Enhancing Professional Learning Through Video Game Roleplay

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With a younger generation entering the workforce, expectations for workplace training programs are rapidly changing. According to Gallup, 87% of millennials said career development is important when considering a potential job. (Adkins, 2016). This doesn’t mean introducing more developmental training programs but introducing the right programs. Younger generations are looking for more interactivity in training programs to keep them engaged. They crave information that is relevant to them and delivered in the most efficient way possible (Gurney, 2014, para. 9). In a recent report by the Entertainment Software Association (2015), 51 percent of Americans own a dedicated video game console and the average player age is now 35 years old. As a member of this demographic, I am curious about ways in which interactive mediums, such as these, can enhance professional learning. One potential tool that I’ve had unique experiences with recently, which appears to meet these needs, is video game roleplay.

Video game roleplay, or RP, leaves key decision making up to the player. Playing a role in a video game allows a player to deviate from having a game dictate what actions the playable character takes (Murphy, 2013) to have the player dictating their own actions.  Roleplay is often associated with the roleplaying game genre but can extend far beyond that. Much of the research that has been conducted on video games and learning has been centered around classroom-based learning. Some of it touches on roleplaying games, but there isn’t a whole lot looking at how they can be used in a professional learning environment and that is the main purpose of this paper.

Guiding Questions

To determine how video game roleplay can be used to enhance professional learning, I aim to answer the following questions:

  1. What do players learn from playing roles in a video game?
  2. How can video game roleplay be tied into workplace training programs?
  3. What equity concerns need to be addressed when introducing video game roleplay into the workplace?

Method of Inquiry

I began my inquiry by reviewing existing literature online and in scholarly journals related to roleplay and workplace learning. I then took a more in-depth exploratory look at two experiences I recently had with video game roleplay in my personal life. This was intended to help me understand what is being learned in these games and connect it back to literature. I also surveyed one of the roleplay communities that I participate in to find out how other players view their own roleplay experiences. I conclude with a discussion of my key findings and the potential impacts on workplace learning.


Learning in the workplace has undergone a big shift in the last ten years (White, 2017). The focus has moved from a formal top-down approach to focus on a more informal personalized approach. Eraut (2000) describes formal learning as having a prescribed framework, the presence of a designated trainer, some sort of certificate or qualification at the end, and external outcomes. This traditional view of learning is linear and not very engaging to the modern learner. On the other hand, informal learning, as laid out by Lee et al. (2004) is characterized as having four principles (p. 15-16):

  • Context: learning that occurs outside of formal classroom-based settings
  • Cognizance: intentional/incidental learning
  • Experiential: practice and judgement
  • Relationship: learning by sitting next to someone, mentoring, working in teams

The shift from formal to informal learning puts the learner at the center of their learning and makes them in control of how and what they learn (White, 2017, para. 7). Video game roleplay potentially fulfills each of these principles by offering learners the chance to complete activities, in teams, based on real-life situations with no predetermined outcomes.

Outside of the workplace, there has been an increasing popularity among games that enable players to roleplay as certain professions (Kennett, 2015). The simulator genre is becoming quite popular and is the most well-known for this. Games such as American Truck Driver, where players drive big rig trucks across country, and Tower!3D, allowing players roleplay as an air traffic controller, are immersing players in what may seem like boring professions. What makes players want to roleplay in these types of games? In a community discussion on Reddit (Rotorist, 2016), players provided many reasons why they roleplay. The most common responses included the ability to make decisions become more meaningful and to experience jobs or tasks they wouldn’t normally otherwise. Games that offer more world building and immersion are among the most popular types of games to roleplay in.

Researchers have also noted several benefits to using video game roleplay for learning, as well as ways of making it more effective. Les Brown (2016) advocated that “in order to do something you have never done, you must become someone you have never been.” Roleplay enables learners to practice applying skills or knowledge before having to face the same situation on the job. Many of these skills, including self-awareness, problem solving, communication, initiative, and teamwork, can be difficult to teach via traditional methods (Blatner, 2002). Roleplaying also requires active learning and should engage all learners in a roleplay session. It should provide opportunities for participants to respond to unanticipated questions or situations. Effective roleplay scenarios require participants to integrate learning from all their other experiences (Schumann, 2009, para. 1).

