From jam session to global phenomenon

In 2008, Susan Gold attended a conference in Sweden to discuss her experiences in teaching game design and building education curricula. She left with an idea that has since become a worldwide phenomenon and an innovative tool—one that she said improves students’ and professionals’ game development skills and creativity.

On this trip, Gold—now a Professor of the Practice in Northeastern’s College of Arts Media and Design—learned about the Nordic Game Jam, where participants came together to collaborate and design new games based on a common theme. After hearing about creativity generated by the event, she realized this concept could help solve the challenge of teaching game development in an academic environment. As she saw it, a game jam is an incredible experiential learning opportunity to apply the skills and tools learned in class and make it real—and she wanted to make it global.

The following January, Gold launched the first Global Game Jam. Now at Northastern, she will once again oversee the worldwide event this weekend, when the sixth annual Global Game Jam kicks off—bigger and better than ever.

Susan Gold, Professor of the Practice and associate director of the Game Design program in the College of Arts, Media and Design.

Susan Gold, Professor of the Practice and associate director of the Game Design program in the College of Arts, Media and Design.

“I fell in love with the innovation that happens right before your eyes,” said Gold, who is associate director of the Game Design program at Northeastern. “You don’t have anyone saying,  ‘That’s not going to sell.’ It’s about where can we go with this idea, let’s take a risk.”

The number of Global Game Jam locations has grown annually and vary by city and country. Since it’s a worldwide event in 73 countries, the start times are staggered based on time zone; New Zealand will be the first to get started (that’s 10 p.m. Thursday EST).

Here’s how it works: participants arrive at 5 p.m. Friday, at which time the event begins and the game jam’s theme is announced and everyone watches the annual keynote address. Next, participants start brainstorming ideas and forming into small groups. From there, teams have 48 hours to develop their games, which are typically video games but can also be board or card games, as long as they can be downloaded from the web—you can build it. Groups can also choose to incorporate optional constraints called diversifiers to further challenge themselves. For example, last year’s theme was the sound of a heartbeat, and one optional constraint was that the game should make a positive social impact.

The Global Game Jam is growing. Last year, participants came together across 63 countries created more than 3,000 games. This year the event is expected to grow by yet another 20 percent in participation and locations. But over the years, Gold has seen the event produce much more than a slew of wild and creative new games. Participants have formed connections that have led to job opportunities and building new game studios. Some lucky jammers have even met their significant others, and Gold recalled one coder in Israel going into labor hours after participating in the jam.

Northeastern will again serve as one of the Boston area’s host sites this year—growing from 40 participants in 2013 to 115 in 2014; registration for the Northeastern site is closed. The participants will hole up for the weekend in Snell Library’s state-of-the-art Digital Media Commons, which will host the event in collaboration with the Playable Innovative Technologies Lab and the Northeastern Center for the Arts. Casper Harteveld, an assistant professor in the Game Design program, will serve as the Northeastern site’s organizer.

In addition, UK musician, producer and digital innovator, Thomas Dolby, best known for his 1982 hit “She Blinded me with Science,” will be on hand at Northeastern for Global Game Jam on Sunday. On Monday morning he’ll give a lecture on campus to discuss some of the equipment he’s used in his 35 years in the music business.

An artist at heart, Gold joined Northeastern in the fall and has held academic positions in fine art and game education programs since 1999. Her work bridges art, science, technology, industry, and academia.

Global Game Jam is not just for hardcore software developers, Gold said. People of all disciplines and computer skills are encouraged to participate. The event’s interdisciplinary nature is a key element to its success, she said, explaining how fascinating games can emerge when, say, students studying computer science, business, and psychology collaborate on a project.

“Not only do you see how games are made, but you see how people think about creativity,” she said. The reveal for all the games created during the Northeastern’s Global Game Jam will take place at 5 p.m. Sunday in the Raytheon Amphitheater.