OIKonomos (or OIK for short) is a new economics simulation package, rather in the style of "Running the British Economy" or "Chancellor", but one which makes more use of the graphics and multimedia capabilities of modern PCs. It is marketed and distributed by a company called Brighter Paths, a division of the US company Scantron Corporation which produces scanners and software for schools and colleges. However the developers of the program are from New Zealand, and OIK has been designed to appeal to beginning students of economics from all over the world. It provides an interesting and imaginative framework for teaching and learning macroeconomics.
The program places the user in the position of the newly appointed Minister of Finance in one of three fictional countries, Agriland, Industriland and Forsakenland. Each country has its own history and faces a different set of economic conditions; Forsakenland is the hardest to manage with a big population, few natural resources, considerable poverty, rapidly growing slum-ridden cities, poor education, and low life-expectancy. The Finance Minister is required to submit a series of annual budgets in which he adjusts key monetary and fiscal instruments in order to act on macroeconomic targets and thereby get re-elected. As Minister you have available a team of Treasury officials who provide you with detailed reports, statistical information and charts; you can also look up key economic terms and concepts. On the other hand you will be bombarded with advice from interest groups and lobbyists who make contact with you by letter, fax or telephone (if your computer has a soundcard). You are also able to keep in touch with your electoral prospects at any time by viewing the the latest "Gallop" Poll.
Depending on how difficult you want to make the exercise you can either just run through a practice session (equivalent to checking things out on the Treasury model), or play the game properly with, or without, a stream of exogenous shocks. You can also choose one of seven political parties for your government and this will determine the manifesto and hence the policies you should try to follow. The program comes on a CD-ROM together with a loose-leaf folder which contains instructions for installing and running the program, as well as exercises and suggestions on how to use the program in a classroom setting. There is a glossary of economic terms (also available on-line as part of the program) and some information on the economic model (system of equations) which is embedded in the program to provide the "engine" which drives the simulation. The authors describe the model as a "small open eclectic model". It has a mixture of Keynesian, monetarist and neoclassical features.
When the registration dialogue box closes you will see the program's Main Screen (see Figure 1). Here you have the view from the Minister's desk and you can see the computer screen on the right, the telephone on the left and in the middle on the desk you can see the Budget Brief and behind it the letter tray. Over on the left on the window sill is fax machine and a globe, and on the wall straight ahead is a TV screen and next to it is a bookcase. If you click on any of these objects (apart from the TV which only delivers news from time to time) you are given extra information or a chance to submit a budget for the current year. At the top of the screen is a short set of menu options which provides another way of moving around in the program.
If you click on the computer screen you will be offered the chance to see the year's National Accounts and other tables, Dr Bollard's key graphs (see below) or an opportunity to set the first budget. Figure 2 shows the dialog box which opens up if you choose the last of these options. Last year's values of seven key variables are shown, together with default values for this year's settings. To enter your chosen values you can either type in new values or use the up and down arrow keys to increase or decrease the numbers in the boxes. When you are happy with the settings you click on the "Send to Cabinet" button.
Figure 3: Front page of "The Gutter Press"
From time to time the telephone rings, or the fax receives an incoming message. You find yourself lobied by constituents or interest groups or told of a change in such things as overseas interest rates or import prices by your officials. The TV screen continually puts out news stories but these are rather more distracting than illuminating.
The process continues until you come to the election year. Here you find yourself confronted with a Press Conference where you are expected to answer some Questions from the Media; you do this by giving one of four responses to the table of questions (see Figure 6). You are warned that this may affect your election prospects - apparently the final election score does depend on these answers as well as your performance in managing the economy.
I do have some caveats, however. I have only tried using the program on a single computer so I can't comment on whether it could be used on a network (there is no mention of networks in the installation instructions).
Secondly, as I have already mentioned, the attempts to make the program fun did at times irritate me. Now it is an indisputable fact that I am getting old and maybe younger users will find these features an attraction rather than a distraction.
Thirdly, the more I used the program the more I became aware of features that it doesn't have, or features which have not been used as effectively as they might have been. Sound files of various types (.wav and .mid) are called up at certain points in the program - for example when the Cabinet gives approval to your budget or when a Treasury official telephones the Minister to convey news of an unexpected change in economic conditions you hear a voice speaking to you. When the fax machine is operated or when the month changes on the calendar there are "sound effects" to emphasize what is happening. I am afraid that I didn't think that the latter was particularly convincing. Nor did I much like the synthesized music which was used at the beginning and end of the program and at other points such as the signalling of a news flash. Sorry Mr Composer - I know the music was written specially for the program but I didn't think it was one of the program's best features. Given that the program can make use of sound files it might have been nice to include some recordings from the archives of famous economists or Finance Ministers conveying their views about how to run the economy. (Perhaps there is a copyright problem here, and it would be too expensive to commision new recordings of them speaking). Extending this a little further perhaps future versions could have pictures or even short video clips of the big names to go with the brief notes about them.
Single copies of OIKonomos are available for $69.95 but special prices can be arranged for lab and site licenses.
ContactBrighter Paths, 20200 Nine Mile Road, St Clair Shores, MI 48080 USA