This weekend, journalists and developers are switching roles in a special game jam.
Hosted by UKIE and supported by Alzheimer's Research, members of the press are making games from scratch, while the attending developers are writing coverage for the event. Below is the first instalment of that coverage.
Uncharted Territory: The Journo/Dev Swap Jam
By Paul Kilduff-Taylor, Mode 7
Warwick is grey and I'm on my way to the station.
I've made this trip to London hundreds of times, but never as a games journalist. Today, I'm taking part in Journo / Dev Swap, a highly unconventional game jam. The idea is that journalists try their hand at making games in an incredibly compressed timeframe while a cohort of hapless devs do their level best to report on the proceedings.
"One of the problems that people with dementia have is around navigation," says Tim Parry, the Director of Communications and Brand at Alzheimer's Research UK, who are sponsoring the event as part of their continuing effort to change the public's perception of Alzheimer's and related conditions. He talks about the development of Sea Hero Quest, a game designed by British game company Glitchers in 2016 in association with Alzheimer's Research UK, University College London and the University of East Anglia and with funding from Deutsche Telekom, that was created to collect data about the navigation abilities of the general population in order to establish a baseline for research.
"Fatalism around dementia is a bigger problem to overcome than the stuff we've got to do in the lab. What can anyone do about something that's inevitable? It just undermines all the research efforts...because people are just not making that connection that we've got a physical problem that can be solved."
I spend the train journey worrying about how I want to approach things, then worrying that I'm doing the wrong thing by planning too far in advance. I should respond to events as they happen and give an authentic view...but maybe that's wrong for where this piece will be published?
As I arrive at UKIE's office, organiser Will Freeman is enthusiastic and reassuring. He tells me that the goal is to just get something out in the time - he's told the journo-devs that they may not even finish their game, and that's part of the experience, so the dev-journos shouldn't feel under too much pressure either. We should try to cover different ground with our pieces if possible, though.
My fellow dev-turned-journo, Alex Whittaker from Bossa is here, already diligently working away. To my relief, he's planning a more in-depth piece with a technical angle, leaving me space to explore something a bit different.
""Fatalism around dementia is a bigger problem to overcome than the stuff we've got to do in the lab""
Tim Parry, Alzheimer's Research UK
As we wait for the topic announcement, I chat with Saul Barrera, a graduate developer from Westminster College who'll be working with journalist Alysia Judge on her game. He tells me he's a bit worried about the scope of what they might be attempting to get done in the time, but also that the project needs to be very much "her journey". He's an experienced jammer, used to turning things around quickly and he thinks that'll come in handy.
"I'm moderately terrified," says Julia Hardy, turning her hand to game development for the first time. She talks about how the thrill of the freedom to explore one of her own creative ideas differs from her day job, where she's often constrained by the demands of a larger project.
Tim announces the theme: The Brain. He shows a promotional clip that Samuel L Jackson has filmed for the charity, in which he discusses "curiosity, creativity and capacity to learn": three essential components of human experience which rely on entirely on functional cognition.
The seven teams seem enthusiastic and busy themselves with concepting. I still feel adrift, unsure of my theme. I sit down next to Adam Tedder, another Westminster grad who is helping out on the coding side.
"You've got to come up with a mini game design doc so you know where you are," he says.
I meet up with Alysia - she's deep in conversation with Saul about their game.
"We came up with three ideas initially," she says, showing me an expansive brainstormed mindmap. "As you can see from Saul's brilliant tick, we've decided to go for this one."
"Because of her background as a journalist and a narrative expert, we've gone in a direction that's very narrative based," he says, smiling.
"The mechanic mirrors the experience of someone who can't construct sentences. You're reaching through the cloud trying to construct a sentence," says Alysia.
Everyone here is engaged in navigation: trying to change public perceptions, examining an idea for the first time, looking for a north star. Hopefully, by putting the minds of the games industry to work alongside those of a pioneering charity, we can find a compelling common direction.
The Curse of the Blank Page
By Alex Whittaker, Bossa Studios
There is something worrying me about the whole premise of a developer/journalist swap.
Successful outcomes in either role makes the case that either journalism or games development is easy and anyone can do it. Both of those positions are difficult because I know that making good games well is extremely hard to do, and I suspect I'm about to learn that writing good copy is an equally specialist skill.
