Roleplay Safe Words: The Blurry Line in Classroom Simulations

Sorry for the cheeky clickbait headline but (1) I think this a pretty important topic and (2) I hope readers will help me bring this blurry line into some focus. As a middle aged straight cisgender white male I know I am bound to have some blinders and biases. I need some help to work through this personal reflection. I’m not the only educator that might have these blind spots. Like myself, the majority of educators (about 80% in my state) are classified as White. It is our responsibility to reach outside of this world view to see other perspectives so we don’t traumatize students with our assignments. All are welcome in the conversation but this is my effort to put in some work. Also, for the record – I am by no means the first or only person thinking about this topic. Many of the points in this post likely reflect other people’s work and ideas (often people of color) that I have come across in some way and don’t have citations for. Please feel free to share links and documents so we can give credit where it’s due.  Thanks All…


A recent conflict in gamification and education circles centers around when and how to use simulations and role-play activities. The most egregious examples in the news recently have been runaway slave simulations and Jim Crow segregation role plays. Reading these stories I realized how easy it might be for even a well meaning teacher to miscalculate and traumatize already impacted students.  Recently I was preparing for a lesson and chose not to use a premade simulation with the unit but struggled to understand my discomfort. This post is my reflection on this decision as I seek to understand this discomfort and set some personal guidelines for appropriate and inappropriate role-play and simulations.

My experience began with preparing a lesson on the Vietnam War. I was struggling to engage my US History classes because we are on a full year schedule and by April I had used up most of my gamification tricks. We were circling back to an old stand by – the Socratic Seminar. One of my favorite tricks is to repurpose DBQs to create discussion fodder for seminars. For you non-Social Studies folks, DBQ stands for Document Based Question. These are typically traditional 5×5 essays that begin with students analyzing a series of documents. I’m not sure about your students but after 150 days or so mine are not receptive to more conventional essays. Frankly, I don’t want to read them either. So instead of writing a paper I have students analyze the documents and then participate in a Socratic Seminar discussion.

This was my goal in the Vietnam War Unit and I found a DBQ with some unique documents and an interesting central question. It would easily form the backbone of a Socratic Seminar. The main question revolved around the declining support for war in the United States. The documents matched my state standards and I decided to use the DBQ as an entry point into the Socratic Seminar. This particular DBQ, like many in this genre, also came with an opening hook activity. In most DBQs they are framed as a “what would you do” type activity to really engage the students. In this short role playing activity the students were asked to imagine themselves as soldiers in the US military on there first deployment in Vietnam. In this role they come across a Vietnamese village that may or may not have harbored Viet Cong soldiers and are ordered by their commanding officer to burn down the village. The scenario is a full single spaced page full of details designed to ramp up the unease of the decision and ends by asking the student “What do you do?”. Without explicitly saying so the role play boiled down to the question – Do you burn down the potentially innocent village or do you disobey your orders and wishes of your fellow soldiers and not burn it down?

My first instinct was that something off about this role-playing activity. My first thought was that this was likely a scenario that played out historically. There was some truth in the roleplay. My second thought was that I was not comfortable making this part of the assignment. I couldn’t quite clarify why I didn’t want to put this in front of students and it bothered me that I couldn’t quite figure out why.  I would like to think it was my ability to immediately get out of my White Male point of view but won’t lie – I did think about one of my students. I have a Vietnamese student and when I thought of this student being asked to make this decision my skin crawled.  She wasn’t part of this class but it I wouldn’t have wanted her to go through that role playing activity. I’ve had this feeling before but with inappropriate role playing activities in the zeitgeist I began trying to clarify that blurry line for deciding when a role play activity was appropriate.


Back in the mid 1900s the Supreme Court famously had difficulty clarifying the blurry line defining pornography. What is the difference between the artistic nudity of the Venus de Milo and something that meets a… well… more base desire? The Court finally settled on the famous “you know it when you see it” test. I guess it works in that context, but this approach is sorely lacking when it comes to racism in the classroom. The clear examples are pretty obvious but it quickly breaks down with any level of nuance in an activity. What is the difference between asking students to take on the role of a Delegate at the Constitutional Convention debating issues and students simulating the actions of a fugitive slave catcher or runaway slave? One of these matches the Supreme Court definition and you’re probably thinking “well that’s obvious”; but can you explain without resorting to “you just know”. Clearly we don’t want students be divided into slave catchers and runaways but there was plenty of white supremacy at the Constitutional Convention. Southern Americans at the Constitutional Convention (yes, and some Northerners) dramatically fought to enshrine the institution of slavery into the Constitution. They required the inclusion of a fugitive slave clause in Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3, a prohibition on the ban of the international slave trade for 20 years, and infamous 3/5ths compromise before they approved the document. Most white Americans of that era would have taken little issue with any of this. This is a blurry line though. This role playing activity is a fairly standard assignment; even the respected Brown University Choices Program unit on the American Revolution era features a series of Convention ‘mini-debate’ simulations which includes some of these topics. This activity would probably score very well on a Principal’s evaluation. The other one would probably get the teacher on the news. What is the difference?

