Being a Roleplayer – Experiencing the Native Challenge as Alumni

The winter of 2017 was the 10th time alumni of the MA Program in Peace Studies at the University of Innsbruck worked together with the Austrian Armed Forces in the Native Challenge (see fact box) to help create a unique learning experience for the current students of the MA Program. As two of this winter’s alumni roleplayers, we want to share our experiences and reflections regarding what it can mean to be alumni in the Native Challenge. It is clear that the word ‘roleplayer’ hides many aspects, since roleplaying is in the end only a small part of the overall experience. We therefore share our reflections to shed some light on this idea, broadening ‘roleplaying’ to include more of the responsibilities, challenges, experiences and qualities involved.

Aimeerim Tursalieva – MY native CHALLENGE!

BBeing part of the roleplayer component was a very special experience since I was a student of the MA Program in Peace Studies at the University of Innsbruck for only one semester. I experienced a new way of learning with its many hands-on activities outside the lecture room. When I entered the Native Challenge this winter, however, I could barely remember this army experience from my studies – only the nice pictures on facebook, a lot of snow and some distant memories of squad internal tensions. The army week in the frame of the MA Program was left only as a white, thick fog in my mind! With this, I committed myself to participate in this winter’s Native Challenge as a roleplayer.

Luckily, there was one week of preparation in Innsbruck before the actual Native Challenge started. This both challenging and productive week helped me to re-enter an army setting, getting to know and work within the ‘army discipline` again. I guess the ‘army discipline’ is much wider but for me it was about getting up at 5:30 for breakfast, having lunch at 11:30 sharp and eating dinner no later than at 16:00. During the preparation week, the alumni group was exposed to different activities such as operational planning, reactive roleplay as a facilitation tool and moulage (make-up simulations of wounds and injuries).

We, the alumni team, also had our own processes of knowing each other better, identifying our own roles and responsibilities. It was not that easy to come together as one united team in order to run such operations which we were exposed to during Native Challenge.

I come from Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia (former Soviet Union), which is a relatively ‘peaceful’ place where we never experienced direct war. As a child, my only ‘interaction’ with the army came through watching Soviet movies about World War II every year before May 9th (Victory Day). The Victory Day was and still is celebrated widely all across the former Soviet Union. Those movies were the only option to watch on national television at that time. As a child, in the village where I grew up, we used to roleplay games based on those Soviet WWII movies. Since the soldiers in the movies spoke German, we would scream words such as “Schnell! Schnell!” (Fast! Fast!), “Hitler kaputt” (Hitler is dead) and “Hände hoch” (Hands up!). We did not understand the meaning of the words, but we would scream them since it seemed important to give commands in German as it was played in the Soviet movies. During the preparation week, I kept the Soviet WWII movies in the back of my mind. Not surprisingly, it took me some time to understand how to work in an army setting again.

The team from the Austrian Armed Forces tried their best to help the alumni to understand what the roleplaying is about and what our working responsibilities were. The basic structure of the Native Challenge is created out of previous experiences and learning points, which we, as alumni, need to work with. From my first glimpse, it seemed that I would be limited in this structure as I did not understand how to work and be creative within the ‘military structure’. During the whole preparation week, I was therefore silently struggling to understand how to bring in my contribution. However, later I realized there is a lot of space to create and improvise also within this ‘set’ structure.

For the current students of the MA Program, the Native Challenge lasted one week. During the first two and a half days, the students received lectures and ran through different training activities. While the students were experimenting with their gears and got introduced to various security skills and tools, we, the alumni team, were busy with designing the content of the field training exercise that covered the rest of the week. In this context, we were actively handling the website: updating information about the simulation games and producing critical articles for further roleplaying. A big part of being in the alumni roleplaying group was drafting incident sheets. These sheets are important to guarantee that the whole chain of events runs smoothly and on time. It is a great skill to think strategically and connect different events and activities in order to execute the main final scene. All in all, it was a lot of multitasking work for our team. While someone was drafting media articles, others were busy roleplaying outside in the snow. One of the important aspects in our team work was keeping track on events, activities and keep each other updated. This was especially true when the actual roleplaying started. There, we needed a structured ground to improvise and quickly change in the middle of the field training exercise heat. Some very familiar words come to mind: be structured in order to be flexible (a common saying in the MA Program).

