Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Some Saturday afternoon thoughts on technology-enhanced role-play


On both her own blog and the blog of the CHNM 2012 THATCamp (the Technology and Humanities Camp currently underway at the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University—one of many THATCamps held each year), Adeline Koh raises the question of classroom learning, role-playing games, and the contribution of current and emerging technologies:

We are being increasingly encouraged to “gamify” the classroom. Educators such as Cathy N. Davidson (Now You See It(@cathyndavidson) and Jane McGonigal (Reality is Broken) have suggested that games can help engage students in deeper ways than traditional learning methods.

I’d like to discuss how we can best implement Role Playing Games, or RPGs, in higher education. RPGs are well suited to the classroom because of their structure, which encourages students to identify with their characters and game objectives. Some excellent pedagogical examples include Reacting to the Past at Barnard, a series of elaborate historical games where students roleplay real historical characters with the possibility of changing historical events through mastery of historical and cultural knowledge (for more information, see my blog post here), and the Practomime project, where Latin students have to thoroughly assimilate into the ancient Roman world to save the world.

The following questions may be helpful in guiding discussion: how we can use digital tools to enhance role playing learning efforts (course websites, wikis as “codexes”, social media for team building/knowledge sharing)? Further, how, and should, these role-playing become digital in form? Most successful classroom RPGs have been “fleshspace” based, where gameplayers meet in person. How can we use the digital to enhance the “fleshspace” experience, and to augment or transform it?

Skip Cole has written on this issue too, coining the useful term “technology-enhanced role-play” (TERP) to describe his vision of how computers and digital media can enrich the already considerable advantage of roleplay-based experiential learning techniques. Although they don’t use the same terminology, similar issues are explored in even greater depth by Sandra Wills, Elyssebeth Leigh, and Albert Ip in their excellent (and, in a practical sense, very useful) book on the power of role-based e-learning.

Implicit in the TERP concept is the notion that technology is acting as an adjunct and multiplier for traditional role-play methods, rather than as something possibly transformative in the way that Adeline Koh raises in the very end of her blogpost. I don’t doubt that technology might, in the end, ultimately transform education role-play in important ways. Indeed, I think we already see this in digital entertainment RPGs in some ways. However, I think we’re very far from this in educational settings, and that for now the TERP focus is still the one where the bulk of our energies might best be applied.

Then again (and on a very geeky RPG side-note), Finius Ludd—my character in our local gaming group’s Shadowrun cyberpunk campaign—is an avowed technophobe who refuses neural or cybernetic implants, simsense, or even wifi-enabled devices that would connect him to the matrix. Perhaps he’s an unconscious projection of my frequent criticism of excessive hypertechnoludovangelism.

My own Brynania civil war simulation is, for the most part, one really, really big TERP: over one hundred players playing in semi-real time over more than 80 course-related hours. Despite its very serious subject matter (refugees, humanitarian assistance, war fighting, peace negotiations, peacekeeping, transitional justice), it is very much a huge game of political D&D in terms of its original design inspirations. Student response has always been overwhelming positive, underscoring how useful role-playing can be in a university setting. In one survey we did a few years ago, students reported positive learning effects in almost every category (scaled 1-7, where 1= “no, not at all”  and 7= “yes,completely”):

  • Did the simulation increase your understanding of the real-world constraints on peace operations? 6.20
  • Was the simulation more useful to you than a week of readings on the subject? 6.18
  • Did the simulation increase your understanding of the bureaucracy involved in politics? 5.87
  • Did the simulation increase your understanding of organizational processes involved in
  • politics? 5.80
  • Did the simulation increase your understanding of the material covered in the class readings?    5.51
  • Did the simulation improve your understanding of negotiations?    5.49
  • Did the simulation enhance your information management skills? 5.47
  • Did the simulation enhance your empathy for others in conflict situations? 5.04
  • Did the simulation enhance your leadership skills?    5.00
  • Did the simulation enhance your written communication skills?    4.89
  • Did the simulation enhance your time management skills? 4.62
  • Did the simulation enhance your verbal communication skills?    4.36
  • Did the simulation enhance your social skills?    4.02

What has that particular experience, and more than a decade of repeated plays of the simulation, suggested to me about the intersection of technology and educational RPGs?

The technology base. I very much rely on existing off-the-shelf, freeware, and public domain technologies. Students, in addition to meeting face-to-face, communicate by mobile phone, SMS texting, email, instant messaging programs, voice/video-over-IP, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and so forth. I provide them with the email accounts (largely so that we can rely on the McGill server for speed and reliability) and set up two listservs. Beyond that, it is up to them. They make it work. (I also don’t have to worry about issues of software and browser compatibility, or running IT support while I’m running the simulation. They can safely sort all that out themselves.)