I am working theory that revolves around Avatars – the onscreen representation of the player in a video game.

Several game designers have developed theories attempting to explain the relationship between a player and their onscreen avatar. James L Gee has done some of this work and I know there are others but don’t have links at the moment. (Sorry, bad academic practice) In my understanding of the argument, players naturally attempt to inhabit the mental space of their Avatar. In MMORPGs the player might create their own avatar but in other games the main character is the player’s avatar. For example, in the popular game Arkham Asylum the player mostly plays as Batman. Even novices to the Batman universe know that Batman doesn’t kill his enemies (horribly maim sure but not kill). When a gamer decides to play as Batman they want to “BE” Batman which means they have a desire to act in this world the way they think Batman would act. This includes the no death rule. There is plenty of fighting but mostly of the horribly maiming variety. The game designers suggest that this is because players would reject the game if there was a disconnect between the storyline and/or gameplay asks them to roleplay the character of Batman in a way that goes against their expectations. Killing opponents would violate the expected “Batman” moral code and the player would enter into a space of cognitive dissonance. Instead, even when given an option, most players will gravitate toward roleplaying an avatar with the expected behavior. (I believe this is called ludonarrative dissonance).

There does seem to be some real world applications to this as well. In the early 1970s a group of psychologists ran an experiment about human behavior called the Stanford Prison Experiment. This experiment, which is problematic on many levels including its ethics and overall structure, separate a group of volunteers into guards and prisoners. While the results have come into question they might be able to inform our thinking on simulation activities. The experiment suggested that those assigned as ‘guards’ became authoritarian and abusive while those assigned to be ‘prisoners’ passively accepted the abuse. In terms of gamer language they seemed began to play their ‘role’ to meet the expectation of the avatar.

Role Play Words #1 – The Oppressed and the Oppressor

All of this ties back into simulations and role-playing in the classroom. When we ask students to participate in a simulation we are actually giving them a classroom avatar. In many cases teachers literally ask students to imagine what it would be like to live through a situation. When applied to my Vietnamese Village example, the students were asked to inhabit the mental space of a soldier on his first tour in the Vietnam. In its logical extreme this includes the fear, peer pressure, and moral hazard that goes along with being a soldier. Then the simulation asks the student to make the choice to either A) burn a Vietnamese village to the ground and potentially kill innocent civilians or B) NOT burn the village and potentially become an outcast or perceived traitor. By giving them 2 choices we are forcing them into 2 problematic decisions. If the student chooses scenario A then they have chosen to (with Historic hindsight) take on the Avatar of an Imperialist – they have become “The Oppressor“. If they select scenario B then they are seen as sympathizing with “The Oppressed” population and indeed would likely become oppressed themselves. These scenarios almost certainly played out. Did the historic figures making these decisions understand their roles as oppressed and oppressor? Maybe… perhaps even likely. If we change the scenario to Antebellum era enslaver and enslaved it is quite obvious that those that chose to enslave others did so intentionally and those enslaved were quite aware they were being oppressed. The documents clearly support their awareness of the dynamic even if folks like John C Calhoun took gigantic mental leaps to justify the arrangement.

One conclusion then is that forcing students to take on the role if the oppressor or the oppressed is a clear bright red line that shouldn’t be crossed. As the students take on the avatar’s mental space it could cause them to think like an oppressor our cause them trauma if they are the oppressed. One might try to argue for creating empathy among the traditionally non-oppressed populations but a role playing activity but the trade off would be reintroducing the harm to the oppressed populations. Even if not the exact historical trauma of those in the classroom the cost-benefit calculus does not work out favorably when their are other possible options for instruction.

