Paper appears as: Slator, Brian, et al (2001). Rushing Headlong into the Past: the Blackwood Simulation. Proceedings of the Fifth IASTED International Conference on Internet and Multimedia Systems and Applications (IMSA 2001). Honolulu, HI, August 13-16

Rushing Headlong into the Past: the Blackwood Simulation


Brian M. Slator, Kerry Wynne, David Burleigh, Josh Kadrmas, Elizabeth Kennedy, and the members of NDSU CSCI 345: J.Alt, J.Aus, D.Balliet, D.Balliet, C.Bergstrom, R.Blaha, K.Bopp, B.Carlson, S.Carlson, G.Collins III, P.Crary, J.Cusey, M.Deck, A.Dewald, S.Dieken, A.Elezovic, D.Ely, G.Engels, M.Ernst, K.Fimreite, E.Finke, C.Fredrickson, N.Fredrickson, M.Guerard, T.Hall, M.Hanson, K.Hartman, W.Hawkinson, K.Hessinger, H.Ho, J.Hoffert, J.Hoffert, C.Hofland, B.Hokanson, M.Holzer, M.Hoque, S.Hossain, M.Hurlburt, B.Johnson, S.Kawamura, J.Levasseur, N.Lindvall, B.Lorentz, J.Louwagie, D.Mafua, R.Martens, J.Matthews, B.Miller, S.Moorhouse, D.Olson, K.Parisien, J.Reiser, C.Resler, J.Richardson, C.Romberg, S.Schilke, J.Schmidt, D.Schott, S.Seira, R.Sell, B.Seymour, L.Sjoblom, J.Tarnowski, S.Ternes, B.Thompson, T.Wells, M.Wolters, A.Wong,

Computer Science Dept., IACC Bldg. #258, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND 58105




The Blackwood Project is a simulation of a mythical 19th Century Western river town. Participants who join the simulation will accept or be assigned a role in the simulation that is primarily economic in nature. In Blackwood, gameplay is influenced by historical events and players are assigned roles designed to promote collaboration and interaction. Players assume roles in the simulation, such as a blacksmith, but are not expected to learn blacksmithing. Employee software agents actually do the day-to-day chores. The players are “only” expected to manage the retailing and business elements of the game. Continuing the evolution and making improvements to the Blackwood Project are students in various classes taught at North Dakota State University. These students assume roles in a simulated consulting team in order to accomplish semester-length goals improving one or more aspects of Blackwood.


Keywords: Distance Learning, Collaborative Learning, Educational Multimedia, Virtual Reality


Computer-based education and distance learning systems have become increasingly important facets of education, particularly in higher education. These approaches to education are important not only for enhancing the education of the traditional student, but they also hold the key for expanding education to an enormous potential audience of non-traditional students. Meanwhile, the value of “active” versus “passive” learning has become increasingly clear (Reid, 1994). In light of this, the Blackwood Project provides a computer-based educational application for teaching fundamental, economic skills and knowledge, with an emphasis on the marketing and administrative dimensions of the discipline. This takes the form of an authentic, virtual environment where students are given the means and the opportunity to undertake active role-based discovery and learning.

Blackwood is periodically enhanced and improved upon by a new crop of students in Computer Science courses. In order to take advantage of the values of role-based learning, students in these classes act out roles while simultaneously improving the Blackwood game itself.


The Blackwood Project is a part of the research effort of the NDSU Worldwide Web Instructional Committee (WWWIC; Slator et al., 1999). It is the first attempt by this group at the “next generation” of role-based virtual environments for education where the pedagogical simulation will support cross-disciplinary content and choice of roles to promote player interaction and potential collaborations. This next generation builds on experience in designing and implementing the original ILS GAMES Project, the NDSU Dollar Bay Retailing Game, and the NDSU Planet Oit Project. The goals of the Blackwood Project include providing 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; Shute and Glaser, 1990, Hill and Slator, 1998).

The WWWIC program for designing and developing educational media attempts to implement a coherent strategy for all its efforts: to deploy teaching systems that share critical assumptions and technologies (e.g. LambdaMOO; Curtis 1997), in order to leverage from each other's efforts. In particular, systems are designed to employ consistent elements across disciplines and, as a consequence, foster the potential for intersecting development plans and common tools for that development. Simulations are implemented by building objects and interfaces onto a MOO ("MUD, Object-Oriented", where MUD stands for "Multi-User Domain"). MUDs are typically text-based electronic meeting places where players build societies and fantasy environments, and interact with each other. Technically, a MUD is a networked multi-user database and messaging system. The basic components are "rooms" with "exits", "containers" and "players". MUDs support the object management and inter-player messaging that is required for multi-player games, and at the same time provide a programming language for writing the simulations and customizing the environments.

