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Using Virtual Worlds for Online Role-Playing Activities

by Gabe Baker

Role-playing activities can be powerful educational experiences, and we think virtual worlds like Edorble are great for conducting them online. This is because 3D virtual worlds like Minecraft or Edorble are great at fostering “physical presence”, a feeling of being there, and “social presence”, the sense of being with others. Combined with the use of avatars, the bodies that users occupy in virtual worlds, these spaces become fantastic as an online environment for educational role-playing activities.

Role-playing has been a part of classrooms from the ancient world to the present. Ancient Roman students would role-play as famous historical or mythical personas as they wrote essays and defenses, placing themselves in the shoes of others and taking on their perspective. Students do all manner of role playing activities today, whether it’s acting out a drama in English class, partnering with others to play the roles of customer and shop owner in a world language class, or holding a mock trial in social studies class.

These role-playing activities encourage the examination of other perspectives, are usually social, and are often quite active and fun ways to learn. I used to do a week-long role-playing activity in the Latin class where each student would take the role of a member of a writing workshop (scriptorium) during the Renaissance in Italy –  students could choose between being a pictor (painter) scriptor (writer), philosophus (philosopher), etc., and they could pick different roles each day to mix it up.

In my history class, I had my students take the roles of people from history for debates or even more casual “what would it be like if these people ran into each other on the street” scenarios. A well-structured role-playing activity could encourage students to develop historical/societal background, language skills, and the creativity needed to “play a role” authentically.

So – how can your class conduct role playing activities online? Doing this can be particularly challenging if the scenario you want your students to act out is one that is usually “embodied”, for example someone ordering a coffee at a coffee shop, or a trial. For these sorts of activities, a sense of space is often crucial. It’s easier to imagine yourself as a witness in a trial if you are sitting besides a judge in a witness stand, looking out at the onlookers in the crowd and the jury to the side. Online learning or communication environments usually aren't able to produce these feelings of embodiment and space.

Tools like Skype are great for video chat, but they aren’t great at fostering a sense of shared space. While bringing people together, Skype also gives a visual reminder via the background of each video feed that participants are in separate spaces. Although the “space” in virtual worlds is illusory, and although avatars are only digital representations of people, 3D worlds are still far more effective at fostering that sense of embodiment and space, and they provide an effective “shared space” for online students and teachers.

Why? For one, 3D worlds actually look like a space, and another one is that occupying an avatar and seeing others as avatars both foster a sense of togetherness.  I’ll make the case here that avatar-based interactions, besides being a pale imitation of in-person interactions, are actually uniquely capable of supporting high quality role-playing activities. Here’s my case: the best role-players are those able to truly imagine being in the imagined scenario.

One thing that often hinders this imaginative effort is the fact that it’s difficult to imagine being someone else, or to imagine that your friend is someone else, if you look like you and your friend looks like your friend. Similarly, if you’re in a typical space like the classroom, it is hard to imagine it being any other place. This is why lots of teachers have “props” in the classroom, ranging from hats to full costumes to environmental props like dishware or gavels….such items help us suspend our disbelief, an act that for most people gets more difficult as we get older. (This is why we watch in wonder as kids “play” other roles so well, happily playing the mom/dad/soldier/doctor even though they are in their pajamas in their bedrooms).

For those of us that are older and not so lucky, the visuals are really helpful, as it can be hard to play the doctor without a little help (doctor’s coat? room that looks like it could be in a hospital?). It can be hard to “be someone else” when you look like you. And this is where avatars and virtual environments can really help: one can usually make their avatar look like someone OTHER than themselves, and virtual environments can look like anything we can visually conceive.

Another benefit to online 3D worlds for role playing is the fact that teacher and students from across the country or globe can engage in role-playing activities with each other.


So – give it a go! Head to our home page, claim a virtual world for your class for free, and try to organize some role playing activities.

Here are some ideas:

– set up a debate or a mock trial

– have foreign language students meet in world and have them role play as students at a foreign university, or people attending a musical event.  meet with a class from another country and have everyone role play as people stranded on an island! :)

-have business students role play as people negotiating a deal, or people making a business pitch


Here's an example of a role-playing lesson plan for language learning that is posted in our space for lesson ideas and activities that use virtual worlds. For a great read on structuring effective, powerful role-playing activities, check out this article.