Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 6 October 2006   Monday, October 30, 2006

ISSN 1748-3603

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Interactive game-based learning
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EuroCALL goes virtual: from Granada to Cyberspace
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Issue 5, July 2006
July 11, 2006
Issue 4 April 2006
April 27, 2006
Issue 3, January 2006
January 30, 2006
Issue 2
October 24, 2005
Issue 1
August 5, 2005
Interactive game-based learning
by Maria Fasli and Michael Michalakopoulos

It is widely accepted that students learn better and retain more when they actively engage in the learning process. A prerequisite for engagement is motivation: motivated students learn better and consequently progress faster and retain more knowledge. Given that motivation and engagement are key factors in gaming, there is a huge potential in utilizing gaming elements in an educational context (Kirriemuir and McFarlane, 2004; McFarlane et al. 2002; Prensky, 2001).

Games have a number of characteristics that make them attractive from a pedagogical point of view. They immerse users into a world and are interactive, engaging and fun. They encourage active learning and motivate participation and persistence. In addition, they provide instant feedback on the user's actions. In some knowledge domains games may be the only possible means of simulating and practicing real world problems. In the military for instance, simulations have been used to teach pilots (Stottler 2000). A successful integration of gaming principles and techniques in a learning environment can provide a challenge for students; motivate them to learn; help them learn more effectively; improve their overall experience; as well as making learning itself more fun! Amongst the most popular types of games are simulation games; these simulate real life while maintaining the main elements of a game. Multi-player simulation games offer additional benefits: students can learn from each other without the direct intervention or input from the instructor and in addition develop their communication and social skills.

e-Game (electronic generic auction marketplace) has been in use since 2004 in a graduate course on Agent Technology for E-commerce at the University of Essex. Software agents are computational systems that are capable of autonomous, reactive and proactive behaviour; they are also capable of interacting with other agents (human or artificial). Such 'smart' software agents have a number of potential applications. For instance, they can represent users and perform tasks on their behalf, such as finding products and services, and even negotiating the price and other terms of transactions online. Teaching intelligent agents and multi-agent systems therefore involves covering a wide range of topics including architectures, coordination and cooperation as well as negotiation among agents. Using practical examples and providing realistic scenarios where agent technology might be applied is highly desirable. But although students can be taught the principles and concepts behind software agents, negotiation protocols and strategic behaviour, providing them with a hands on experience is much more difficult. Experimenting in real markets is not possible: it is too risky and impractical. The use of market simulations offers the only realistic alternative.

Our aim was two-fold: firstly to build a configurable software tool to demonstrate negotiation protocols, market mechanisms and strategies, and secondly to provide an environment where students could practice the principles taught, experiment, and learn from each other by participating in realistic multi-player simulation games. The underlying idea was to integrate concepts and techniques from gaming in a framework that would also support active learning with the aim being to harness the motivational power of games and the pedagogic benefits of learning through doing.

The design of e-Game
The e-Game platform has been developed in JAVA with the database component being MySQL and the web server Jakarta Tomcat. The system's overall architecture is given in Figure 1. The server can be extended to support many types of auctions and other negotiation protocols. Additionally, e-Game is designed to support the development and execution of online simulation exercises that take the form of market games.

Figure 1. The architecture of e-Game

e-Game is designed to allow both human and software agents to participate, and as such has two interfaces to the outside world: a Web interface and an Agent interface. The Web interface provides a series of functions such as user registration, profile update, creation of new auctions, bid submission and also search facilities. The Agent Interface provides agent developers the same functionality with the Web Interface plus an additional set of commands for participating in market games.

Currently e-Game supports a wide range of auction types.  These basic types of auctions can be further refined by allowing the user to define additional parameters that can have an effect on the users' or agents' behaviour, since they modify the basic functionality of an auction, as well as change the information revealed regarding bids and closing time. More details on the technical aspects of e-Game can be found in Fasli and Michalakopoulos (2004a).

