Currents in Electronic Literacy

Role-playing Simulations Improve Writing

by M. A. Syverson


  1. In 1984, George Hillocks wrote an article modestly entitled "What Works in Teaching Composition." This article reported the results of a meta-analysis Hillocks had conducted, reviewing over 500 research studies investigating a wide variety of methods of teaching composition and the consequences for student learning. After removing those studies which were seriously flawed in research design, application of method, or findings, Hillocks performed a comparative statistical analysis of the remaining studies. Hillocks' conclusions found that his own approach, which he called the environmental method, effected the greatest positive change in student writing of all of the methods studied. However, in conducting his meta-analysis he had also removed from consideration a single study that was not flawed in any way, as he recently revealed on a panel at CCCC. This research described a pedagogical method that had resulted in improvement in student writing that so far surpassed every other study he reviewed that he had removed it from his comparative analysis, in order to avoid skewing the statistical averages beyond recognition. The study was Lynn Troyka's dissertation research on the effect of role-playing simulation games in her composition classes. Students in these "remedial English" classes made enormous gains in their writing, more specifically, in their sophistication, effective use of rhetorical strategies, and ability to accommodate conflicting views. When I asked about her study, Troyka graciously provided a copy of her book, Taking Action (Troyka and Nudelman). The simulation games she had used were designed for conventional classrooms. But as far as I could determine, her study had been neglected by our field, and there was no evidence that this work had been extended into rhetoric and composition in computer-supported environments.

    Key Components of a Successful Role-playing Simulation

  2. Role-playing simulations have been a staple in the social sciences, in business, in international affairs, and in military and political studies for a very long time. Abt refers to these as "serious games," and he provides this definition of a "game":

    Reduced to its formal essence, a game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context. A more conventional definition would say that a game is a contest with rules among adversaries trying to win objectives. The trouble with this definition is that not all games are contests among adversaries--in some games the players cooperate to achieve a common goal against an obstructing force or natural situation that is itself not really a player since it does not have objectives (5).

  3. It is clear that role-playing simulations can be very effective in helping participants gain a richer understanding of multiple perspectives and of the "codependent arising" of interdependent activity. By engaging in well-defined role-playing games participants seem to move beyond both of these common assumptions: the simplistic assumption of a "right/wrong" dichotomy in complex social problems, and the strong relativist position of "anybody's opinion is as good as anyone else's." They come to see also that logical reasoning and factual support do not always win the day, that pathos and ethos also play an important part in decision-making and problem-solving. Within the framework of the game, participants have the opportunity to exercise creativity and imagination and to be playful in exploring possibilities. Yet there are consequences within the game world, which scaffolds activity and keeps it from becoming random meandering.

  4. Here are some components of a successful role-playing simulation game:
    • The issue: A controversy, problem or conflict that must be resolved, a decision that must be made, or a course of action that must be determined.

    • The players: A variety of roles that are representative of stakeholders in the issue. These need to be individual roles, but they can be played by a small group, for example. In model U. N. simulations, a single individual represents a whole nation. However, the nation is treated as a single individual for the purpose of the simulation.

    • The context: Context includes the information provided for the participants, which might include background on the issue or documents pertaining to its impact and scope. It also includes the situation of the issue within a larger social, cultural, or historical framework.

    • The rules: The rules might also be thought of as guidelines. They constrain the activity to keep the game meaningful for participants. You might insist that over the course of the role-playing simulation all participants act with the role during class time, for example.

    • The enactment: The enactment of the game includes all activities and products in which participants engage over the course of the simulation. These might include research on their roles, the issue, or the context; the creation of written papers, Web sites, MOO environments, or other compositions; and, of course, real-time discussion. It is important to get a sense of an individual participant's take on the issue before assuming a role in the simulation. It is also important to get a "final take" on the issue as well as some evaluation of the process at the end.

    • The outcome: How will the simulation end? What does the action build toward, and how does it conclude? How can participants evaluate the effectiveness of the simulation in developing their own thinking and practice? How can we represent the learning that has occurred?

  5. Computer Enhancement for Role-playing Simulations

  6. Online environments offer diverse possibilities for supporting role-playing simulation, as evidenced by the growing number of games and players. Most often these simulation games are used for entertainment rather than for educational purposes. On the other hand, online educational simulations, commonly used in the sciences, for example, seldom take advantage of the power and richness of role-playing. Instead, they tend to depend on "interactive" elements in which students work alone and interact individually with the computer or with the instructor. To design effective educational simulation games, or "serious games" in Abt's terms, we must give up some control over a fixed "outcome" in exchange for fostering the exercise of the imagination, resourcefulness, problem-solving and decision-making skills, and flexibility. Furthermore, we need to design into the game the unique affordances offered by the Web, MOOs, real-time conferencing, multimedia, and email, as well as more conventional applications such as word processing. This requires some thought and care, but even a modest simulation can be greatly enriched through the use of electronic media.

