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Dealing with Pressure in the Land of Game Dev

Recognizing limits can inspire not just creativity, but healthy mindsets too.

Back in 2012, Indie Game: The Movie undoubtedly inspired aspiring game developers across the world to take the plunge and build careers in their local game development industries. Fueled by passion and driven to produce quality games to reach players across the world, the award-winning documentary showed both how hard and how rewarding making games can be.

As it stands, sleeping on sofas, working overtime, and sacrificing quality of life is practically synonymous with game development. With recent industry news centering around crunch culture and game developers working up to 100-hour work-week schedules to ship a game, what happens when the passion dries up? How do we take care of the people who bring to life the worlds that we have grown to love?

Perhaps a certain way of participating in the game dev paradigm may also be a useful way to improve on it. Limitations breed creativity, and one of the event types where game developers thrive is the game jam.

Let’s jam

Game jams are usually online events that encourage game creators to think outside the box and produce games around a theme within a limited amount of time, typically 48 straight hours. “Game Jams are generally high-pressure, low-time events, where creativity and innovation can thrive on that short time scale. At Global Game Jam (GGJ), we want to be able to open up game making to as many people as possible across the world,” says GGJ Executive Producer Jo Summers.

Inspired by many game jams before it, GGJ continues to be the world’s largest game jam with physical locations across the world—the most recently completed one in late January, the eleventh annual iteration, featured 860 unique locations! Think of the GGJ as a hackathon focused on games, but instead of competition, the GGJ breeds collaboration: from the participants or “jammers” forming their teams, down to the volunteers who run sites and organize their regions. These people strive to build a bigger and better GGJ every year. While volunteer work is still work, “we do our best to encourage organizers and jammers to take some time out for themselves and keep their mental and physical health in mind during the jam,” Summers points out.

Everyone who participates in the GGJ keep its annual theme secret up until the westernmost site watches the Keynote, the special launch event that synchronizes all the sites across the planet. And then the theme becomes public.

“We worked hard this year to select keynote speakers who would keep that message in mind,” Summers explains, “and [we] partnered up with CheckPoint, an international non-profit organization that provides mental health support and resources for the gaming community, to produce an article for our community about how to look after their mental health during the jam.” A truly global event, welcoming and celebrating all game developers regardless of expertise, experience, and background, making a stand that it’s okay to have fun and take care of yourself while making games.

Breaking into the industry

In an industry driven by skill, aspiring game developers use the GGJ as a gateway to build their portfolio and build lasting relationships. Most of the active game jam sites in the Philippines are typically partnered with educational institutions, as the events provide chances for students to peek at what goes behind producing a game. Sometimes they even get opportunities to work with seasoned veterans.

For game developers whose careers started at GGJ, the event has become a yearly pilgrimage.

“I think the biggest contribution of GGJ is the visibility it creates for the participants to the industry. When I joined the first Manila GGJ in 2010, I was new to the industry. I didn’t know anyone, and nobody knew me,” says Marnielle Estrada, who, five years later, cofounded Squeaky Wheel Studio with Tristan Angeles and Ryan Sumo: colleagues whom he met during that 2010 GGJ. “I was able to build professional connections and reputation through the jams.” Estrada adds.

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#selfcare

Being driven by passion and working high on adrenaline might encourage creators to push themselves beyond their limits, but the GGJ is not about that. Sleep, rest, and relaxation are just as important as getting work done, and that’s one of the core lessons that we can take back into the bigger industry context.

In this year’s Keynote, GGJ speakers Brie Code and Eve Thomas encouraged participants to create games about moments: the instances that make people happy and safe. Rami Ismail, of the Dutch indie game studio Vlameer, pointed out the importance of taking risks and doing something even if you are bad at it. Limpho Moeti of Free Lives said to embrace opportunities to be kind, and to build relationships that can last a lifetime. All those talented, skilled, and dedicated people underscored one common theme: the importance of recognizing your own value within your development process and doing what you can to care for it.

Susan Gold, one of the co-founders of GGJ, reminds us: “GGJ likes to think holistically about the people that come to an event like GGJ. We are a 48-hour event, but we have always encouraged that people to take care of themselves. We really suggest eating well, sleeping some and balancing time while at GGJ. But we also want to have fun while doing it and I like the message that we share. To me, the keynotes were telling people to think and look at the world around you and see that the only limits you have are the ones that you have made for yourself.”

It might take long before the game development industry’s crunch culture is eradicated, but the first step is knowing your limits and taking better care of each other. Because if we don’t love ourselves, how can we continue to create worlds and safe havens for gamers across the world?


Gwen Foster is a game developer based in the Philippines. She is a board member of the IGDA PH-Manila Chapter, and a director of a local game showcase called Indie Fiesta. She loves penguins and cats, and helps champion the local developer scene to give independent developers better exposure and publicity on the global stage.

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