Role-playing is an experiential technique where a (future) scenario is translated into a 'live action' situation where the participants play the roles of the inhabitants of the (future) world. It is one thing to talk or write about a possible future scenario, and quite another to enact it. The participants are required to use different types of knowing (beyond the rational and creative) and can acquire new information about the scenario through direct experience of role-playing. If taken seriously, role playing a specific situation from a scenario can offer valuable insights into the perspectives of different stakeholders, uncover hidden assumptions, gaps in the scenario logic and a range of cognitive biases.

Role-playing in futuring draws strongly on improvisation and theatre sports, LARPing (live action role playing games), RPGs (role playing games) and MMORPGS (massive multiplayer online role playing games).

Process

Role-playing can range from a simple 5-minute exercise to a deeply engaging experience lasting weeks (as is the case in large-scale LARPs or ARGs). The process described here can be conducted in a workshop setting and can produce short experiences. However, the questions used, if fleshed out in detail, can also be used for longer form LARPS or pre-enactments. Note: if time is too short to go through all the steps, you can pre-design steps 1–4.

Step 1: Frame role-playing as an experiential futures exercise, where the relatively abstract worlds described in a scenario can be directly experienced by the participants themselves.

Step 1a: If needed, split the group into smaller sub-groups, no more than 5 people per group. You can choose to use a format like a world cafe where every design step is discussed on a different table and each round adds additional detail.

Step 2: Setting: What’s the setting/location? Discuss and design the setting of the role play.

Step 3: Scenario: What is your roleplaying scenario? Note that this is a scenario for a specific situation in the larger possible future scenario you might have designed during a visioning exercise. What is happening – are there any events, processes, conflicts, celebrations, etc.? What are people doing in your situation?

Step 4: Backstory: What’s the backstory? What is the history of your situation? How and why did this scenario end up happening?

Step 5: What are the rules in this game? Are there any constraints that the players should be aware of? Also, decide on a duration, start and end time of your role-playing exercise, as well as what to do in 'emergency' situations. Do you need a game master? If yes, assign one (or more).

Step 6: Characters: Who is involved? Who are the characters? What are their roles? Write a description for each character, something akin to a profile page on a social network (e.g. LinkedIn or Facebook). Include just enough information for the player to get into character, but leave enough room for them to improvise. What you include in the character description depends on your scenario (e.g. age, sex, name, place in society, job description, etc.)

Step 7: Props: What 'props' do you need to make the situation believable? Is there a dress code? What 'gear' do you need? Design and create the props. Set up the space.

Step 8: Roles: Who will play what role? Are there any external players? If so, how will you brief them?

Step 9: Play! Once you begin, stay in character and don’t break the universe!

Step 10: Debrief. Reflect on people's experiences during role playing. Ask questions that can inform your futuring exercise and accept feedback (both of the experience and the scenario).