Felia Allum reflects on a whole semester of organised crime roleplay

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Last week, I finished teaching my Italian organised crime role play unit for the second time; there were two seminar groups, one on a thursday and one a friday. Last year, I took a leap in the dark in deciding to teaching organised crime through the use of role play. I restructured the whole unit so that in parallel to my lectures as the basic teaching material, students engaged by playing six games. The first two games are a kind of introduction as the students establish their clans - by pulling out of a hat the different roles: boss, wife, adviser, associates, foot soldiers and then, recruiting the necessary members (game 1) and then together deciding their business plan (game 2). This time we had 4 clans in each seminar group.
After which, the students were given specific case scenarios around different topics - there were 4: inter-clan relations, extortion, drug importation and distribution and politics. Then as individual clans the students design and write up their role play.
To do this, students are given time, academic texts and advice to think through  the different issues and how they would resolve them, which they then write up. In terms of assessment, this a collective group dossier that the students write together, in it they explain how they believe the different issues will be solved by the various clans. It is the academic literature which informs their decisions and thinking; so we end up with a student designed role play.

Not one game is ever the same and the stories build up, from one week to another so that there is some kind of coherence, not only in terms of events but also in terms of character development. Although both seminar groups had the same scenarios, they were played in a different order and the endings were very fundamentally different: in one group, there ended up being a massive shoot out and it remained unclear who survived. In the other seminar group, there was a lot of tension and potential for violence but a truce and peace agreement was finalised at the last minute, which meant life in the district could carry on as usual.

Students commented on the fact that the games were played at a quick pace and that they lacked structure. The more I have thought about this, the more I have realised that these are actually some of the main features of the role play. Role plays are by their very nature unstructured, flexible, messy, rough and blurred. The beauty lies in how students think on their feet and respond to these real life situations and how I as a teacher can explain to them their thinking and what could and should have happened.

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