Zimbardo Prison Experiment in which Stanford students became prisoners and guards in a simulated prison environment. The article [sic] describes the aims of the experiment, how it was set up, how it operated, and how they evaluated the results.
From my reading of the article both prisoners and guards more or less internalized their roles (maybe they were already there to begin with?) by day 2. The guards also showed similar effects in how they responded to wielding power, even though they knew they were being watched, they knew it wasn't real.
While the Zimbardo Prison Experiment took place in a physical world with all the preparation procedures to "prepare the prisoners", the fact that the internalisation occurred only two days into the experiment (while no doubt there was "suspension of belief" operating), and that the randomly chosen groups behaved in the way in line with their assumed roles BOTH being watched AND in private is a powerful reminder of the intensity of role play. It is almost impossible to emphasis the moderator's duty to monitor the well being of the role players when we are dealing with emotional intense situation. Proper de role and debriefing are essential parts of using role play as a learning tool.
This also reminded me about a computerized doll, programmed to mirror the needs of a real baby, shows teens what parenting is really like. See RealCare® Baby II website. [Note: this is not a paid advertisement. I am just using it as an example of the use of real physical objects and environment.]
Using role play in training and learning, online or otherwise, has great potential and hence responsibility. More to think about. I total agree!