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Essay Jams and Collaborative Writing as a Community Event

How does the essay jam both capture productive tensions in community-led, community-responsive publishing, and suggest future directions for structuring collaborative writing activities?

Published onNov 15, 2022
Essay Jams and Collaborative Writing as a Community Event
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Abstract

The Pandemics and Games Essay Jam was a community writing event hosted by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and online games writing nonprofit Critical Distance. The event drew on the practice of “game jams,” in which participants spend a short, focused period of time creating digital games, either as solo developers or teams that may have only formed at the start of the jam. Echoing prior events hosted by Critical Distance and organised by Emilie Reed, the essay jam provided a social context, theme, and creative constraints for participants to create a piece of writing and share it with a community. The publishing platform PubPub provided tools for peer feedback, swift sharing and revising, and sorting essays into sections that would comprise the structure for an ebook edition. Meanwhile, the existing Critical Distance Discord server provided a space for synchronous chat during the jam and later for a book launch event. Building on Critical Distance’s role as a community hub and signposting resource for critical writing about games, the essay jam located submissions within a specific community structure. The leadership role of editors and curators at Critical Distance is nuanced, and the organisation’s work suggests a negotiation between two polar positions: neither fully autonomous and informal community-led editorial management, nor fully hierarchical and formal academic journal management. Critical Distance offers a recognition, response, and context for community writing, through events such as essay jams as well as ongoing curatorial and archiving work. In this essay, we consider how the essay jam, and Critical Distance’s larger editorial structure, both captures productive tensions in community-led, community-responsive publishing, and suggests future directions for structuring collaborative writing activities, from figuring out incentives for participating authors to creating a culture of dialogue around drafts and ideas in progress.

On 4-10 January 2021, the online games writing nonprofit Critical Distance and the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University (CSI) hosted the Pandemics and Games Essay Jam, a community writing event on the PubPub platform.1 In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (at that point, about a year old, depending on geography, and still, at the time of writing, circulating and killing thousands of people each day) we invited writers from around the world to submit micro-length essays of 500-800 words, exploring the tangled relationships between pandemics and games. We provided a list of themes to inspire participants: how COVID-19 changed the social aspects and roles of games, and how it catalyzed changes in the games industry, from design and labor issues to marketing and corporate structure; how transmissible diseases are represented in games old and new; and how the trauma of COVID-19 has retroactively changed the meaning and legacy of older games. Participants submitted more than 35 micro-essays in an array of styles, including formal analyses of games, commentary based on interviews and ethnographic research, personal reflections, ruminations on continental philosophy, and a commentary on the economic and supply-chain complexities of the jigsaw puzzle industry. 

The essay jam builds on previous activities presented by each of the host institutions. In 2017, 2020, and 2021, games scholar and curator Emilie Reed, one of the directors of Critical Distance, organized online community events that adapted the form of the “game jam” to critical writing, including creative constraints to inspire participants to create critical work in a different format to the conventional critical essay, such as 2017’s Visual Essay Jam, which challenged participants to primarily communicate through images,2 or 2021’s List Jam, which invited writing in the form of a list.3 The 2020 and 2021 events made use of the Critical Distance Discord server to facilitate discussion among participants, and used the indie games site itch.io to compile and publicize jam entries. In the 2010s, CSI convened a series of “book sprints,” bringing people together to brainstorm, write, edit, design, and publish digital books in 48-72 hours. The resulting Sprint Beyond the Book volumes, in a self-referential turn, explore the history and future of publishing, reading, and knowledge systems (including scholarly publishing, archiving, and textbooks) in response to corporate consolidation, technological upheaval, audience fragmentation, and other forces shaping the future of books as designed objects, hubs for sociality, and carriers of narratives, artistic interventions, and information.4

In all of these antecedents, there is a focus on the process and performance of writing, and the role of writing as an intensely social and dialogic activity, which influenced our framing of the essay jam. To this end, we created several processes and opportunities to encourage interaction among writers, both in relation to their pieces and more broadly, taking the essay jam as an arena for interaction and sharing. First, we created a new channel on the Critical Distance Discord for participants to solicit feedback on their ideas, ask questions of the organizers, encourage one another, and socialize around the themes of the jam. Second, we used PubPub’s editorial flow to require the submission and approval of drafts before publishing; this enabled us to edit and provide feedback on works in progress, and to designate a period for writer-to-writer feedback and editing, using PubPub’s line-level commenting tools. Third, a year after the jam, we published the micro-essays in a free ebook, Sickness, Systems, Solidarity,5 and hosted a virtual event on Discord, using the platform’s Stages feature, inviting participants to reconvene and collectively reflect on their work. These interventions served to decenter notions of writing as a mythically solitary act.

