48 hour Arabic Game Jam: co-designing game concepts for Arabic-speaking markets

Yasemin Arhan Modéer, project manager at Media Evolution, and Elisabet M. Nilsson, researcher at Medea, talk about their joint project Arabic Game Jam.

This post was originally published in the Medea publication Prototyping Futures.

Computer game culture is no longer a Western or Japanese phenomena. Today there are strong game cultures growing all over the world, including the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa). Despite this, there are few computer games developed for, or in this part of the world. The global game industry is still of a rather limited cultural nature, and most games are produced by North American, West European, Japanese, and South Korean actors.

Arabic Game Jam Flyer

In Malmö we have a strong cluster of game companies, as well as a large immigrant population with Arabic cultural backgrounds and language skills. What if these two groups of competences were brought together to co-design game concepts directly targeting the growing Arabic-speaking game markets? What other kinds of stories, game mechanics, aesthetics, and value systems could these generate? What if such initiative could contribute to widen the still somewhat homogeneous selection of game titles available on the market today, and/or even generate more work opportunities in the game industry?

These initial thoughts on the potentials of cross-fertilizing different immigrant cultures with game developers resulted in a long, open discussion across sectors in Malmö. Representatives from the city council, the game industry, academia, NGOs and focus groups took part in a series of workshops and meetings discussing the potential of the project both from business and cultural perspectives, how they should proceed and what would be the next step.

From these discussions the idea of hosting a game jam was born. The basic plan was to explore the potential discussed in an open, direct way, and with an explorative approach by organising a jam inviting all those interested to take part in the process. A project plan and an application were formulated, and additional funding was obtained from the City of Malmö. On the last weekend of January 2012, the game jam took place in the facilities of Malmö University. The game jam was open to anyone with an interest in the field. Six teams were formed consisting of a mix of people with skills and competency within the fields of game development and Arabic cultures. The design brief given to the teams was to create computer game concepts for Arabic-speaking markets – in 48 hours!

To start from the very beginning, before you decided to host a game jam, where and how did the whole process begin?

YASEMIN: It was the City of Malmö that took the first initiative and invited Per-Anders Hillgren and I from Medea, as well as a bunch of people from other organisations, to be a part of discussions on how to develop five urban areas in Malmö (the so-called “Områdesprogrammen”). Per-Anders and I became members of the group focusing on Herrgården (a neighborhood in Rosengård in Malmö), entrepreneurship and finding new job opportunities, especially for young people from the ages of 18 to 30.

We were invited to brainstorm and come up with ideas on how people living in Herrgården that are outside the job market could be involved in an active way. We met at three workshops and meetings together with people from the Employment Service, companies, academia as well as from our own group, Media Evolution.

What came out of all this was a list of ten concrete projects that could potentially make a difference. One of the projects is something we call “Massive Rosengård”. From our previous discussions we realised that there are a lot of people in Rosengård that have an interest in the game industry, as well as a great deal of competence regarding game culture and skill in playing games. This, in combination with a strong game industry in Malmö, as well as the presence of game education and games research, made us want to go further and explore the potential of combining all these factors.

In combination with what Medea was doing during the meeting between the two of us and our different approaches and entry points, there was something that started to grow. Per-Anders and I were appointed by the City of Malmö as project managers for the group that was going to look into the possibilities. We started with “Massive Rosengård” and ended up in the idea of hosting a 48-hour intensive, open, co-design game workshop that we eventually named Arabic Game Jam.

Initially the idea was not to put a special focus on the Arabic-speaking markets or on people with Arabic cultural backgrounds, but on people in general outside the job market. However, due to practical restraints and limited resources we had to focus and we decided to go for the Arabic theme. Sten Selander, business developer at Media Evolution, had already been in contact with people in the MENA region about their growing game market. After the Arab spring, things have changed a lot on many different levels. The market has opened up and in the future there might even be a chance for us to export games directly to that region.

How was the Arabic Game Jam organised and facilitated? What happened during the weekend?

