Life is essentially an RPG

And three good reasons to use role play for learning.
by Roger Schaller, published in the "Handbuch für Personalberatung 2002"

1. We're not in kindergarten here

A father, whose first-born son is being treated by me because of massive learning difficulties, proudly told me that his second boy was now going to school. The time of play was over now, said the father, he had cleared the children's room of the toys. When I asked incredulously, he confirmed that he had given away all the games: "Now is the time to study, the children have played enough".
This contrast between playing and learning is firmly embedded in concrete in many people's minds. In the area of ​​adult education, too, the learning expectations tend to be that learning is something serious. Playful learning methods are now well accepted if the learning objective is clearly defined and the method is familiar. Games are often used in the learning process as an invigorating interruption in the learning process, so that tension and relaxation follow one another in healthy alternation. The learner needs a change of position, a phase of movement, activation or relaxation; he needs fresh air and water, because these are the elements that keep our gray cells happy. (Wallenwein 199, p.12)

But games are especially interesting when they are perceived as free action. Commanded play is no longer a game. The freedom to play does not mean that the game has no rules or purpose. Both role-playing games and other games usually have very narrowly defined rules and specific objectives (such as throwing the ball into the net). Freedom in play means being free from the needs of the instinctive or intended struggle for existence, being free from responsibility and intended consequences for life outside the game (Krause-Pongratz p. 39)

If seminar participants resist the use of the role-play method, they are absolutely right: role-playing games are uncontrollable and tend to end in creative chaos. In addition, it can often be observed that role-playing games do not lead to the planned learning goal, often raise many questions, and make a solution-oriented evaluation more difficult.
In addition, as seminar leaders, we are usually under time pressure: we are not in kindergarten, where there is an immeasurable amount of time for purposeless and creative activities.
No: we have to achieve as many learning goals as possible in the shortest possible time. That is definitely not possible with role play.

2. We're not in the theater, are we?
Imagine attending an educational event as a participant. After a brief introduction, the leader will ask you to stand up. It's really not pleasant. After all, you always have to be active in your day-to-day work, now you would like to endure learning consumption. But it gets worse: the leader asks you to play a role. You wonder what is going on here. We're not in the theater. "Have I signed up for an acting class?"
No, let's end this nightmare. I just wanted to show that role-plays mostly trigger fear, insecurity and rejection in the participants. And rightly so: why play a scene when it can be discussed? Why should the learner experience something by acting when the subject matter can be explained? What is the point of the artificial framework of the simulation when the content can be described?
And the concept of the role is very problematic: "role" is derived from the Latin "rotula". In Greece and also in ancient Rome, parts of the plays were written on such "roles" and read by prompts to the actors who tried to memorize their part. "Playing a role" means speaking a foreign text and acting out the corresponding feelings and actions. The concept of the role is accordingly tainted with fiction and artificiality. Whoever plays a role is therefore not real, hides behind a "rotula", just pretends to be something. And that makes absolutely no sense at an educational event. Except maybe it's fun.

3. Role plays are artificial and useless
Let's imagine I'm a non-swimmer. Because I want to spend the next vacation at the sea, I sign up for a swimming course. On the first day of the course, I am informed that the swimming pool is closed for renovation work. Therefore, we will train the swimming movements in simulated situations. In order to practice the correct head movement when inhaling, we will immerse the head in large salad bowls filled with water.
In the artificial framework of the role play, the illusion of discovering and acting learning arises. In reality, however, only the behavior that is socially desirable at the moment is shown. The simulation often leads to desired pseudo-solutions that have no relevance to action in everyday life. Or would you dare to jump into the water after this simulated swim training?

Why, surely.

