We all language teachers use role play in the attempt to bring reality in the artificial environment of the class.
The result, let’s admit it, it’s not very satisfactory, above all when we try to reproduce in class everyday situations (like going to buy bread or opening an account in a bank).
Students feels it as artificial, and end up repeating the same sentence they have in the book or.. in the best of the cases, transforming it into an absurd situation.
Add to this that you cannot ask your students to buy bread over and over… and you will see the limit of the classical role play we use in class. You do it once. Over, finished. There is no possibility to repeat it, as we would do in our everyday life. (I do not know you, but usually buy bread more than once a week.)
So we teachers arrive in Second Life and we say “wow!”. We are not anymore inside the 4 walls in the class, we can move around, visualize things that look more or less real, even touch …. well… click on them! The perfect place to make role play work!
But is it really true? Do role play work much better in SL than in RL? And if they don’t, why they don’t?
Let’s see an example, a classical one: reservation and check in in an hotel.
I prepared it for the italianiamo group, and I will write here or my personal experience.
I built the hotel. Of course, to make it more fun and to offer more occasion to speak, I made a very strange hotel. The prices for the room were not excessively expensive for a 4 stars hotel, but the wifi cost an harm and a leg. The rooms… were … well… let’s describe them.
Room 1: shower and wc in the middle of the room. Blood stain on one of the pillow
Room 2: television set on fire. Someone was sleeping on the couch
Room 3: the bed had only 3 legs and no blankets. Someone left a “little present” in the wc.
Room 4: dirty water in the bath and merry cockroaches in the room.
I mean.. I usually go to cheap hotel, the only things I do not tolerate are bedbugs, being robbed in the corridors and large roaches, but I’ve never seen in my whole life rooms like those.
Let’s go back to our role play:
We decided to go on holiday together, called the hotel to ask information and book the rooms, arrived there and… a disaster.
The Italianiamo participants did not complain about the wifi abusive price. Well.. fine. May be on holiday they want to forget about the internet.
Then they went to their rooms… and I was waiting for enraged cries coming from the rooms… and see them dashing to the reception to complain.
Nothing. Nothing at all, no reaction.
I had to stop playing the receptionist, start playing the “teacher” and prompt them with silly questions like: did you notice that there is a wc where you should have a night table? Is it ok for you? Do you think that you should go and complain at the reception?
So, where was the problem? Were the italianiamo participants all dumb? Were they used to 4 stars hotels with blood stained blankets and peculiar hygiene?
Or may be they did not mind.. because they actually did not have to sleep in those rooms? And did not have to pay with their money for them? That is: they did not believe in “the hotel”, it was not real to them.
Second life did not add much to “the class” them, we were facing the same problem: the lack of identification in their roles and the rather “artificiality” of the whole activity.
Let’s imagine now that those same people take part in a Role Play Game. They created their character and have to act according to it. They are part of a larger story in which they develop relationship with others player, and their characters grow and develop in time along the story. They have purposes and aims in their life, and they will be involved in events and little everyday stories that are part of the larger story of that town, village or place.
- They know if their character is a posh lady, an easy going adventurer or a young and naive girl. And they know that they have to act accordingly to their character.
- Even if the game has not a “money system” for transaction inside the role play sim, they know their economic situation, and the value they give to money.
- They know why they are going to the hotel, and the need comes from them, not from the teacher. May be they have to go to another village to look for a person or an object. Or may be this is their honeymoon, or they want to hide from someone.
Thus, going to the hotel, will make sense to them. It’s not anymore a language exercise. It is something the story requires. It’s not as if someone would come up to me now and tell me “go and buy bread” so you can practice your Catalan. It’s as if now I stand up, go to the kitchen to prepare some breakfast, see that I do not have any bread left and decide to go and buy it (or not. May be I decide to have some yoghurt or biscuits instead).
All this “background” will help them to take their decisions about their reactions. May be if they need to hide, they will not go to the reception to complain about their 3-legged bed with no blankets, because they try to pass unnoticed while the couple on honeymoon might have their first quarrel and then decide to leave the hotel altogether. The posh lady will make a big fuss about the roaches in her room. The easy going adventurer might wake up the sleeping guy and invite him to a glass of scotch and a cigar (lighting it with the flames coming from the TV set).
In role play games you do not perform a task. You are free to decide what to do and are guided in your choice by many internal and external factors. That’s why what you do and what you say sounds “real” and makes sense to you, because it really mirrors the way we do things in our real life: taking decisions and behaving accordingly.
And…more important from the language point of view, we can repeat the “hotel thing” more times, and we never feel that we are repeating it, because every time the situation and what brings us to the hotel will be different.
In the months I’ve been roleplaying, I introduced myself to countless people, ordered countless time food and drink at the local tavern, went many time to the doctor, quarrelled, bargained, asked information and directions and even got robbed once.
And each time was real, each time made sense, each time I was completely, totally immersed in the story and struggled with the language to say what I really wanted to say. But about the language in role play I will write in my next post.