DECISION TRAINING USING AGENT-BASED BUSINESS STRATEGY GAMES
DECISION TRAINING USING AGENT-BASED BUSINESS STRATEGY GAMES
Mike Dobson, Vadim Kyrylov, & Tetyana Kyrylova.
School of Interactive Arts & Technology, Simon Fraser University, Canada
[mdobson, vkyrylov, tkyrylov]@sfu.ca
ABSTRACT. or several different competitive industries. The
simulation is run according to a predefined scenario that
Emerging technologies, such as intelligent agents,
specifies the initial state of the game and the important
avatars, and distributed environments offer new
events taking place during the simulation run such as
opportunities for the improvement of business games used
changes in market conditions.
for training decision makers. The advent of these
technologies also creates new challenges to game Player activities are supervised by the instructor who
developers and training consultants. We investigate these coordinates their work. The play is a series of rounds
opportunities and offer suggestions on how to better spanning over the time period of up to several years, with
address technical and pedagogical challenges. Keywords: steps normally equal to that of the operations management
learning-games, agent-based gaming, simulations, planning horizon in the real context, say one quarter of a
business. calendar year. A training session normally requires
several days and 6-8 hours per day. Training exercises
for students majoring in business administration typically
1. INTRODUCTION takes several weeks with 1-2 short sessions run weekly.
The critical role of training managers in decision In each round trainees are expected to make a number
making for competitive industries is widely recognized in of functional decisions, typically concerning; company
the business and academic community. Business strategy finances, human resources, marketing, production and
games have been used for this purpose since the early expansion. In doing so, they acquire from the gaming
1960s and have evolved into sophisticated systems . environment necessary input data, analyze them using
Several new gaming technologies now offer greater some decision support tools (built-in or standalone, like
opportunities for improved training. Still these spreadsheet programs), evaluate possible options, make
opportunities have not been properly identified yet, and the decision, and enter its parameter values into the
the potential impact thereof on the pedagogy of game- gaming software. After all the players have entered their
based training needs to be investigated The purpose of decisions, the gaming program calculates the new state of
this paper is to identify the emerging opportunities in the market and provides an update for the trainees. This
gaming technology and evaluate their influence on the procedure is repeated until the end of the simulation time.
pedagogy of decision maker training. First we outline Numerous studies have proven that business strategy
some of the existing challenges of game-based training games are very efficient learning and training tools.
and the limitations of the traditional business strategy However, scattered in the literature, are certain concerns
games. Then we discuss how emerging gaming about the existing gaming technology:
technologies could respond to these challenges. In doing
so, we also elaborate on the pedagogical implications of 1. Lack of timely feedback on the learner’s actions. The
the new technologies. Finally, we show an example of an environments do not provide explicit feedback on
advanced business strategy game, which implements player’s strategic steps. Rather, their quality becomes
many of the new desired properties. apparent only after significant delay. Error can be
recognized only with significant delay, often after
2. LIMITATIONS IN CURRENT GAMES corrections have already been made.
At the time of writing there were at least a dozen 2. Poor emotional engagement with the gaming
commercially available business games. Overviews of activities. Without the proper emotional engagement,
many of them can be found in virtually each issue of training sessions become dull and uninteresting.
Simulations & Gaming (the flagship journal on this topic). 3. Lengthy durations for learning. Most games lack the
Here we provide a summary of our findings based on transparency needed for getting students/trainees
these reviews since 1999 [2-7]. A typical business familiar with the game at an efficient pace.
strategy game provides a collaborative computer-based
environment in which the dynamics of a competitive 4. Unintelligible game output. Information visualization
industry is simulated. Players are trainees (individual or features in business games are typically
small groups) normally taking the role of market entities. underdeveloped and are often limited to data
They can be enterprises or branches, can represent presentation in the spreadsheet format.
different places in the supply chain and may belong to one 5. Lack of technology for supporting debriefing. Games
tend to concentrate on the play process, forgetting Optimal agent behavior. Existing business strategy
that the after-play activities could be more important games provide little support for assessing learner’s
to learning. De-briefing is rarely supported. decision making. If well designed, agents can
6. Training business managers is prohibitively demonstrate optimal behavior by making rational
expensive. Training sessions normally require decisions for the player. This offers a range of new
leaving the workplace for an extended period of time opportunities for competency development in the trainees.
