to develop their game into a full-fledged release for the Field Museum. In that way, the sponsors get more than a handful of half-working prototypes for their investment, and the developers get more than just experience under their belts--they get a real release in partnership with a major educational institution. Maybe the logistics of that would be too difficult to work out, but it would be a real boon to any educational game developers to have the change to win resources to fill that critical gap between the prototype stage and full-fledged release.

But even if none if these games progress past the prototype stage, I would still call the 2013 Science Jam a resounding success. The game development process is long and arduous, and the resources available to educational game makers seem to be particularly pretty sparse. It may not seem like much, but giving developers a 48-hours of food, coffee, and encouragement goes a long way to ensuring that an idea actually has the opportunity to germinate into a functional prototype. And I think the games that resulted from this jam should serve as adequate proof that this idea can really work.

I hope this jam will serve as a model for other educational institutions thinking about sponsoring their own game jams in the future. In an upcoming post, I'll write more about the particular experiences of my team in the creation of our game, Army Ants! For now I'd just like to give a big thank you to the tireless forces behind the game jam, organizers Audrey Aronowsky of the Field Museum and Robert Lockhart of Important Little Games. Both were just as sleep deprived as the developers, and yet they never stopped making sure we had the sustenance and moral support needed to carry on. And to all my fellow science jammers--I look forward to seeing you again at future jams. Science Power!

Know of other science-themed game jams? Share your experiences in the comments!


  1. "the prize should be the offer of some modest support for the winning team to develop their game into a full-fledged release for the Field Museum"

    This is a really great idea. I don't think we could have made it work this time around, but perhaps we'll do this again...

    Loved the post overall!

    1. Well, I think it's safe to say that everyone who does these things are in it for the love of making games, so the prize is always just icing on the cake. Not that I wasn't supremely jealous of the squid hats.

  2. I loved Army Ants! It was sad that someone may have not been a team player, but I was glad to see such a wonderful product even though you had to deal with that. I would love to play your game and see it fleshed out. Great writeup!

    1. Thanks for the kind words! Honestly, I had a blast at the jam and really got to push my own development skills farther than I ever would have in a normal weekend, so no regrets here.

      I hope to do a little work tweaking Army Ants to make the game jam version a little more playable. I'll post links to both versions when that happens.

  3. I have participated in game jams before, but none can compare to the Science Game Jam. It was so much fun working with the scientists and learning about their research.

    I always have trouble explaining the experience of a game jam, so great job with this post!

    1. Hi Josh,
      I agree the Science Game Jam was a blast. And I definitely have the same difficulty explaining game jams--my non-developer friends always look at me like I'm nuts when I tell them what we do. But maybe we are actually a little nuts!