ELISABET: Once we had decided to go for the game jam idea we formed a small project group consisting of people from Media Evolution and Medea, as well as a reference group of people from the city council and other involved organisations. We hired a producer, Karolin El-Jaleb, who was in charge of coordinating all the bits and pieces of the game jam, of which there were quite a few.

Since we had never organised a game jam before, we decided to do our game jam as a part of Global Game Jam, which is a huge annual event happening all over the world at the same weekend. Through Global Game Jam, we got a lot of practical help and advice when it came to how to facilitate the whole jam. It was also nice to be able to tell our participants that they were a part of such a huge event, and that almost 11,000 people in 47 countries were struggling with their design projects simultaneously.

Basically, the weekend was divided into three major blocks. On Friday evening, the introduction, inspiring lectures, hints and tips on how to start the design process as well as an introduction to some game design tools occurred. The second block consisted of hard design, work, blood, sweat and tears blended with some happiness and euphoria. In between, the participants could attend more lectures offered in the program, or be supervised by professional game designers who volunteered during the weekend. The final block was the presentations on Sunday evening, where all teams had to pitch their concepts in front of a jury consisting of people from the game industry, researchers, business developers and of course people with genuine knowledge about Arabic cultures.

Who participated?

ELISABET: In addition to our six design teams, there was also a long list of companies and other organisations that participated and contributed with everything from giving lectures and coaching the teams to handing out prizes and being part of the jury committee. We only had two women participating in the teams, which was very disappointing. We tried hard to recruit females, but failed miserably. Next time we will try another strategy.

Ali Baba and Djinn's Oasis
Ali Baba and Djinn’s Oasis – the winning game concept

What came out of the whole game jam?

ELISABET: First of all, six game concepts with great potential, but also a community. Through this whole process we have built a network of people interested in exploring this field and who want to continue the process. We also learned a lot about how to actually organise such a big event as a game jam with all that implies, such as working with group dynamics, methods for rapid game prototyping, coaching teams in creative crisis, providing feedback on game ideas and so on. The jam was also covered in regional and national press, which of course has made people open their eyes to this growing field.

YASEMIN: I think a game jam can be a way of facilitating the development of potential business ideas. Of course, there is a CRS (Corporate Social Responsibility) perspective in terms of broadening the way companies look at competency when they employ people. If you want to develop products or services for the Arabic markets, then you need Arabic cultural competence. We have a lot of competent people with that kind of background in Malmö who are left outside the job market. I must say, though, that the game industry is already very good at recruiting people with different backgrounds.

Another effect of the game jam might also be that the participants gained some self-confidence and can now see themselves working in the game industry. There are actually people that were involved in the jam that are now studying at the Game Assembly, which is a three-year game education here in town.

What happens now? What is the next step?

YASEMIN: The next step is to organise another game jam, make use of everything that we learned so far, avoid the same mistakes and make an even more successful jam. Next time we need to think more about will what happen after the game jam. We need to build a structure and organisation for how to more carefully follow up on the teams and help them take their concepts to the next level.

ELISABET: Two of the themes that Medea explores are user-driven design and open innovation: how to produce media content from a bottom-up perspective and how to include groups of people who do not normally have access to a specific domain. In upcoming game jams, we want to continue to explore these aspects, develop methods for co-designing games and for facilitating meetings between people with different types of competency and interests. Of course, we are also interested in looking deeper into the outcome of the process – the game concepts. What new kinds of game designs and game genres, if any, do we see? Is there such a thing as an Arabic kind of games, in comparison to Japanese games or games produced by Western developers?

YASEMIN: As I said, a concrete next step is of course to organise another game jam, and our plan is to make this happen. But I also think we have learned a lot from this process that we can use in other fields, that is, alternative ways of working with business ideas and concept development. This whole process has given us a new perspective on how to work in these kinds of open co-design processes. I guess one could say this project is a good example of how academia and an organisation like ours can come together, combine our different approaches, methodologies, agendas and reach far beyond what we could have achieved on our own.

Learn more on arabicgamejam.wordpress.com