Programming with the XForms Library, Part 2: Writing an Application

We learn to write an application with XForms by simulating a game with 2 players and 2 actions.

Last month we began this series on XForms by explaining how to install the forms library and include file. We also took a stab at programming with XForms by writing a couple of simple programs. In this month's article, we're going to write a fully fledged application. We'll start with an explanation of the project, and then see how to implement it with XForms.

The Project: A Game Theory Simulator

Our task is to implement a game theory simulator. If you don't happen to have a doctorate in mathematics, you might want to have a look at A Primer on Game Theory which appears on page 52 of this magazine. We're attacking a non-trivial programming task in order to get a handle on how to do “real-world” programming with XForms. It's not important that you understand every nuance of game theory, since our main goal is to figure out XForms.

In a formal game, there are two main entities we have to consider: players and payoffs. So our simulator should allow us to set relevant values for these elements. Players, for example, are defined by actions and strategies. Similarly, payoffs are just a set of values that players receive when they play the game. As a great simplifier, we'll assume there are only two types of players and only two possible actions. This reduces the dimensionality of our programming problem. A good exercise for readers would be to try and relax the two strategy limitation, but make sure you understand the initial program fairly well before trying to modify it.

Since we're creating a graphical application, we'll want a point-and-click interface for setting up our players. The method adopted is to think of players as having a finite number of states. In every state, there is an action to be taken. Since we've limited ourselves to just two possible actions, let's call these A and B. Our simulator will be used for repeated games, so we want to be able to design players who can change their actions. That is, move to another state which tells them to play a different action. There are only two types of players, Column Players and Row Players, and two actions, so the choice of which action to play can be affected only by what the other player did.

Let's say you want to design a player who always plays action A. That's simple; just set the action in each state to A. A more complicated example would be to design a player who plays A if the other player chose A last period, but B if the other player chose B. This is easier to see with a diagram:

Figure 1. Diagram of Player States

Here we see that the transitions from state to state can be made contingent on the behavior of other players. So to implement an interface for designing players, we have to be able to specify the action in each state and the transitions to perform, i.e., which state to jump to, given the behavior of the other player. We cannot make one player's choices contingent on what the other player does in the current period. This would violate one of the tenets of standard game theory: simultaneous choice of action. Here we show only two states, but we'll allow for more complicated player strategies in the actual program.

We'll also want several players of each type to exist and to be randomly matched against players of the other type. This sounds more difficult than it is, since we still have to design only two types of players. The population of Row Players, for example, should differ only in what state they are currently in, not in the overall design of their strategy.

Like player design, we'll want an easy way for the user to set and edit payoffs. This is a little simpler, since we just need a graphical representation of the payoff table and a method for letting the user change these values. We'll want both of these features to appear in their own windows so we can pop them up when we need them.

Once the user has specified player strategies and payoffs, we'll also need a way to actually run the simulation. This routine should match the players, allocate their payoffs, and handle the transitions from state to state. It should also let us set how long the game should run, and give us some nice visual feedback on the progress of play.

All of this input, interaction and editing may seem very complicated. It would probably require a fairly cumbersome set of menus or a command language, if we were going to program this project on a simple terminal window. But with XForms, we can easily create windows, input fields and other graphical elements required to implement our game theory simulator. If this is all a little hazy, it may be a good idea to play with the running program a little (see below), and then come back to this section.