I dropped into one of Felia Allum’s role play seminars last week and was truly impressed by the level of student engagement. The seminar group was divided into 4 mafia clans each with different identities but co-located in terms of their operational area. The role play ‘games’ extend across several seminars so a history of clan activity is created as the games progress. Each clan takes responsibility for leading the role play in any one seminar, having been allocated a topic in advance around which they have to read the academic literature to understand the concepts and issues involved. However the clans don’t know when they will be asked to take the lead!
This is how things progressed over the course of the 2hr seminar I attended.
Each clan in turn summarised their position at the end of the previous week’s game in terms of alliances, threats, deals, etc with other clans, their legal and illegal businesses and how the flood (a crisis encountered in the previous seminar) had impacted on their operations.
The topic for today’s game was announced as ‘Politics’ and the lead clan thus identified. All clans spent 5 mins discussing their game plan and their priorities associated with this theme and the wider power struggle between their rival clans.
The role play started with the lead clan introducing a candidate they wanted to sponsor to run for election and thus set about organising an election campaign for him. They clearly wanted the other clans to vote for him but needed to understand what was the best strategy to adopt. To add atmosphere one student is tasked with finding some suitable background music to play while the clans discuss their responses to this move by the lead clan.
Felia announces that there are to 2 days to go before the election. Another clan responds by putting forward their own sponsored candidate. A TV debate is organised for the two candidates to take questions and all clans and citizens attend. There are some questions from the floor but the rival clan’s candidate is taken ill and the debate is curtailed. One of the clans play a reputation card against another clan which influences that clan’s actions for 20min of the play. An electronic timer displayed on the screen keeps track of this. Election day arrives and all the clan members vote (using the study space app) and the lead clan’s candidate prevails. However, it appears that one clan member has betrayed an alliance when casting their vote.
Suddenly, it is announced that the elected candidate has been assassinated and the losing candidate stands in to fill the gap until a new election can be organised. The funeral of the dead politician takes place accompanied by appropriately solemn music. Clan members’ attendance at the funeral is strategic and aligned with various inter clan alliances. At the funeral, a scandal emerges that the boss’ wife of the lead clan had been having an affair with the murdered candidate, when the previous week she had rejected the attentions of a foot solider from a rival clan, making clear that she wanted to protect her honour. A businessman close to the lead clan is proposed as the new candidate in the forthcoming elections that will take place during the week.
Just before the game concludes another clan plays a bomb card and a crime card against the clan who has proposed the alternative candidate. This will curtail the victim clan’s activity at the beginning of the next game.
The session closes with a 10 min debrief discussion on the learning outcomes from the game. Felia led this discussion. She made clear what the learning objectives were: ‘to organise an election campaign and make sure that all clans voted for the candidate sponsored by the lead clan. In particular, to understand the nature of the political exchanges between politicians and Mafiosi’. Students reflect on their clan’s game plan and also on what issues the role play has revealed regarding how mafia clans establish political power, how they manipulate politicians in order to further their business and what kind of resources are exchanged between the different actors.
Three students agreed to share their reflections on the role play approach to teaching and learning. A key message from the students was that the fact that the role play spanned the whole unit meant that they were constantly thinking about and researching the unit topics in order to decide how their clan should play the next game and how cross cutting themes like the role of women in organised crime influenced and was manifest in the role play. This meant their thinking and understanding developed over a period of time. Further, they commented that in a more traditional pattern of seminars where students take turns to present on a topic once their turn has passed then they said they tended to disengage. Clearly student engagement in this Organised Crime unit not only stimulates students 'to do the reading' but also encourages them to synthesise concepts, discuss and develop new ideas between session. For these students clan business became a topic of conversations in the corridors!