Interpretation, narrative, sim learning

by Paul Maharg on 14/11/2011

You know how it is: you talk about things at a seminar or workshop, and then you rehearse it afterwards, the things you should have said, directions you might have taken but didn’t.  One of the things I should have talked about in the optional APLEC workshop, if there had been time, was the power of simulation, particularly what we call open field sims (Barton & Maharg, book chapters, item 5) to enable student interpretation and creativity, and I want to explore that a bit more below for those conference participants who attended the workshop.

Think of a sim like the PI negotiation project as a MUVE (multi-user virtual environment), as having a strong central narrative but with multiple sub-plots.  Eg students have to discover what actually happened when the electrician in the U of Ardcalloch tripped up going down the stairs.  There were witnesses (apparently) – what did they see, how would they describe it?  That’s one subplot, with any number of reliable and unreliable narrators.  Another might be the status of injury: different medical reports will say different things.  Surely consultant surgeons are reliable narrators?  Perhaps, perhaps not; and doesn’t it depend on the questions you ask of them (and here we stray from the field of literary analysis to the anthropology of the oracular – think Delphic Oracle, whose famously elliptical answers depended crucially on the question asked, and who asked it, eg Themistocles).  Another subplot might be the results of professional legal research carried out in library & online.  Interpretation of documents, the patient piecing together of subplots and narrative – this is actually quite a novelistic view of professional practice.

But this analogy only goes so far to describe the complexity of what is happening.  Two points are important here.  First, in open field transactions students can ask for objects that are not already created – the students who asked for the weather forecast for a year previously, and for whom we had to create a Met forecast for Ardcalloch, which we did by creating a brief forecast in the Ardcalloch Times.  As Sara de Freitas and I point out in our chapter in Digital Games and Learning (‘Digital games and learning: modelling learning experiences in the digital age’) when students engage in such games and sims, they immerse, however briefly, in the world of the game.  They become diegetic players.  Diegesis refers to the world within an artwork, and is used most often with reference to films – think of the background music that comes from a radio in the room where the characters are speaking.  If the music continued at the same pitch and volume in an adjacent room with no radio and different characters we would think it odd.  Or think of a character’s glance to camera at significant moments in a film that breaks the diegetic ‘fourth wall’ of the filmic world.  In an open field transaction, no object should be regarded as unavailable, unless a character within the world of the sim deems it so.  This might seem an excessively tall order for sim designers, which I wouldn’t deny; but it works powerfully to render the simworld of the transaction, where students themselves help to design and build the sim.  Some, though not all, the objects in the PI sim actually arose from the simulation itself because students created them or requested them.  And as they created them, they created situations for themselves that were not encoded into the sim.  At that point, sim design enters an exciting stage, for designers/supervisors and for player/students: where will it go?  I give an example of that below in an extract from Transforming Legal Education.

Is this important?  I think so.  Play can be a powerful driver for learning.  As Sara and I point out, ‘For animal play, the intensive periods of play lead to accelerated maturation (Bekoff and Byers, 1998). Studies have shown that no play in childhood and sociopathy may be linked (Bekoff and Byers, 1998).’  And illustrating the link between play and learning, ‘the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman has pointed to a ‘cartography’ of knowledge that is developed and tested during play time (Edelman, 1992) and through rehearsal and role play can be accelerated and improved’.

Secondly, readers of novels constantly interpret text, characterization, structure, absence and many other signifiers.  They do so according to the highly complex set of expectations arising from the genre, as they understand it.  In so doing they are part of a community of practice (Stanley Fish, etc).  Law students are in a community of practice, too, but it’s quite a different community with different standards, readings, etc.  So in the PI project, students are learning how to interpret the statements of, eg, a witness (who saw the incident) or an expert witness, eg consultant surgeon, not as a vanilla reader of text (because there is never such a thing) but as a novice learner in the community of professional lawyers.  So the question they should be asking is: how might an experienced lawyer read this text?  What questions might he or she ask of it?

And this of course brings us to the remarkable paradox of learning by simulation and games.  For the aim of the activity is not to immerse students in the sim: it’s to let them retreat from the real world and return to it with more of an understanding of how it operates.  The designer of SimCity, Will Wright, makes this point very well, when talking about the virtual interface between sim and reality in SimCity: the end product is not

the shallow model of the city running in the computer. More importantly, it’s the deeper model of the real world, and the intuitive understanding of complex dynamic systems, that people learn from playing it, in the context of everything else about a city that they already know. In that sense, SimCity, SimEarth, and SimAnt are quite educational, since they implant useful models in their users’ minds.