"There is evidence that game playing could have a therapeutic impact - either directly through mental effort, or broadening socialisation and activity"
That said, at Bossa Studios we have a well-publicised tradition of driving game ideation through game jams, and it is certainly the case that cross-fertilisation sees coders learn something from artists and designers and vice-versa. It's not without precedent either, Truffaut and Godard crossed the divide from criticism to film making and they did OK. So I'll remain optimistic as I sharpen my pencil, stick my press card into my hatband and descend into the pack.
As I sit here at the start of the jam, the journalists who are now developers are spending a lot of their time catching up with each other, heedless of the fact that they will come to resent having lost that time on Sunday morning. What I am also aware of is that my deadline is not getting pushed back even if the kick off is, so I have jumped the gun and interviewed Tim Parry, Director of Communications at Alzheimer's Research UK with whom the game jam is partnered.
Alzheimer's Research UK have already built a relationship with the games development community in the very successful venture, Sea Hero. This game sets users a navigation challenge to complete which is an area known to be difficult in dementia sufferers. Getting enough data to be able to form a base-line for human performance at the task allows the researchers to make judgements about disease sufferers. Computer games provide very deep levels of telemetry and at the outset the researchers hoped for a few hundred thousand subjects, four million users later and they have more data than they could ever hope for.
This is game data driving measurement tools, but there is evidence that game playing could have a therapeutic impact as well - either directly through mental effort, or more likely indirectly through broadening socialisation and activity. Recent research demonstrated that only a minor amount of exercise (moving about the house for instance) could have a significant impact on welfare, this is certainly a space that games have explored with dance (Just Dance), sports (Wii sports) and situated games (Pokemon Go).
It is clear that there is room for innovation in this space and that is just as well because today's jam theme is the brain, and in the context of the partners in at Alzheimer's Research UK, this is generally taken as relating to dementia. Ideation in games is the process of generating new game concepts and at Bossa we spent a lot of our time and effort getting it right, so I was very interested in the dynamic at the very start of the Jam.
The room is fizzing with nervous energy, I know that lots of the journalists have recognised that they are going to have to work hard to fit into their new role. The programming support is coming from games development students from several London universities, and my impression is that they are equally nervous.
The awkward meet cute is over, sleeves are rolled up and most teams seem to be throwing themselves into their first concept. My impression is that few ideas were thrown away and a fair number came into the room before the theme was even announced. In my experience this is not generally a good decision - ironic really that the "kill your darlings" advice should be coming from the developer to the writers.
Inside the Journo/Dev swap Game Jam 2019
by Sam Brayley, Roll7
Six years ago in 2012, the first Journo/Dev swap Game Jam took place within the first Worldwide Alzheimer's Month, a month-long international campaign to raise awareness about the disease.
Not your traditional Game Jam, journalists from the industry are willingly thrown into the shoes of developers for a weekend, thanks to Alzheimer's Research UK sponsoring the event.
As one of the first to arrive, and seeing only a couple of people here and there around the Ukie office, I wasn't expecting to see so many people show up ready and raring to go!
After bundling into the meeting room, a short speech from journalist and organiser Will Freeman and Ukie's own Leon Cliff to kick things off, it was time for the theme of the jam to be revealed by Tim Parry of Alzheimer's Research UK. Quite appropriately, our motivated devs games would be focusing their efforts on games about the brain.
It was impressive to see that not even five minutes later, notebooks and paper were out across the room, with some solid ideas already populating them. Every team I spoke to, the journos-turned-devs were verbally stretching their creative legs and steaming ahead alongside their mentors to put together a plan. In under an hour, the laptops were coming out and most everyone was knee deep in Unity and the Asset Store.
Of the teams that I spoke to, there was certainly a universal focus on puzzles and exercising the brain itself. Teams ideas varied from elements of exploration and navigation with the adversity of Dementia posing issues and causing chaos, to games starring an orange about unlocking physical areas within the brain to piece together a story and access areas that were just out of reach.
Slowly, as ideas came together, teams began to disperse to other venues or areas of the Ukie offices to focus on development. There's no doubt that by the end of the weekend, we'll see a number of fun but powerful games for a great cause!