Learning Law Enforcement Through Grand Theft Auto V

Grand Theft Auto V is an open-world action-adventure game often accused of being too violent. Many players use the game as a sandbox to act out criminal situations. That’s largely what the series has been about. Steal a car. Get chased by the police. Cause chaos. Some players, however, want to play as law enforcement. GTA V wasn’t built for this, but with the help of game modifications (mods), chat-rooms, and some imagination, players have found ways to roleplay as police (Zwiezen, 2016). This type of gameplay was enabled when the PC version of the game was released.

One of the most popular mods to support this type of gameplay is LSPDFR, a single-player enhancement that allows players to become a police officer in the fictional city of Los Santos. Players can make arrests, pull over speeding vehicles, and respond to emergency situations as they seem fit. This mod isn’t a perfect representation of police work, mostly due to gameplay constraints in Grand Theft Auto itself, but it does allow for players to learn and act out the basic procedures and protocols. I conducted a survey of 20 members (Appendix A) in the LSPDFR community forums to gain additional insight into their own roleplay experiences. I asked about their previous law enforcement experience and whether or not they learned anything from directly playing this mod. The results were more mixed than I was anticipating, but the comments that were provided ended up being more valuable. One player said, “I have learned more because of my experience not just playing the mod, but also interacting with other users on this website” (personal communication, March 17, 2018). This social aspect was a common response I received from community members.

LSPDFR is somewhat limiting from this social perspective since it is after all only a single-player experience. This led me to discover another mod I’ve never heard of, known as FiveM, which allows players to play online with other people. While GTA V does have an online mode, FiveM enables dedicated law enforcement communities to setup their own private servers for serious role-players to play as police or live their lives as a civilian without trolls ruining their experiences. Community members playing as police officers are typically required to complete a virtual police academy and use an online voice chat program when on duty in order to communicate with dispatch and other officers. One player will even work as the dispatch operator, not even playing the actual game, but just routing calls to the appropriate police channels from within their voice chat program (Bobcat1Deere2Cat3, 2015). Police are all required to learn the police codes widely used by law enforcement in the United Sates and respond to calls in a realistic manner. Civilians are also required to act realistically and not always escalate a normal traffic stop into something bigger. Both parties must always stay in character, if a player does something that would be considered unrealistic, it is often labeled a “fail RP.” As Schumann (2002) stated, this type of roleplay is effective because all players are engaged in the session and everyone knows their roles. Players are also not only learning police roles and norms, but also communication, teamwork, and problem-solving skills.

Figure 1: Screenshots taken while roleplaying Grand Theft Auto 5. Left – Performing a routine traffic stop in LSPDFR; Right – Higher stakes stop of another player recklessly driving on a FiveM roleplay server.

Virtual Reality Roleplay in VRChat

Virtual worlds such as Second Life are not a new thing and have been explored in countless studies, many of which are geared toward classroom settings. VRChat takes this concept a step further by extending it into the virtual reality space. Players interact with each other through a full body avatar as if they’re physically in the same room as each other. What makes VRChat uniquely suited for roleplay is the fact that there are over a thousand unique worlds that are available to play in, allowing for endless roleplay scenarios. While the public rooms were often crowded with people shouting and just pure chaos, private sessions can be created to offer more serious roleplay.  In one world, you might choose to become a chef, attempting to impress other players with your food, while in the next you can become a surgeon performing some type of medical operation. Once again, the social aspect of roleplaying was evident right away.

One of the key benefits I see to virtual reality applications such as VRChat is in addressing equity issues at the workplace. Billett (2001) describes access to learning opportunities in the workplace as not always being equal among all groups of employees. Learning affordances differ between newcomers and old-timers, full-time and part-time workers, teams with different roles and esteem, and individual workers’ goals and careers (p. 210). The LSPDFR mod had many different controls and key combinations, making it more difficult for someone not comfortable playing video games to learn. The controls in VRChat are much simpler since they mostly rely on normal human motion. Even speech is simply picked up through the built-in mic on the VR headset, as if you’re having a normal conversation with someone. This ease of use makes it more accessible to players of all skill levels and is an important consideration when trying to address the needs of these different groups of employees.

