The Facebook post announcing a new game jam to be hosted by the Phoenix chapter of the International Game Developers Association generated many more comments than items like it usually did. It was because the jam had a corporate sponsor. Nobody had ever heard of a game jam sponsored by a large consumer products company before, and several people raised concerns about the IGDA itself appearing to endorse unrelated products from a multinational corporation. It made them uncomfortable, they said. Carlos, who had put together the event, apologized and backtracked in the thread, and a few hours later there was a post from a board member of the chapter who said that, while Carlos was a valued IGDA volunteer, this game jam in particular was not an “officially sanctioned” IGDA event. But the jam would be allowed to “go forward.”
It started on a Saturday afternoon of the long Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend. I arrived early and nobody was there yet, except for a stocky man in a bright red Cardinals jersey unfolding some plastic chairs. This was presumably Carlos.
“Hey,” he said to me. “Here for the game jam?”
“Yeah, I am. Do you need any help?”
Carlos and I carried and set up plastic tables in a square in the center of the large room we would use for the jam. It was flourescent-lit, windowless, and lined with a few corkboards, which were empty except for a few stray corners of old flyers still stuck under a staple.
As we set up, more people arrived in groups of twos and threes, and Carlos disappeared to look for power strips. The Scottsdale Boys and Girls Club had never been used to host a game jam before. As they waited, the jammers sat in their creaking plastic chairs, buried in their laptops or smartphones, or mumbling with each other about news from Steam Developer Days, which had taken place earlier that week up in Seattle.
In unison their eyes rose. A woman stood at the door of the room. She was wearing a white blouse, a blue skirt, and had a mane of off-blonde hair that ended in a frizzle just past her shoulders.
“Is this the game…” she said.
“The game jam?”
“Yes! Great, I made it.”
She walked towards one end of the tables, across from where most of the others were sitting, reached into her bag and pulled out a dozen bars of Dove soap and placed them in three neat stacks of four on the table: Gentle Exfoliating Moisturizing Cream, Nourishing Care Shea Butter, and Sensitive Skin Unscented. She also put a bottle of shampoo on the table, then changed her mind and put it back into her bag.
I counted fifteen participants. We arranged our chairs around the outside of the table ring, like a corporate boardroom. Carlos came back in the room holding two power strips. He set them down on the table in front of him.
“Hey, everyone! Thank you all for coming today. So this is kind of new for the game development scene here in Phoenix– well, for game jams in general? Usually there’s a theme to the jam. But this time we’ve actually gotten a sponsor. So without further ado, I want to introduce Kelly– is that it? Kelly here, from Dove.”
The woman stepped forward. “Hi! I’m Kelly and I work at Unilever, the company that makes Dove-brand products. I’m thrilled to be here today and I’m really looking forward to all of the great games you’re going to make over the next twenty-four hours. We’re going to be getting some snacks and drinks in here in a moment, and you’re going to have the opportunity to familiarize yourselves with our products as well.
“Before all of that, though, I just wanted to give you a quick overview of where we are as a brand. Dove is one of the largest consumer brands of soap and hair care products. We’re not upmarket, certainly, but we’re high quality and have a touch of luxury. And, importantly, we’re really about engaging with our customers. We want to be involved in the conversation about beauty in our culture– our standards and expectations, and how that affects us. How many of you are familiar with Dove Real Beauty Sketches?”
No hands went up.
“Let me find the video for you,” she said. She opened her laptop and turned it around. It was already on the right YouTube page.
We watched in silence.
“So that’s just an example of the kinds of things we do at Dove,” Kelly said, after the video had finished playing. “We think that sometimes, images in the media, especially in the media that advertise beauty products, give us an unrealistic sense of how we should look. But everyone can be beautiful. Everyone.”
“That’s why it’s so cool this event could happen,” Carlos added. “It’s not just a game jam for any reason. It’s an opportunity for us to do something positive for the world through gaming. Now, is everybody ready? We’ll split into small groups, two to four people. Remember, the idea is to play with interesting ideas. Be creative.”
We nodded and began to look at each other in silent appraisal. Most of the attendees had come with their friends, so the teams were effectively formed already. There were a small number of stragglers left over. I was one of them and so was Carlos. We paired up and were joined by a curly-haired kid named Brad.
“Maybe in the game your girlfriend has dry skin and you need to give her moisturizing bars?” Brad said, once we had begun brainstorming.
Carlos motioned towards Kelly. “I’m not sure that’s gonna be good for the audience we have in mind. They were talking about putting the games on their website– the Dove website, I mean.”
“Oh,” Brad said. “Yeah. Well, then how about it takes place on a person’s skin– it’s close up, so you can’t tell if it’s a guy or a girl– and, like, you have moisture particles that fall from the soap bar at the top onto the surface of the skin below? You know how they have those cutaway views in the commercials with the good molecules going in?”