Meanwhile, the jam’s one-week time limit and severe “micro-essay” length constraint have the effect, in CSI’s parlance, of “taking perfect off the table,”6 relieving the pressure on any piece of writing to be fully polished or comprehensive. Our goal was to foreground the social and communal aspects of writing as a conversation, a space for sharing experiences, and an opportunity for exploration, rather than an expression of individual mastery.  These models for composition as a performance, as a venue for exploring and developing provisional ideas, and as an occasion for building and strengthening a community all draw on a key inspiration for the essay jam: the practice of game jams.

In a paper synthesizing multiple accounts of game jams, Annakaisa Kultima has proposed the following definition: “A game jam is an accelerated opportunistic game creation event where a game is created in a relatively short timeframe exploring given design constraint(s) and end results are shared publically.”7 Game jams emerged in the early 2000s as a way to share skills and “establish spaces that support the indie games development ecosystem”; some of the better known game jams include Ludum Dare and Global Game Jam.8 Emilie Reed discusses game jams in her chapter in Indie Games in the Digital Age, describing key examples of alternative indie game jams as “sites where communities come together around certain tools, and the structure of the community and the nature of the tool influence stylistic output.”9 One of the examples she examines is Llaura McGee’s “Flatgame jams,” in which participants use free tools provided by members of the jam’s community, such as Unity templates and mobile apps, to make games that “typically consist of graphics drawn on paper and scanned or photographed, then cropped and simply animated to make the background, foreground, and player character in the game.”10 Reed argues that through game jams, “tool-centered communities empower game-makers who otherwise have minimal industry or programming experience,” and that “the tools themselves are vital to the structure of communities and the styles of games that emerge.”11 The strength of jams is thus closely connected to their communities and their tools, and jams further strengthen tool-centered communities in games.

In the case of our jam, the most obvious tools are PubPub and the Critical Distance Discord channel. However, a more expanded understanding of “tool” might also be instructive here. The prior examples of Emilie Reed’s work also demonstrate how a creative constraint can itself be conceptualized as a tool, as well as how a tool may become a creative constraint. For example, Reed’s Bitsy Essay Jam invited participants to create a piece of critical writing using a game-making tool that is renowned for its constraints: Bitsy allows users to create games with a monochromatic color palette, on a grid of 16x16 tiles of just 8x8 pixels each.12 Here the tool provides the constraint. In contrast, the Flatgames jam used Unity, a powerful and adaptable game engine, and imposed constraints on it through the distribution of templates and tutorial files that facilitate the creation of 2D, hand-drawn games. Similarly, our imposition of a tight word limit adapted the capacities of the “tool” that participants were invited to use. Indeed, it is easy to imagine a future version of PubPub that allows publication editors to set a word count limit so that participants cannot submit an article above a certain word count—in such a situation, the tool itself would be adapted to incorporate the creative constraint.

As for community, our jam was hosted by an existing organization with a strong network, whose mission is congruent with the jam’s goals. Since 2009, Critical Distance has collected and archived online games writing and commentary that its curators consider innovative, thought-provoking, or remarkable. Through weekly, monthly, and annual curatorial roundups, as well as its podcast, virtual events, and other activities, Critical Distance has built “a foundation for ongoing conversations between developers, critics, educators and enthusiasts about critical issues in game culture.”13 Many contributors to the essay jam were members of the Critical Distance community. This meant that the organization’s mission and ethos shaped the jam’s cultural context, by prioritizing mutual support, valuing situated and personal experience, welcoming a diversity of critical voices, and creating a digital space that was as safe as possible for honest, incisive, and revealing contributions. This focus on community building became particularly pressing in the conditions of the pandemic, and this was reflected in several of the submitted micro-essays — for example, media and communications graduate Samuel DiBella wrote about Blaseball, an online surrealist fantasy baseball game that built a large passionate fanbase in the early months of the pandemic, when its communities offered new opportunities to encounter “the regular presence of a stranger.” Many other essays built on the authors’ personal identities and unique experiences of living through the pandemic, including intimate issues such as mental health, parenting, and loneliness amid lockdowns and social distancing. Critical Distance is also dedicated to supporting writers, game creators, and educators in their creative and professional development, so the jam was readily understood as an opportunity to hone skills in writing and revision, and to build contributors’ confidence in composing, editing, and publicly sharing their own work. 

