Game On: Weekend hackathon brings to life four creations in 48 hours

The iSchool hosts its third Global Game Jam, fostering creativity and innovative game design.

It was 5 p.m. EST on Friday evening meaning that Europe and Asia had already begun, the West Coast and Hawaii had a few more hours of anticipation, and the Syracuse section of the Global Game Jam was about to start. 

“Hear ye, hear ye!” Scott Nicholson bellowed from the door of the Innovation Studio on the first floor of the Hinds Hall at the group inside the room.   Dressed in a white lab coat and topped with a rainbow tube-sock hat, Nicholson looked like a cartoon-sketched mad scientist.  “If you’d like to hear the secret theme, follow me to the lab!” 

Photo: Maya Gao
Will Chambers, computer art & animation freshman, works on his project during the Global Game Jam this past weekend.

The Global Game Jam, founded in 2008, is a weekend hackathon that brings together gamers of every age and ilk to create actual, playable projects in 48 hours.  The jam introduces a theme and a list of potential, opt-in restraints, and then encourages teams to get right to work creating functioning innovative games. 

Last year, 242 locations in 47 countries participated to create over 2,000 games.  This year, the theme of the Jam was a heartbeat, and participation numbers are still being crunched.  This was the third year that Syracuse hosted the event, and with growing popularity: the number of participants doubled since 2012, totaling around 20 people, Syracuse students and community members alike, who organized into four teams to create two digital and two board games. 

Nicholsoon, part-time clown and an associate professor at the iSchool (currently teaching the class Transformative Game Design), was in charge of organizing the event this year, which was hosted in the basement of Hinds and sponsored by the Because Play Matters game lab and the Innovation and Disruptive Entrepreneurship Accelerator (IDEA).   

“People take their love of playing games, and turn it into a learning how to actually create a game,” Nicholson said.  “That can be a long process, and having that tight time limit forces people to figure that process out in two days.  What’s fun is to watch that moment of a-ha, where the light comes on and they figure out, hey, I actually have a playable game here.  And this game did not exist 48 hours ago.”

The Innovation Studio, equipped with thermoses of coffee, a big bowl of candy, and other time-appropriate snacks, acted as the Jam’s home base, and organizers opened it at 8 a.m. and stayed around until midnight, so that creators could have as much collaboration time as possible. 

Not that the work necessarily stopped at 12. 

“I was programming until about 2 a.m. last night,” admitted Jeremy Morgan, an Information Technology Analyst at Bird Library, on Sunday morning.  He had arrived at Hinds right around 8 a.m. to continue working on getting the bugs out off The Green Dungeon, a digital quiz-game. 

All games had to be uploaded to the Global Game Jam server by noon on Sunday, and each of the four teams was cranking it up at the end, trying to finish their product on time.  Nicholson led a final countdown that ended in cheers from all participants.  Forty-eight hours: four completed games. 

The Jam was focused on collaboration, not competition, and each of the four teams received a goofy, personalized award (think along the lines of “Best Use of Non-Shimmery Vampires”), and Nicholson encouraged everyone to try out one another’s completed games. Well, after one final surprise.

“Follow me outside for a moment,” he urged.  

Eight cream pies waited in the back of Nicholson’s car, one for each of the creators of Plaque Attack and The Green Dungeon, the two games designed with the intent of transforming players.   When Nicholson gave the signal, each of those pies was smooshed onto him, a pie-the-clown reward for a weekend of hard work. 

“Thank you all for making transformative games! And for transforming me as well,” he said through his cream-pie caked beard.  “Thank you ... now go play games!”

And off they went.

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