Role-based Environments

The theory of role-based environments is both simple to explain and complex to implement. An apprentice watches their master, learning techniques and practicing their craft; they observe the master's actions and internalize them. When confronted with a problem, the apprentice asks, "what would the master do in this situation?" And then the apprentice models the expertise of the master in the pursuit of their goals. This is a common experience shared by silversmiths, doctors, Ph.D. candidates, and anyone else enculturating themselves into what they want to be. When John Houseman says, in the Paper Chase that "We are not teaching you the law, we are teaching you to think like a lawyer," this is what he means. Similarly, there is little argument that immersive foreign language learning is most effective; to learn French, go to France. At some point, it is widely reported, you begin to “think in French”, and that is what you want: acquisition of conceptual knowledge in a meaningful problem-solving context.

The Game

The Blackwood game implements a mythical town, set in the Old West (circa 1880), where players with Java-enabled browsers connect across the Internet and “inherit” a virtual store. The game is designed to impart the time-independent principles of microeconomics and the practice of retailing, but within an historical context, and by promoting the social and symbiotic relationships that sustain a business culture in the long term. As each turn progresses, players learn their role in the environment and see the results of their actions as well as the impact of other players’ actions within the constraints of the simulated world. Students learn about culture (the ideas, values, and beliefs shared by members of a society) and society (e.g., social structure and organization) while at the same time developing historical cross-cultural awareness and understanding. And they will do so in a role-based manner, immersed in an authentic context, assigned authentic goals, and given the opportunity to learn to operate in an historical context.

The Blackwood Project is hosted on the Internet and provides a platform for opportunities for research into distance education, intelligent agents, economic simulation, and assessment of pedagogical approaches.

Following is a description of the game, as it existed prior to January 2001. The implementation of the game had been created through a collaborative effort of the WWWIC and student volunteers at NDSU.

Time Frame

The simulation begins in the Spring of 1880 and continues until the Great Flood destroys the town in the Spring of 1886. Since each virtual week lasts about 8 clock hours, there are three virtual weeks in each human day, and therefore the entire simulation takes approximately three months.

The Impact of History

Players of Blackwood “experience the effects” of history. This is accomplished by the following mechanisms:

1.     Newspapers: The simulation tracks events in the 1880-1886 time frame. As events happen in the nation and around the world, they are reported in “Special Editions”.

2.     Economic Trends: The simulation reflects the impact of western expansion, the advance of railroads, and the discovery of silver deposits, in terms of fluctuations in population. This has immediate and discernible effects on player’s businesses as demand (and prices) rise and fall.

3.     Atmosphere Agents: The simulation supports a range of software agents that lend “color” to the environment (buffalo hunters, fur trappers, street entertainers, and the like)

The Economic Simulation

An economic model was developed to generate consumer behavior for the game (Hooker and Slator, 1996). The model takes as input the decisions the players have made, and returns a level of demand for each of the stores. In the game, players compete for market share against other human players trying to learn the same role in the simulated environment.

Software Agents

The Blackwood environment is populated by software agents of the following types:

1.     Customer Agents: These have been implemented and form the foundation of the economic simulation (Farmers, Ranchers, Railroad Workers, Soldiers, Lumbermen, Transient Settlers, Riverboat Workers, Teamsters, Miners and White Collar Townspeople, and several others). These represent psychographic groups or clusters of consumers; Hooker and Slator, 1996) and their shopping behaviors simulation demand.

2.      Merchant Agents: These are not currently implemented but are intended to simulate the activity of agents who run businesses in competition with human players. There are eight merchant roles to be filled by players or merchant agents (Blacksmiths, Cartwrights, Wheelwrights, Dry Goods Store Operators, Tailors, Wood Lot Operators, Stable Operators, and Leather Makers)

3.     Employee Agents: These agents see to the daily operation of retailing outlets and conduct the actual transactions with the customer agents.

4.     Banker Agents: These agents write loans depending on the player’s financial profile.

5.     Teamster Agents: These agents deliver goods from the Riverboat landing and the Railroad depot, when they are ordered by players.

Player Roles

Players are assigned a role in the Merchant class. The system arranges that plausible ratios are preserved so the game is not populated with 100 blacksmiths but no tailors. Players are required to procure food and fuel in order to run their households and keep their employee(s) warm and fed. In addition, of course, players must run their businesses as profitably as possible to succeed.


