I Got Someone at the MoMA To Play My Dumb Jam Game

Adventures in guerilla marketing and stacking cows

I Got Someone at the MoMA To Play My Dumb Jam Game
Room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Source: MoMA

If you are someone that is at all familiar with the indie game jam scene, you’ve likely heard of Ludum Dare. If not, it’s enough to say that it’s one of the longest-running, largest-scale jams in the community.

If you’re not familiar with game jams, they’re events where a developer has a time limit to make a small game. Ludum Dare runs concurrent 48-hour and 72-hour events. When the event ends, the games are played and rated by other participants and are ranked based on the feedback received.

There aren’t any prizes beyond clout, but given each event is attended by thousands of incredibly talented developers, that clout is worth something. People have also parlayed their success in the jam into sales, with indie darlings Broforce, Titan Souls, and Please, Don’t Touch Anything starting life as Ludum Dare submissions.

I myself have seen absolutely none of the aforementioned success in my participation in the event, but I have learned a lot and gotten some great feedback. I’ve done the event seven times over the past five years.

An image of my submissions to previous Ludum Dare events
These entries represent a mix of team and solo efforts. Source: Author.

In that time I’ve bitten off more than I could chew in every single event. I’ve made some kind of blunder that made the game worse than I wanted it to be, and my ratings have been middling as a result. Ludum Dare 52 was no different. The theme was “Harvest” and I thought it would be fun to make a subversive farming game in the vein of Harvest Moon, but pack it with high-minded references to the state of modern agriculture. I started strong with a mini-game about stacking cows.

A gif of pixel art cows bouncing around a field
If something makes me laugh while I'm working on a game, I keep it in. Source: Author.

From there I was going to move on to making a little hub world and a series of equally silly mini-games. That’s when I got sick. I ended up spending the rest of the jam period in bed. When I realized I was going to miss the deadline if I didn’t turn something in, I made a standalone build of my little game. This is where I reached a crossroads. Normally, when I hit the deadline and have little to show for it, I do what a lot of other devs do and write a little post-mortem about what I would have liked the game to be and where I ended up. But I decided not to this time. I decided to take the tone that I was releasing exactly the game I had meant to. I gave it a title way fancier than it deserved, The Ballad of Eric Hernandez, Cattle Rancher, and picked some public domain high art to represent the game.

A painting of a young man herding cattle near a river
Young Herdsmen with Cows, Aelbert Cuyp ca. 1655–60. Source: metmuseum.org

When the feedback started coming in for the game, I noticed people were happy to play along with the pseudo-intellectual spin I was giving this thing that was only just a game by definition. One of my favorite reviews in this early stage was this absolutely incredible song another jammer wrote, inspired by the game.

The Ballad of Eric Hernandez, Cattle Rancher  Verse 1  Out on the range, where the sun shines bright  There’s a man they call Hernandez  He’s a cattle rancher, hardworking soul  That’s what all the folks in town says  Chorus  Oh Eric Hernandez, he’s a sight to see  Stackin’ cattle high as a tall oak tree  He’s a cowboy at heart, and all the long day  He rides the range, stackin’ cattle like hay  Verse 2  Now some folks say it ain’t natural  Old Eric laughs and tips his hat  He says, hey, it’s just what I love to do  And I ain’t one to argue with that  Chorus  Oh Eric Hernandez, he’s a sight to see  Stackin’ cattle high as a tall oak tree  He’s a cowboy at heart, and all the long day  He rides the range, stackin’ cattle like hay
A genuine highlight in my game development career. Source: Author.

It was at this point that I started to lean fully into the concept of presenting this dumb jam game I didn’t have time to finish as high art. I made a couple blog posts using the voice of a pretentious artist. This eventually led me to the idea of reaching out to a genuine museum for the sake of using my query email to promote the game further and keep the joke going. I decided on the Museum of Modern Art, in part due to its reputation and also the fact that they brand themselves with the ultra-fun acronym MoMA, which makes them sound more like a Michelin Star restaurant than a museum.