Approaching the essay jam as a collective activity also requires attention to our own roles as organizers and editors. We saw our role as primarily facilitative: creating a structure for participation and creativity, setting process and timelines, answering questions, providing technical assistance, and giving support and guidance to our authors. (We also modeled participation by pitching, writing, and editing our own pieces for the jam.) The aspiration is for the writer-editor relationship in an essay jam to differ from more traditional publishing environments, where the editor necessarily functions as a gatekeeper, an audience surrogate, and in a curatorial role around the themes and topics addressed by writers. We tried to step out of that gatekeeper role, elaborating as needed on the “Pandemics and Games” provocation we set at the start of the jam but doing our best not to shape how our participants responded to that provocation.

The role of a jam coordinator is primarily focused on encouraging participants to share skills and generate ideas among themselves, rather than directly imparting knowledge or skills or imposing creative direction. This sharing among peers is characteristic of the cultural context of game jams. Previous scholarship examining the Global Game Jam has highlighted the importance of peer feedback mechanisms as part of the value of jams as a learning experience, and shown that this learning encompasses not only the technical skills of game development, but also enculturation in participatory design and rapid prototyping as professional skills.14 We aimed to emulate this aspect of game jams by encouraging participants to make use of PubPub’s features, including the ability to highlight sections of text and add comments in the margin. 

Although no participants expressed any concerns regarding the peer feedback process, it is worth noting that few participants engaged by offering feedback to others. This might not be surprising: it might be expected that participants’ engagement would follow a power-law distribution, whereby the top 20% of participants would account for 80% of the total hours engaged by all participants. However, this may mean that what is described as “peer feedback” in the literature about game jams is in practice feedback by a small group of highly active community members, and the composition of this small group can significantly influence the culture fostered by these jams. This is particularly concerning where social and economic inequities influence who is enabled to participate in this way. 

In community-led publishing, tensions can easily arise when adopting a model such as ours, which encourages peer guidance and positions editors as conveners, catalyzers, and community managers. As the creators of the space, designers of the digital platform, issuers of the prompt guiding the writing, and moderators ensuring that submitted pieces are broadly on scope and free of abusive or inappropriate content, we still found ourselves, inescapably, on unequal footing with our writers—there is a whiff of the managerial in this “editor as facilitator” mode. If nothing else, the Critical Distance community, and the games writing community at large, didn’t ask us to issue our “Pandemics and Games” provocation; a truly community-led effort may have engaged potential participants around shaping the topic and themes, and perhaps even solicited input on more technical matters around word count and choosing digital platforms/tools. Nevertheless, Pubpub’s tools allowed us to proceed in an iterative fashion that responded to the participants’ contributions. For example, although participants were asked to write essays that fit within one of four categories listed as part of our original provocation (such as “Covid-19 and the social lives of video games”), we dropped these categories when assembling the ebook after the jam in order to better represent the topics that contributors had congregated around. Instead of the original four categories, we organized the submitted essays into seven thematic sections (e.g., “Bodies,” “Managing stress and anxiety,” “History and the new normal”). In a particularly striking example of how community participation shaped the final result, one of these thematic sections ended up being organized around physical and tabletop gaming, even though we had focused entirely on digital gaming in our initial provocation.

In planning our essay jam, we struggled with the ethics of creating a venue wherein writers would engage in unpaid labor. We didn’t have a budget available to pay participants, and it’s a significant undertaking to make fairly small payments to dozens of contributors—we likely would have spent as much time on payments as we did on actually facilitating and editing the jam! In this case, our rationale was that the jam was indeed built on a preexisting community whose members had shown interest in developing their writing skills and engaging in dialogues about gaming and society, that all content was shared publicly under a Creative Commons license, and that we were able to provide some form of compensation through assembling and publishing the free ebook, and hosting the community book launch event. That event not only opened space for another mode of community building and conversation, but also featured a paid appearance by game designer and critic Yussef Cole, who wrote a foreword for the ebook. 