1. Playing means learning
The pediatrician and pedagogue Maria Montessori observed in a children's asylum how the severely behavioral and learning disordered children processed parts of their food, especially bread, into dough and played with these figures (instead of eating). As she did so, she noticed the peculiar concentration these children were capable of in play. As if they were in another world, they were completely immersed in the game. And if you disturbed them, it was like waking up from a dream. Montessori concluded from this that the person in play is in a particularly creative and learning-promoting state. This feeling of flowing in play ("flow" experience) can easily be observed in children and is the key to learning. ªExperience time is severely impaired, you forget the time and don't know how long you've been there. You do not have to concentrate actively, the concentration comes as if by itself, just like breathing. All cognitions that are not directly related to the current execution regulation are faded out. One no longer experiences oneself as detached from the activity, rather one is completely absorbed in one's own activity (so-called merging). The course of action is experienced as smooth. One step flows smoothly into the next, as if the events were running out of an internal logic.´ (Oerter 1997, p.7)
Children are real learning professionals; in just a few years they learn a tremendous amount of new skills and knowledge with a "flowing" ease. How automatically the children learn in the game.
Which educational games now belong to our innate learning techniques? Oerter (1997) differentiates between five different forms of children's learning games: sensorimotor, symbol, parallel, role and rule games.

Sensorimotor games: - In the first year of life we ​​can observe toddlers doing a wide variety of perception and reaction training. From birth, the infant actively searches for sensory stimulation and reacts to these impulses. The toddler shows particular joy in regularly repeated movements, tactile, auditory and visual stimuli. The one-time omission or unexpected breaking off of these stimuli is also part of the game. Examples are the "peep-peep game" or "Hoppe-hoppe-Reiter". The learning process here seems to take the form of building and testing hypotheses: "Is it the same as what I've already encountered? Does the same face appear again? Will I fall again on the third hop?" The child will find out which features of an event are invariant, i.e. are essential and stable features of that event or object. It begins to categorize its environment.

Symbol games: - From the age of two, the learning method of symbolic action is used. For girls, this is often playing with dolls and animal figures: a competent partner (often older siblings or mother) demonstrates an action and the girl then gives her doll the bottle (she uses a bottle-like object) or she "reads" a book , ie it imitates the behavior observed with a book (but clearly cannot read yet). Symbol games serve on the one hand to practice and memorize observed important actions such as nutrition, hygiene, fighting etc. In addition to this more mechanical "learning by doing", symbol games are important to develop your own action schemes according to your own ideas and needs. So ultimately constitutive and necessary for cognitive development.

Parallel games: - Children play next to each other, observe each other, use the same objects, imitate each other, but do not intervene in the other's game. This can be observed above all when playing sand in the playground or on the beach: the children use the same objects alternately, produce the same towers and cakes without entering into a manifest interaction (except when they use the same shovel ...). Every act, no matter how simple, is associated with emotions. This social coordination of emotions can be learned in the symbol and parallel games. This seems to be the most common form of play for 2 to 3 year old children.

Role-playing games are characterized by a double as-if situation: I pretend I am a mother and pretend that you are a baby and I give you your bottle. Role-playing games are symbol games that are simulated twice. They require a great deal of knowledge of the course of action, role descriptions and socio-cultural rules (for example, I have to know what a mother is like in order to play a mother). These role-playing games are complex social fiction games. In the process, children learn the rules of human coexistence and the expectations, behaviors, rights and duties associated with a certain position in society (role expectations).
Oerter (1997, p.46) reports on a role-playing game in which children between the ages of 3 and 7 were asked to play themselves in a certain simulated situation. The younger children refused on the grounds that they couldn't play like that (or left the room without comment). The oldest tried this game, but broke off after a short time. This shows the importance of fiction: the double pretend situation. The child anticipates his or her later development or his development possibilities by slipping into the roles of other people and trying to understand or creating their motives, wishes and goals (Oerter p.50). And the child develops his social identity in role play , Values ​​and standards. A psychological experiment with six-year-old children showed that those children who had practiced changing perspectives by taking on roles (with frequent role changes) in a series of games were more willing to share their sweets with children in need than children without experience in role play . Experiences in the area of ​​taking on roles can obviously increase the level of empathy and, accordingly, also the level of altruism (cf. Mussen 1993, p.94).