and disrupting the normal work schedule. For this They can receive timely feedback from background
reason, sessions have very limited duration (only 2-3 agents monitoring play. This provides a way to compare
days). In many cases this is hardly sufficient for learner decisions with the optimal solutions found by the
accomplishing training goals. intelligent agent and computing errors without significant
delay. As a result, trainees will be able to learn faster
In the next section we outline some emerging
about how rational decisions should be made.
technologies and show how they could help overcome
these limitations. Enhanced transparency and increased access. The
ability of rule-based systems to provide explanations of
3. EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES the logics leading to decisions made by the agent for the
Intelligent agents are gradually finding their way human player, allows the trainee to learn from these
into advanced e-Learning environments [8-10]. As we explanations in the process of the game. The environment
show below, this technology could make a tangible capable of providing the trainee with such explanations
contribution to bettering business strategy gaming. may significantly relax the need for trainee preparation.
Intelligent software agents are simulated entities In traditional games, trainees must be well-prepared for
enabled with means for perceiving the information about making decisions on their own. In agent-based games,
the artificial world in which they live and exhibit active however, trainees may spend more time observing agent
behavior by pursuing their own goals (the desired set of play, learning from those actions and explanations.
the states of the world). Agents can possess some Significantly relaxed timing constraints. If
resources and execute a pre-specified set of actions which necessary, an agent-based game can be run at a much
change the state of the world, including the agent’s state faster pace. Running a scenario in a completely automated
itself. ‘Rational’ agents can measure the mismatch mode, when the all human player are substituted by
between the current and aspired states of the world, agents, takes no more than a few minutes, while in
predict possible changes in the state of the world resulting traditional games this is normally takes days or even
from actions executed by themselves and other agents, weeks to run just one scenario. This quantitative change
and plan their actions in the optimal way under uncertain results in a qualitative difference: the emerging
conditions. Optimization can be based on a technology offers an opportunity to run multiple scenarios
comprehensive set of logical rules and/or sophisticated in just one class session. This offers new opportunities for
procedures using several optimality criteria, or both. In gaming technology such as investigation of the impact of
rule-based systems computations can normally be traced various parameters on the businesses and the industry as a
back from raw data to final conclusions showing the whole. This also offers new opportunities for competency
agent’s line of reasoning. Agents having this ability are development in trainees making better understanding of
often referred to as ‘intelligent’ because this rational the various roles involved in a simulation more likely and
behavior is typical for intelligent live creatures. better mutually reasonable decision making skills.
Agent technology is a promising way to further Increased flexibility. The new technology offers a
improve business strategy games. In the gaming wide range of combinations with automated modes of
environment an intelligent agent can stand for a market operation of some agents and human role players standing
entity, sometimes completely replacing a human player or for other active entities of the gaming environment. The
working in the background as an individual assistant to two extremes are, complete automation of the simulation
the learner. Monitoring trainee and evaluating his/her and everything performed by human users with only
actions online is one more possible role of an intelligent supportive functions like recordkeeping left up to the
agent. Consumers, whose behavior in the traditional software. Options lying in between offer new flexibility
business game is either pre-specified by the scenario or dimension lacking in traditional business strategy games.
sometimes implemented by just an over-simplified Animated pedagogical agents , or avatars, are closely
algorithm, can be also modeled by using the intelligent related to agent-based technology and offer
agent technology. This offers an opportunity for complementary opportunities in business game-based
modeling more sophisticated consumer behavior, which training pedagogy. They are lifelike animated characters
could be critical for training managers in some industries, whose purpose is to facilitate the learning process [12-
like broadcasting services . Here we analyze some 14]. Several studies have shown that avatars, if properly
potential opportunities that will be offered by the designed and used, can significantly improve learning
emerging agent technology after it eventually matures . Human-driven avatars are nowadays common in
enough. online forums and some role-playing entertaining games.