By contrast, one can use purpose-made software, whether resident locally or server- and web-based. Skip’s Open Simulation Platform is an example of the former, the ICONS project would be an example of the latter. My “use what’s already out there” route has the advantage of familiarity (all students use email, many use IM, Skype, Twitter, blogs, etc.), and of constant upgrading as services and freeware improve. It also harnesses student skills and creativity as they develop communications methods. The “dedicated software” approach, on the other hand, has the advantage of in-built monitoring and debrief tools, tutoring, and other potential capabilities.

With regard to the educational use of wargames, Phil Sabin has stressed the value of relatively parsimonious, manual (non-digital) games because of the ease with which they can be tweaked or reworked—something that is much harder to do with a software platform. I think his point (with which I agree) also applies to a significant extent with RPGs. too.

Face-to-face matters. My students send more than 10,000 emails during a typical week-long simulation, and probably spend thousands of hours collectively in the phone, Skype, IM, and so forth. That’s a lot of technology. However, the single most frequent debrief comment I get is how much they prefer “fleshspace” to “cyberspace,” and value actual face-to-face time. Part of the reason for this is probably personal—that is, students enjoying the experience of meetings, coordination, negotiation, and so forth. Part of it may be the new friendships and post-graduation personal networks formed during the simulation (we’ve even had players get married!). Much of it, however, is also the perception that personal contact was more productive in terms of advancing their simulation goals.

Interestingly, although students express a preference for face-to-face meetings, social and interpersonal skills are among those where they note the least effects of the simulation. (Then again, one would expect that , since these have already been shaped by 18+ years of personal socialization before I ever get them in a classroom.)

Too much technology can potentially detract. There have been times when some students have become too focused on creative uses of technology, and haven’t thought enough about means, goals, and so forth. Attempts to create a virtual conferencing spaces, via Second Life or other packages, almost always end up consuming far more student time and effort than is warranted by the gains in role-play effectiveness.

Moreover, the rather obvious limits and rough edges of my use of technology allows participants to recognize that the simulation is indeed a simulation—thus avoiding the potential pitfalls of excessive apparent fidelity.

By way of conclusion, it needs to be kept in mind that these are all impressions and conclusions derived from running a very particular simulation on a very particular topic in a very particular educational setting—it might well be that other role-plays on other topics with other audiences could use (or not use) technology in very different ways.

However, given that caveat, I do tend to answer the questions that  Adeline Koh asked with a combination of both enthusiasm and a little caution. Yes, technology can extend and enhance the classroom RPG experience in a myriad of ways. I’m less convinced, however, that our primary efforts should be aimed at replacing non-digital educational role-play with digital versions. Try too hard to “transform” for transformations sake might well obscure the payoffs to be had from a more modest “enhance” and “augment” approach to the topic.

Image below: The classic Will McLean cartoon from the Advanced D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979).

2 responses to “Some Saturday afternoon thoughts on technology-enhanced role-play

  1. John Jensen Ph.D. 17/06/2012 at 4:25 pm

    We need to recognize that technology is a great ocean of knowledge. Transforming it into children’s internal field of knowledge operates under certain constraints. Writing about education reform, it may be helpful to understand a fundamental principle vastly underutilized in US schools–insuring that nearly all students get only superficial learning. It’s the strict correlation between practice and skill development of any kind–whether a physical skill or a zone of knowledge. The link following goes to a brief article explaining the idea
    Best regards, John Jensen Ph.D.

  2. Ronald Skip Cole 21/06/2012 at 9:45 pm

    Hi Rex,

    This was a lot of thought for one Saturday afternoon :-)

    First, thanks a million for mentioning our project, we are always looking to let more people know about what we are doing. I’m going to reach out to Professor Koh.

    I personally think there is a great opportunity here to help bring RPG into the classroom. You do it in yours with off the shelf tools pieced together because you are incredibly dedicated. Unfortunately, we can’t rely on teachers being as dedicated as you are. We need to make it easy for them, and also to develop the community of support to help them when they do try it out. (Even just convincing them that they are not crazy for trying it out.) The PaxSims blog is doing a great job for that.

    Roleplay in the classroom is the fertile field that people have passed by on their way toward ‘video game like experiences.’ But now we are going to circle back, plant it and reap it for all that it is worth. (Can you tell I’ve been play “Plants vs Zombies” all night based on my analogies?)

    I am super, super, super psyched about the new direction our platform is taking. We want to turn it into the ‘WordPress for Role Playing Online.’ By that I mean one simple tool that anyone can use, and that is easy for programmers to develop for. It is not going to be easy to create, but a the end of the day, I know it will be useful :-)


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