    Exploring the Use of Role-playing Simulations in the Networked Classroom

  7. I was intrigued enough by Troyka's findings to try a small experiment in one of my undergraduate classes. The first role-playing game I developed was based on a current controversy. In Texas, there had been a formal proposal to the governor that the state purchase laptops for all students and suspend purchases of textbooks. An informal poll of students in my class revealed that students regarded this controversy as a simple binary opposition. Students were either "for" or "against" the proposal but seemed to feel the issue was quite cut and dried. Here is the game setup for "Laptops for Textbooks."

  8. Laptops for Textbooks Simulation

    Background (provided to all participants):

    Please read the following Houston Chronicle news item:

    September 12, 1997

    Laptops eyed as schoolbook replacements
    State looking at cost, technology

    Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

    AUSTIN -- With Texas planning to spend almost $2 billion on textbooks over the next six years, the state's education commissioner said Thursday it is time to consider putting a laptop computer in the hands of every school child instead of books.

    The day will come, said Commissioner Mike Moses, when the state will be telling textbook publishers that Texas schools need not only books, but materials on computer disk and CD-ROM.

    Moses and Jack Christie, the Houston Republican who chairs the State Board of Education, contend that such notions are more than pie-in-the-sky dreams. Christie called the idea a "real possibility." Moses said the board may have reached "the time to step back and really change the paradigm."

    Technology, they argue, is advancing fast enough and computer costs are dropping enough that in two or three years, Texas could conceivably get the laptops for $100 apiece.

    That, of course, depends on manufacturers giving the state a volume discount.

    And with school enrollments expected to top 4 million, Christie says he thinks manufacturers would be more than willing to offer substantial price discounts -- maybe even donate equipment for the marketing impact.

    Christie has long endorsed the concept of providing laptops to schoolchildren. Now, he says, technology has reached the point that laptops are durable enough to withstand being dropped and having coffee spilled on them without shorting out the keyboards.

    Christie said that when he talked with Gov. George W. Bush about such prospects, the governor countered with a suggestion that it be tried as a pilot project in a large school district. "I say if it works, let's try it statewide."

    No one is talking at this point about abolishing all textbooks. But with the growing cost of books, Moses said, lawmakers will be demanding to know what cost-cutting measures the state board has examined.

    He said the board needs to develop a long-range business plan that examines whether having instructional materials on computer disks or CD-ROM is more cost-effective than textbooks. Computerized instructional material also could be updated a lot faster, and presumably less expensively, than textbooks.

    "I think in the long run it will save money," Christie said. "It's very imaginable. Why wait for the rest of the nation? Let Texas ... be the example for the rest of the nation."

    Several education-related groups said they, too, are enthusiastic about the potential for such a move, but others say it should be approached cautiously.

    "It sounds to me like a tremendously exciting possibility," said Jeri Stone, executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

    Likewise, James Crow, executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, said the idea "is a worthy goal" but adds that much thought needs to go into the decision.

    First and foremost, he added, is whether buying laptops for every child is the best use of money or whether buying higher quality computers and higher quality software for selected classrooms would be a better investment.

    Moses raised the prospect of laptop computers as the board began the next phase of textbook adoptions. He drew support from all factions on the board -- a harmony that has been rare, if not nonexistent, over the past several months.

    In November, the board is scheduled to adopt textbooks in art, biology, algebra and geometry that had been put out for bid in 1995. The books, which will be placed on conforming or nonconforming lists from which local school districts will select, will not be in classrooms until next school year.

  9. The current situation:
    The Governor of the state of Texas wants to decide whether the state should move ahead with the plan to purchase laptops for schoolchildren, in place of textbooks. It is clear that the budget will not allow for both, so a choice must be made. He is sending an advisory committee to Austin to assess this possibility. The advisor will hear testimony from various groups in a town meeting Tuesday, September 7. On short notice, members of the community will need to gather the information they need to present facts and their opinions on the topic. The advisory committee will make its decision based on the presentations by community members.