Role Play Words #2 – Systemic versus Overt Racism

This still does not explain the acceptance of simulations like the Constitutional Convention debate example and the outcry over the Runaway Slave example. In the Convention example the Founding Fathers were clearly aware of the role that slavery would play in the new nation; the 3/5ths Compromise, Article IV, the International Slave Trade Compromise, and the notes of the delegates tell us as much. My hypothesis is that we are very good at understanding Overt Racism but terrible at seeing Systemic forms. With Overt Racism the bad guys and the victims are clearly defined. It is easy to see that the slave catchers are the bad guys and the captured runaways are obviously the victims. These examples seem so obvious that most people assume that a teacher using these roleplaying examples must be either ignorant at best or racist themselves at worst. Systemic forms are more sinister through because it is harder to detect.

Let’s take that Constitutional Convention role play example and examine it for systemic racism. A common activity is to break students up into small groups representing each state at the Convention. Remembering all of the hidden racism at the Convention mentioned above, consider students asked to role play members of the South Carolina delegation. This seems innocuous even a bit patriotic. They are simulating the founding of the nation that we love! Dig a bit deeper though and we learn about John Randolph, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Charles Pinckney, and Pierce Butler. These 4 signers of the Constitution were all slave holders (Butler was considered the largest enslaver of the period!). All four were strong advocates for protecting slavery in the Constitution. Charles Pinckney and Pierce Butler even that introduced Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3, also known as the initial fugitive slave act.

Consider this in light of the Avatar argument. It is incredibly obvious that we do not want students entering the mental space of a slave catcher and acting in an overtly racist manner nor do we want them to enter the mental space of a runaway slave resisting enslavement as it may lead to unwanted trauma. The question then becomes how do we deal with simulations of the more hidden system racism. If we ask them to role play South Carolina delegates to the Constitutional Convention we are asking the students to enter into a more nuanced mental space; yes these men were racist enslavers of people but they were also creating one of our core founding documents that had the seeds of emancipation and equality buried in it.  This is another of those blurry lines but it seems clear that rooting out systemic racial simulations is important too. If students will “play” the simulation to meet the expectations of their avatar we are creating a trojan horse activity that will allow students to empathize (if they don’t already) with the logic that created the racist system in the first place. The line here is more blurry than with overt racism and it can quickly get more so. There are many examples of historical situations that seem perfectly benign at first glance but the underlying roots have a racist or at least questionable origin. As we make our decisions I think this is a blurry line that we need to be sure comes more into focus.


Oppressed/Oppressor and Overt/Systemic Racism dynamics should be considered when deciding whether to use a role play or simulation activity. These activities are incredibly engaging because students are entering into the avatar’s mental space and seek to play out their role by playing towards the expectation of the character; this is also why they can be so dangerous. The potential for harm is magnified in these situations and we have an obligation to select activities that do not place students in danger. Please be careful. I am sure that there are more situations and “safe words” that should be considered when dealing with these types activities as I am also aware that I probably have certain holes in my perspective. Please feel free to leave some comments below and we can try to help bring these blurry lines into focus together.

1 Comment

  1. Adam, thanks for the thought provoking post. I am in the process of creating a gamified unit for high school English (which will actually be part of my dissertation research at USC-Columbia), and role-play is one of my primary game mechanics. I think a valuable theoretical construct to consider with this particular game element is Gee’s (2007) notion of projective identity. In What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, Gee argues that one of the most powerful aspects of video games is their ability to allow players to adopt and negotiate different personas. Educators can use this game-based learning principle in a transformative way. Through the incorporation of role-play in an instructional unit, a teacher can prompt a student to adopt positive academic identities which may impact a child’s self-efficacy and extend far beyond the classroom. For instance, if a science teacher has students role-play as researchers or doctors, then this might encourage students to realize their potential for these careers and identities.

    As you argue, educators must take care that the identities we encourage students to adopt are positive, or at the very least do not cause harm to students. It’s important for students to recognize and combat oppression; however, I agree that this does not require they adopt the role of the oppressor or oppressed. In my own unit, I am encouraging students to adopt roles as advocates and activists. Students will adopt various roles (e.g., journalist, professor, police officer) and work in teams to research banned and challenged books (e.g., The Hate U Give, All American Boys, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Some Girls Are, Mexican White-boy). Their objective is to learn not only about their group’s book but also the socio-political context which caused the book to be banned or challenged. They will then need to present a research-based argument at a mock school board meeting for why the book should be read.

    This approach, I hope, will allow students to critically analyze oppression on a systematic and personal level, while at the same time empowering students to fight oppression. Students will adopt personas not as victims or oppressed, but rather as allies and advocates in the fight for justice.

    Like

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