Part 2. Moving Forward
Transitioning out of Adobe Flash
A two-part series
As discussed in Part 1 of this post, Adobe ended support for Flash Player on December 31, 2020 and blocked Flash content from running in Flash Player beginning January 12, 2021. Although our team had been anticipating this deadline for years, we had not predicted the greater significance of the timing! The end of Flash coincided with a global pandemic and the shift toward online or hybrid learning for K-12, university and Extension programs. The push to reprogram our games and interactives in new formats could not have been more urgent.
Our development team began discussing and planning our transition to non-Flash platforms more than a decade ago. Still, change is hard, especially for multi-year projects carried out in conjunction with academic research and educational outreach. Reprogramming a game in a new format takes a lot of time and effort. Depending on the nature of the gameplay and graphics, sometimes the task is harder outside of Flash. For example, certain kinds of animation that are simple to do with vector graphics in Flash are more difficult to implement on other platforms.
The food safety learning game Potluck Panic, first published in 2016, was our final product developed in Flash, and by then the writing was on the wall. As the game approached completion, we realized we needed to re-develop it in Unity right away. Happily, software developer Frank Eshelman had recently joined our team, and he inherited Potluck Panic Unity as his first project.
Nitrogen & Agriculture (2017), Nutritious Nitrogen (2018), Math Snacks: Creature Caverns (2019), Test Strip Lab (2019), Water Sampling (2019), Water Testing (2020), Movement & Storage of Water in Soils (2020), and the Virtual Insect Collection Lab (2021) were developed in HTML5.
In 2020, as browsers rolled out their end dates for supporting Flash, we knew we’d need to update or sunset the older Flash-based games in our catalog. Because our grant-funded development happens as an integrated part of research and education projects with discrete end dates, none of these products were associated with continuing funding. At the same time, we knew they were being used in Extension programs, K-12 classrooms, informal learning programs and 4-H. A flood of messages from teachers, curriculum portals, parents and learners made clear that our Flash products—especially Math Snacks and the Virtual Labs—played important roles in existing curricula and programs. We didn’t want to lose loyal audiences or let our users down. Worst of all would be to withdraw access just as schools were shifting to online learning due to Covid, where digital media and learning games could help to fill urgent needs.
We decided to move forward in reprogramming our most-used games, to continue making them available to Extension and other audiences. We had two priorities: to maintain access to these materials and to update accessibility to serve our audiences’ needs. Since 2017, our team has actively investigated best strategies to improve accessibility in interactive digital media. Redesigning these products out of Flash gave us a chance to design from an evolved perspective that prioritized accessibility as well as issues of diversity and representation. In consultation with accessibility researchers and reviewers, we engaged in pre-design activities to identify how games such as Monster School Bus could be made more accessible (both visually, in gameplay, and cognitively) and include more options for identity and gender presentation. Interactive virtual labs, such as the eight food safety Virtual Labs, gained keyboard navigation and transitioned from a "square" format with a large sidebar to a wider, more immersive presentation.
As of January, 2021, the following games and modules have been re-published in new formats:
Math Snacks: Gate [Coming Soon]
Many of our products are distributed through the popular school platform BrainPOP, on its free educational gaming site GameUp. To avoid disrupting teaching resources in the middle of a school year, BrainPOP chose to take down their Flash games as of August 2, 2020. As we release new versions of our Flash games, we also share them with BrainPOP for renewed distribution via GameUp.
Looking back over the past two years, it’s amazing how many products we’ve managed to recreate. Credit goes to our amazing software developers, as well as to the accessibility review teams, instructional designers, game designers, artists, and support staff who helped remake assets, resolve design questions, update text, and spread the word.
Written by: Amy Smith Muise with input from John “CC” Chamberlin, David Abraham, and Frank Eshelman