Today the lab group were asked to be lab rats for the first-time-in-the-world-ever playing of a computer game! We also welcomed a couple of guests: Helen Pain from the University of Edinburgh and John Thompson from the Institute for Development Studies

African Farmer is an online, multiplayer game that is being written by Ellie and Jim for the Green Revolution project. It is loosely based on a couple of boardgames used in teaching scenarios for International Development and for policy makers. The game is ideally aimed at groups of between 15 and 25, with players being asked to take care of a family in a rural farming village in Africa.

The game revolves around a series of locations that each provide different information and access to functionality:-

  • Home – gives information about the health and wealth of the family. 
  • Farm – shows the state of the crops and fields that the family own.
  • Village – allows the players to get a feel for how other people in the village are getting on.
  • Market – allows players to buy and sell things that they need, such as crops, fertiliser, food, school vouchers etc.
  • Bank – for loans, and the payment of penalties.
Farm view

The farm view.

The idea is that people have incomplete information about the growing conditions, how much their crop will be worth and so on, and have to make some quite complex decisions. The outcome for the families can be harsh – if they do not secure enough food each year, family members will die. The simulation is a very simplistic view of farming and environment, but the decisions soon mount up and allow for a wide range of strategies to be employed.

This was the first time that the game had been run with multiple people logging in simultaneously, and the lab group were asked not to hold back with their feedback (although Ellie did say if they wanted to be nice about it they could be!). We had a lively session which completely overran our usual 12pm stop, and generated a lot of feedback on the interface. Sadly we didn’t get quite as far through the game as was hoped. Some of the interface difficulties slowed down people getting to grips with the game and being able to find the right information.

Still, as Jim put it this was a pre-alpha version, and the feedback was immensely useful for clearly indicating which areas need more work. The range of backgrounds within the group highlighted different problems – some very quickly got to grips with the communication panel and other elements of the interface, others grasped the flow of the game much more quickly. The game itself actually fared quite well – the group were absorbed and wanted to see what the outcomes of their actions were – so with a few changes to the interface the whole thing is looking extremely promising. Jim and Ellie have been left with a lot of ideas to think over.

Maybe after the next iteration the lab group will agree to play again!