Tension around incentives is endemic to these sorts of community-led “jam” efforts, whether the output is an interactive game or a short essay. Some game jams offer prizes (either cash or in-kind), free food, or access to opportunities for networking and professional development through critique or judging by game developers, executives, journalists, or others who might offer aspiring game developers useful resources in the future. In future projects, we’re resolved to think more carefully about incentives, both to help encourage more people to participate but also to make sure that we are compensating people fairly for the time and effort that they put into this work. This may not take the form of cash payments, and ironically, more editorial intervention could be appealing to some participants, if developing confidence and writing skills is a motivation for participating. If community building is the bedrock of the project, perhaps providing more long-term and ongoing structure for dialogue and socialization, either through Discord forums, additional online events, or other interventions, would be a more appropriate way to think about reciprocating participants’ labor.  

Just as game jams have been found to offer professionalization by modeling workplace cultures of rapid prototyping and participatory design, game jams have also been criticized for reproducing problematic aspects of workplace cultures in the games sector, such as crunch. Discussing organizational culture in Global Game Jam, Borg et al. state, “While we certainly support the organization of game jams, we also raise the issue that extreme work is a systemic problem in video game development,” and suggest that game jam coordinators ensure that the absolute time pressure of a jam is framed as an unusual challenge, rather than as a model of professional standards in game development.15 In fact, workplace crunch was a topic taken up by one of the participants in the Pandemics and Games essay jam: Brendan Vance described it as a kind of cultural pandemic in its own right.16 To extend Vance’s metaphor, it could be argued that game jams function as superspreader events, normalizing crunch and enculturing new generations of game developers in a model of labor exploitation that causes lasting mental and physical harm. 

In our case, we aimed to mitigate this “crunch” ethos via a fairly lengthy time horizon: participants each wrote one micro-essay over the course of a week. This is quite accelerated as compared to many other writing opportunities, especially in academic contexts, but it also pales in comparison to many game jams, which often unfold over a single night or two days. Extending the essay jam over a full week also allowed people to work on their essays during weekdays or weekends, in the daytime or overnight, based on their schedules and the timing of other responsibilities—we didn’t assume that everyone would be available on the weekend, for example, when many game jams take place. 

Despite these challenges around incentives and compensation, we’ve found the essay jam model to be an energetic, thought-provoking, and approachable way for people to share their experiences and insights, and to produce writing quickly that is responsive to a particular cultural moment. The truism that constraints breed creativity may hold some truth here, and for projects like thematic “special issues” of journals, building a responsive digital editorial flow, paired with tools for synchronous conversation, like Discord channels, could lead to a more socially interactive, enjoyable writing process that also allows contributors to exchange ideas and feedback in real time, opening up the mythically solitary process of composition to sociality. 

In future essay jams, we hope to build structures that encourage even more social interaction among participants—perhaps a digital “kickoff” event for brainstorming and peer feedback before writing begins, encouraging participants to share ideas and pose questions to others on Discord, using Discord and other channels for other communal activities during the jam (e.g., inviting participants to share a favorite photo or screenshot from a game they are writing about), and providing more time and technical guidance for peer-to-peer editing.

Per Emilie Reed’s definition, game jams are sites for communities to gather around specific tools, and to craft creative outputs that are shaped by the affordances of those tools. Taking game jams as an inspiration for community-based writing activities entails their own unique set of tools, ranging from word-count limits and thematic prompts to platforms for social interaction and content management systems like PubPub. These tools represent interventions that shape the cultures of the communities that they contribute to, in ways that may be positive and negative. The Pandemics and Games Essay Jam as an experiment, and our choice of PubPub as a tool, point toward a cultural model for writing that encourages conversation, interchange, and collective endeavor. When pursuing these community-oriented aims, designers and editors of community writing projects must critically consider the invisible costs of entry for participants, especially given that jams can sometimes be figured as simulations of labor conditions. Jam coordinators must also consider who carries the responsibility for sharing insider knowledge, for example by providing guidance about tools like PubPub that few members of the community might have experience using. 

The micro-essays that resulted from our jam responded to an opportunity for contributors to join in a conversation, to thoughtfully craft their part of a larger communal response, at their own pace—to engage in a large-group conversation, but without the demands of synchrony and the expectation of immediate responses. Our prompt asked writers to reflect on how living through a collective trauma had reshaped our relationships to games, a mode of creativity and area of cultural production and experience that is deeply meaningful to them. The collected essays represent a snapshot of how our community processed and made sense of a moment in flux, in a venue that allowed for social interaction, but also for deliberation.  

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