Carlos made a face trying to picture Brad’s idea. “I can kinda see it, but it doesn’t really incorporate those ideas Kelly was talking about. You know, learning to understand that you can be beautiful?”
“Do you really think it’s possible for a video game to teach you that you can be beautiful?”
“I mean, why not?”
Kelly was wandering amid the teams to listen in and answer questions. “You’re not bored by all of this game stuff, are you?” Carlos said to her as she approached us.
“Not at all. This is actually super interesting,” she said, and clasped her hands together.
“We were just talking about whether or not it was possible for a game could teach you to accept yourself,” I said.
Kelly nodded. “That’s what I was wondering. If someone could make a game like that. It’s one of the reasons I was so interested in putting this event together.”
“We could make a game so fun that people lose themselves in it,” said Brad. “And then they wouldn’t be thinking about how they looked.”
There was a pause.
“Well. It’s probably not something you’ll solve in twenty-four hours,” said Kelly.
Carlos looked at his watch. “Twenty-three hours, now.”
* * *
Emptied pizza boxes littered the tables. One man was sleeping on the floor.
“The best thing about events like this is that we’re all winners,” said Carlos, “So let’s give ourselves a big hand.”
We applauded ourselves. Someone shouted, “Woo!”
“I want to thank you all so much for coming out and participating in this event,” said Kelly. “I had a ton of fun and I learned a lot, too. Oh, and please take some Dove products with you on your way home.”
“Do you have a favorite,” someone asked.
“A favorite game? God, I’m not sure I could even pick a favorite. They’re all great. I guess– okay, if you forced me to pick one, I think I like Super Lever Brothers the best. It reminds me of when I was a kid. Our family had a Nintendo that my older sister always hogged.”
“Oh, you can’t pick my game!” Carlos said, with fake humility. I was slightly annoyed. It was not his game, it was our game. Carlos had whipped together some platformer mechanics in Flixel. I drew the sprites, and Brad had designed the levels and hunted for free sound effects online. The Lever Brothers were the original founders of the company that would eventually become Unilever. Somehow that’s what we ended up with.
“I don’t know about all of you, but I sure as heck need a beer. Everyone still standing is invited to a post-jam beer at El Torito. Still standing and over twenty-one, I mean. Sorry, Brad.”
About half of them came. They had their one drink and went home. I thought I was the only one to have a second, and the only one left, when Kelly came up and sat next to me at the bar.
“So did you give away all your soap?” I didn’t know what else to say.
“Not at all. There’s a shit ton in my car still. Why, did you want some more? You can have as much as you want.”
“I’m okay. But thanks.”
“So what’s your story? You’re a game designer?”
“Aspiring, I guess. I’m going to UAT here in Phoenix. I want to be a game artist. One of my teachers suggested doing this game jam. She said it’s good to get experience working on real games, that it helps you with breaking in.”
“Is making video games something you have to ‘break’ into?”
“I guess it can be competitive, yeah.”
She took this in for a moment.
“Well, thanks for working hard on the game. I feel bad. I don’t know what we’ll do with them. The Dove web team probably doesn’t want them.” She sighed and watched the condensation trickle down the side of her empty glass. “They told me it was a dumb idea. It’s not brand-aligned. ‘The people who buy Dove aren’t the people who play video games.’ I thought– that’s not true at all! I love to play games, and I know my friends do, too. When we were younger we would stay up all night. But my boss said, ‘why don’t you take this idea to the Axe people.’ And I was like, what? Okay, listen to this, okay? At Unilever we do this ‘real beauty’ thing with Dove, saying we want women to be comfortable with their bodies as they are, and then we have Axe. It’s one of our other brands, with these commercials– I’m sure you’ve seen those.”
“With the girls swarming around a boy because he’s put Axe on?”
“Yes, those. It’s ridiculous, right? I mean, what kind of… what kind of game jam games would come out of that brand? Never mind, I don’t even want to think about it.”
She pulled out her phone, checked the time, and set it on the bar.
“Well. Even if the games don’t show up anywhere, I still had fun,” I said. “It was a good learning experience and I have something new for my portfolio. So thanks for sponsoring it, even if it doesn’t work out as a promotional thing for you.”
“I’m actually thinking of leaving the company. I’ve gotten so sick of everything.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to burden you with my life story.” She laughed. “I should head home anyway. My husband doesn’t like it when I’m out too late.”
We paid and went outside and waved bye to each other. She began walking towards her car at the end of the parking lot.
“Hey,” she said, calling back to me without stopping. “I hope you know I wasn’t lying earlier. I really liked your game.”