Rules games such as the Mühlespiel, Schwarzpeter, Quartet, chess or football are possible from around the age of 4 and then become increasingly important. They are central to improving the planning and control of one's own actions and to training social skills. Regular games are mostly played in social competition between two or more game partners. The change of perspective is of the greatest importance: the player tries to guess what the partners will do next. This applies both to puzzles, to the game of hide-and-seek, as well as to card or board games: "What move will my opponent make, what can I answer?" This assumption of perspective becomes particularly complex in team games: here every participant has to know or guess the behavior of his team members, implicitly or explicitly a common strategy has to be developed based on the assumed strategy of the opposing team.
Play, in its various forms, is a vital and constitutive form of learning. Playing is one of the most fundamental spiritual elements of life: ªGaming competition as a social impulse, older than culture itself, has always filled life and made the forms of archaic culture grow like yeast. (...) The conclusion must be: culture in their original phases is played. It does not arise from play, like a living fruit detaches itself from its womb, it unfolds in play and as a game. '(Huizinga 1997, p.189).
A person is not only a player when he plays, he is also a player when he thinks: we are constantly playing fictional games in our heads, so-called mental training sessions. For example, when someone explains to me how to operate a machine: I play through the necessary movements in my head. Or at night in bed, when I can't sleep because a conflict is troubling me: I let the images of the situation pass through my mind like a film and mentally play through different variants.
We want to take a closer look at these "brain role-playing games" in the next section.
2. The four theaters in the brain
We have seen that play is a vital and constitutive form of learning. In this section I would like to convince you that role-play is a form of learning that is extremely appropriate for the brain.
The brain is not a clearly laid out hardware, but rather comparable to a wildly overgrown jungle of 100 million nerve cells. These neurons are initially round cell bodies, which then develop processes, the so-called axons and dendrites. Each nerve cell has an axon and up to 100,000 dendrites. Dendrites are the most important pathways through which information reaches the neurons (and thus initiate a learning process), and the axons are the most important pathways through which the neurons transmit information to other neurons (and thus convey learning material). The neurons and their thousands of neighboring cells branch out in all directions through branches, which in turn connect and form a multi-branched network with 100 trillion constantly changing constellations. These connections control our body and our behavior, while at the same time every thought and every physical activity changes these connection patterns (Ratey 2001, p.27).
How exactly these processes work, how these connection patterns are integrated in the complex synthetic mechanism of the brain, is beyond our knowledge. Experimental memory research, information processing theory, neuropsychology and learning psychology have made significant contributions to "brain-friendly learning". We now know that the learning material must take the learner's channel capacity into account. Or that the two halves of the brain should be activated while learning. Or that not every person learns the same, but that different types of learner can be found, such as the visual type of sight, the auditory type of hearing, the verbal conversation type or the haptic feeling type. And recently neuroscientists have recognized that human thoughts and actions are largely determined by basic emotions such as interest, fear, anger, sadness and joy. The brain is obviously controlled from "the stomach". The human brain is truly a jungle.
Now let's imagine that a river winds through this jungle. This river symbolizes the neurophysiological activity of our brain. The river is wide and has little gradient and flow, so that a large physiological exchange takes place upstream and downstream. So what happens at one end of the river has an impact further up. If a lot of algae grow in a river section, this changes the oxygen content of the water both upstream and downstream. There are four theaters on this river:

The first theater - perception: -It is the beginning of all experience. The brain doesn't just process the information it receives mechanically. Perception is the stage on which all information that is received by our five senses occurs. The sensory perception does not work like a photo plate that is exposed and thus represents an exact image of reality. Rather, our brain creates its own reality on this stage. The outer world is constructed. These constructs are not true or false, they are viable, i.e. they work and enable successful action. In the brain, a puzzle is played, so to speak: new information is compared with existing constructs and adapted. Here memory has a very central function: the information is not simply stored mechanically; the brain merges, so to speak, each time with the information it processes by changing the interconnection patterns of the neurons. This is great for people's ability to learn, but at the same time dangerous, since perceptual errors encourage further perceptual errors and perception patterns are burned into the brain over time.
With role play we can now work on this stage in order to avoid or correct perceptual errors and black spots.
With the set-up of scenes in role play, the learner becomes the creator of his own reality: he depicts the situation as he has experienced it, he shows, so to speak, the inner map of his brain. Schacter (1999) thinks that stress may change the chemical transmission capacity of neurons and thus lead to disorders of perception and memory. The scenic representation makes the learner an observer of his own perception. With various role-play techniques such as role-taking, constellations, still images, mirroring (cf. Schaller 2001), the learner becomes a reviewer of his own memory: in the protected situation of a training seminar, he can go back in time with feelings other than in the real situation.