One of the most important features of e-Game is that it supports the development and execution of market based simulation games. New games can be developed either in house or by third parties.

Figure 2. Viewing the installed games on e-Game

The Computer Market Game
The computer market game is the first game developed for e-Game. It is a multi-player market simulation lasting 9 minutes that allows six participants Each of the six software agents participating is a PC supplier agent whose task is to assemble PCs for its five clients. For simplicity there are only three types of parts that are necessary to make up a properly working PC: a motherboard, a case and a monitor. 

The agent's strategy should be focused on providing a PC to each one of its clients (or to as many as possible) while at the same time trying to minimize costs. There are obvious interdependencies between goods, as a fully assembled PC requires three components. In creating a strategy for this game, students have to take into account a number of factors:
  • The availability of goods is limited.
  • Prices in auctions fluctuate and also depend on demand.
  • Auctions close at different times, therefore they may have to switch to a different auction if they fail to acquire a certain good.
  • Clients give different bonuses for upgrading to a better specification.
  • The success of an agent does not only depend on its own strategy, but that of the other agents as well.

Students can schedule games on the e-Game servers on a 24-hour basis. They can observe progress in the games over the Internet and track the status of their agents via two screens. The first screen, illustrated in Figure 3, can be used to observe how the game progresses as well as how the various agents are performing in the game (the red bar indicates total game duration, while the orange bar within indicates the passing of time).

Figure 3: Viewing the CMG game online

More detailed information on individual agents is conveyed to the students by viewing the Resources Allocation screen, which allows them to view the client preferences (i.e. what type of PC each customer prefers), what type of goods the agent has bought, and for what price (Figure 4):

Figure 4: Viewing information on individual agents in the CMG game

By refreshing the Resources Allocation applet students get up-to-date information on an agent's purchases and utility thus far in the game. At the end of the game a summary of the final results for all agents, accessible by all players, is generated. A typical results page is illustrated in Figure 5.

Figure 5: The final results page of a typical CMG game

e-Game has been in use since the Spring term of 2004 on a graduate course on Agent Technology for E-commerce. In teaching we have used it to demonstrate principles of negotiation protocols and strategies and auctions in particular. Students have to create their own simple auctions and participate in them by applying different strategies. We have used the market simulation game described here as a piece of assessed coursework worth 25% of the marks for the module. Students create their own individual agent, perform experiments and also participate in a competition. To get the students started we provide them with the code of a very basic 'dummy' agent.
Our experiences have shown that this form of interactive exercise can have significant pedagogic benefits (Fasli and Michalakopoulos 2004b). The game provides an interesting challenge, as well as an opportunity to experiment with different approaches and strategies. As the learning process is interactive it provides the students with a deeper experience, motivates them and helps in retaining knowledge. As this is a simulation game with a realistic scenario they can put into practice the principles taught, comprehend cause and effect in the context of a marketplace and engage in problem solving. Most importantly, they can observe the results of their efforts: during the game the students receive immediate and relevant feedback on how their approach and strategy is working while at the end of the game they get the final score results. Having immediate feedback helps them to recognize weaknesses and shortcomings and to identify ways to improve. This opportunity to reflect is invaluable: students can learn from their mistakes and try alternatives by joining future games.
As every game is different - different parameters, different players, different strategies (even the slightest variation in one of the player's strategy may result in a very different outcome) - students can keep participating in the game and improving their approach. Since the outcome of a game does not only depend on one's individual approach, but also on the other participants' approaches, this makes the game even more challenging. The length of the game, lasting only nine minutes, allows students to play a large number of games against different opponents and experiment with different ideas.
Crucially, students have the opportunity to interact with other students through this game. Unlike traditional simulation games, CMG allows the participation of six students while at the same time viewing of the game is available to everyone. Playing against a software character is challenging, but when one plays against other real players with similar objectives, the competitive element is more powerful which in turn makes the game more engaging, interesting and fun. Students learn from each other in a collaborative way. Not only can they observe their own results, but also those of other students (although they do not know the exact strategy of others). e-Game also incorporates a forum that allows students to exchange ideas and use it as a way of communicating while developing their agents and running games. We also run lab sessions in which we encourage students to engage in discussions about different approaches and provide criticism on each other's ideas. Thus students help each other understand relations such as cause and effect in the game. This collaborative approach also helps them to develop their communication skills as they need to be able to clearly explain their ideas and provide clear arguments. However, although they learn in a collaborative way, the element of competition acts as a disincentive to plagiarism.
The students' motivation is very high. In particular, it has been observed that the competition, which is an open event that any other student or member of staff can attend, acts as a further incentive. The students are proud to present their work and demonstrate their skills and knowledge through the software that they created. They get so immersed in the game that they continue playing against each other even when the official assessment process has finished.
We have surveyed our students and asked them to evaluate the platform, the effectiveness of the game in helping them to practice principles, and their overall learning experience. The results can be summarised as follows:

