Article Review 3 – Role-Playing and Virtual Reality

As I read the readings and went through the resources for this week, I couldn’t help but  be drawn to Brown’s talk about video games. I’ve been playing video games since 1994 (I was born in 1992). I’ve had an on-again-off-again love/hate relationship with them, often dipping in and out of interest for months or years at a time. They seem to get brought up in education somewhat frequently, often by older educators or people who I would consider gaming outsiders, and I always view the discussion with skepticism, especially when “gamification” comes up. So, the article I am reviewing this week is “Online role-play environments for higher education,” by Carol Russel and John Sheperd, which focuses on incorporating elements of role-playing (from RPGs and the like – though of course “role-playing” is older than that) into online aspects of higher education.

According to the article, role-playing is a type of “experiential learning” which is “ideal for encouraging…complex holistic social learning” (Russel  & Shepherd, 2010, 993). Basically, having students adopt roles and then play through them online allows them to learn about both the role they adopt and the roles their cohort members adopt, in a relatively safe way.  Because “learning from experience can be risky,” role-playing allows students to work through a variety of complex social tasks (like professional interactions) in a risk-free environment   (Russel  & Shepherd, 2010, 993). There are a seemingly infinite number of ways to set this up, but perhaps the most interesting example from the article has to do with how role-play functions outside of what we typically think of as a gaming environment. The article differentiates between games (an artificial situation in which there are parameters for victory) and simulations (which are more realistic and complex, focusing on solvable issues), but notes that both function according to predetermined conditions whereas role-play develops naturally (Russel & Shepherd, 2010, 994). It is really quite impressive how diversified the options for online role-play tools are. The article gives a brief overview of 8 different types, and lists even more. If you’re somewhat unfamiliar with the basic tools that can be used to simulate role-play online, I recommend reading this. It’s short and easily digestible. The biggest focus, of course, is on virtual reality, though the article seems to use that phrase in a way that is not as familiar to me as another. They mean it in a video-game world sense, not in a Oculus Rift headset sense. Regardless, I do think that the educational possibilities for both senses of the phrase are nearly limitless.

Virtual reality is a bit of an unknown frontier in higher academia, according to the article. People have worked with Second Life before, with somewhat mixed results. If you’re going to make the argument that role-playing is a valuable experiential learning exercise, then really I would think that virtual reality has to be pretty high up and close to the ideal, right? The article makes no claim of that, instead nothing that while MMOs, virtual classrooms, and other extreme role-playing tools like virtual reality “seem immersive, it is not yet clear whether this helps or hinders student engagement with learning from the role” (Russel & Shepherd, 2010, 998). I am not sure exactly what they mean by this. I cannot imagine how it would hinder engagements, and the article unfortunately does not speculate as to the possibilities. When I personally think about the seemingly logical conclusion of the future of online education, I start to picture things very similar to Second Life. The article offers up a long list of things that they believe make role-play the most effective, and settles on the conclusion that custom tools seem best and that it is not possible at time of writing to determine how effective virtual worlds will be at meeting these. However, it is now five years past time of writing, so I guess I can do that for them.

Pretty much everything that they were unable to assess in 2010 (which I find suspect, as Second Life launched in 2003 and ActiveWorlds in 1995) as being supportive of role-play can be said to almost assuredly to encourage engaging role-play.  I would like to see a follow up to this article wherein whatever new tools and virtual worlds are available would be put to more of a test. I’m sure there are tools newer than SecondLife that could be used to make a more engaging virtual “classroom” experience. At one point, both Adobe and Google had working virtual communities, but they have long since been abandoned. I’m not sure what the best contemporary tool would be. Some of the things that they go over here are antiquated or no longer in use. Just goes to show how fast things move on the internet.

The article ends on a high note, suggesting that given staff familiarity, virtual worlds could become as commonplace in education and role-play situations as email (Russel & Shepherd, 2010, 1001). That wouldn’t exactly surprise me, given how easily young people dive into almost unfathomably large virtual worlds and engage in role-play all the time. The amount of support that the Oculus Rift got was enormous, even though not many people really knew what exactly it could be used for beyond entertainment. I agree with the basic conclusion the article comes to: that role-playing serves a very specific social function (outside of games or simulations) and that digital tools can enhance that. There’s so much more on the horizon, though. We’re very close to a time when augmented reality and virtual reality will become the norm and not the fringe. How is role-play going to change? How is learning going to change because of that? To paraphrase everyone’s favorite literary dad, pretty soon we’ll be able to climb inside someone’s skin and walk around in it in ways we never thought possible. It would be interesting to read an educational study that examines legitimate modern virtual reality and how learners engage with that. I do agree with the article that role-play is a good learning tool and I think taking it virtual might allow curmudgeonly people like me to be more willing to open up to it in a way that feels (paradoxically) a little more natural.





Russell, C., & Shepherd, J. (2010). Online role-play environments for higher education. British Journal Of Educational Technology, 41(6), 992-1002. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.01048.x


2 thoughts on “Article Review 3 – Role-Playing and Virtual Reality

  1. Nice review. The whole 2nd life situation brings up a lot of questions with the way higher ed operates currently. You point out how quickly things change with google and Adobe already abandoning their foray into the virtual world. I wonder if that pace in itself is one of the challenges facing higher ed today. The majority aren’t organized in such a way that they can respond to advances as quickly as technology can change. It can get expensive too. But then, by the time we decide something might be a good path to be on, things are changing again. Our college was hesitant to jump in to Second Lifwe because of bandwith and connectivity issues faced by some of our rural students. Things are starting to improve for many but will they be behind again when the next technology emerges?

  2. Nice work, Nicholas!

    This is a topic near and dear to my heart and I think you did a nice job uncovering some of the inherent complexities involved. Role play has long been around in explicit usage such as in mock-trials, or in therapeutic contexts where students take turns “playing” patient. It has also been used in military and diplomatic simulations such as Diplomacy and other settings. We often use an exercise where we place faculty in the roles of key players in the ISIS Crisis. In one hour, the intensity and complexity of the conflict, as well as the utility of role-playing as a tool to develop empathy and engage around subject matter is successfully revealed.

    But role-play occurs implicitly as well in educational contexts. Students assume subordinate roles, and many faculty assume professorial mannerisms. Many students subconsciously want to hold their educator in (most likely artificially) high esteem. It can be hard to have someone whom you know informally as an instructor. Hard to suspend disbelief.

    The online potential for role-play only expands on traditional potentials 100 fold, if not more. There’s a great video by Richard Buckland – one of the best educational videos I’ve ever seen:

    He’s Australian – wonderful to listen to and completely inspiring.

    Inspired by his example, some colleagues of mine and I designed a course with some student “players” in a cohort that weren’t real students. We could use them for examples of both positive and negative cohort behaviors and provide educative feedback without actually commenting on any real student’s work. Very interesting.

    Lots to talk about!


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