Thursday, 28 October 2004

Online Role Play Simulation Design - 1

Fablusi Version 2 will be launched in the next few weeks. I have been working on this for the last 20 months, putting over 10 hours a day on it. It is a complete rewrite and only a small fraction of the code from version 1 has survived.

As I am preparing for the launch, I would like to use this space to discuss the design issues - how to create engaging and effective online role play simulations? what are the differences and similarities between online and face to face role plays? How to administrate role plays? How to moderate? How to assess? and any issue which you may like to raise. If there is anything you would like me to cover, please send me an email or leave a note in this blog.

This is the first of a series of posts. So, I may as well start by outlining how we normally run an online role play simulation.

A proper orientation to the players is important. As role playing is a collaborative creative activity, we must let the players know that there is an obligation of participation if they decide to play. While we usually design the simulation in the way that one or two personas' absence will not influence the overall flow of the experience of the other players, some critical personas are CRITICAL.

Creativity from the players are also very important. Role play is similar to a collaborative writing of a story. The environment only provides the "circumstantial" factors. It is the improvisations of the players which bring the role play to its greatest glory.

During the pre-briefing stage, we also ensure that the players are able to connect to the website, able to log in and generally able to navigate through the different parts of the website. They are then directed to a "role selection page" where they can nominate the role they want to play. The role information is normally minimal at this stage.

If the role play simulation is part of a course, where there is an element of assessment, we would need to make clear to the players what are the expectations: how often we expect them to log in, how much posts are expected, which are assessable interaction spaces and which are spaces that there will not be any assessment. Generally, it is better to log in often but briefly, then log in only once in a week for an extended period of time. We want to see several rounds of interactions. If we ask the players to log in twice daily, there will be about one interaction round per day. Issues need to be developed and resolved. 10 rounds is good target. So twice daily for 2 weeks and once daily for a month are a general guideline.

Role Profile
As noted above, the role information in the role selection page is generally minimum. After everyone is assigned a role, we release two pieces of information: a general description of the simulation and private role information. Private role information are available only to the players playing that persona. The players are asked to embellish the role, giving the persona a character, state the persona's public agenda in this simulation (and the private agenda which is only visible to the moderator). The writing of the role profile serves two purposes: give the players ownership of their persona and as a public information for other players to read in order to understand the "people" they will be interacting with during the simulation. There is, usually, a deadline for the players to finish their role profiles and this requirement enforces the idea of collaboration.

Kick-start Episode
When you put people in a physical room, there is a natural tendency for people to start interacting with other. This is NOT the case in an online environment. Unless they have a reason to act, they can just "sit" there and remain silent. After the publishing of the role profiles, we release some "kick-start episodes" which are usually crisis giving the personas compelling reasons to act. We ask the players to study the kick-start episode carefully. If the situation does to seem to give you immediate reason to act, you better get prepared because other persona's actions will give you something to act very soon. Just like playing chess, it is better to think a few step ahead!

If the simulation has been properly designed, the players will spring into action after the kick-start episode. They will be contacting each other, negotiating, threatening, forming new alliances, attacking enemies and so on. As a moderator, you can sit back and enjoy the action. Keep an eye on the development and ensure that the experiences of the players from the role play are appropriate to your learning objectives. If not, do some steering and get them back on track. I will write more about the "zen" of moderating online simulation in a later post.

When there are adequate experience generated, it is time to call a stop to the role play. It is NOT necessary for a complete resolution of all issues when you call the stop. Issues will develop one after another. You cannot wait for all of them to resolve. They just won't. New issues will arise. You stop when you think it is appropriate and call for a de-briefing.

It is the formal stage of de-role, dis-engage and get back to real life. Ask the players to reflect on several levels:

  • as a persona, how does the persona feel and how s/her may improve?

  • as a player, how have you played the persona? With the benefit of hind-sight, will you do anything differently?

  • if the course, in which the role play simulation is situated, is a theoretical course, another level of reflection is to ask the player to assess how theory is applicable in this situation?

  • This de-briefing stage can be run online or face to face and is usually the highlight of the whole experience.

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