Organizing Asylum Jam – a retrospective analysis

game jams


If there’s something that my game development friends and colleagues know about me, it’s that I’m mad about game jams. I honestly cannot get enough of them, and I can’t preach fervently enough to anyone who listens about what a great tool they are for professional development, networking, removing creative blockers in your brain and… well, I could obviously go on. You learn time management, you learn to cut that one feature that, shit, would be really awesome in-game but you don’t have the twenty coders and artists you need to make it happen, you learn to work with new people with new skill-sets, and you learn to think outside the box. Thinking outside the box is probably the thing I love the most about game jams– an opportunity for us game developers, usually fatigued and overworked from slaving away on the same project for months on end, to explore the limits of games outside of our day jobs.

I organize game jams regularly in the area of Germany that I live in, North-Rhine Westphalia. When I came to Germany in January, my German was terrible (still is, really) and I didn’t know a soul here, but it was apparent there was no ‘organized’ indie community in the area I lived in. Europe has an extremely vibrant indie scene comparatively to where I had come from (New Zealand), as well as Berlin and Munich having very active communities– so I did what I figured was natural and made our game jam group. Now at over 70 developers in the area, we’ve participated in Molyjam as an official location, had an amazing 12-hour jam (phew), gotten the devs interested in #1GAM and some members are currently organizing an Oculus Rift jam. My mission was definitely accomplished, and I have met so many amazing people through the group’s expansion so far. So, organizing game jams themselves wasn’t that new to me, but I never thought I would end up organizing something as huge and international as Asylum Jam became.

Why did I organize Asylum Jam in particular? I’ve been asked this question a lot, though I haven’t really given a straight answer as to why the jam was so personally important to me, either because I didn’t want an immediate window into my personal life (indicative of how afraid I am of the stigma myself) or because being put so starkly into the spotlight made me feel far too naked and exposed. I’ve been around various types of mental illness most of my life, both personally experienced and that which I’ve seen friends or family go through. A difficult divorce and family situation in my childhood sent me into depression for the longest time, where I often contemplated whether or not the world would benefit from my non-existence (and that depression, while mostly conquered, still comes back to haunt me from time to time in my adult years). I also suffered from extremely acute agoraphobia while I completed my university studies, rendering me incapable of sitting exams in the same room as my peers, or even tolerating lectures that lasted longer than about an hour and a half without suffocating myself with panic. I couldn’t even sleep over at a friend’s or boyfriend’s place in the same room, which drove me to tears more than once. I just wanted it to go away.

I never wanted to answer my university classmates as to why I wasn’t in the examination rooms with them– how could I explain it in a way that didn’t make me sound irrational? It’s just because the fear was so irrational, and I knew it, that I just sort of covered it over. I didn’t want my classmates to think any less of me or to think that I was abnormal. I didn’t want to think that wasn’t ‘normal’, listed on the disability register at university. Really, I just wanted to enjoy learning and do the best that I could at university, like anyone that was serious about their studies would. However, I couldn’t explain this fear, why it affected me or what caused it, and it ruled me for three years until I overcame it through sheer force of will and some sessions with a clinical psychologist. I’m proud that I defeated it and that it no longer controls my life, but I look back at that time and how afraid I was that anyone would find out, which brings me to the question– why did I feel afraid?

Stigmatization is a real issue, whether or not we want to admit it out loud. When it’s okay for society to throw around words like ‘retarded’, it’s obvious stigmatization is an issue. When it’s okay to snigger behind the back of someone that has a mental disability at their struggles, it’s obvious stigmatization is an issue. When I feel afraid to reveal that I suffered from a mental illness to even the closest of my peers, it’s obvious stigmatization is an issue.

Asylum Jam wasn’t born out of a desire to head a social crusade on the internet. It was born from an article that spoke particularly close to me about several issues (which you can read here), and that made me want to create positive action and awareness on the issue in the best way I knew how, in the format that I love the most. Complaining about a perceived issue is likely to bring you a negative reaction– negativity breeds negativity. That’s why I knew a game jam was a great format for me– and other people and peers like me, in the same industry– to express what we would like to change, and make games that had an absence of the stigmatization that is so commonplace, but yet has the power to make us feel so uncomfortable about ourselves. Stigmatization isn’t by any means limited to the gaming industry in particular– god, no– but games are what I live and breathe, they’re a beautifully interactive and flexible media, and they have so much freedom to express that I wanted to organize Asylum Jam to give us a chance to explore a different direction.

When I began to organize Asylum Jam, I didn’t think it would grow to the lengths that it did by the end of the event. I started planning it in July, wrote most of the press releases in September and in October, it was just a whirlwind of emails and organizational madness. At the conclusion of the event, we had 57 games submitted with over 319 registered users. We also had two physical locations, one in Rome and one in Colorado, which I never imagined would happen when I was absorbed in the planning stage. When I saw the submission count growing, the updates that the developers were posting and the general enjoyment that people had garnered from the jam, I was so incredibly happy. With the support of many people, including Brett Chalupa (programming genius behind the BMO game jam engine), the reporters who talked to me and wrote fantastic articles about the jam and its aims, the friends and colleagues that surround me and a handful of other special people, Asylum Jam became a resounding success.

The games themselves submitted to Asylum Jam are obviously very diverse and interpret the jam’s theme differently– some of which deal with extremely sensitive topics– but they’re there for freedom of expression and personal interpretation. I received mails from people who suffered from a mental illness and wanted to use the game they were making to show to those who didn’t understand just how it was to live with their illness. I also saw a tweet from a developer who wanted to dedicate the jam to their colleague, who had committed suicide the year before. These stories are so important and it’s so crucial that they’re heard– and to fight stigmatization and tell them, gaming is a perfect medium for that.

To everyone who participated in Asylum Jam, thank you so much for making this event a reality. Thank you for giving your time and creativity to journey through this topic with us, your support to the cause and your enthusiasm to exploring the horror genre. I do believe we made a difference and started (or joined?) a really important discussion, not just limited to our passion of game development.