  10. Roles (Students, in small groups of two or three, were assigned roles randomly):

    1. You are a single mother with three small children.

    You are a single mother with three small children, two in elementary school, one still at home. Your resources are meager: You are working as a sales clerk at Sears during the day, and supplementing your income by cleaning offices at night. Your mother watches the children while you are working, but you are worried that she doesn't provide enough supervision or help with their homework. You dropped out of school in sixth grade to help your family. You believe education can help your children get a better life, but you don't know how to manage all of their needs. Every week there is another request from school for money for field trips, musical instrument rental, or playground fund-raising. You are not able to go to the parent-teacher conferences because of your work schedule, so you do not have any idea what your children are doing in school, or how well they are faring.

    2. You are a high school principal in the city.

    You are finding it increasingly difficult to balance the conflicting demands of the state department of education, parents, teachers, and staff. You are trying to keep a positive atmosphere in the school, but recent events have caused you to tighten security and parents have insisted on stricter policies that are unpopular with students and teachers. It's been three years since the staff have had pay increases, and they are demoralized. In fact, you are finding it difficult to keep a computer specialist to manage the district and state record-keeping requirements. The last one quit after one week, complaining that the administrative computers were outdated and the district network unnecessarily complex. Since then, the administrative computing system has been run by a series of temps, with occasional support from a couple of technologically gifted students. Teachers are doing their best, but the science labs and the textbooks are at least 10 years out of date, and resources for supplies are very limited. Most teachers are paying for supplies out of their own pockets. The school computer lab, located in the basement, consists of some recently purchased machines as well as some machines too old to run the current software. At least half of them are out of order at any given time. You would like teachers and students to make better use of the Internet, but there's no money to provide training for teachers.

    3. You are an elementary school teacher in a suburb of Austin.

    Your school has been adopted by several high-tech businesses in the area and is fortunate to have dedicated parents who have been active in raising money for new computers. During a workday last year they wired the entire school for the Internet. There are now computers in every classroom, and teachers and students spend a good part of every day working on them. You are trying to balance students' time on the computers with more typical classroom activities: reading picture books, acting out stories, doing science projects, and so on. You have up-to-date computer software that makes learning like a game, and recent textbooks to support your classes. Additionally, there is usually at least one parent volunteering time in the class to work with students individually.

    4. You are a representative from a textbook company.

    Your company manufactures several well-known textbooks which have, in the past, been ordered by schools in AISD (Austin Independent School District). However, you've noticed that as budgets get pinched, schools are not updating textbook series as often. You have an electronic media division that develops instructional materials for CD-ROM and the Web. You've found that it costs $5 million in research and development costs to develop a basic reading series. Production, printing, and distribution costs are as much or more, and they are increasing rapidly. Electronic publishing does not reduce the research and development costs, or even the production costs, surprisingly enough, but it does reduce distribution costs almost to nothing. You are working on ways to ensure that you can get paid for delivering instructional materials online, and you are optimistic about the cost savings this will mean for your company. Your job is to make a reasonable profit to satisfy stockholders, but publishing is a great gamble. You might spend $10 million dollars to bring a textbook series to market, only to find that it does not get adopted. On the other hand, there is the potential to win big if a state like Texas or California makes large adoptions.

    5. You are a representative of Apple Computer's educational division.

    Your company has just released a brand new computer that is aimed at the education and home-computer market. It is portable and wireless, and tough enough to put into a kid's backpack. It can be used without wires or cables through a dock which can control up to 10 computers at a time within 150 feet. The design is appealing, and there is a great deal of educational software available for teachers and students. You would like to get an early adoption of this new computer to give sales a boost and serve as an example to other school systems. You are willing to provide a certain number of these computers together with a software bundle free to inner city schools which are strapped for funds. In your opinion, the book is a dinosaur, and soon everyone will be doing all of their reading, teaching, and learning online. You are eager to show off the innovative features of your laptop.

    6. You are the administrator of a computer lab in a large middle school.

    Some of the most rewarding parts of your job have been the light that goes on in kids' eyes when they learn how to do something new on a computer. You enjoy watching the most timid and shy gain confidence as they learn to draw, write, and read online. You are responsible for deciding what software and hardware get purchased for the labs, and for keeping the machines up and running. That's a tall order for a lab that gets active use every hour of every school day. You spend a lot of your time troubleshooting problems and removing stuck disks from disk drives. Kids can be hard on electronic equipment. You are proud of how resourceful you've been on a very limited budget. Often you provide workshops after working hours for teachers to learn the technology. But many teachers treat the lab as a kind of study hall, with little or no supervision of their students. If all students have laptops, you are not sure what will happen to your lab, or to your position. You are not ready to retire yet! On the other hand, you can imagine yourself running all over the school trouble-shooting problems and trying to keep 2,000 laptops up and running and connected to the network. And you have serious doubts whether the existing school network can even handle the traffic.

