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ROM Game Jam to breathe new digital life into ancient cultures

Categories: Gaming

ROM Chinese Temple Art galleryThe Bishop White Gallery of Chinese Temple Art is one of the galleries where video game developers could gather during the upcoming ROM Game Jam. (Royal Ontario Museum)

It's not every day that a video game developer creates a game while sitting next to an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, but in August some will get that chance.

Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum is partnering with the University of Toronto and video game festival Gamercamp on a new project that aims to breathe new life into the ancient through interactive technology.

Over the weekend of August 9 to 11, the ROM Game Jam is opening its doors to game developer teams and, over three days, the groups will be tasked with creating a new title while inside the museum, using its exhibits on ancient cultures as inspiration.

Game jams are nothing new to the Canadian video game community, especially among smaller start-up and independent teams. Toronto's T.O. Jam celebrated its eighth year in May. In the past, the event has helped introduce games such as Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure from father-and-daughter team Ryan and Cassie Creighton. Meanwhile, in July, Vancouver group i am a gamer hosted a jam to create games with strong female protagonists with the goal of smashing the stereotypes of video games being mainly geared towards adolescent males.

Beyond old clay pots and dusty artifacts

The theme of ROM's upcoming jam is "Foretelling the Past" -- intended to encourage participants to animate the displays through new technology and ideas, without feeling restricted to an overly specific path. Organizers want to move beyond conventional thinking of museum displays as simply a collection of old clay pots and dusty artifacts.

"We wanted to have [an event] that would inspire gamers to think about connecting the past to the present," explained Rae Ostman, ROM's ancient cultures managing director.

"One of our goals was to reinvent what museums are about. It's not just stuff behind glass."

Though the teams aren't expected to present a polished product at the end of the weekend, they are "strongly encouraged" to present a working prototype at the finale of the session. And the sooner they finish the game, the better: games deemed suitably completed and polished will be screened at the ROM on October 19 as part of International Archeology Day. They will also premiere at Toronto's Gamercamp event in early November.

Last week, teams that signed up attended an info session and toured a selection of galleries that ROM staffers felt would be the most useful and inspiring. The rare setting wasn't lost on Gamercamp co-founder and organizer Jaime Woo.

"Usually [game jam sessions are] held in I think what we call typical spaces for game development," he said.

"[Here, participants] can code in front of an artifact if [their computers] have enough battery life."

Since the jam will be held during regular museum hours, the developers can interact with museum visitors as well as staff if they choose. The ROM has also reserved several classrooms to give developers a place to sit down and get to the nuts and bolts of building a videogame without distraction.

Still, "when there are other people around, it'll be part of the fun," Woo said.

-- Jonathan Ore

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