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The idea here is to provide a learning environment that has, at it's heart, various forms of communication tools for the children who enter it. The basic idea is that children (or groups of children - they will be called players) choose a character from a predefined list and they play this character in the village. The centre of this community is the forum in which decisions are made. Once established the village is presented with a series of problems/tasks that must be dealt with through negotiation.


The forum
The central idea behind the project is to explore the use of collaboration via networks in the younger age range. To this end there will be three different modes of CMC available:

speech making
This takes place in the formal area of the forum. I'm interested in setting up a mode of communication that forces direct, sequential development of an idea. In this area each player (including NPCs - see below) can contribute to a conversation in the form of a developing dialogue between all who want to contribute. However, there will be no threading and contributions will be displayed in the order in which they are made. There are a lot of issues to be explored here and problems are already foreseen, especially as things could move forward quite quickly in such an environment causing players who don't log on regularly to be left behind.

asynchronous discussion
This will be in an area that allows a much more free-form method of discussion. It will be threaded, though I'm thinking of a design that only allows on level of threading from a main topic - a new discussion will be a new topic.

synchronous discussion
This will be a standard chatroom with access to all. To what extent it will be used is debatable and the only way to find out will be to try it. I think it will need some sort of notice board where players can post times they expect to be around and who they would like to meet.

private messages
While setting such a complex set of communication systems up, it seems useful to experiment with several to see which the group uses and which they don't. This might also be extended to finding out which are actually useful to the project - i.e. examine quality as well as quantity. To this end I propose to add a further communication channel that will allow players to communicate privately with other players. I want to discourage (though there's no way to stop) communication between players beyond the project; by supplying some sort of internal messaging system, something like password protected message boxes, it should be possible to keep within the environment and make it less likely for players to start using e-mail or other external systems.

telepresence in the forum (and elsewhere)
This looks like being one of the major issues in this project. There's no doubt that keeping players aware of who is saying and doing what is a prime concern in any CMC situation. My current thinking (not, at this stage, informed by a whole bunch of reading) is that player characters (PCs) will have a graphic associated with them, maybe two. The first will be a face or whole body portrait the can be displayed in messages and maybe elsewhere. A second graphic might be a small device of some sort that also identifies the PC - this would be useful to identify then in threads, chatrooms etc.

communicating with the game via the forum (and elsewhere)
At various times it will be necassary to get news to the players. One way of doing this will be NPCs arriving at the forum and making announcements like, 'the vulcano is active', or, 'a band of Persian bandits are heading towards the village'.

The village
I see this as a fairly simple HTML driven area that shows simple graphics of the various buildings/places in the village. It will however, form a kind of menu system in as much as different activities, events etc. will take place in this virtual space. I intend using virtual space as a metaphor for all navigation, though this is likely to break down at some point or another. From the MEd point of view I see research into development and use of MOOs as learning environments to be key to this part of the project.

Non-Player Characters
I take this term from the world of role-playing games (RPGs). These are characters that are not played by the children. They are either virtual characters - i.e. their behaviour is code-driven using JavaScript or CGI - or they are driven by a real person in the project. This second role is key to this project, it lets responses change with the actions of the players and thus has the potential to allow players to affect the development of the project as it goes along. This makes it, to some level at least, student lead - i.e. if the group decide to pursue an interest or course of action not originally envisaged within the design, it will be possible to alter the development to take that into account. On the other hand, the will always be the restriction that the project exists within the village environment. One of the major issues in using a real person to run this activity will be cost; the actual amount of work generated in extremely unpredictable, but it's an issue that will need to be explored with any commercial partner in the project.

the story teller (virtual)
This NPC will be able to tell a preset number of stories to any players who ask. These will be used to set the background and history of the village into context, but can also be used to provide clues to possible courses of action within the project.

the fortune teller (semi-virtual)
This character will be available to provide clues to what is going on and what may or may not go on in future. The idea of semi-virtual works like this. The fortune teller will have a set of responses based on submitted words in questions, plus a number of random responses. These can be contained within a list of database either on the server or webpage itself. However, as the simulation progresses, these will need to be altered and added to to move things along. The point here is that the list can be loaded up with the responses the tutor wants to provide, but they can still be delivered instantly to the players - i.e. they won't have to wait for a reply.

the judge (real)
The judge will be one way of letting the tutor steer the simulation as it develops. Players will be able to submit arguments to the judge for rulings, the judge will have the opportunity to feed in information if needed, or be able to tell them to go away and solve it themselves. It would be hoped that the judge will be used to break impasses that may develop between the PCs and keep things rolling. This will have to work asynchronously and will commit the tutor to checking in regularly if the simulation is to move forward.

the priests (semi-virtual)
These can work pretty much the same as the fortune teller. They reside in whatever places of worship fit the context. They transmit messages from The Gods. My current thought is that this could be a method of introducing conflicing choices into the group as The Gods give different messages. Need, however, to address the issue of the morality of the priests. If they give conflicting information does that make them the villans of the piece and is that OK?
the hermit (real)
This is basically a Wise Old Person whom no one has ever actually seen. He/she(!) communicates with the outside world via notes slipped under the door. This is basically a catch-all method of getting information to the players where thee is no other obvious route. Of course, it relies on them asking the right questions.

Technologies for virtual NPCs
The ideal here would be to let players interact with the NPCs via free text. A free text parser should be viable in JavaScript and could be used via CGI to provide responses. A lower tech. solution would be a menu of questions, possibly with sub menus. Replies could be delivered in audio via RealMedia files - this also give the potential of animation, but I see this as an unlikely option in the initial stages.

Take me back to The Workshop3 Index, The Telematics Index, Marshal's Home Page.