    7. You are a high school student in a small high school where everyone knows everyone else.

    Although you like to take it easy and kid around with friends, you are pretty serious about your interest in biology. You are hoping to become a doctor some day. You have a computer at home that was handed down from your dad, but you mostly use it for typing school papers and playing games now and then. Your favorite part of the school day is when you are in science lab, working on a tough experiment with your lab partner and best friend. You also like to play the saxophone and swim competitively.

    8. You are a Spanish-speaking student from a large Hispanic family who has recently moved to Austin.

    You are in middle school. Your parents are working hard and determined to provide you with a good education. Although you can understand and speak English pretty well, you are still a little uncertain in your writing. You want to fit in, and have a group of friends from your neighborhood that you hang out with. Like you, they study hard and try to succeed. Although there are no computers in your home, you are curious about technology. This year you are looking forward nervously to your English class, where you will be learning how to use computers for writing class papers.

    9. You are a parent of three elementary school students.

    You work for one of Austin's high-tech firms as a software engineer. In your view, technology is fundamental to every aspect of life. You are ambitious and driven; it's not uncommon for you to put in 70-hour weeks. You are convinced that you can build a better life for your family through your unflagging efforts. Your position has made it possible for you to buy a large comfortable home and to provide lots of resources for your children. They have their own up-to-date computers and have been using computers since they were toddlers. You have a fast network connection and spend a lot of time online in the evenings, continuing your workday. Your daughter barely looks up from the monitor when you come home, but lately your older son seems to spend hardly any time with the computer and prefers to play with a couple of his friends outdoors. Your younger son has been blind from birth. He uses a screenreader on his computer and is learning Braille. None of your children has much interest in children's books, except at the end of the day, when they still like to hear their bedtime story. You've been very involved with getting your firm to provide computers and networking at their school, and even served as a consultant to the school's software purchasing committee. Unfortunately, your long hours have prevented you from volunteering in the classroom, so you are not sure exactly how technology is actually being used in the school.

  11. Enactment:
    There were several phases to the laptops for computers simulation. Students were teamed in small groups of two or three. Roles were distributed randomly to each group, just as in "real life." Each group teamed up to develop its character and enact its role. There were three major assignments:

    • Part 1, Who Am I?
      The first part of this project is an exploration of identity online. Based on your role in the first simulation game, create a Web site, using no words, that represents your character. The one exception is the page of credits that list the sources for the materials you've used. You may also create a title and list the names of your group members as authors. You will need to do some research on your role to understand what this person thinks, feels, and believes. To gain more insight, you may want to interview someone who fits the profile of your role.

    • Part 2, What is my position?
      Post a statement to the class message forum of your character's position on the "laptops for textbooks" controversy. You will want to help readers understand your concerns and opinions, based on your character's perspective. Once again, you need to research the issue and your character in order to provide a compelling position statement. Please be sure to read all position statements to gain a sense of how the other participants view the issue.

    • Part 3, Convincing the Governor.
      In an online real-time interchange that represents a town hall meeting for the governor's advisory council, discuss the "laptops for textbooks" issue with other participants, advocating for your character's point of view and keeping in the role. A panel of the governor's advisors will listen to the discussion and evaluate the arguments before coming to a decision.

  12. With these very simple instructions, as well as some classroom introductions to html, scanning, PhotoShop, and Fetch, students plunged into the simulation, actively consulting with their team members and with me. How did it turn out?

    Consequences of the "Laptops for Textbooks" Simulation

  13. This simulation was a very modest experiment that unfolded over the first two weeks of class. I was not sure how students would respond, or precisely what might be the outcomes for their learning. It was invaluable to be tracking student progress via the Online Learning Record, a portfolio-based assessment system used for evaluation, to gain some understanding of student experience with the simulation.

  14. Here are my observations:

    • Student engagement was high, and there were no students who reacted to the assignments with apathy or disinterest.

    • There was a distinct shift in all participants from making binary right/wrong distinctions to recognizing and being able to articulate much greater complexity.

    • There was a marked increase in participants' ability to recognize and empathize with different perspectives.

    • There was a greater recognition that social problems are thorny and subject to multiple stakeholders' opinions.

    • Students were more effective in locating, selecting, and mobilizing research materials in support of claims.

