Tuesday, 31 August 2004

Fablusi Role Playing Issues

With my work for Fablusi, I am in a special position to observe the pedagogical power of online role play simulation. In the past few years, I have designed, helped to design and watched the designing and running of hundreds of online role play simulation running on Fablusi platform. I am also in the special position to get into the underlying database and read something even moderators might not be able to read. Note that I did not voilate any the privacy of the moderators or players, I was asked to do so either because I need to help the moderator and solve some technical problems. But I do build up an insight which is quite unique – I suppose.

In the past posts, I have been focussing on SCORM. Via Stephen Downes OLDaily, I was pointed to the eLearnQueen’s blog. Her first article was an insightful description of “The Ethics of Video Game-Based Simulation”. Reading the post, I resonated with her observations and was inspired to reflect on the path I have taken in building a platform to deliver this powerful pedagogy. The first thing I noticed is the differences in the genre and context. Susan Smith Nash and I both talk about simulation and is, in a lot of senses, the same type of simulations – role playing where artificial intelligence is only tangential to the system. (The other type of simulation is rule-based simulations where it is the model and/or artificial intelligence that is driving the interaction.) However, Fablusi role play simulation differs from Nash’s simulation in that we are not a virtual graphical environment – we do not have avatar. Not that we cannot support avatars, we use text-based interaction for keeping the cost down as well as supporting an important pedagogical construct. I describe our text-based reality as “created reality” where the images (if any) of the roles and other roles are the creative constructs by the players based on the descriptions provided. There is no visual images to “restrain” your imagined self, foes and friends in the scenario. This often unleashes a high creative spirit from the players and ownership of the role by the players. I believe this is beneficial to the learning process. Nash’s simulations, being linked to “matter of live and die” decisions, have no room for assumption testing and experimenting. The scenarios have to be as realistic as possible and the transfer efficacy must be high and effective. Fablusi provides a safe environment for our learners to experiment, test assumptions and play with possibilities. As my business partner Roni Linser put it, in Fablusi, “play” implies play with possibilities, play for fun and role playing as in playing a character in a theater.

These differences post a different set of ethnical issues. Since I came from a teaching background, my own belief systems would have biased me to focus on different aspects of the issues. Foremost to me is the issue of “duty of care” as a teacher towards my students. In a physical environment, it is the responsibility of the presiding teacher to ensure a reasonable safe learning environment. When we select teaching/learning material, we bear the responsibility to screen out inappropriate material. In the online world, the physical safety is not our issue. The learners should be in the safety of a laboratory or their home – which is beyond our control. The material accessible via the Internet is very difficult to censor and filter. In our particular case of online role play, the duty of care should be about the psychological safety of the players playing the simulation. We know, and I have seen mature adult burst in tears during debriefing, that online role play is emotionally intense. The first ethnical issue, in Fablusi’s case, is to ensure that the moderator understands this issue of “duty of care” and works to create a safe environment. From the implementation point of view, I deliberately make the environment different from the real world counter part. I insisted that players “log in” (and “log out” which unfortunately is very difficult to enforce in a web-based environment) to create the sense of “entering” and “existing” the simulated environment. During “pre-briefing”, we stubbornly repeated the notion of this separation too.

Until we implemented the “wealth” sub-system, Fablusi has no random element. Every “random” effect is the results of the complex interactions among the roles. If there is a disaster, it is by design because we want the players to experience certain situation based on the learning objectives we wanted to achieve. However, there is an observed “randomness”. Several role play simulations have been played more than once. (Since Fablusi has a flexible authoring environment, our authors tend to modify the scenario every time, but there are still a few which are played again verbatim) From the runs of these same simulations, the game outcomes have been different every time while the learning outcome has been consistently reported to be highly positive.

Because of time limitation and the notion “playing is the excuse of debriefing” [Thiagi???], many of our role play ended “bluntly” – at a high point when players are totally absorbed in the scenario. I have no answer whether that is an ethnically correct strategy or otherwise. Ending at a high note has the advantage of an enthusiastic debriefing sessions. Every player is eager to find out who played which role and what will be their next move…. But certainly, ending a high point also creates a sense of incompleteness and lack of closure for many opened issues.

I suppose, Fablusi being a learning environment, these ethnical stances are acceptable. What is your opinion? Please let me know.


susan smith nash said...

This is a brilliant article, and I would like to try to implement it, particularly in a distributed e-learning setting with users in different settings, actively engaged in some of the real-world issues that the simulation brings forth. I am curious about the mechanics of the Fablusi narrative simulation -- is it synchronous? asynchronous? can it be accommodated with a dial=up connection & hefty firewalls? I really like the suggestion of using discussions of real-life brinksmanship --Saddam Hussein as a failed brinksman ... other examples being historical (africa) ... and the deliberate crafting of persona (it helps if people think the brinksmanship is being played by a lunatic) ... what fascinating possibilities!! thanks, albert, for your brilliant work in this field.

Albert Ip said...

Susan asked

"I am curious about the mechanics of the Fablusi narrative simulation -- is it synchronous? asynchronous? can it be accommodated with a dial=up connection & hefty firewalls?"A reply here:

Fablusi is a glorified discussion environment. It supports both asynchronous and synchronous communication. It communicates using HTTP protocols and hence should be transparent to firewalls. Because it is mainly text-based, the bandwidth demands is minimum. Most dial-up should have no problem accessing Fablusi-based simulations. However, we did notice one problems recently. For those with permanent broadband connection WITHOUT a fixed IP address, some low-cost ISP tends to switch IP in quick intervals - sometimes causing log-out in synchronous discussion. This will be remendied in v2 where I will try to get rid of "state" on the server side.

If Fablusi is a glorified discussion forum, the next question people usually ask me is "can we use your concept to run role play using our existing LMS?" Again, there is no black and white answer. If your role does not depend on "secret exchange" between roles, that's fine. Using a course discussion forum, all messages become public and there is little "behind the scene" plotting among the roles. Fablusi also support team-playing of a role - which again has important pedagogical utility.

Of course, there are other features which I cannot list completely ... Otherwise, how can we sell it as a product. :-)