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How to Build the Dark Star: a Serious Collaborative Game

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Games are learning experiences. They can help people to better understand soft skills and grow by providing space to safely experiment. Corrado (Dex) De Sanctis will facilitate the game-playing session "How we built the Dark Star" at Agile Tour London 2020 based on his game DSBuilders.

Serious games are first of all games, thus their goal is having fun. According to Corrado, being "serious", they also have other goals, which are normally related to the growth of the players involved. For example, some games simulate realistic situations where you can safely experiment with possible solutions along with learning real-world behaviours. There are also games that let you understand concepts that are not easy to explain in words or in a traditional class; for example, how can we teach people about "collaboration" only with theory? Corrado thinks that maybe it is more effective to let them play a collaborative game.

The idea for the game DSBuilders came after some not really effective PI Planning sessions (a Scaled Agile practice) that had people so focused on the backlog definition that they couldn’t see the existing gap in the collaboration protocols. Corrado had the idea of creating a simulation where backlog definition was not an issue, but where people had to maximise the effort in finding an effective collaboration protocol. In DSbuilders, players who cannot find a good enough way to collaborate, end up losing.

In the virtual version of DSbuilders at Agile Tour London 2020, the playing space will be transferred to a large Mural space where each team can find all materials for the work, and can access the common area. Private and public spaces are created using the Zoom breakout rooms feature to let people interact with each other and focus on team-specific tasks.

InfoQ interviewed De Sanctis about the benefits of playing games and his experience from playing the DSBuilders game.

InfoQ: Why should we play games? What benefits can they bring?

Corrado De Sanctis (Dex): Games are fun; this is a good enough reason to play.

But games, all games, are also learning experiences. Just think about this: ALL cubs spend most of their time learning while playing. For all species, except humans, playing is the most important way to learn. With respect to the human "learning-only strategy", "learning & playing" is way more effective. We can probably say that playing games is the best learning experience ever.

InfoQ: What is the DSBuilders game about?

De Sanctis: DSbuilders is a game about collaboration. It shows how collaboration helps a group of people build something very complex, even something extremely complex to build. In the game, the players are challenged to plan how to build a planet battle-station with the code name "Dark Star". The station is made of 100+ components which are organised in six large initiatives and connected to each other through 200+ dependencies and 300+ integration connectors. But this is the easier part of the project. In fact, this construction must be executed in six cycles while a galactic war against rebels is stirring things up and continuously changing players’ priorities.

Yes, this could sound familiar ...

DSBuilders is a collaborative card game which has already been used on different occasions. It was played during #Play14 London (the well-known serious games event series) and a few other times after companies requested an ad hoc session to test agile scaling before actually applying it to real projects.

DSBuilders is at its third release and it is constantly evolving, following a very agile way of working. Here is an article that shows how the game evolved session by session until the current version.

InfoQ: How do you play the game?

De Sanctis: DSBuilders is played by a team of teams. Each team can have three to six members (eventually more, but five is the most effective number) for a total of 20 to 30 players. However, I have facilitated sessions with fewer people.

The goal is to define the six-cycles plan to build a massive battle station to conquer and dominate the galaxy. The players have resources and a backlog of around 100 components to build the Dark Star, and are subject to external and internal dependencies.

DSBuilders is not really about "building" components, but managing prioritisation and dependencies, as all teams are working at the same moment on different interconnected backlogs. What adds even more difficulty to the game is the necessary shift of priorities from cycle to cycle depending on what is happening in the galaxy.

An example of a real walkthrough session can be found in the article Collaboration gaps enhanced by a game? Yes, we can.

InfoQ: What you have learned from facilitating the game and watching people play it?

De Sanctis: Facilitating DSBuilders is exhausting but incredibly satisfying. Sessions are full of deep learning about both people and practices; they are helpful for me as a person and as a professional.

At the end, the most incredible moment is when you see the magic happening. During DSBuilders’ sessions I have always been able to spot the exact moment when players realise that to beat the game they have to collaborate all together beyond a single team’s boundaries. This is a precise instant when you see someone telling or doing something different, which inspires other players to change their behaviour as well.

In that moment you can see how a group of confused distant people turn into a team of focused collaborative players. Players may eventually lose the game, but the result of that moment will stay with them after the session.

In the podcast Build the Death Star - Star Wars meets Scrum, you can hear about a real DSBuilders’ session facilitated in a company. Here you can listen about the effects of the game session to people who played it and possible takeaways for real life activities.

InfoQ: What’s your advice for people who want to experiment using serious games?

De Sanctis: Serious games are, in my opinion, the best way to help people understand soft skills, in some cases even the only way to teach them. For this reason, companies should include them in their training programs. Also, this is the only way to experiment quickly and safely, and to easily repeat the sessions in order to look for ways of improving. This is why serious games are perfect for promoting continuous learning and a continuous improvement culture within a company.

The hard part about serious games is that sometimes they are not easy to facilitate. Gaming sessions are much more complicated than traditional classes: preparation, introduction and execution phases require a different level of engagement from the facilitator and from participants as well as retrospective takeaways. However, in the last few years, and in particular within the agile movement, serious games have been gaining importance up to now when most training sessions include some gaming experience. DSBuilders is there, with other hundreds of serious games, to help your teams’ journey to improved agility.

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  • Dark Star ...

    by Cameron Purdy /

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    That was the project name in Sun Labs based on JINI to produce a game engine back end ...

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