I playtested Though Poppies Grow with 6 colleagues on September 30, 2016 and I now see from first hand experience the value and importance of the process. There will always be issues that surface. Some will be subtle adjustments to mechanics or simply adding some guiding instructions. Others will be glaring misfires or omissions that the designer does not allow themselves to see because they are too augered into the project. In the words of Jesse Schell, games for learning scholar, “the overall user experience is far more important than focusing on mechanics and design.” The Kitsilano teachers who played TPG appeared to value the experience, so by Schell’s measure the playtest tilted in favour of a positive and worthwhile learning resource.
The focus of a game designer in a playtest is to observe the users playing the game to determine problems, unintended consequences and see how they approach challenges. I would like to say that I resisted the urge to intervene but I could not help myself at times, especially when a few of the testers were having connectivity and account issues while others were impatient to move ahead.
I was relieved that ARIS operated glitch-free for the entire test. After weeks of unpredictable and sometimes unexplainable triggering problems, I can confidently report that all game objects, media and triggers worked without a single issue. The only problem on the technical side was dropped and lagging network connections with one of the players that were specific to his phone.
Testers were told to bring ear buds to counter the loud traffic, and to be sure that their phones were fully charged at the beginning of the game. The group completed scenes 1-4, then jumped ahead to the last one so that all downtown locations could be accessed without having travel the longer distance by car to Hastings Park to play scene 5. Even with this reduction in game play, two of the group members would have run out of power after scene 4 if another member had not brought a portable battery pack with him. My lesson here: the size and scope of a game must take power into account when playing mobile games.
The most significant observation I had was that the distance between locations combined with the social nature of traveling in groups inevitably lead to players moving in and out of the game flow and their connection with the story. This disjunction was compounded by texts, phone calls and social media notifications on their phones. Despite these disruptions, the teachers purposefully tried to re-engage with the game; however it was obvious that their attention and immersion had been diminished. I expect that this effect would be more problematic with students.
One unexpected outcome in the way the game was played was a pair of teachers who were sharing a phone alternated speaking the dialogue of the conversations. This is an example a post-game survey suggestion to have players operate in small groups interacting with each other. They could share the reading task to remove the crowding around the device and mediate the requirement to read long passages of text on a small screen. The group as a whole pointed to the need to be able to stretch all visual media like photos, maps and manuals excerpts.
The gamer in the group pointed out the problems with the points system. First, the points have no impact on the game play in Episode 1, so they appear as add-on. The second is that in the identity mechanic, players could gain points by repeatedly selecting the same minorities before advancing to the next stage. He suggested an effective fix, where negative points would be awarded prior to disclosing the options that allows the player to advance. This solution would also addressed the emotional targets of frustration and possibly build empathy towards the player character.
It was clear that some testers were more interested in the subject and story than others. Those that were more interested tended to discuss the game media and narrative while others operated more as collectors seeking game points. My thoughts on this are to reframe the activity as an interactive story with some game elements rather than a game, which most gamers will greet with expectations of a win-state, strategizing and above all - choice, which in TPG are not true choices. They are designed to ultimately convey that the soldiers in the First World War had virtually none.
Another issue was that some players became disoriented locating common vantage points between the game map and real life. Some were not clear that this was an objective. Game info notes or instructions in the opening video should solve this issue. Similarly, some players did not use the pinch-and-zoom function on the map to pan back from a location and orient themselves to the streets and intersections. Two players confused the arrow in the plaque icon with walking directions. I will be replacing all of the generic icon with game specific ones in the final version.
The playthrough confirmed the recommendations that Dr. Jim Mathews made to me recently about the pedagogical and logistical launching of this type of historical learning game. He suggests having classroom session where students conduct a play-through version of the game and have a chance to interact with the media before attempting it on location. This serves the purpose of introducing the game, fielding common questions and watching some of the video that is difficult to hear outside. A version of the recruitment and training mechanics could be done inside or on the the school field. I could adjust the GPS version of the game to bring-in new elements to the narrative and a mechanic that builds on one mastered in the classroom so that students would not be playing the exact game twice.
Ultimately, Though Poppies Grow is a multi-site, multi-stage learning unit. I designed the game to be an interest building activity that would connect to historical inquiry activities on the post game companion site. Mathew’s pre-game scaffolding suggestions are effectives means to begin the unit and increase the likelihood that the learning outcomes will be achieved, and the students enjoy the experience.
I have read I should not invest too much into a single playtest. Educational game companies playtest formally and informally on a weekly basis with new testers. Even so, the efforts of my colleagues to help me out by playing TPG and providing feedback have given me a good deal of observations and ideas from which I can iterate on the game. Distance, engagement and interactivity have surfaced as my main functional challenges. The most important elements from the learning perspective are the emotional targets like injustice, dejection and anticipation that are designed to stimulate interest to the social and historical issues connected to the First World War. This remains to be my main challenge.