Jam by Andrew Yoder

The second morning of the game jam

hosted in a co-op office space,

I arrive with cup full of four-shot americano

and a full night of bad dreams back home.

There are students asleep on couches, others with the haunted

droop of those who haven’t slept, working

through caffeine gone numb.

One loud voice says “Sleep is always optional.”

These are students in a college for game design.

(I’m worried what we are teaching.)

A game jam is not like when musicians jam

with friends in some garage, when I unpack

my saxophone, keys arpeggiating, when we tool

about our instruments in open exploration,

arriving at a song is not the point. We are there to play.

But a game jam’s point is to complete a work.

Now the students brag records of sleep deprivation.

Forty hours. That’s nothing! Forty seven.

The game jam’s theme is mental health. The irony goes unnoted.

As a recovering workaholic, I am disturbed.

The burnout rate for game designers is three to five years.

I’m in my fourth and feel the burning at my edges.

In the industry we call it crunch:

Overtime we volunteer from passion for our work. Crunch.

We throw our bodies in the maw of our machines. Crunch.

Our fleshy lives fuel our engines onward. Crunch.

We mythologize the heroes of the past...

One designer had a sawhorse

for a chair dubbed The Throne of Pain

where he sat to stay awake and work,

make the best game he could.

And the game was good. Bad news for us all.

These are the stories students hear.

For them the jam is microcosm,

their studies a competition.

Those who survive have the passions they need

to live their dreams, to make video games!

(What if I told them game design is another office job?)

Despite the rising noise, some jammers haven’t stirred.

“He’s not moving, do you think he’s dead?” One student jokes.

But with the stress of a game jam on top of school,

the words are too close to the truth he may be dead.

I recall: my heartbeat irregular in my longest weeks of work.

I recall: one more task became two, fighting hydras into the night.

and I recall: my breathing—shallow, pneumonic, flooding—slow.

But these memories all are flat. Scentless. Dull.

They happened to someone else and he died.

I have a photo from the end of his longest crunch.

His hair is grown out a mess. He looks ill

and the illness makes him look young. A skeletal child.

I remember he saw a doctor and was shocked when she said

“You’re fine. There’s nothing wrong. You’re fine.”

The second morning of the jam

and students are dying to make games.

Andrew Yoder is a designer from rural Oregon working in Canada to make video games (as one does).