Neighborhoods include the Town Square neighborhood, the Old Business District, the Middle/Working Class neighborhood, the New Business District, the Wagon Train Staging Area, the Riverside neighborhood, the North Shanty Town, South Shanty Town, the Government/Financial District, the Wealthy neighborhood, the Lumber Town, the Western Outpost and the Fort Wood Trading Post. Neighborhood populations change over time to simulate the various ebbs and flows of the demographic landscape.


Products are defined according to historical context and the demand value for customer agents. This definition of products, in some sense, is what drives the economic simulation. There are 9 product types, 8 matched with the merchant types listed above (blacksmithing products, for example, like nails and horseshoes), plus groceries and supplies.


Wholesale suppliers are conceptually “back east” and players orders goods through a catalog interface. Delivery is made to the player’s shop by Teamster agents, described above.


Advertising is accomplished through placing ads in the local newspaper.

Blackwood as a Class Project

As of January 2001, the Blackwood game was functional and running continuously on a server located at NDSU. Software agents were happily performing their duties as programmed. However, play of the game was minimal. Blackwood was in need of further refinement.

The project had previously used students enrolled in various classes to continue development of the Blackwood Project to some success. Not only was the project enhanced by the student’s efforts, but also the student’s were exposed to networking, role-playing and virtual reality concepts.

The Spring Semester Class of NDSU’s course on network topics was another such class. In order to further enhance the idea of role-playing as a viable educational tool, the class was structured to emulate a consulting team working on a common project: Blackwood. The structure of the class was as follows: Project Managers, Scribes (to record progress), Server Team (back-end processing), Java Team (front-end interface), HTML Team (web site development), and Graphics Team (refine graphical components). Elections were held for the lead positions in each area. Once the leaders were inaugurated, a “draft” of the rest of the students was held to determine their membership in a team. Students were chosen for a team based on their wishes and qualifications as outlined in a resume they were required to submit to the team.


Figure 1: The first Blackwood inteface


Project Preparation

As in any large consulting project, each team needed to determine the present level of implementation and determine a course of action. Reviews of the project progress commenced, brainstorming sessions were held and eventually a list of tasks were outlined. In addition, as many of these students were previously unfamiliar with the technologies required to achieve their goals, exercises and benchmarks were assigned in order to provide them with the knowledge and skills required to contribute in a significant way to the project. These activities took roughly half of the semester (8 weeks). The remaining 8 weeks of the semester was dedicated to achieving the goals outlined in the task list.

Task List

Once the rough task list was generated during the brainstorming sessions, it became the responsibility of each group to further refine these tasks, evaluate their viability, and establish a final, detailed task list for their team.  These lists were consolidated into a master task list and posted on the ever-growing BlackWood Project website, where any member of any group could log on to see what each team was doing at any given time.

The task list then had to be translated into a series of goals. To further complicate matters, dependencies existed within and between teams. Eventually, Gantt charts for each group were created as well as one overall Gantt chart listing all tasks, their estimated duration and a completion goal. The tasks (goals) identified by this class are as follows:


§       Construct a “Progress Report and Evaluation” web site for use by the students to report their progress and submit evaluations of fellow team members.

§       Develop the Blackwood website to have a consistent look and feel with the Blackwood Game Java Applet.

§       Research and add content to history pages on the Blackwood website that include background on Blackwood.

§       Develop a registration page that forces players to register prior to playing the game, thereby collecting demographic data on Blackwood players.

§       Develop a set of instructional pages on the Blackwood website, providing a useful and concise guide to new Blackwood players.

Graphics Team

§       Work with HTML Team to develop web site graphics as needed.

§       Work with Java Team to develop interface graphics as needed.

§       General cleanup of existing images. Some images did not look authentic or were badly sized.

§       Create store interior graphics.

§       Create indoor and outdoor scenes.

§       Create graphics for products.

Java Team

§       Rework Java interface to have a consistent look and feel throughout. In addition, create an interface that looks authentic to the Blackwood era.

§       Redo the login controls.

§       Continue adding functionality to the ordering, hiring and inventory functions in the game.

§       Add functionality allowing the player to customize their play options.


File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0

Figure 2: the second Blackwood interface


Server Team

§       Work on timeline in order to launch events when appropriate in history.

§       Work with Java group on the reworking of the login controls.

§       Create a “Hall of Fame” that saves a player’s progress when they have stopped playing.