An SDK is also available for VRChat, which allows players to create their own worlds. Employers can potentially create worlds based on specific workplace scenarios and see how an employee would react without any risk involved. A lawyer can practice presenting a case in a virtual courtroom, an engineer can practice working with or assembling a certain piece of equipment, and human resources can train employees on how to respond to certain workplace situations such as sexual harassment.

Discussion & Conclusion

I found that the most valuable part of my research was participating and observing how people actually roleplay in video games. This changed some of my initial assumptions of how roleplay in video games can enhance learning.  The success of learning through video game roleplay lies in the involvement of a participant (or participants) playing the game, which in turn, creates connections to real-life situations allowing the individual to make relevant associations (Ypsilanti et al., 2014). In other words, learning by literally doing.

The key characteristic of an effective roleplay scenario that I witnessed during my experiences was the concept of allowing all players an equal opportunity to participate. The multiplayer experiences I encountered provided more learning opportunities than a single-player experience because players had to communicate and work with other players. This allowed for more skill building opportunities; teamwork, communication, and problem solving were all being acquired. Many players in the LSPDFR community were also learning more outside of the game by asking questions and interacting with other players in the forums. These types of interactions can easily be applied to professional learning as well. When implementing a roleplay scenario in the workplace, time needs to be allotted for employees to reflect on skills gained and the impact of these skills on their job.

The remaining question to be answered is how do we actually integrate video game roleplay into a workplace environment? An aging diversity in organizations create potential challenges (Ypsilanti et al., 2014) and it might be difficult to imagine employees playing video games at work. Virtual reality is just one emerging tool that can possibly solve this problem. There is currently a lot of hype around the potential uses for VR in both education and the workplace. Companies have already started using it to train associates in certain tasks (Robertson, 2017) and there are less barriers to entry than a traditional video game, since the player is essentially the controller. VR hardware costs and relatively inexpensive for a business to invest in and a small conference room can easily be fitted with the necessary equipment. It took me little effort to convert a small room into my VRChat play space.

While business leaders will need to invest in new technologies and readjust how they view learning in order to support a younger workforce, it is also important for change leaders to consider the end goal when introducing any new training program. Roleplay will work better in certain situations than others. I only examined two personal video game roleplay experiences for this research, but the next step would be to incorporate roleplay into some type of training program at my workplace and gain additional insight from other employees who may not be as comfortable with video games as myself.


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Billett, S. (2001). Learning through work: workplace affordances and individual engagement, Journal of Workplace Learning, 13:5, pp. 209-214.

Blatner, A. (2009, October 18). Role playing in education. Retrieved from http://www.blatner.com/adam/pdntbk/rlplayedu.htm

Bobcat1Deere2Cat3. (2015, January 10). Precision Roleplay Patrol #1 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/8K7lhaYZIw4

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Kennett, T. (2015, May 5). Why do we play video games that feel like work? Retrieved from https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/4x38aq/why-do-we-play-video-games-that-simulate-work

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Murphy, N. (2013, May 18). What it means to role-play in video games. Retrieved from http://www.gatheryourparty.com/2013/05/18/what-it-means-to-role-play-in-video-games/

Robertson, A. (2017, June 1). Walmart is training employees with a Black Friday VR simulator. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/1/15725732/walmart-strivr-vr-training-module

Rotorist. (2016, February 24). What makes you want to “roleplay” in a game? [Online discussion group]. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/truegaming/comments/47dnc5/what_makes_you_want_to_roleplay_in_a_game

Schumann, G.L. (2002, February 21). Enhanced learning through role-playing. The Plant Health Instructor. doi: 10.1094/PHI-T-2002-0225-02

White, J. (2017, July 17). How workplace learning has changed in recent years [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blog.torchlms.com/how-workplace-learning-has-changed-in-recent-years

Ypsilanti, A., Vivas, A.B., Räisänen, T., Viitala, M., Ijäs, T., Ropes, D. (2014). Are serious video games something more than a game? A review on the effectiveness of serious games to facilitate intergenerational learning. Education and Information Technologies. 19, 515. doi: 10.1007/s10639-014-9325-9

Zwiezen, Z. (2016, October 13). The people who roleplay as cops in grand theft auto [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://kotaku.com/the-people-who-roleplay-as-cops-in-grand-theft-auto-1787765109

Appendix A: Survey of the LSPDFR Community




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