top of page

Forage Center News

Advice for Roleplaying as an Internally Displaced Person

3/23/24, 4:00 PM

Forage Fellow Chenqi Shi shares his advice on being a role player

Have you ever played Dungeons and Dragons? A simulated role play game can test your imagination and acting. But more importantly, this game puts you into a simulated environment by interacting with other players. Can we adopt this concept to humanitarian training? In humanitarian training, we can’t bring students to the real disaster, so we need a safer space for the practice: safe but immersive.

What kind of immersive environment do we want to provide for students participating in the simulation? Since simulations cannot fully replicate the complex and dynamic scenarios of real-world environments, carefully designed and context-specific exercises are necessary to develop the core skills and qualities of participating students. I have been involved in two humanitarian simulation trainings, providing immersive scripted performances for students acting as internally displaced persons (IDPs).

These roles provide exercise participants an opportunity to address the critical role of three basic human needs—water, food, and shelter— in humanitarian work. Generally, most exercise participants had no real-life experience surviving alone in extreme conditions without these necessities. Their prolonged reliance on convenient urban infrastructure led them to forget that such conveniences are not a given. Participants lack of conceptual understanding of these realities created a challenge for them, to comprehend experiences IDPs may undergo as a result of displacement. Thus, the exercises create a deeper awareness of what it means for individuals to survive in conflict or disaster contexts without support of social welfare facilities.

As I played these roles as a part of the exercise, I was, at first, surprised to see exercise participants (acting as members of a aid organization) appear very indifferent when they encountered “IDPs” for the first time. They mechanically dealt with those IDPs role-playing a narrow escape from a forest fire, much like Starbucks cashiers handling customers. However, they did come to realize the IDP “role.” During the exercise, I found we (as role-players) acted as a catalyst: we needed to use our own stories and performances to arouse the students' emotions. Even if all know that this is a simulated “performance”, once there is an emotional interaction, our bodies will naturally "come into the play.”  Our human body is such magical simulation. This illustrates that even in a simulated environment, the emotions resulting from interpersonal communication and its conflicts can be genuine and perspective-changing. In this case, the IDPs took on the task of introducing conflict to the students. But how can we, as role-players, shape these roles and further strengthen their place in immersive simulation exercises?

My first advice is to stay true to yourself and be genuine. You don't need to create a role that is completely different from who you are and impose it on yourself. Doing so would require inventing various details and forcing them upon yourself, which can result in numerous inconsistencies, especially if you're not adept at acting. Instead, consider how experiencing a natural disaster like a wildfire would impact your normal life if it were happening to you. Would your house be destroyed? Would your family and friends be separated? Could you survive on your own? Start with yourself as the foundational framework for the role and incorporate elements from your real experiences. This way, you will naturally convey the various emotions of that moment.

Secondly is to observe and utilize the surrounding environment, which can be anything – buildings, terrain, forests, and even weather conditions and temperatures. Enrich your character by using the environment and adapting spontaneously. For instance, in hot weather, you can suggest drinking water and seeking shade. In cold weather, you might ask for blankets and hot water. During rain or snow, seek shelter, and so on. Going further, you may have sustained injuries while escaping a disaster and need medication or medical care. Your loved ones could be missing requiring a search or a process of recording names of missing persons thus presenting the exercise participants with portraying a series of challenges they might face as humanitarian workers after the collapse of societal order.

Lastly, and most importantly, it's crucial to maintain balance emotionally. As an IDP role player your assignment is to represent the human face of conflicts or disasters, while the participants (the students acting as aid workers) in the simulation training need to confront the challenges inherent in these situations. You don't need them to solve specific issues but to present the conditions created by conflicts or disasters to them and observe their reactions. Some may empathize, others may not, and some may attempt to do something for you. However, one of the most crucial reasons to develop immersive exercises is to encourage participants learn to think and make judgments under pressure. You, as the role player, are a key piece of that puzzle. Try to gauge the situation carefully. High-intensity pressure may not be suitable for everyone, and participants with lower stress tolerance may need gentler guidance to grasp the scenario. From a holistic perspective, role players are more like guides and mentors, steering the process rather than creating challenges and trials.

bottom of page