The second theater - attention, consciousness and cognition: - If the attention is clouded, the cognitive network is insufficiently differentiated or the consciousness cannot constantly make adjustments and corrections, the brain remains caught in a constant "noise" and has to get along without precise information . The brain constantly tries to organize the perceptions in a meaningful way, it creates cognitive maps of its surroundings. Some groups of neurons are constantly busy maintaining these cards. In the case of positive (such as being in love) or negative stress (such as time pressure or threat), the focus of attention narrows, awareness is limited, the maps are adapted to the current situation.
Various role-play techniques make it possible to raise awareness of these maps and to examine them critically by:
an analysis of the scene structure (where is the focus? what is faded out? which roles have been filled?) with the scenic mirroring. To do this, the leader takes the protagonist off the stage, lets him look at the scene from the outside and talks to him about what both perceive together. The protagonist checks two things: 1. He compares his inner self-image with the perception of himself from the outside and checks whether there is a discrepancy between the two. 2. He determines whether his external role behavior corresponds to his own therapeutic goals, values ​​and norms. The protagonist should look at the scene from a higher point of view, from the meta-level. (Krüger 1997, p.148).

In role play, possibly with role changes, the learner can recognize and experience himself. Through the role interview carried out during the game ("What is going through your head now? What chances do you expect? What is important to you? How could you get more clarity?" Etc.) he receives information about his maps.
In the case of explorative-integrating mirroring, the leader takes on the role of the protagonist, lets himself be fully involved in their inner self-organization process and shapes it beyond reality by using sensation, feeling, thinking and perceiving and the impulses and counter-impulses in the role of Protagonists developed, integrated and verbalized. (..) The leader complements the internal structural elements of the protagonist by integrating and the experience amplifying images and thereby gives the vegetative sensations and emotions in a more complex internal structure an appropriate place, an appropriate time, logic and Sense. In this regard, FUHR speaks of "knotting" between the different parts of the self-image (Krüger 1997, p.146)

The third theater - central functions: -The central functions influence our experience moment by moment, but slowly adapt to new circumstances. Due to the activities on the first two stages, the networks of the brain continuously modify their connections to one another, so that long-term memory, movement patterns, motivation, emotional inclination, social responsiveness. As on the other stages, problems of a very special kind can arise on the third stage, such as language, sense of time, fear reactions, level of activation as well as physical and interpersonal dexterity. For example, the ability to approach other people can be severely impaired and the person in question is unable to articulate their well-being and needs. On this third stage, the role-play techniques of doubling and swapping roles can be used to expand the perception of the situation inwards and outwards and thereby establish connections between previously unconnected elements on the inner map.
The technique of doubling is used with the aim of clarifying and clarifying the feelings, thoughts and goals of the role player. A group member or the leader steps behind the role player and expresses thoughts that the role player might have. The Doppler relies entirely on his intuition. If his assumption is correct, this can help the person concerned to gain clarity about their own feelings, motives and wishes.
The technique of role swapping consists in the mutual assumption of roles: two role players each switch to the role of the other. They try to take over the previously perceived behavior of the other person as precisely as possible and imitate his or her way of speaking, facial expressions, gestures and posture. By swapping roles, he takes on the role of the other in relation to himself and thereby conveys insight into cause and effect in the relationship and thus knowledge about one's own way of shaping relationships. The role exchangers slip into each other's skin, so to speak, and try out what it feels like and look at each other through the eyes of the other. A radical change of perspective.

