By Bernard Horan & Michael Gardner
In earlier blog postings about the +Spaces project, Bernard described how we were using Open Wonderland (OWL) to host polls and debates, so that citizens could express their views on potential government policies. In this posting, we will describe another mechanism to encourage citizens to engage in the policy-making process: role-play simulations.
Role-play has been used for many purposes such as predicting outcomes, war-gaming, team building, and training. It has been particularly useful as a teaching tool in the classroom, allowing students to act out and experience some of the dynamics of a particular problem or issue, from different stakeholder perspectives. Aspects of role-play have also been used in online environments such as virtual theatre, gaming, and focused discussion forums. Role-play simulations in virtual worlds have often been labelled as ‘serious games’, often used where it would be too dangerous or too costly to attempt the activity in a real-world setting. Examples include safety training on oil rigs, and educating paramedics.
Many of the examples of role-play simulations are custom-built virtual worlds (such as the examples above). However, one of the requirements of the +Spaces project is to come up with an abstract description of role-play simulations that could be used in multiple policy domains, so that the +Spaces functionality could be used to address policies across a range of domains.
Building on the success of role-playing in the education, we have adapted resources from the Australian Flexible Learning Framework to develop two role-playing templates for use on the +Spaces platform. These are:
- Galactic wormhole: participants imagine themselves to be five years in the future and reflect on positive and negative outcomes of a particular policy
- Depolarizer: structured game based on the philosophy that many issues that we treat as problems to be solved are actually polarities to be managed
The idea is that users can consider the consequences of a proposed policy through a role-play simulation. An online moderator facilitates the session, assigning users to roles specific to the role-play. The users are then guided through the stages of the role-play simulation by the moderator. The template can be instantiated with a description of the policy, useful web links, descriptions of roles, and questions to be answered by the participants.
We implemented the two templates in OWL, and the video below shows a much-shortened version of the first trial that took place recently, using an instantiated Depolarizer template. You’ll see that the moderator (Michael) has a control panel from which he can step through the stages in the template, whereas participants (such as Bernard) do not have access to the control panel. The other users in the trial were students from the University of Essex.
(For brevity’s sake, the video focuses on the steps in the template and omits user participation. A fuller version of the trial is provided below.)
The purpose of the trial was twofold:
- to test the ‘process’–i.e. to ensure that the users felt that they understood how to participate
- to test the functionality of the modules we had developed for OWL
The results of the trial were broadly positive:
- The participants felt that the process worked very well. They thought that it was clear what they were meant to be doing at each stage.
- They particularly liked the icebreaker stage as a way of getting into the subject. The carpet vote also worked well.
- Some of them preferred the experience of the role-play to their experience of taking part in the previous OWL debate pilot. Because the process was much more structured they felt it was easier to follow than the debate – it was easier for the users to participate in the activities because they had a clear idea of what they should be doing at each stage – they felt that they could participate more easily.
- Although the Depolarizer is quite a simple role-play compared to the Galactic Wormhole, they all found the optimist/pessimist roles to be very easy to get into.
- The functionality of the simulation worked well, although there were some issues with the size of the statements on the “statement wall” and the location of some of the elements of the virtual world.
Videos are also available that provide an (edited) full-length version of the trial, as well as a (very short) video of the OWL features that we implemented. We’d be really interested in your responses to this approach to simulation and also other possible applications, such as directed learning.