A New Tradition? Nudging the GDC Scholarships Picnic into Being

I kept busy at this year’s Game Developers’ Conference. As well as speaking, networking and learning, I also initiated an international meetup for the organisers and delegates of GDC scholarship programmes – crossing some international divides and experimenting further with a friendly approach to games socials.

The GDC Scholarships Picnic in full swing at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens
The GDC Scholarships Picnic in full swing at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens

For those who aren’t aware: the Game Developers’ Conference runs an annual scheme which helps to bring in student and professional delegates who would otherwise be unable to attend. GDC provides free conference passes, and the scholarship organisers usually work to provide further benefit to those who are brought in – such as bespoke networking and mentorship events. This year, Diversi partnered with King in order to provide one such scholarship for female-identifying students in the EU. We joined around a dozen other initiatives, such as geographical groups from the likes of India and Argentina, and other minority outreach groups – like the IGDA’s women-in-games group, and #INeedDiverseGames.

Soon after Diversi’s scholarship scheme came into effect, I realised (to my surprise) that although such schemes have been running for a number of years, there did not appear to be any precedent for cross-scholarship meetup events. Given the cultural, geographic and experiential reach of these schemes, it struck me as wasteful not to try bringing such a broad range of people together during the conference. So it was that I sought to apply lessons I’ve learned from running LadyCADE to an event which would effectively be co-hosted by up to a dozen people.

The best trick I’ve learned from running LadyCADE events is to apply a delicate touch, and let common sense prevail. Rather than delving down into the minutiae of logistics and rigorous delegation of responsibility, I have found that one can achieve similar results in a much more satisfactory way by empowering people to step up on their own. I then make a point of filling any emerging gaps myself. It’s a philosophy which relies easily upon the fact that everybody’s who’s volunteered to help run an event is already invested in it, and so will already have ideas or experience which they can pull on. Why waste time and trample over that with attempts to provide a concrete plan from the start?

So it was that I began with a series of outreach emails – first to the other scholarship organisers whom I already knew, since I also wanted to be sure that it was an interesting and valuable new idea. Thence to the published list of GDC scholarships, which as footwork goes was a surprisingly chaotic affair. Eventually though, with a little over half a dozen email responses, I could invite the various organisers to a Slack forum in order to continue a more directed conversation.

As expected, the planning of this event basically boiled down to conversations amongst a few of the more experienced event organisers. This was not something I wished to discourage, as our focus lay on having a simple, solid and safe event. With a remit like that, there’s less of a need to ensure that all creative voices are heard. However, it’s worth stating that in any volunteer venture one must still ensure that no-one goes unheard, as it is important for all participants to feel they have agency.

Plans bounced back and forth and arrived at a simple and cheap idea, of arranging a picnic. The details came together relatively late, as we had to contend with interweaving the conference schedules of potentially hundreds of people – a hurdle we’d anticipated well in advance. In the end though, we managed to put together a drop-in event at GDC’s quintessential outdoor venue. We sent details of the meeting spot and times to all those organisers who’d been involved in the planning process, as well as to those who might be able to forward on to the more elusive scholarship organisers, whom I’d failed to reach earlier in the process.

Diversi & Pixelles at the GDC 2016 Scholarships Picnic
Attendees and organisers from the Pixelles and Diversi scholarships, along with industry guest Michel Koch from Dontnod

In the end we drew in organisers and delegates from #INeedDiverseGames, International Ambassadors, the IGDA’s Women in Games SIG, Pixelles, and Diversi – plus a couple of conference associates and other interested parties. Not everyone was in attendance at the same time – we knew that the schedules of individual scholarship programmes and the conference itself would not allow for that. However, the result was still a 3-hour, rolling social event which brought together students and professionals from at least four continents. We gathered during the middle of the conference in the California sunshine, to chill out somewhere friendly and meet new people from similar-yet-different circumstances.