Still little, if nothing, has been specifically proposed on
using this emerging technology in business strategy This would remove the stress from the trainees who in
gaming. Below we identify some opportunities. In traditional gaming environment normally are compelled
particular, it is reasonable to expect that avatars could to work for only 2 or 3 days. Other obvious benefits
make business strategy games more emotionally include preserving anonymity of the players and complete
engaging, thus adequately addressing some of the removal of the geographical barriers.
concerns identified in the foregoing section. Avatars can However, Internet-mediated business games have
also significantly add to user friendliness. We believe that important organizational, pedagogical, and technological
an advanced business gaming environment would benefit concerns in common: objectives, role-play, synchronicity,
especially from the following types of avatar. game facilitation, and participant interaction. Web-
1. Wizard. A friendly, positively-minded pedagogical enabled gaming is more demanding of the human
agent whose role is to provide the learner with the facilitator, briefing/debriefing techniques, and creates new
explanations and suggestions on how to use the gaming problems, such as finding new sources of motivation and
environment in order to better accomplish his/her tasks. accounting of cross-cultural differences of the trainees, if
2. Instructor. An agent whose role is complementary to they are originating from different parts of the world .
the Wizard in helping the trainee. Could differ from the These issues require special attention; we speculate that
Wizard in that it is less friendly, more demanding, and some of them can be resolved by combining Web-based
somewhat authoritarian. gaming with the intelligent agent and avatar technologies.
Still the pedagogy of training in the distributed
3. Market Game Players. A set of pedagogical agents
environment needs further investigation.
standing for the executives of the simulated businesses.
Both the particular business run by the trainee and the
competing businesses can be personalized by these 4. NEW TECHNOLOGIES FOR GAMES
avatars. Different avatars can be representing simulated
Some of the limitations of the existing business
business entity executive roles, such as CEO, VP
strategy games need further deliberation.
Marketing, VP Finance, etc. To amplify the emotional
impact on the trainees, their personalities should reflect Trimming the Learning Curve The major reasons for
both the nature of their jobs and their company goals over-long learning times, are, the lack of transparency of
(e.g. aggressive vs. defensive). the game design, and, the assumptions underlying
algorithms. These shortcoming have been recently
4. Spy. An agent playing in the background for the trainee
recognized and purposefully addressed by some gaming
and monitoring and critically assessing his/her actions.
researchers [17, 18]. However, we believe that not all
This is closely related to the functions discussed in the
possibilities for making games fully transparent for the
trainees have been investigated and even identified. As a
5. Teammates. Human-driven avatars personalizing fellow general recommendation, we would suggest that the
trainees working together with the business game user. gaming technology should allow for incorporating meta-
Could be especially helpful in Web-based gaming knowledge about the game in several forms. Examples
environment (see below). could be ontologies, conceptual diagrams, algorithm
Some of the avatars such as the Spy and the Market hierarchical structure diagrams, and graphical
Game Players can only be efficiently implemented within representations of the key simulation sub-models (some
the intelligent agent technology. Their behavior is driven of these are illustrated below).
by the states of the game, whose total number can be Visualization for comprehension. Some researchers
overwhelming. Therefore it cannot be reduced just to a have recently recognized that properly designed
pre-defined set of presentations like it is in principle visualization of the game data is critical for the efficiency
possible to do for other avatars. of training . At this point spreadsheets are the major
Web-based Gaming Technologies. Internet-mediated form for providing output data to trainees. A typical
business games represent one more new important trend. example is a rather pedagogically advanced business
Several business strategy games based on this technology game recently presented in , where most outputs are
are commercially available [e.g., 4, 6]. Distance training just tables containing numerical data.
online offers opportunities for radically reducing the One possible improvement is careful selection of
prohibitive costs and relaxing some other constraints of adequate data presentation techniques. So far we can see
the traditional game-based training. Eliminating the need the gap between the ways historical data is presented in
to commute to and from the training site could be large corporations and in business gaming environments,
mentioned as the minimal gain of Web-based training. As from which trainees are expected to learn how to handle
a result, there is also no need in day-long training data in their workplace. Corporate data are normally
sessions, whose duration could be made reasonably short, stored in data warehouses equipped with report generators
say about two hours. Trainees can participate in them and advanced visualization tools, whereas traditional
without any rush, from their workplaces or even from games do not provide these options to their users.
