Context-Embedded Learning Part IX: Role Playing

This is part of the Context-Embedded Learning section of my dissertation lit review. This section really doesn’t stand up to my enthusiasm for this subject… yet.

Role Playing

One particularly powerful strategy for supporting this sort of identity development is to facilitate true role-playing experiences for students, in which each student takes on a specific role within a cognitively immersive environment. Story telling, especially in conjunction with student role-playing, can also be a powerful tool.
Jonassen, Peck, and Wilson (1999) discussed “Role-Playing on the Web” (p. 33) and the creation of web-based simulations and games; they were especially interested in the promise of new technologies to allow even “elementary students [to] build simple to complex microworlds” (p. 33). Role-playing appeared again in their discussion of visualizing with technology when they suggested that students might “role play press conference(s)” (p. 66). This theme recurred yet again in their treatment of learning by constructing realities with hypermedia, where they shared a handful of examples of “anchoring instruction in hypermedia learning environments” (p. 92), which provide a scenario for the student to explore and play.

Jonassen, Peck, and Wilson (1999) also mentioned the promise of text based MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons, and later Multi-User Domains) and MOOs (Object Oriented MUDs) as a powerful role-playing context for students (p. 140), where students can “can assume a virtual persona different from their real-world persona” (p. 141). These environments were also associated with “facilitat[ing] dialogue and knowledge building among the community of learners” (p. 200). Although “children enjoyed opportunities to choose their own paths through the environment, with some eventually learning to construct their own rooms and environments” (p. 141), there were some potential drawbacks to the use of these games in education; “boys seemed to show more interest than girls… [and] older children (11-14) participated more than younger children” (p. 141). Modern Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) are direct descendents of these early text based games, and may share some of the same potentials and drawbacks.

Jonassen (2003) also this compelling vision of MUDs in the classroom, a vision that applies as much or even more so to modern MMORPGs:

“Imagine, for instance, a MUD in which a student is placed on the main street in a small community in colonial America, with the option of entering stores, blacksmith shops, pubs, jails, homes, and other buildings of the period. Inside each building would be descriptions of the people and artifacts it contained. Students would make decisions and express their choices, to which the MUD’s characters and objects (and other students) would react. Imagine, too, that teachers and their classes could work together to develop new buildings. This option (which is often provided in MUDs) could be great incentive for research, collaboration, problem-solving, and other high-level activities.” (p. 104)

These environments (MUDs or MMORPGs) also make natural microworlds, which Jonassen (2003) is still concerned with. Central to his philosophy is his belief that “transfer of learning, particularly higher order kinds of learning, requires well-developed mental models” (p. 190) and that “in order to construct mental models, learners must explore and manipulate phenomenon, observe the effects, and generate mental representations of those phenomena” (p. 190). This can occur in MMORPGs if they adhere to the four essential characteristics of a microworld, as Jonassen interprets Papert:

• “simple to understand
• reflects generic characteristics that can be applied to many areas of life
• presents concepts and ideas that are useful and important to learners in the world
• reflects syntonic characteristics, which allow learners to relate prior knowledge and experience to current phenomenon being studied” (p. 191)
Jonassen later added the following:
• “Provides a meaningful learning context that supports intrinsically motivated and self-regulated learning
• Establishes a pattern whereby the learner goes from the “known to the unknown”
• Provides a balance between deductive and inductive learning
• Emphasizes the usefulness of errors
• Anticipates and nurtures incidental learning” (p. 193)

In addition to the above, MMORPGs, like other games in general, “can embed cognitive, social, and cultural factors within the environment… which can help learners transfer skills from play and imitation to real situations that they will experience” (Jonassen, 2003, p. 191). Those that allow user creation within the game environment can tap into the idea that “the creation process is an important component of learning (Papert, 1980), which is supported with students constructing their understanding of a phenomenon in a microworld” (Jonassen, 2003, p. 197). Jonassen also points out that “as is the case with most instructional design projects, the people who learn the most are the designers and developers, not the target audience” (p. 191). With respect to virtual reality environments, which modern MMORPGs provide, Jonassen also suggests that active decision-making in the environment “gives students the feeling of participating in a real-world environment, and also transforms learning into exploration” (p. 205).

More recent game scholars add a great deal to Jonassen’s work. Squire and Jenkins (2003) suggest that “games encourage role playing, which can… help students… to adopt different social roles or historical subjectives” (p. 28). For example, Jenkins, Klopfet, Squire, and Tan (2003) discuss the prototype Revolution, which “builds on… the value of combining research and role-playing in teaching historyu, that is, the game offers kids the chance not simply to visit a ‘living history’ museum… but to personally experience the choices that confronted historical figures” (p. 9). Shaffer (in press) concluded that by playing his epistemic games “students developed useful real-world skills and understandings in computer-supported role-playing games” (p. 3).

The use of story in role-playing games can be a powerful tool for providing an emotionally meaningful context for student actions. As Grodal (2003) wrote, “video games are… the medium that is closes to the basic embodied experience” (p. 139). He went on to explain that in games the story is “developed by the player’s active particiation, and the player needs to posses a series of specific skills to ‘develop’ the story, from concrete motor skills… to a series of planning skills” (p. 139).

Squire (2003) subscribes to the view that “interactive digital storytelling should emerge as a legitimate art form in the upcoming years, and video games seem to be paving the way” (p. 9). Holland, Jenkins, and Squire (2003) believe that “the heart of the game is its dramatic force; rather than a lecture, the player is compelled by a visceral or an emotional logic” (p. 39). Echoing core constructivist philosophy, they also note that “rather than regurgitating context-free facts, the player [of a role playing game] must take the next step and utilize knowledge in tense contextually rich situations” (p. 39)

Naturally, such learning does not require a computer. Shaffer (2006) shared the example of The Debating Game, a face-to-face roll playing unit in which “students step into the roles of debaters and judges and play by the rules that define those roles” (p. 25). He notes that like Dungeons and Dragons, a pen and paper (tablet-top) role-playing game, “The Debating Game is a fantasy role-playing game… in which players take on the roles of debaters and judges to inhabit an imagined world in which they are making judgements about the morality of historical actors and about the skill of their own peers” (p. 25).

The importance of role playing with respect to learning in video games will be addressed in greater detail in a later section.

Providing a context for learning is an important element of a constructivist learning environment, but that context is much more powerful if it provides students with opportunities for inquiry.

I’m seeking feedback on this writing, so please let me know what you think in the comments.