It is my hope that the scholarships picnic will become a regular feature – especially now that the pilot work is done. Its simplicity makes this an easy event to run, and the concept of having delegates bring their own snacks and drinks makes it an affordable one, also free of the sorts of social pressures which may be instilled by meetups hosted in a bar. Finally, it also proved to be a good opportunity for myself and my Diversi colleagues to meet the heads of other scholarships, many of which are attached to diversity interest groups themselves. Although not a formal networking event by any means, it was nevertheless fun, informative and reassuring to have met some of our peers from overseas.

My thanks to everyone else who was involved in the process of founding this event, and to those who came on the day! Suffice it to say: if you’re looking to run a GDC scholarship in 2017 and would like to join in planning for a follow-up picnic, do get in touch!

GDC 2016 Personal Highlights

This year was the first time I’d been able to attend the Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco. I went primarily to talk on the subject of women-in-games initiatives and how they make a difference. This panel session – in which I was joined by Zoë Quinn, Rebecca Cohen-Palacios, Sagan Yee and Stephanie Fisher – will be made available on GDC Vault in the coming weeks.

Photo credited to GDC / Trish Tunney
Delivering my micro-talk as part of the “Ripple Effect” panel. Photo credited to GDC / Trish Tunney

I also attended in order to seek inspiration and some new direction, and to meet people working outside of Europe. Although I skipped past many talks in favour of the sorts of activities I couldn’t simply catch up on online afterwards (a strategy I’d recommend strongly to future first-timers), I did nevertheless come away with new insights – some whimsical, and some practical.

What follows, then, is a collection of personal reflections on the talks I saw, along with my tips for recommended GDC Vault material.

Continue reading GDC 2016 Personal Highlights

Splash Jam (part 2)

101 jammers, one cruise ship and 1,043 miles of Norwegian coastline – this is part 2 of my Splash Jam recap, recalling a long weekend aboard Hurtigruten’s M/S Finnmarken, travelling from Tromsø to Trondheim. Part 1, recounting the jam itself, can be found here; this post focuses instead upon the game we made, entitled Ardo.

Hello Stranger

  • Game design & UI assets: Gemma Thomson (UK)
  • Programming: Skully Brookes (UK)
  • Art: Rikke Jansen (NO)
  • Sounds: Bendik Høydahl (NO)
  • Music: Almut Schwache (DE)
  • Demo download available at Itch.io

Continue reading Splash Jam (part 2)

Splash Jam (part 1)

101 jammers, one cruise ship and 1,043 miles of Norwegian coastline – there were some pretty big numbers involved in Splash Jam, but they paled in comparison to the the scenery around us, and the spectrum of games produced during this long weekend. This cruise-bound game jam aboard Hurtigruten’s M/S Finnmarken from Tromsø to Trondheim was by far one of the most memorable game jams I’ve attended. It’s also one in which I felt most proud of the game I worked on, even if sea nausea robbed us of some significant work time, and therefore impacted our proof of concept somewhat harshly.

As a lot happened during this event, I’ve decided to split my recollections up into two posts. This one addresses the jam itself, whilst this subsequent post looks back upon the game we made, which was entitled Ardo.

Continue reading Splash Jam (part 1)

Stumbling Sojourner, or Risk vs. Reward in Accumulative Achievements

As listeners to The Geek Night In will know, I play Niantic Labs’ Ingress, and have done so steadily since last September. As it is an alternate reality game (ARG) which lends almost no functionality to players who aren’t on the move, I was not surprised to find that many of its core features are similar to those which also find favour in ‘gamification’. What I have discovered recently is that unlike some other games which have picked up good features from this world of motivation and medals (a subject upon which I have mused before), Ingress‘ medals system sometimes works to actively discourage further play.

Ingression

For the uninitiated: Ingress is a location-based turf war between two factions. Players hack, capture and deploy defences on virtual portals sited at public landmarks, and can then use said portals to draw fields covering large and small areas of the world. Whichever faction has most of the Earth’s surface covered during each scoring cycle is said to have won that cycle. That’s the game’s basic premise.

Adding to this basic gameplay is a series of rules for earning medals, displayed on each player’s profile. Some simply track statistics such as ‘number of portals hacked’ and ‘number of mods deployed’, while others act as guides to draw players out of their usual neighbourhoods, such as ‘number of missions completed’ and ‘number of unique portals captured’.