The fourth theater - identity and behavior: - The fourth stage forms, so to speak, the most easily visible end product of our brain processes. Our life in its various roles is played on this stage. It is the stage on which we present ourselves and tell our life story. Conflict management, organizational development, team consulting, coaching and supervision usually take place on this stage. The role play offers various excellent techniques for working on this stage: role training, situation play, sociodrama, still images, constellations, forum theater, role analysis (cf. Schaller 2001).
The role training plays a very important role here. By role training we mean the training of realistic roles in a simulated but realistic scene. The role players receive precise information (verbally or in writing) about the place, time, action, purpose and characteristics of the person. Typical role training courses include practicing foreign languages, job interviews, sales training, handling complaints, and conflict management. Role training therefore means practicing behavior that is appropriate to the role. Why is role training on the stage of the fourth theater in the brain so important?
The neural connections necessary for survival (such as controlling heartbeat, body temperature, breathing, etc.) are already established at birth, but many others are determined by the strongest environmental factor in our lives, learning. Here the neurons are in a relentless competition for new connections. Positive stress poses a challenge to the brain and allows the constant expansion of neural connections. Tasks that become routine are relocated to the subcortical area of ​​the brain, where they are stored "hardwired". This ability of the brain to constantly form new connections means in principle that people are always capable of learning and can also recover from disorders and injuries. But if we want to bring about changes in attitudes and behavior from attitudes and behaviors that have been tried and tested for a long time, it will be difficult to loosen these "fixed wiring". Talking is usually of little use here. Action is more promising: by repeatedly practicing new ways of thinking and behaving in role training, new neural connections can be formed and strengthened. For example, people with poor self-management can benefit from role training in crisis situations, in which they can closely observe the appropriate behaviors of others and then play through these appropriate behaviors in various simulated situations. Role training has the advantage of dividing complicated behavior into small individual elements, practicing these learning steps individually and then putting them back together into a whole behavioral sequence. This repeated play through of behavioral patterns leads to new stable neural connections that have a chance to replace old patterns. The motto here is: practice, practice, practice.
The metaphor of the four theaters of the brain described above and the neurological explanations of the learning activity of the neurons come from the book The Human Brain - An Instructions for Use, by John J. Ratey.

3. Role play: an efficient learning method
The basic requirement for efficient learning is the willingness to want to work on the four stages of the brain. This requires movement: the learners have to step on the stage. Making this possible is the chief task of the leader. The stage work then almost runs by itself, the playing puts people in a pleasant, sometimes even ecstatic state of flowing. The stage offers a safe framework to gain knowledge and to try out how to deal with one's own emotions. The prerequisite for this is the autonomy and personal responsibility of the learner in and for the learning process. Play is a voluntary act that is performed within certain fixed limits of time and space according to voluntarily accepted but absolutely binding rules, has its goal in itself and is accompanied by a feeling of tension and joy and an awareness of "being different" than ordinary life. Defined in this way, the term seems to be suitable to encompass everything that we call games in animals, children and adults: games of skill and strength, intellectual and games of chance, representations and performances. Playing can be seen as one of the most fundamental spiritual elements of life. "(Huizinga 1997, p.37)

Assuming you can swim but are afraid to dip your head in the water - you will find it difficult to master certain swimming techniques such as crawl or chest. I recommend the following role training: Take a large salad bowl, fill it with water, put on your bathing suit, imagine you are in the swimming pool, and practice the crawl breathing technique as follows: inhale, face in Dip in the water, exhale under the water, turn your head to the right until your mouth and nose are in the air, inhale, turn your face again and immerse yourself in the water, etc.
This is not a joke. This salad bowl simulation has been used successfully for years as part of a swimming course. By the way, role-playing games too.


Huizinga, J. (1997): Homo ludens - On the origin of culture in play. Reinbek (rororo)
Krause-Pongratz, D. (1999): The educational role play - systematic investigation of the concept and possibilities. Marburg (Tectum)
Krüger, R. (1997): Creative Interaction - Depth Psychological Theory and Methods of Classical Psychodrama. Göttingen (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht)
Mussen, P.H. et.al. (1993): Textbook of Child Psychology. Stuttgart (Velcro Cotta)
Oerter, R. (1997): Psychology of the game. Weinheim (Beltz)
Ratey, J.R. (2001): The Human Brain - An Instructions for Use. Düsseldorf (Walter)
Schaller, R. (2001): The big role play book - basic techniques, forms of application, practical examples. Weinheim (Beltz)
Wallenwein, G.F. (1999): Games - the point on the i. Weinheim (Beltz)