Good evening,  My name is Gerald Burke. I'm an American game developer living in the Appalachian Mountains of Northeast Tennessee. Recently, while participating in the Ludum Dare game jam, I inadvertently created what may be the finest piece of art and literature in the American canon. I will share it here:  https://ldjam.com/events/ludum-dare/52/the-ballad-of-eric-hernandez-cattle-rancher  Some reviews have included:  "10/10 would moo again" - kodingknights  "i’m scared to vote" - math_daemon  "A very confusing experience!" - Ja_viera  I would like to submit the game for inclusion in your museum or art gallery or whatever it is. I googled "important museums" and you were on the first page, congratulations! It's a digital work, but I would like to limit the number of physical installations to avoid diluting the market. With that said, if you could get back to me quickly, I have a list of this to send. As my second choice (The Met is garbage at answering emails), I think you're in a unique position to platform a critical piece of work.  I look forward to your response.  Warm regards,  Gerald Burke
I was so proud of this email, I all but framed it. Source: Author.

From my perspective, the email I had sent was all I really needed to carry the joke a little further and get a few more people to play the game. My query was already the icing on the cake. It needn’t have gone any further. But just a few days later, I get a response:

Dear Gerald,  Thank you for reaching out. And may I say thank you for confirming, via what I'm sure was an exhaustive Google search, that we are in fact an "important museum." Unlike our friends at the Met we try to not be garbage at responding to emails, and, given the pressing urgency of finding a suitable place for your bovine opus, I thought I'd give it a try right away.  Here are some thoughts that came to mind when I played it:  "I must say, this is indeed a video game." - Paul G.   "I've seen a lot of video games in my time, and this is one of them." - P. Galloway  " As video games go, this is definitely a video game. " - P.G.  What do the cows mean? Are they a symbol of rapacious consumerism, of our twisted desire to shape the world to fit our never-to-be-satisfied need for something cuter, something more natural, something that produces the maillard reaction when placed in close proximity to extreme heat? Why do I keep pushing the button, knowing that it's just more cows? Are the cows us? Am I a cow?   None of these questions could be answered, because I closed the browser tab after about 100 cows and moved on to cow gifs on Reddit.   I don't think we have any opportunities for exhibiting your insightful ruminants at the Museum of Modern Art, but I do hope you find an appropriate venue for them before putting this game out to pasture. Please keep up the good work, and don't hesitate to share any future projects involving animal husbandry.    Yours in solidarity and well-chewed cud,   Paul Galloway
Paul Galloway is the real hero of this story. Source: Author.

At this point, I am over the moon. The joke aside, I had actually managed to get a respectable person from an actual museum to play my game and give me feedback. It was all part of the broader joke and the representative I spoke with definitely had their own fun with it, but the result was the same: I made a dumb game and got an important person at a famous museum to play it as a joke. I don’t know what’s next in my life as a developer of indie games, but I feel like I created a moment that I could retire on.

Of course, the whole point of all of this was to get people to play and rate my game. And a whole lot of people did. I owe most of that to my ability to say with almost complete honesty that my game had been “reviewed” by the Museum of Modern Art. I very eagerly awaited what effect the stunt would have on my final ranking. When the results finally came in, I found that I had once again made a middling game.

Results from the jam rankings. All scores in the 300+ range, with humor ranking a 65 out of around 2000
Further proof that quality counts more than quantity. Source: Author.

The results are out of roughly two-thousand entries, so I’m just ahead of the curve in most categories, but strongly in the middle of the pack. But the “Humor” category is where I take the most inspiration. For the first time since I’ve been doing the jam, I broke into the top one hundred in a category. It seems strange to brag about 65th place in any metric, but out of a pool so large, I like to think I did pretty well. Imagine if I had actually made a good game.


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