Sean's Technology and Writing Blog

Avoiding the race condition bug in Scratch

03 July 2014

When I discovered Scratch, I was fascinated to see that the language enables you to put scripts on different sprites, or multiple scripts on the same sprite, that appear to execute at the same time. This is a bit like threading, an advanced programming technique that enables you (in very basic terms) to have different bits of a program executing in parallel (at the same time).

There is a special class of bug that emerges when you're dealing with parallel code, which is the race condition. This happens when two different bits of the program "race" to do something at the same time, and the programmer doesn't have control over which "wins".

For example, if I put all these scripts on the same sprite, what is the final value of the score variable?

four scripts that start on the green flag and all change the variable score to something different

It doesn't matter what your guess is, because there's no sure way of knowing how it will behave next time. It might change depending on what else is going on in the program, or a minor update to Scratch might change the synchronisation too. Logically, it's not something you can control. If you ask the program to do four things at the same time that don't make sense together, you risk getting unexpected results.

From my own quick and dirty experiments, it looks like the one that runs last (and ultimately sets the score) is the one you edit or move last. So if you, in the editor, drag the set score to 0 block and then click the green flag, the final value of score is 0. To get the value 8, drag the blocks in this order: set score to 0, set score to 5, change score by 2, change score by 1, and then click the green flag. I put all these scripts on the same sprite. When you have more than one sprite with conflicting scripts on it like this, sprites that were added to the program first have higher priority over the final result. So the cat seems to trump other sprites, for example. I ran my test in Scratch 2.0, but the results are different in Scratch 1.4, and might even be different for you running Scratch 2.0. And they might be different tomorrow for either of us. There's no reason why they have to stay the same.

That's a bit of a diversion because this information isn't really useful to you: for the program to make sense to others (an important part of programming), and to always run reliably (even if someone else moves a script), you need to avoid race conditions like this, not work around them.

It might seem like this is a bit of an artificial example (okay, it is), but similar problems can often occur when lots of scripts start when the green flag is clicked, or the background changes, or when there is a particular broadcast. There have been a couple of times I've experienced problems similar to this, including when writing Hangman for my book Scratch Programming in Easy Steps and the Shaun the Sheep Football game more recently.

There are a few strategies you can use to avoid race conditions:

  1. Avoid having more 'green flag' or other hat scripts (with rounded tops) than you need. If you can combine them without causing any problems, it's best to do that. That enables you to determine the order the blocks run in.
  2. If you have a bug that might be caused by a race condition, try adding wait blocks to delay some of your scripts so they execute in an order you can influence. This is a real fudge so I wouldn't recommend it for final programs, but it can be valuable for finding bugs when you're testing your program.
  3. Use Scratch broadcasts to synchronise between sprites where necessary. For example, you could have a green flag script that sets up your variables and gets everything else ready, and then sends a broadcast to start scripts on other sprites. That avoids a clash where the other sprites might be trying to use variables you haven't set up yet (for example).
  4. Use the broadcast and wait block where it makes sense. That stops your script steaming ahead before getting the results it needs from other scripts that it's triggering.

Have you experienced bugs like this? How did you overcome them? Let me know in the comments below.

For more on Scratch, take a look at my books Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps and Scratch Programming in Easy Steps.

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Excellent post, Sean.

I've been a professional programmer for 15 years (and an amateur/student one for another 15) -- and I still get stung by race conditions from time to time.

They're a real pain because often things work perfectly well when you step through with a debugger, and when you run tests on lightly loaded machines -- then screw up intermittently in the real world.

As you learn Scratch is a great time to understand race conditions, and learn to not create them in the first place.
Thank you, John. I used to write a blog about parallel programming a few years ago and at that time university courses were only covering parallel programming as an option. As a result, many graduates weren't being taught about this problem, which comes up a lot in the real world. I don't know how much that's changed, but it's fantastic that Scratch enables many people to learn about this in their very first programming language.
I did the parallel programming module at university, and it didn't really cover this kind of thing - it was more about distributing a computing task across multiple processors.

In languages like C and Java, we have ways to waiting for threads, telling waiting threads to continue, ways to tell routines to only let one thread "in" at a time. With these we can make the threads perform a little dance around each other so they don't tread on each others' toes -- but code it wrong and they will trip up.

In Scratch we have none of those features (rightly - because it would be too complicated) and that's good because it encourages you to come up with cleaner ways to synchronise the dance. Yet when you move on to a "grown up" language, you're going to be excited about the new tools you get to choreograph the dance.
And the great thing is that if you're aware of the problems caused by race conditions, you're more likely to look for language features that solve these problems when you move to C and Java later.
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