By Dr Iain Donald, Lecturer in Interactive Media Production at the University of Abertay Dundee.
This article is part of our series: a day in the software life, in which we will be asking researchers from all disciplines to discuss the tools that make their research possible.
Computer games are being used to address complex issues for a range of audiences. One such game is Far From Home, an online 3D adventure game made by students at the University of Abertay in Dundee. This uses the adventures of an alien called Sid to represent the experiences of a child in care, and helps them overcome the challenges they may face. The use of a computer game helps deal with a difficult subject in a way that is both engaging and fun.
The project began when a group of young people in care, with the help of charity Who Cares? Scotland, looked at how the National Care Standards (which cover the young person's rights) could be made easier for them to understand. That meeting brought to the fore what it is like to enter the system for often confused, hurt and scared young people, who find themselves trying to make sense of a new way of life. As one young person said, “I may as well have been on another planet” and this made sense to everyone. With that in mind, a mascot, the blue-skinned alien Sid, was devised to represent what it is like to go into care for the first time.
The character had his own website, Meet Sid, which gave young people in care easy access to information such as the National Care Standards. In 2012, the Care Inspectorate, the body in charge of care standards in Scotland, decided it was time to update Sid in a way that could that could engage once more with young people. They gave a group of third year Abertay students a brief to develop an action role play game to help re-launch the Meet Sid website. Using characters and ideas from the young people in care, Far From Home was developed. The game explores the themes of trust, consequences, danger and unfamiliarity, and looks at these themes through quests for Sid to follow in a fun and visually stunning setting.
Any game development cycle, never mind one which deals with serious and complex issues, can be a challenge. The students had to take responsibility for all aspects of the development, such as steering the client through the process, learning new skills whilst building on existing ones and balancing their own goals with those of the client.
The students first tried out a range of game engines and chose the Unity3D engine as it would help with the rapid creation of the top-down, angled perspective game that had been asked for. The game engine also ensured that the programmers could focus on the implementation of gameplay and features above that of engine development. The students had three years' experience of C++, so moving to C# to code the game was a smooth transition. The design included a movement system that lets the player explore the game's world in an intuitive way. The player is made to think about their actions and make informed decisions by completing quests and interacting with non-player characters. The mechanics for stealth and artificial intelligence added an extra level of fun and challenge, and fitted in well with the other features in the game.
Once the user experience components had been added, the results was a polished final product that could keep the player engaged and rewarded. For the Abertay students, the project was part of their course work and used a pedagogical model of workplace-simulation to give them the experience of what it is like to work in industry. The end result was a game that not only refreshed the Meet Sid campaign, but also gave young people with difficult lives an opportunity to explore how the right decisions in life can keep them from harm. The game promotes the rights of young people in care, and helps them understand what they should expect from the services they engage with.
[Image: Rendering of a Far From Home level, produced via Unity3D.]