After a few days working with the Austrian Armed Forces, I realized that it might be a very different army from the one I used to know from my Soviet WWII films. After some initial struggling, I started to feel more comfortable in the army setting. I felt a lot of care and I saw how everyone from the army always made sure that we, as roleplayers, were well taken care of and had access to everything we needed. It actually seemed that care was very much the key in this setting. We, the alumni team, also had our own processes of knowing each other better, identifying our own roles and responsibilities. It was not that easy to come together as one united team in order to run such operations which we were exposed to during Native Challenge. We, as a group, had our own internal challenges to accept and adapt to each other. Some of us had roleplayed already a few times, while others did it for the first time.

The most creative and fun part of the Native Challenge happened towards the end of the field training week. It was my first experience of using roleplay as a facilitating tool and more generally the first time I was in a facilitating role in such a setting. A very important aspect to know when you are a roleplayer is that you, as an alumni, are there to create a learning experience and hold the space for the students. For me, it was not easy to be in the ‘double awareness’ mode required. When I roleplayed, I was sometimes too much occupied with my role and lost the connection between the event, me and the students. At one point, I fainted in the scenario because I needed to rest and connect to my feelings, yet the students did of course read this as part of the actual scenario. Roleplay facilitation is an art that needs practice. At one point, when I was playing the role of a religious leader, I could see it was very sensitive for many of the students. This made it even more interesting to be a roleplayer, as I could reflect upon how and when it is useful to push students to emotional and cultural limits when you are facilitating.

All in all, I was amazed by all the effort, infrastructure, planning and reflection from the Austrian Armed Forces that went into creating this unique learning experience. At the same time, I saw students, alumni roleplayers and program staff members working to make this possible as well. It was personally very challenging to work in a military-civilian setting, yet I learned how different ‘structures and groups’ can find ways to work and create together.

Hanne Tjersland – The Roles of Facilitation

This winter was my sixth time participating in the Native Challenge. After my first three times as a student, I thought I could finally grasp some of the background work involved. Yet, when I became an alumni roleplayer, I realized I had only seen a very small glimpse of the overall picture. Now, three times into the roleplaying experience, I am still humbled by the immensity of work, but I have at least understood there is a lot more going on here – on the ‘other’ side – than first meets the eye.
During the preparation week of this winter’s Native Challenge, I was asked to facilitate a reactive roleplay workshop for the new roleplaying team as I have a theatre background. This made me reflect upon what being an alumni role player actually means. It is quite different from my more ‘standard’ theatre experiences. Usually, I play a more or less rehearsed role with co-actors who also know the script. With this, we work together to communicate a shared message. In the Native Challenge, this is different and certainly more complex.

When I meet students as a reactive roleplayer, I alone (yet together with fellow roleplayers and trainers/team from the army’s side) have the full(er) picture of the situation we are in. It is therefore I who need to balance the different aspects to facilitate the learning goals. The students cannot be responsible for any direction the scenarios take as they are not roleplaying like me. They are rather reacting as themselves through limited information they are given. I therefore need to guide and be responsible for the scenario. It is a complex and challenging task.

I see the Native Challenge as a unique blend of military-civilian perspectives that creates a complex, embodied, intense and valuable learning experience that is worth to keep fostering.

