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How the Fukushima Game Jam fosters healing after disaster

Since the Great East Japan Earthquake in April 2011, Toshifumi Nakabayashi — president of the International Game Developers Association Japan chapter and CEO of tech consultation company Cyberz, Inc. — and a dedicated group of people have striven to bring about healing in the region through video game development.

The theme of the annual Fukushima Game Jam — a spin-off of the popular Global Game Jam now in its third year — is "revival from disaster." In a panel at GDC today, Nakabayashi spoke about how the game industry is helping those and the area affected by the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Clean up work from the damaged Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant is still ongoing, and radioactive contamination has damaged many major agricultural and fishing points in the area.

In the Fukushima Game Jam, participants are divided into teams, each with one professional game developer from Tokyo, and have 30 hours to create a game based on the jam's theme. A wide majority of the participants have been students at vocational schools or in college. All participants visit the area affected by the earthquake and tsunami prior to the jam. The first jam was held in 2011 five months after the earthquake and included 120 participants. The following year 170 people joined the jam, including participants in Taiwan, and the most recent jam in 2013 included 531 people from four different nations.

Anyone can check out the games made during the event on the Fukushima Game Jam official website. Nakabayashi said the event stands out among others focused on bringing awareness and assistance to the Fukushima restoration because it is aimed at promoting a new industry. The game jam also urges participants and observers to think about the present condition of the affected region and foster emotions other than fear and sadness.

"There are other ways to help out than doing a game jam, such as physical labor, grabbing a shovel and cleaning up the mess," he said through a translator. "But we're game developers and we're not very strong. However, if it is making games, we're confident we can do this for days, weeks, even years."

The game jam also has a secondary goal: to educate children and students about the game development process and show them how to use tools that will make it a long-term profession. During the jam, young children and local community members stopped by the event to play the games being made in the jam and listen to talks about game development.

"We in the IT industry aren't really affected by the radiation," Nakabayaki said. "But if there is no industry in the local area, we can't ask or call out for help, so we need to create opportunities for that area."

Through educating local youth about game development, IGDA Japan hopes to promote the formation of a new "cluster" of game development companies in the northeast area of Japan around Fukushima. This, Nakabayashi believes, will help with the restoration of the area.

"I realize this won't happen overnight, but it's a long-term goal we're working towards," he said. "While we can only take baby steps at the moment, but we can continue to put these games forward. Through the Fukushima Game Jam, we have been able to gain the assistance of local government chapters and promote restoration efforts in the area.

"There was a slowdown occurring at many game companies after the disaster, even if they weren't directly affected," he added, noting delays and cancellations seemed to become more common in the wake of the national disaster. He explained that after sitting down with many game companies about doing a jam to bolster the restoration effort, many of them came on board.

The IGDA's Tohoku chapter was of the IGDA's Japan branch founded in Fukushima in November 2012. There are no game companies in the area, so there is no game community. A vocational school took the lead in forming the chapter, which has since been the organizer of the Fukushima game jam. The chapter also holds a one-day game jam every month.