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Wednesday
May222013

Back above the parapet

After our lab group play session the work went kind of crazy for a bit there. I am slowly surfacing, coming out from the bunker, and preparing to stick my head back above the parapet and share what's been going on. 

Quite apart from the small(!!) matter of attending CHI and getting an application and subsequent paper in for DiGRA (more soon on both, promise), we had a substantial milestone for the game and project last Sunday (19th May). Last year we offered an extra-curricular activity in the middle of the STEPS summer school programme, where particpants could come and play the Green Revolution game. This year we offered the same activity, except this year we were using our game - African Farmer. 

Of course, this meant that all of the interface problems found by the lab group had to be reduced or (preferably) eliminated. Any back-end bugs had to be squashed with extreme prejudice. As much of the functionality that could be implemented had to be, and had to work and be straightforward. The very worst bugs we could tolerate needed to have a work-around. 

We had a major interface redesign after the first lab session, with money put aside to allow us to employ asilia to give us a consistent and much lovelier look and feel. That went brilliantly, but of course meant a reasonable chunk of time to put the new assets into the game. My model/view/controller separation was good, but nothing is going to protect you from a total asset change! On top of that, the bug-fixing and testing cycle was intense, particularly for the last two weeks before Sunday. As we cleared the most obvious bugs more insidious underlying issues became apparent, and slowly, slowly we got through those too. It wasn't a case of late nights and massive hours, just constantly working at a fairly intense level for the 9.30-5.30.

(I also got a cold after CHI. I had it for 2 weeks - a definite sign that I was pushing my system a little harder than comfortable!)

My poor partner had to put up with me being almost entirely unable to form coherent, completed sentences on Friday night. But we were pretty confident that the system would be robust enough at that point for Sunday. 

And you know what? It actually was. We had 15 participants in the end, working in 7 family groups. They came from all over the place, Africa, India, South America, and even the UK. After intros and so on we played for around 3, 3.5 hours, and got through 3 game years. It got a lot faster once we'd got through the first season, but even that first season the difficulties were mostly around decision-making and not our interface. 

At the end of the last cycle our project sponsor John lead the reflective discussion, and we honestly could not have paid for better results. They mentioned almost all of the learning points you could want, decisions around schooling, better understanding of why that didn't happen much, a feel for intensification and the importance of saving seed over providing the best possible diet all came up. What didn't come up was the interface. It disappeared, in exactly the way it ought to have. 

In short, it was more successful than I have ever dared to dream it could be. 

We possibly made it a little tough - more people died than we meant. There are things we could improve, things we might need to include for a fully featured game. The poor game manager at the moment needs to constantly manipulate the database directly, rather than work with the game interface. There's still one irritating occasional bug that needs a browser refresh to clear it. But over all, it worked, it was fairly solid, and it produced the kind of learning and reflection that the table-top games have always caused. 

The only thing I can compare my feelings at the end of the day to is finishing a marathon: exhausted, proud, pleased and a little bit startled to have got there. In reality I'm probably running a 50k (or 50 mile? Hopefully not) ultra, but at least the 26.2 has broken the back of it! 

(This would also be a great time to thank the lab group, who actually came back and played the game again for us and highlighted issues we would never have found without them. Thanks everyone!)

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