The following article is the second feature in a series written during a visit to Utrecht, in The Netherlands. The piece assumes that you have already read the previous piece in the series, which can be read here.
Heading over to HKU University of the Arts, the second day of Utrecht’s Sustainability focused game jam kicked off with a sense of uncertainty that’s not uncommon among game jam events of this sort of length. With teams of students having had the first day to brainstorm and focus in on game concepts, and then an evening at home to mull over their concepts, more than a few teams started their second morning fighting the urge to throw away everything they had worked on and start over from scratch.
It’s a natural response, and one I know I have personally experienced when taking place in game jams on the developer side. You take an evening off from the rest of your team, and you start to worry that your scope isn’t practical, or that your idea has too many flaws, or you come up with a great new concept that you have not addressed with your team, but you’re certain they’re going to love. All of a sudden you’re considering throwing away a day of planning, and cutting your total time to produce a prototype down considerably.
Thankfully, most of these concerns among the developer teams were dismissed by talking their concepts over with the clients and judges. The game ideas don’t have to be perfect, but with the limited time they have left to get working on projects, it’s more important to lock down an idea the teams feel excited about and get prototying and testing, rather than spending more time looking for a flawless perfect idea they may not have time to work through.
With day one’s keynote talks and planning largely behind them, day two of the event was much more about teams working out their specifics. Who is the game for, what is it trying to convey, what mechanics will lead to that end result, and how can they test out if the concept is fun without committing time to programming a full prototype.
Spending the morning visiting teams, it was clear that a lot of them had really clear concepts of what they wanted their games to become. One team for example, working on creating games to combat rising scepticism in science and news reporting, had created a prototype for a smartphone app, where you choose how to populate a fictional social media feed, with your choices about sharing reputable news versus eye catching exciting headlines having a visible impact on the state of the world outside your window, as well as your long term perceived credibility.
Another team, squirrelled away elsewhere in the University, was busy at work prototyping a game set in a closed ecosystem dome. Managing various tasks to keep their micro-biome self sustaining, players eventually are allowed out into the wider world, to put their sustainable lifestyle skills into practice. The concept is based around a small enough 3D environment to be achievable in the time available for the game jam, while having room to broaden in scope beyond the end of the first week of development.
Another team, initially settling between multiple competing project concepts, produced a pitch document for a game exploring moral decision making in scenarios with varying moral goals. In one scenario, players may be tasked with putting human needs first at the expense of any other aspect of the planet. In another, players may be told that platlife and reclaiming land for nature to thrive in is the most important thing. Players explore these different sets of moral priorities and who they harm, before coming to their own conclusions on what the right balance of priorities is.
In terms of more abstract approaches to sustainability, one team of students decided to focus on developing a game in which earth is one of a series of planets all facing different but related sustainability problems. In order to trade resources to fix earth’s sustainability issues, you must first help these other planets to fix the issues they are facing through puzzle solving challenges.
Tnalp, one of the teams focused on making a game about food sustainability, sees the player take on the role of a plant, able to hop its consciousness between creatures and aspects of an ecosystem. You play through a point and click adventure from the perspective of various parts of the ecosystem, seeing how they interact and support each other in a circular fashion, and trying to effect positive change for a farmer in a developing nation.
In terms of game concepts focused on real world applications rather than abstract game concepts, The School Greenhouse gamifies the concept of sustainably farming vegetables locally, with young children encouraged to vote on how their local school or garden allocates planting space, teaches them about properly caring for plants, and democratises the design of a planting project with easy to understand end results.
Another game focused on local city council development goals, allows players to compete in minigames themed around different aspects of local sustainability. If players fail minigames, they are shown exaggerated worst case scenarios for what might happen in the real world if those sustainability goals are not met, as a visual encouragement to take the real world topics behind the minigames seriously.
Lastly, one of the teams working on the topic of trust in science has put together a concept for a Tinder style dating app, where players input whether they do or do not believe in scientific theories, before being paired up with an exaggerated caricature of a romantic partner who shares their scientific biases. The aim is to put the player face to face with their own assumptions about science, in a personified and fun way.
While some of the teams have yet to nail down their final concepts, leaving themselves a fairly limited window of time in which to complete their working prototypes, these are a handful of the game concepts which at the end of the game jam’s second day feel most promising, and which I’m most excited to see develop as the week continues.
All of these games will have playable prototypes available on Itch.io from the end of this week, with completed projects uploaded seven weeks later. Keep an eye on our future coverage, for links to some of the finished games once more of them become available.