This is not just an educational issue: it’s an epistemological problem, one that appears again and again in art.  Take W.S Graham’s ‘The Thermal Stair’, a powerful elegy to his friend, the painter Peter Lanyon, killed in a gliding accident:

You said once in the Engine
House below Morvah
That words make their world
In the same way as the painter’s
Mark surprises him
Into seeing new.

* * * *

You said “Here is the sea
Made by alfred wallis
Or any poet or painter’s
Eye it encountered.
Or is it better made
By all those vesselled men
Sometime it maintained?
We all make it again.”

We must all make it again before we can see it clearly, painters, poets, fishers, students, lawyers, legal academics.  Which is why I needed to set it down here before I could see it clearly, too.


Bekoff, M. & Byers, J. A. (1998). Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Edelman, G. (1992). Bright Air and Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind. New York: Basic Books.


Extract from Transforming Legal Education, chapter 7:

A student from a virtual firm that represented the insurers (that is, they were the defenders or defendants) in the Personal Injury transaction wrote to the Managing Director of Melville Welding, where the accident that was the basis of the pursuer’s claim took place. As a PI facilitator for this firm, one of my responsibilities was to answer mail in real-time and in character. I replied in the character of John Rutherford, who is a no-nonsense MD of the firm and who was glad to get rid of the injured employee whom he regarded as a poor worker. Over the course of six weeks we became quite friendly in our respective roles and the student lawyer entered into the role play by referring in his letters to playing golf in the local club, and so on, to which I responded in kind. Student lawyer and businessman were developing trust in an interesting way.

Towards the transaction deadline (20 December), the student wrote Rutherford a letter asking if he minded granting access to a specialist Health and Safety consultant employed by the pursuer’s solicitors to assess and analyse the status of the grinding equipment upon which the accident had occurred, but only after 20 December (that is, after the transaction was due to finish). I wrote back in character, quite open to this suggestion, but let it be known to the student that my diary and workflows on the shop floor could accommodate an earlier date and that I was quite amenable to this – what did he want to do? The student was now in the situation of effectively asking the client to lie in the hope of achieving a better settlement. I then sent a memo to the firm in my character as firm PI senior partner, reminding the firm in very general terms of the need to manage risk appropriately, be aware of ethical circumstances and so on that may arise in the course of the transactions. I then waited to see what would happen.  In this situation we can see the usefulness of the transaction as a tool for enhancing ethical awareness in students. The scenario has its own ethical points embedded in documents, but this ethical situation arose out of the student’s enthusiasm to exclude the other side from obtaining useful evidence and to do the best for his client. It arose from the process of document exchange and the relationship that had been built up between the anonymous information source as characters, and the student. In this we can see the advantage of detailed and realistic virtual communities. The situation arose, almost unawares, as many ethical situations often do, and the student now had to make a decision. What was he going to do? Would he send the letter that John Rutherford would provide most willingly? Or would he rethink his strategy as regards provision of information to the other side?

In the event, he did not send the letter. It may be, of course, that the fact that a senior partner pointed out to him the ethics of his action was enough to warn him off. But the very fact that he did not send the letter is a decision that he made: the situation was created by the student within the scenario and only partly shaped by me. It arose from the communications flow within the transaction and would not have arisen had the student merely learned about  ethics and the transaction. Moreover, this is ‘just-in-time’ knowledge, not ‘just-in-case’ knowledge, of the sort James Gee analysed and which was summarised in Chapter 6.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kristoffer Greaves November 25, 2011 at 01:58

Hi Paul, I really enjoyed reading this and doing so amplified my regret at missing your workshop in Sydney. I have thought about the lecturers’ management of role play in analogous activities and wrote a mild maggot on this last year in the face-to-face context (I think some ideas are transferable to the online situation): “Practical Legal Theatre”


2 Paul Maharg November 25, 2011 at 09:35

Good post, Kris, thanks for drawing my attention to it. Too often ‘legal theatre’ approaches are confined to skills training, which isn’t helpful at all, so it was good to see the impressive breadth of reference and application in your post; and yes you’re right about the transferability of f2f to online. I hadn’t appreciated you came from a performance background! My two cents’ worth… one of the forms of performance I was interested in was Augusto Boal’s ‘theatre of the oppressed’, which was derived in part from Freire but also Brecht — same alienation effects. I was interested in you picking up on commedia dell’arte because it always seemed to me that the improv tradition there was part of Boal, and there’s another analogy in that Brecht’s Epic Theatre had an origin in the stylized masks and costumes of commedia. Anyway all this was swirling around in my head in a kind of formless way until I found an interesting thesis by Gonzalo Frasca, making the link between Boal etc and videogames, that helped me crystallize my thinking about what we wanted to do in an online environment – Frasca, G. (2001) Videogames of the oppressed: videogames as a means for critical thinking and debate. Available here. Completed in 2001, so he was well ahead of the curve, though others have caught up with him since.


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