  • Students considered that this form of simulation game had enabled them to put into practice the principles taught.
  • They reported that the use of e-Game had actually helped them to better understand topics such as negotiation protocols and strategic behaviour.
  • They regarded the competitive element of the game to be enjoyable and fun. In particular they enjoyed the internal competition which provided them with an opportunity to pit their agents against those of others and watch the results live.

One other observed benefit is that the form of the game and the fact that we provide the students with a basic 'dummy' agent to get them started allows them to progress at their own pace. Students can develop their ideas as much as they like. The whole group is not held back because of weaker students. On the contrary, when weaker students participate in the game new conditions and situations arise which make the game more interesting. Furthermore, as students are encouraged to discuss their ideas, weaker students actually benefit from the advanced students who can take them through certain difficult points and help them understand principles. The nature of the game itself and the competitive element involved acts as an incentive for all students to put in more effort and even weaker students persist with playing the game.
In 2005, in addition to the original CMG game for software agents, we implemented a modified version suitable for human players in controlled laboratory sessions. The purpose of this was to put the students in the agents' position and let them experience the intricacies, complexities and uncertainties inherent in a realistic marketplace. Again students reported that this was a beneficial and enjoyable experience (Fasli and Michalakopoulos 2005), though as one student reported 'I liked the exercise in the lab today, but, to be honest, I prefer to see my agent doing this job!'.
The deployment of games as a means to increase motivation, engagement and enhance the students' learning experience has been shown to be very effective. Although e-Game was built with a specific course in mind, it was designed to be configurable and so its use can be extended to other Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Computer Science courses and additional games can be designed to suit their purposes and needs. Two additional exercises for AI-related courses have already been developed with the support of the Higher Education Academy Information and Computer Sciences Subject Centre. The concept of an agent as a decision maker and the market institution of auctions are also central to Economics. e-Game can be used to demonstrate negotiation protocols and strategies in a basic course for Economics, while exercises, for instance simulating a stock market which uses a form of continuous double auction, could be implemented for more advanced courses. Market games can also be used in other disciplines to simulate decision making problems. However, for games to be effective, they need to be carefully designed to achieve specific learning objectives.

e-Game and all the games that have been developed are available and accessible online. Practitioners interested in using e-Game in their own courses are invited to contact the authors.

Maria Fasli
Department of Computer Science, University of Essex
Michael Michalakopoulos
Department of Computer Science, University of Essex

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Fasli M. and Michalakopoulos M. (2004a) e-Game: A generic auction platform supporting customizable market games. In Proceedings of the IEEE/WIC/ACM Intelligent Agent Technology Conference (IAT 2004). pp. 190-196.

Fasli M. and Michalakopoulos M. (2004b) Interactive learning and assessment with the e-Game platform. In Proceedings of the 5th Higher Education Academy Information and Computer Sciences Conference (HEA-ICS), Belfast, UK.

Fasli M. and Michalakopoulos M. (2005) Learning through game-like simulations. In Proceedings of the 6th Higher Education Academy Information and Computer Sciences Conference (HEA-ICS), York, UK.

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