ELIZA in SimCity: The Role of V(irtual)-Humans in Technical Writing

Proposal Title: 
ELIZA in SimCity: The Role of V(irtual)-Humans in Technical Writing

This presentation discusses the advantages of using simulations and virtual humans (v-humans) in the technical writing classroom. I discuss how incorporating the city building simulation game SimCity 4 can lead to a more robust understanding of wicked design problems for STEM students.  


It seems that STEM students often have difficulty understanding how to think of design in non-essentialist terms. Without understanding  how to listen to or observe users, these students may describe their designs or instructions as “universal” and usable by “anyone,” when in reality they may privilege individuals who adhere to similar cultural, ideological, and linguistic values as the designer’s.

As the literature suggests, these students may find it beneficial to work in real-world service-learning scenarios in which stakeholders voice an exigence for their designs and create an opportunity for students to anticipate and address objections about their work. However, there may also be many logistical and pedagogical issues associated with asking students to engage in community work.

In this presentation, I discuss how incorporating v(irtual)-humans in combination with community-focused research work may help sidestep some of these issues. Specifically, I explore how designing urban spaces in SimCity can allow students to act (borrowing Sherry Turkle’s words) “as if” they are engaged in an actual urban redevelopment situation that requires particular attention to usability practices regarding design. In this simulated environment, students must learn to take into account the desires, behaviors and immediate reactions of the Sims (Simulated Humans) who reside in these cities. Additionally students are asked to conduct field research in a local community before they can design a plan for redevelopment.

This presentation may appeal to teachers of technical writing but, more broadly, will ask audience members to engage in a discussion about the role of BOTS and v(irtual)-humans in learning.

In keeping with the theme of the 2015 Computers and Writing Conference, this presentation discusses the rhetorical advantages of presenting STEM students with virtual design scenarios in order to help build their problem-solving, design, and primary research skills. I argue that such interventions necessarily change students’ invention processes to incorporate users’ statements and behaviors into the creation of more robust, rhetorically-informed designs.
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