The alumni roleplay becomes with this for me something more than ‘just’ roleplaying. Rather, it is roleplay-as-facilitation: the art of facilitating through playing roles. Let me explain it: being an alumni roleplayer means for me to hold a space for students to learn through playing the many roles necessary. These are both visible ‘character roles’ in the roleplay, as well as background roles of writing media articles, coordinating and creating scenarios, answering students through the UN New York mail, instructing recruits for different scenarios, applying moulage, creating information on the simulated UN webpage, coordinating and working with the army and of course, being immensely aware of the learning goals! What ties it all together are the lenses of being a facilitator. Everything I do in the Native Challenge is influenced by this focus of providing a best possible learning experience. It applies to everything from running wildly creative with funny media articles to putting students into uncomfortable situations I do myself not enjoy acting out. It is all done with this in mind: I learned a lot from my Native Challenge experiences as a student and I want to offer the same possibility to future peace students as well. I see the Native Challenge as a unique blend of military-civilian perspectives that creates a complex, embodied, intense and valuable learning experience that is worth to keep fostering. As an end to these reflections, I invite you back into my complex being as I roleplay-facilitate one out of the many scenarios I held for students during this winter’s Native Challenge:

“I am late. There were a lot of things to coordinate before I could go. Timings and places and people involved. Who needs to be where, at what time, with what equipment and with what transportation! My head is full of details. Yet, I have to refocus. I need to re-enter the here and now. I am the ‘local businesswoman’ in the roleplay and my goal as a facilitator in the scenario is to guide the students through a hand-over-take-over of an old regional center in the simulation so that they can later learn how to set up and open this center as part of their UN mission. A simple scenario, yet challenging enough. I quickly go through the learning goals of the scenario in my head: what do I need to communicate, what would be beneficial if the students understand and what are absolute no-goes from the student’s side? Furthermore, how can I react to the no-goes so the students learn? Well, the first point is ‘easy’: the students need to understand the importance of having a contract, paying the agreed money and doing a security check of the house. Still, it is more complex in ‘reality’. What if the students go a different direction? Well, I have to jump into it. “Improvise!” as they so beautifully say. Then, I realize I haven’t even seen the house I am guiding the students through! How can I pretend to know a house I haven’t seen? I hope at least it is open. I have to put my faith in the larger coordination of the roleplay and trust that the right people got the message about opening the house in the end. Now, let’s start!

In the beginning, the scenario goes more or less according to plan (and also, the house is open!). However, I need to express quite some anger in my role to make the students understand the situation they are in. Their main goal is to get the house I am showing them, not to ask an already angry and busy businesswoman (which I enthusiastically let them know I am through acting my role very impatiently) out-of-the-context questions. The students however keep asking. It seems like my anger is not enough. I make a mental note to stress this aspect in the out-of-role feedback round afterwards (note: as far as possible, a feedback round with trainers and roleplayers are conducted with the students after each scenario to enhance the learning experience). Then, the student responsible for the UN mission security starts asking me tricky questions about some rooms that are locked in the house. I have no idea what to answer. I was not even aware that the rooms would be locked! I make up a story: there is some old office stuff in the rooms because the house used to be the old office of the local mayor in the simulation. The student, however, is not satisfied. I quickly cut off further questions by becoming increasingly angry, playing on the fact that my role wants to go back to business. Puh! Saved for this time. Still, I need to make a new mental note to include also this in the feedback round. I need to reassure the students that the rooms are locked due to out-of-the-roleplay reasons (I do not have the key!) and that they do not need to spend their energy focusing on them. At the same time, I want to communicate to the student who was asking me the questions that they were indeed good to ask from a security perspective. Hence, I start to compose a ‘feedback list’ in my mind as I continue showing the students around. In this way, I am reacting to and reflecting upon the one small learning situation after the other…”

A Conclusion

What does it mean to be an alumni roleplayer? It is for sure a multifaceted and challenging experience that is both creative and fun, yet also involves a lot of work and challenges. It is a complex task of planning, coordinating, improvising and facilitating, which requires a lot of presence, flexibility, empathy and awareness. Last but not least, it is a combined military- civilian effort to work together to co-create a unique learning experience where students can learn something about themselves, others and the realities of peaces and conflicts. This is at least our experience as alumni roleplayers in this winter’s Native Challenge.

Image Sources:

  • Featured Image: © Daniela Ingruber
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