Serious Board Game Jam 2021 : “Strengthening Collaboration and Connecting Ideas through Making Games”

Annisa Arsyad

Observer at SBGJ 2021

PhD Student at Kyoto University

In 2020, I flew from Indonesia to Japan bringing my dream to discover serious games in Japan. As we all know, Japan is a well-known nation for its anime, games, and fictional characters. Although the current reach of Serious Games is not as big as Entertainment games, serious games has become an emerging field and gained attention in both academia and the practical world for the past few years. I believe a country like Japan has its own community with a strong interest in developing serious games, not just for entertainment purposes, but also educational purposes.

In the midst of the pandemic, I finally managed to start my PhD in Kyoto University majoring in Environmental Education. During my study in Japan, I need to do an internship related to my research interest.  My research interest is about the use of serious games to improve learning outcomes for marginalized students. Back in Indonesia, I worked at a small social enterprise, Ecofun Indonesia, where we design, produce and sell educational board games for the Southeast Asian market.

Luckily, I found this Serious Board Game Jam (SBGJ 2021) through Dr. Kazuhiko Ota, who later became my internship supervisor. I was very excited to hear about this SBGJ 2021, because I have never participated in any board game making event before. Most board game events I ever joined were all about playing the games. This is an interesting approach to teach participants on how to learn about an issue by putting them as a game designer and they have to design the game spontaneously in a short period of time. First time in SBGJ 2021? Read my story below!

SBGJ 2021 is the third Game Jam program organized by Dr. Kazuhiko Ota and Akihiro Takakura. The program was held as a series of events, consisting of Webinar, Bibliobattle, Game Jam, and Game Trial. Just like the previous SBGJ, the program is supposed to be held face-to-face in Kumamoto Prefecture, but due to the pandemic situation all programs have been moved to online. SBGJ 2021 Webinar aimed to introduce the process of serious game design and present the current issues of food. The Webinar helped the participants to understand the context before they have to choose the specific food theme for the game. After that, Bibliobattle was held as the continuation from the Webinar. This time, each participant will be asked to share about one book related to the food and present the book summary.


In the Game Jam, all participants will be divided into 11 groups. In two days, they had to discuss and build a game prototype under “Food” theme. The Game Jam utilized an interactive gamified platform called GatherTown where participants virtually meet using cute avatars. I was so surprised at how GatherTown brought the session more alive and real.


As an observer, I had a chance to listen to the discussion which I was helped by my senpai for the translation from Japanese to English. I thought my role would be to only sit and listen, but I noticed that one group was discussing religion-based food restriction. I thought I can give some additional information related to Muslim dietary based on my personal experience as a muslim. During the observation, I was intrigued by how all participants actively participated in building the game concept and other essential parts of game development. I also had a chance to interact with the SBGJ’s partner. I met Risa-san from unigames and she told me a brief story about unigames and their products. I learned that unigames make a religious themed board game called Caliphate. This game aims for Japanese audiences to learn about Islamic history. I was surprised to see Islamic history-themed game has a place in non-muslim country.  It made me think of how games can engage people to something that is culturally unfamiliar.

From the Game Jam, seven games have been made and presented at the SBGJ 2021 Game Trial. Here is the the list of games (including English title):

  1. Team A : 素晴らしい食卓 (A wonderful table)
  2. Team C : 自分探しのグルメ宇宙人~まだ見ぬ食を求めて(Gourmet aliens looking for themselves-in search of unseen food)
  3. Team D : でたとこレシピ (Detatoko Recipe)
  4. Team E : くまったなぁ (Bear Year)
  5. Team G : 生まれ変わり食餌日記 (Reborn Food Diary)
  6. Team H : 王とリンゴのタルト (King and Apple Tart)
  7. Unigames : これを食わねば俺は死ぬ (Eat and Let Die)


Joining the game testing was my favorite session of all SBGJ 2021, because I played the games directly with other participants. Some games are language neutral, and some others are language dependent, thankfully I got help from my senpai to help me in translating the instructions and commands. I found it very interesting that all games have their own uniqueness. I think all groups have worked so hard making this game appealing and visually attractive. Here are some of my discoveries on SBGJ 2021:


Games for Raising Empathy and Tolerance

According to the research, games have an ability to deliver one issue from various points of view, which in academia, we call it Transdisciplinary. Although the main theme of the game is food, it is not just about how we eat or what type of food.  The seven games tried to go across discipline by putting social, ideology, historical, economic perspective of food. “A Wonderful Table” game made by team A talked about how to deliver the food based on different dietary requirements. I can see the value of empathy from “素晴らしい食卓 – A Wonderful Table” game. We learned that people around the world have different customs and beliefs which affect their diet. Team A visualized it well. This game can be a good entry for those who want to build empathy by tolerance by respecting someone’s dietary preference. Another example is “これを食わねば俺は死ぬ – Eat and Let Die” by unigames. The premise of this game is how struggling students can feed themselves by making pickles. We learned that not everyone can have a proper way to feed themselves, so “survival mode” is necessary. “Eat and Let Die” offers a strategy on how to survive by arranging and sharing ingredients. I like how the game mission is not only seen from the content, but also from the mechanic (exchanging cards).


Game as Time Machine

Flexibility is a word to describe the power of games as educational tools. Some people used games to study about future scenarios and how we can create a better future by making a present change. But, games can also be used to learn about history. Learning about food menu from Medieval age from 王とリンゴのタルト (King and Apple Tart Game) was very satisfying and totally unexpected. The game invited players to guess all ingredients from the assigned menu from the Medieval era. At first, I thought the challenge was very easy, but it turned out that the mission was very hard to guess. I observed that most players guess it wrong, which makes the game more addicting. I think team H has successfully created a simple but tricky game for the users. “King and Apple Tart game” also has a potential to be expanded by creating more series of eras, for example: Viking era, Silk Road era, Shogunate era, etc. There will be more unexpected menus that come from different eras, at the same time, players will learn about food from different periods of history.


Board games, but Online

In my opinion, board games have always been seen as a physical product which is played face-to-face. After the pandemic started, we are all forced to run all the activities online as the only choice. I was a bit sceptical to see if board games can be played online, does the interactivity and engagement will still exist? SBGJ 2021 has shown that interactivity from online boardgaming can be achieved. Through SBGJ 2021, I learned some useful digital platforms such as Udonarium and CCFolia to help game designers to showcase games and board-game players to play games. Furthermore, online boardgaming also supports the idea to combine hybrid way of learning by playing. でたとこレシピ (Detatoko Recipe) by team D is one of example on how the game persuade players to look for some clues from the internet and use it to achieve the game mission. The game shares some ingredients and players have to create recipes creatively from those ingredients. If they miss one or two ingredients, the points will be reduced. So, they have to search some references from the internet to verify that their proposed recipes are valid.


In summary, my impression of joining SBGJ 2021 is the sense of optimism that everyone can make a game from scratch. Inclusivity is another keyword that I found after joining all sessions. participants come from different backgrounds and are able to work together and unite their ideas through making games. Moreover, I am surprised that the graphic design of all prototypes are visually impressive. My experience of joining online SBGJ 2021 brings me a new perspective of the gaming world in Japan.


On my last note, I would like to express big gratitude to Ota-sensei for this opportunity and also all participants who were kind and warm to allow me who doesn’t speak Japanese to participate in the game testing. This experience will enrich my study and also future work as an educator. Using my native language, I want to say “Terima kasih!” (ありがとうございました!)