Immersive Role Playing in Education

I just finished reading Mike Carnes’ thought provoking book Minds on Fire. The book goes through his experiences using “Reacting Games” in his university courses. Reacting Games are role playing, debate-style exercises that take up the entire course (in-class, out-of-class preparation, student evaluation, the whole thing) for months at a time. Students are assigned roles from great debates and conflicts in history. The key advocates have to convince the others to join their sides.

Why are so many students intellectually disengaged? Faculty, administrators, and tuition-paying parents have been asking this question for nearly two centuries. And the answer is always more or less the same: students are so deeply absorbed in competitive social play (fraternities, sports, beer pong, World of Warcraft, social media) that they neglect academics.

The situations are selected to fit the curriculum of different courses. For example, a European history course might pit the royalists against the Jacobins against the liberals etc and have some students act as the population masses who support one side or another. A philosophy of science course might pit Galileo against the Church against the secular government in the same way.

The idea behind these activities is that students get more engaged in the process, spend more time learning, and therefore learn more deeply and more viscerally. The book cites a great deal of evidence to support these claims.

There are also many side benefits that he cites, although some of these with less data. Because students have a safe way to try out new identities (because criticism is directed at their role, not at them personally), shy students can try out being assertive. Majority students can imagine what it is like to be a minority or a liberal as a conservative. There are some great anecdotes in the book where an African American student plays the role of a slavery advocate in the mid-19th Century and so on. The students would never imagine let alone support these views, but the experience teaches them a lot about the other side’s position and about the nature of thought.

None of his examples indicate that there are Reacting Games for human factors, ergonomics, design, research, or any of the courses I teach. It would be an extensive process to create one from scratch, which is why he also provides links to resources where games are available for purchase. But this might be a useful endeavor for some of us to take on and share through the HFES educational resources repository.

Image credit: Riproduzione fotografica di Luigi Santoro

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