How to be a Kickass Game Festival Juror

Do you put the “peer” in peer review?  If you design, develop, curate or write about games, or if you are an educator or research scientist in the field of game-based learning, you may be qualified to join the jury for a video game competition!  What can you do to totally rock this?  Mei Dean Francis has coordinated several game competitions over the past few years and would like to share some tips.

One size does not fit all.  One competition’s core criteria are another competition’s footnote.  Read the instructions carefully and be sure you understand exactly what the competition is about before you begin.  If anything you read contradicts what I’ve written here, do what they need you to do.

The day you receive your games to evaluate, install them.  Install the Hell out of them.  Grab it from the app store, download and double-click that .exe or .apk, visit that URL.  Launch the game and make sure you can play it.  If there are promo codes involved, USE THEM.  Developers watch their codes, and there is nothing more embarrassing than trying to explain why a judge who submitted an evaluation never looked at the game, so please redeem the code and refrain from being a liar-face.  If a game has issues, notify someone immediately.  Don’t worry– this doesn’t mean they will expect your evaluations early.  It just means you’re awesome.

With not much power comes great responsibility.  Be a fair judge.  Be a Fair Witness.  You are only a fraction of the executioner, but operate like you’re wearing that hood.  Read the developers’ submission documentation before you start playing.  The jury owes the entrants, who paid a bunch of money to enter this thing, that much.  If you see other judges playing without even glancing at the documentation, call them on it.  They’re only looking at half of the picture, and that is not fair.

If the game is multiplayer, feel free to request a second code so you can play with a friend.  You can also coordinate with another juror.  You can also coordinate with 13 other jurors, but you might be expected to provide beer.

Don’t over-commit.  You will probably not receive extra cookies for extra evaluations, so stick to what you can handle.  Finish your current batch before offering to evaluate more games.  From the simplest looking math game to the eleventh tower defense game you’ve seen this year, ANY game can become a fifteen-hour ordeal.

If you’re going to decline to evaluate, do it for the right reasons, and do it immediately.

Good reasons:
1. Your PC or mobile device can’t run the game.  Under no circumstances should you submit a formal evaluation to the tune of “I couldn’t run this, and it’s region-locked, and I can’t read German, but I like the idea and the loading screen was really cool!”.  This is a blatant middle finger to the coordinators AND the developers.  Please don’t do it.
2. You, your girlfriend, your best friend or your arch-nemesis made the game.  This happens more often than one would expect.  It’s a small, small world.  Politely recuse yourself from judging the game immediately.  Explain why.
3. You have personal experience that renders you unable to evaluate a game objectively, or playing the game will harm you.  Game entries don’t usually come with trigger warnings.  Some could use them.

Bad reasons:
1. You don’t agree with what the game is trying to say.  If you can’t look at it objectively, PEBCAG (Problem Exists Between Chair And Game).  That said, if you’re going to give a game a low score based on anything illogical, recuse.
2. The game bores you.  Life is not always fun.  Games are not always fun.  I spent six hours on a game that teaches people to use a scissor lift because it was my responsibility to evaluate that game.
3. A game that was submitted as a work in progress “isn’t finished”.  Assuming the competition accepts works in progress, on my planet, we call this “getting very lucky”.  You get to see a work in progress, and it probably won’t take you six hours.  Awesome!

If you’re unfamiliar with something, go check it out.  You don’t need to ask anyone how to use Hockey or TestFlight– get in there and get your propellers dirty.  You’ll learn something new and cool!  Not familiar with the concepts the game is teaching?  Learning it here probably beats going back to grad school.

Respond to check-ins politely.  They are checking in to see if everything’s okay.  Answer that question.  This is not some kind of passive-aggressive time-pressure move, so do not rip the coordinator’s head off.  They have dozens of judges and hundreds of entries across 10 platforms to keep track of and they’re just doing their damn job.  “Thanks for checking in!  Everything’s running fine [this is true, yes?] and I’ll have my rubrics in by [date].”

Maintain your anonymity.  If you’re part of an anonymous jury, keep yourself anonymous.  Be discreet.  Don’t brag about your judging experience on Twitter or Facebook.  For God’s sake, don’t broadcast negative stuff about the games.  If you don’t have access to something you need, notify the coordinator of the competition– do not request access from the owner, unless the competition has a tool that allows you to do so anonymously.

Keep feedback constructive.  The organization running the competition should clean up your feedback before handing it to the developers and scrub your name from it, but pretend this is not the case.  Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to someone you respect.  Think before you hit Submit, even if the creators of the game have a lot of money and/or critical acclaim.  They’re people who paid money to get some unsolicited feedback from someone qualified, so qualify yourself.  Proofread your feedback.  Don’t say anything stupid.  Don’t become a tweet; don’t get Pastebinned.

Free entry?  On the other hand, if you get an entry with a two-word summary and typo-filled thrown-together documentation that was obviously submitted for free… FOLLOW THE SAME POLICIES OUTLINED ABOVE.  Just because they phoned it in doesn’t mean you should.  Show them a better way– take the high road and evaluate it like any other entry.  If you wish there had been more documentation, mention that in your feedback.

Do this because you want to.  There is absolutely no glory in this; you won’t even be guaranteed membership in the community of cool game developers, but if you like looking at the games and are qualified to evaluate them, try it!  If your first experience is negative, volunteer for a different competition next year.  You, too, might learn to use a scissor lift.

Happy judging!