    • Students developed a more nuanced view of research materials.

    • There was also increased recognition that the extreme relativist position (everybody's opinion is as good as anyone else's) is untenable; there must be a basis for decision-making.

    • Students reported it "didn't feel like work."

    • Students worked harder on reasoning and linking evidence and claims.

    • Rhetorical concepts "came to life" for them.

  15. Obviously, these are anecdotal observations, but they suggest fruitful possibilities for further study. Such studies should include ethnographic observation, discourse analysis, and case studies as well as systematic evaluations of changes in student writing which results from work with simulations. Meanwhile, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed in developing a robust application of simulations to teaching and learning with technology.

    Challenges in Design and Implementation of Simulation Games

  16. There are some significant challenges in developing and running simulation games. These challenges do not mitigate the promise of role-playing simulations, which have proven effective in so many fields, but they do represent some considerations for design and application.

    • Initial setup: The game must be thoughtfully designed to support students' learning. Any resources that will be provided for players must be located, acquired, and then made available in the appropriate format such as online, in handouts, or on reserve at the library). The environment in which the game will unfold also needs to be prepared. For example, a MOO space in which players will act out the game may need to be built.

    • Balance of what is provided by teacher vs. what students provide: Instructors need to decide whether and if so to what extent students will share in the design of the game, the acquisition of background materials, the construction of the game environment, and the ultimate evaluation of the game play and outcomes. If there is time for several games during the semester, the teacher might scaffold student participation, gradually involving students in more and more of the design and construction.

    • Creating a compelling, immersive environment: Most instructors have little experience designing and building immersive environments. Fortunately, role-playing games can be successfully carried out with simple text-setups and the use of conventional research materials for students. However, with the additional potential of the MOO, message forums, Web sites, multimedia, and email, the game environment can be much more richly developed. This prospect can seem daunting, but it offers the opportunity to engage students in the construction or extension of the game environment.

    • Assessing outcomes: Instructors may be concerned about assessing the results of role-playing simulations for student learning. The first issue is to decide what performances might demonstrate that students have made significant progress toward learning objectives. The final step of a role-playing game might include the preparation of a paper or project that addresses the controversy with which the game started, for example. This is a familiar outcome for instructors and one that lends itself to either internal evaluation (by the instructor) or external evaluation (by outside assessors, for example). There are many richer possibilities in the form of projects created by students, transcripts of "town hall" meetings, and other kinds of performances that will equally demonstrate what students have learned.

    • Assessing process: A more significant issue for instructors is assessing the process of the game as it unfolds. It may be necessary to intervene during the game to help participants move forward, to address conflicts, or to stimulate interaction. Instructors might help students become more reflective about their interactions, suggest that more research might better serve the character in a role, and so on. The instructor's role in assessing the process is active and creative. This role becomes both more comfortable and more expert with experience.

    • Dealing with difficulties such as conflicts between participants: Abt points out that conflicts can lead to productive learning experiences, especially when they are addressed within the simulation context. Teachers need to develop a sense of when to make a meaningful intervention that can help support students' learning even as they are engaged in conflicts.

    • Perceptions that this is just play, not serious learning: There are several audiences for every course: our students, our peers, our discipline, and the administration within our institution. For each of these audiences we need to provide, as needed, a rationale or justification for the use of role-playing simulations that helps each of these particular audiences see the educational value in what looks so much like popular entertainment. For this reason, we need to be clear about how the role-playing simulation helps students move toward our educational objectives, and we need to be aware of the research that supports this mode of instruction.

    • Scaffolding progressively more challenging and sophisticated tasks: Properly designed courses build progressively on students' emerging skills and knowledge, moving toward increasingly more challenging, sophisticated, and complex work over the course of the semester. In designing or adopting simulation games, teachers need to determine how they will scaffold this progressive learning process. In the world of computer games, players who persist and excel at one level are typically confronted with the next level, more difficult and demanding than previous ones. With care, role-playing simulations can offer the same engaging challenges for students.

  17. These challenges suggest that role-playing simulations cannot be casually deployed as an entertaining diversion for students and teachers. The potential gains in terms of student engagement, enthusiasm, and improved performance are too great to ignore, however. We need to explore the promise of role-playing simulations in computer-supported classes with careful attention to both process and performances. As we gain experience and understanding over time we will be able to develop supporting resources both for existing simulations and for teachers and students authoring new adventures in learning.

Works Cited

Please cite this article as Currents in Electronic Literacy Spring 2002 (6),