home, synchronously or asynchronously. The duration of
Design for the Debriefing Support. So far business
the game play can be made longer, say at least 2 weeks.
game developers appear to be preoccupied with the enabled business games. Some reusable technical
gaming process itself and neglect debriefing features, that solutions for debriefing can be found in . Agent-based
any educational/training games must have. We believe technologies, such as monitoring/evaluating agents, could
that planning for debriefing must be made in the early render some effective solutions. Still we believe that this
stages of the game design. As it was indicated above, issue needs further investigation, both in the technological
debriefing features are especially demanding for Web- and pedagogical aspects.
Fig.1. This sub-model shows the consumer base response to the promotional effort by the particular player compared to
that of the rivals. The user interface allows the domain expert to adjust the curves, which represent particular sub-models of
the simulator, without referring to the detailed model.
5. AN AGENT-BASED STRATEGY GAME automatically or shadow the trainees. This has become
possible as a result of developing a set of algorithms
We have used the intelligent agent technology and
modeling rational behavior of the telecoms. They
implemented some solutions discussed above in our
implement several innovative concepts, such as firm’s
strategy business game for the telecommunications
performance indicators and multi-level multi-criteria
industry . Our simulation is simplified to a limited set
decision making . Focus on the design for model
of providers offering telecommunications services such as
transparency and data visualization has been set from the
high-speed Internet access and cable and ADSL TV to
very beginning of the game development. The algorithm
residential customers in the metropolitan area. The
structure was deliberately designed as a set of
telecommunication firms are competing for the
hierarchically organized and loosely coupled components.
preferences of customers by setting prices, expanding
A unified user interface was developed for displaying
their network facilities, spending on quality of service,
meta-knowledge about low-level algorithms, referred to
promotion, and market research. The competing firms are
as sub-models. Fig.1 illustrates a sub-model used for
also interested in making profits and can attract financing
calculating consumer inflow z as function of two
by banks. Consumers react to the offerings by deciding
variables, spending on promotion by the given player x
whose services to subscribe for. They can enter the
and promotional spending by the competition y (all
market, change provider and or set of services or leave the
variables are normalized). The piecewise-linear curves in
this diagram present the algorithm for calculating z.
We consider the telecoms service providers the sole Technically, nothing else shown in Fig.1 except the
type of active agent, which can act completely coordinates of the points on these curves is necessary for
these computations. All the rest is the meta-knowledge Besides making the game transparent, this technology
about this sub-model, which allows the trainee to figure significantly eases model calibration and adjustments of
out how this particular feature is implemented. Part of the its parameters.
sub-model hierarchy is shown in Fig.2. In the future we In this example, the trainee can view the decision on
hope to further enhance the game transparency by allocating the budget suggested by the agent. Users can
implementing this diagram so that users can browse it and change the decision parameters by moving the sliders and
view the sub-models. There are total 24 sub-models in evaluate the consequences by comparing difference of the
this simulator, all of them complete with necessary meta- performance indicators (upper right bar diagram). The pie
knowledge. diagram reflects the changes in the budget allocation
made by user. While user is changes the Loans parameter
the size of the whole pie changes accordingly. In the
shown game mode, users have a choice to continue
running the model stepwise, or to run several steps
automatically, leaving it up to the agent making decisions
for the firm automatically. Fig.3 illustrates how decisions
proposed by a player agent are presented to the trainee.
Graphics convey the most important information about
the decision parameters and therefore play a central role
Fig.2. Main component of the world model in the user interface.
Fig.3. A fragment of the Player Monitor user interface. Two instances of the application are running, each following
different players. The split double bars on the diagram (top right) show the anticipated results if the user changes the actions
recommended by the automated player agent.
CONCLUSION making is the critical factor of success. So far we
managed to create such models for some
We have investigated emerging technologies, which
telecommunications service markets, but more research is
may have significant impact on the business-game based
needed to extend our results into other areas of interest.
training. Of them, most promising is intelligent-agent
technology. Still this technology should mature enough We believe that deliberate planning for ensuring
for being suitable for business strategy games. model transparency, data and knowledge visualization,
Development of adequate models of rational decision
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