Adapted from material contributed by Lisa Leutheuser

What is roleplaying?

Many corporate employees are familiar with some form of role-playing in the context of their job, such as communication skill building, customer service training, assertiveness training, etc. In most of these the participants play themselves, responding to scenarios in order to practice those scenarios and develop skills. Roleplaying can go far beyond that, and there are many contexts in which it can be used for both soft skills training and problem solving.

Roleplaying involves adopting a specific role to play out in the game. The role will frame the player’s perspective in the game: it will define how they respond to the game environment. One one end of the roleplaying spectrum, each participant simply plays themselves, or on the other extreme, in the acting zone, players enact roles very different from their real selves with very different background and motivations.

Why use roles in a game?

    A game isn’t real life, so the consequences are low. The game provides a safe environment in which to explore an issue. Using “roles”, a person may express ideas/opinions that they might otherwise feel too intimidated to say. “That’s not my opinion; it’s what this person in this role would think.”

Changing purpose changes the game

    The purpose of your game, what your objectives are, will define or affect how roles in the game are used. If you are training process, real-life scenarios, or skills, then you will play roles that are very similar to yourself (or just play yourself). If your game is intended to explore communication issues, as opposed to communication skills, you may play different roles.
    An example is a police department and a fire department that were having trouble collaborating on emergencies. It was causing a lot of problems. Each side was pointing fingers at the other, and they were not able to develop an atmosphere of teamwork. So they played a game in which the police had to play the firemen and the firemen played police. Then they had to see how they would respond to an incident. In this way, they explored communication issues, exposed barriers that were preventing good collaboration, and it opened up a lot of communication between the teams and led to better teamwork.
    This kind of scenario can raise a lot of emotions and needs to be carefully managed.

Predictive modeling and “futuring”

    Predictive modeling is another area where roleplaying games are a natural fit. A typical game may involve a policy or procedure that will change in your business environment, and it is uncertain what effects the change will have in real life. The costs of unforseen consequences could be enormous. You can design a game that models how that process or policy is going to work out in your unit or workplace. Then the game is used to find problems before the change is implemented. This allows you to begin solving those problems before making a costly mistake. In this type of game, roles are chosen that are similar to the real-life roles of the players because you want to bring in their knowledge and expertise of their jobs into the game. That will give you a better, more accurate predictive outcome, so you can anticipate problems.
    To demonstrate the manner in which changing the roles changes the purpose and outcomes, take the example of a game with the goal of improving the patient experience on a hospital unit. If the goal is to have your staff understand the patient’s experience, staff should play the roles of the patients. But if the goal is to do some predictive analysis of a policy change which may affect how staff work and interact with the patients then you hospital staff should play roles similar to their real roles and jobs. Non-staff, preferably people without experience in the healthcare environment, would be recruited to play patients so that feedback is more accurate. Hospital staff have insider knowledge which would bias the results.