The Research and Development Plan for

Brian Slator
(vers. 2, Dec. 28, 1998)
(vers. 1, Oct. 9, 1998)

We propose to begin work on a virtual educational environment (Curtis, 1992) that combines microeconomics with Western history. We aim to provide an engaging context for role-active immersive distance education and a platform to teach business-oriented problem-solving in a learn-by-doing pedagogical style (Duffy et al, 1983; Norman, 1988; Hill and Slator, 1998).

In the long term we propose to implement a virtual environment to simulate a 19th Century Western town. We will populate this town with intelligent software agents to simulate an economic environment representative of the times. We propose to implement this as a spatially oriented virtual environment, borrowing freely from historical records and, it is hoped, employing digital images from archives at the NDSU Institute for Regional Studies, as well as other sources.

The educational "game" will be one where players join the simulation and accept a role in the virtual environment. Rather than everyone vying for a portion of the same economic market, roles will be variable and specific. In the Northwestern University SELL game (Slator and Chaput, 1986), for example, every player "inherited" a storefront and then competed for a share of the market in either bicycles or consumer electronics, OR ANY COMBINATION THEY WISHED.

By contrast, in this simulation players will be SPECIFIC purveyors of dry goods, food stuffs, blacksmithing services, mortuary services, saloons and gambling establishments, banks, barber shops, apothecaries, messenger services, news stands, gunsmiths, implement dealers, and so forth. Therefore, players will only directly compete against other players with similar roles, or with software agents in the same profession, but not be in instant competition with every other player.

Background: Dollar Bay

The design and implementation of the foundational elements of this new simulation will be leveraged to a large degree by experience with the Dollar Bay game which is a networked, multi-player, simulation-based, interactive multi-media, educational game constructed in the pedagogical domain of micro-economics, in particular retailing. The teaching goals revolved around the strategic importance of "targeting" specific customer groups in order to gain competitive advantage in the virtual retail marketplace (like SELL; Hooker and Slator, 1986).

In Dollar Bay, players are able to do many of the things real retailers do. Players buy advertising (on radio or in newspapers), they order products from a variety of distributors and they shop around for better prices and volume discounts. They explore the city, checking the competition and do market research looking for likely customers. They review their accounts, hire and fire staff, read the newspaper, "listen" to the radio, return slow moving stock to the distributor, and change their prices. And at any point they can stop and ask for help in various forms or seek expert advice. They can even change their own appearance.

Foreground: The Blackwood Project

The current proposal is for a virtual environment that differs from Dollar Bay in several substantial ways. In addition to a much more variable and comprehensive economic model, the proposed project will concentrate on implementing a more authentic cultural simulation. For example, the environment will support period-authentic atmosphere in the form of entertainments: the circus might come to town, the weekly train will arrive from the east, a cattle drive will appear on the scene, preachers and circuit judges and medicine shows will pass through, and the occasional crime will be reported.

Crime solving will be a special event in the simulation designed to engage players in logical puzzles and sharpen deductive skills. These incidents will provide players with logical reasoning exercises whose solutions will depend on both logic and historical enculturation. For example, a player might be deputized and called upon to deduce the culprit when a storefront window has been broken: did children smash the window, did a horse throw a shoe, did a wagon collide with the store, or is there some other explanation?

By combining an economic simulation, where each player is expected to compete for a slice of the retail pie, with an authentic historical simulation, we hope to engage learners in two aspects of role-based learning: microeconomic strategizing as before, but combined with historical enculturation. To support this melding, we plan to pursue a line of agent-based research first undertaken in the NSF-supported Geology Explorer Project (Saini-Eidukat, Schwert and Slator, 1998; Slator et al, 1998). This research explores knowledge engineering and representation issues involved with designing and implementing intelligent agents of the following types:
"atmosphere" agents
an agent that simply lends to the local color. For example the Dollar Bay Retailing Game features a street magician, a beat poet, a lost child, a political activist, a street vendor, a beat cop, a street sweeper, and door-to-door salesmen;
"infrastructure" agents
an agent who contributes in some way to the gameplay: For example the Dollar Bay Retailing Game could feature a banker, a librarian, a market analyst, a wholesaler, an employee, a financial planner, a rental agent, a moving company representative, or an advertising consultant;
"tutorial" agents
an agent that monitors player moves, and visits players to give them advice in the form of expert stories and cases, or in some other way assists players in learning to play. These will represent expertise or past experiences of other players as well as the rule-based tutors discussed above
the Planet Oit simulation also has Deductive Tutors that monitor players to make sure they have the proper equipment and instruments to do the analyses the game requires, and also provides hints if players are stuck or lost.

Long Term Potential

In the long term the design and implementation of the system just described will be proposed to funding agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the US Department of Education. In the short term, the need is for the development of a prototype system that will demonstrate the plausibility of the proposal. This prototyping will take two forms: the specification of software "infrastructure" agents to enact the agent-based economic model, and the implementation of a subset of these agents.
The project will be able to borrow heavily from two principal sources. First, experience gained in implementing previous simulations. This project will benefit from the Dollar Bay game and will implement agent behavior that depends on product definition (Slator and Farooque, 1998). The work proposed here is to devise a new set of products for shopping agents to purchase, and the design of a new set of agents to support the historical authenticity and atmosphere of the game.

The second source of borrowing will be the World Wide Web Instructional Committee (WWWIC) at North Dakota State University which is a multi-disciplinary faculty group engaged in the development of virtual/visual environments for science education. This group has developed several applications and tools (e.g. Jia, 1998) that will assist in the development of this new environment. In addition, the WWWIC has garnered considerable experience in developing systems of this sort, and has a vested interest in seeing projects of this sort succeed, and so can be counted on as a group to provide support, advise, and expertise.


Last modified: 29Dec98; 15Jan03
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