§       Build stores that are present in the original proposal but do not yet exist in Blackwood.

§       Repair errors in existing routines.

§       Work on enhancements to the routines involved with buying, selling and ordering products.


When the actual work of completing the tasks commenced, the goals seemed lofty. The BlackWood interface was very crude and was lacking in many areas.  The shops did not look like shops at all, merely black screens with red dots on them to represent products.  There were no doors into each room, nor was there any detail in the shops or on the streets.  The images of the people (the players) were all different sizes and lacked any sort of consistency.  In short, the game had a good start, but still had a long way to go.  The students in each team faced the daunting task of finding a way to redesign the game into having a consistent and authentic 1800’s interface and gaming environment.

The teams showed they were up to the challenge and quickly began organizing themselves into subgroups.  Each team worked independently, led by their team leaders. However, the dependencies that were noticed during the preparation phase started to create problems. One team was forced to wait for another team’s product in order to begin work. This created stress and friction, not unlike a “real” consulting team’s dynamics. Thankfully, these issues were worked out in a professional and efficient manner and real progress was made.

Most team leaders assigned small, achievable goals to each team member or subgroup. This allowed teams to work in parallel and produce results much more quickly. To date, all tasks are on schedule per the Gantt chart and the class expects to complete all the tasks assigned by the end of the semester! It would be interesting to measure the performance of this class, working in a role-playing environment, to another class, working on the same goals, structured in a “typical” fashion. 

Progress Reports and Evaluations

In order to track progress by each team member (not to mention assign grades), each student was required to submit regular progress reports via the web. These progress reports were designed to emulate reports that would be submitted to a client during a large project implementation. Each student was then required to evaluate 7 – 12 students based on their progress reports. These evaluations not only reviewed the work generated by the student, but also their ability to effectively communicate their long and short term goals, describe the tasks that had been completed and present all of this in a professional document.


The game of Blackwood is an immersive, role-playing environment where players can have fun, while learning some valuable “real-world” skills and knowledge. There is increasing evidence of the value of this type of “active” learning. Further proof may just be the actions of the Spring Semester 2001 CS345 class at North Dakota State University. The students in this class were able to accomplish a wide range of goals and apply these accomplishments to a tangible product that is usable by the public, instead of the typical “practice” program that will never be run once the instructor has graded it. But, possibly more valuable are the skills these students learned by acting out a role in a project team. Project teams are widely used in the Information Technology industry to accomplish goals. The experiences of acting in these types of roles will serve these students well in their future careers.


Curtis, P. (1997). Not Just a Game: How LambdaMOO Came to Exist and What It Did to Get Back at Me. in Cynthia Haynes and Jan Rune Holmevik, Editors: High Wired: On the Design, Use, and Theory of Educational MOOs. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Duffy, T.M. Lowyck, J. and Jonassen, D.H. (1983). Designing environments for constructive Learning. New York: Springer-Verlag

Hill, Curt and Brian M. Slator (1998) Virtual Lecture, Virtual Laboratory, or Virtual Lesson. In the Proceedings of the Small College Computing Symposium (SCCS98). Fargo-Moorhead, April. pp. 159-173.

Hooker, B. and Brian M. Slator (1996). A Model of Consumer Decision Making for a Mud-based Game. Submitted to the ITS’96 Workshop on Simulation-Based Learning Technology. Montreal, June.

Reid , T Alex (1994) Perspectives on computers in education: the promise, the pain, the prospect. Active Learning. 1(1), Dec. CTI Support Service. Oxford, UK

Shute, V. J., & Glaser, R. (1990). A large-scale evaluation of an intelligent discovery world: Smithtown. Interactive Learning Environments 1(1), 51-77.

Slator, Brian M. and Harold “Cliff” Chaput (1996). Learning by Learning Roles: a virtual role-playing environment for tutoring. Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITS’96). Montreal: Springer-Verlag, June 12-14, pp. 668-676. (Lecture Notes in Computer Science, edited by C. Frasson, G. Gauthier, A. Lesgold).

Slator, B.M., Juell, P., McClean, P., Saini-Eidukat, B., Schwert, D.P., White, A., & Hill, C. (1999). Virtual Worlds for Education. Journal of Network and Computer Applications, 22 (4), 161-174.


The NDSU Worldwide Web Instructional Committee (WWWIC) research is currently supported by funding from the National Science Foundation under grants DUE-9981094 and EIA-0086142, and from the Department of Education under grant P116B000734.