Examples of “Ingress” bronze-level medals

Often when such ‘feats’ are used in a game, they are of superficial value. In Ingress, however, earning medals is essential to progress in its ‘endgame’. In order to advance from level 8 to the maximum, level 16, a player must earn experience points in conjunction with certain levels of medal. Level 9, for example, may only be reached after attaining any one gold and 4 silver medals.

In a game like this, then, the ability to earn any medal counts. Some come naturally, as a result of performing the sorts of actions which earn experience points anyway. This is a common setup amongst many ‘casual’ games. The medals I have run afoul of most recently, however, are those which demand dedication to a certain style or pattern of play. My failure to earn them, then, feels not like a reflection of my strategy or skill within the game, but rather my lack of willingness to conform.

"Ingress"' Soujourner medal requires that players "hack a portal within consecutive 24 hour periods".
‘Soujourner’ medal in “Ingress”

When games award points or medals for ‘feats’ such as logging in and playing every day, it is, to my mind, at best irritating and at worst damaging. Such design choices can, of course, be problematic for someone like me with aspects of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I think that even in a broader sense, encouraging players to chase these features can only ever lead to either a moderately pleasing outcome, or a downright infuriating failure – and these two states do not balance each other out well.

In my recent experience of Ingress, the problem basically arose due to poor communication. In the ‘Soujourner’ example above, the help text states one must “hack a portal within consecutive 24 hour periods”. There are two main areas of ambiguity here: must it always be the same portal? And how is this 24-hour period defined?

The first query was relatively easy to resolve through experimentation; the latter turned out to be a figurative minefield. I once discovered that I could actually skip a real day of play and still resume my hacking streak. Panic over the loss of 50-odd days’ progress was replaced with a respectable amount of joy, and faith in the game – that it might have checks to ensure that ‘real life’ need not impact an achievement hunt. I was also pleased to think that the description was actually not as ambiguous as I’d feared, apparently comprising a 48-hour time period from the last portal hack.

With that having been said, whatever rule is in place was either misinterpreted (based instead on a rolling series of arbritrary clock resets, perhaps?) or not applied so consistently, as a few weeks later I found that hacking a portal 38 hours after my last hack somehow did not qualify as being within two consecutive 24-hour periods. My streak of 71 days’ hacking was reset to 0.

Faced with this, there is nowhere for my frustration (as a player) to go but towards the game and its designers, which is rather counter-intuitive for a game seeking to reward repetitive play. After having been robbed of a months-long play streak based on a poorly-defined technicality, I can find no reason to strive for this medal again. The 71-day setback to any further attempt literally stares back at me from my player profile. Striving for the Sojourner medal was once a pleasant thing to try and keep up; now it has been revealed to be some sort of chore, beyond my capacity for what I like to think of as suspended bliss.

Perhaps what I feel so keenly about the loss of this medal is linked to it having some sort of intermediate failure state. It is, after all, an attempt to set a personal record. Certainly, it’s impossible for me to earn negative qualifying points towards other medals, like ‘number of resonators destroyed’ or ‘mind units captured’; these are earned cumulatively and irrespective of time.

It would, however, have been just as easy for the designers to implement a medal which tracks how many unique days you’ve been hacking portals for, regardless of succession or interruption. After all, Ingress already tracks ‘current hacking streak’ as a statistic separate from the Sojourner medal. Such a medal would still reward persistence of play (the medal is earned more quickly if you play absolutely every day), but would avoid risking the player’s ire when dangling a counter reset over them.

As I said before, the risk to player enjoyment does not seem to tally well with the potential reward for them earning this medal. The choice to follow gamification routes like this strike me as counter-intuitive in what is essentially a lifestyle game. Whilst ‘consecutive time playing’ may be seen as one of few metrics for which the game can demand a dedicated effort, I feel strongly that such demands should be reserved for the realms of player skill or strategy, rather than their personal circumstances.

Cover image based on “Sundial” by Liz West, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

My name is Gemma Thomson, and I'm a British game designer living and working in Stockholm. I play, draw and explore, and I strive to create engaging interactive experiences.