Can the use of live action role plays (larps) be beneficial in the leadership training at the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy (RNNA)? This is the question I asked myself the autumn of 2019, as I began the work with my bachelor thesis in Military Studies, Operational Branch. Having played and designed larps since the summer of 2010, personal experience told me that larps hold great potential for personal development. At the same time, I missed more opportunities for practising leadership skills in my own education at the RNNA. To find an answer to the question above, I designed five larp sessions and ran them with the class of 2019-2022 at the RNNA. This article seeks to present what I found in my bachelor’s degree with a main focus on the larps.
Military personnel are required to perform in times of crisis and war. These situations are characterized by complexity and uncertainty (Boe, 2016). Because the situations are too vast for one person to grasp alone, teams become necessary. For a team to function under such circumstances, the teamwork has to be robust (Sjøvold, 2006). This requires the team members to be capable of showing role flexibility. In this context, role flexibility refers to 1) the ability to read a situation and choose the appropriate behaviour to move the team towards their goal and 2) the range of behaviours one can comfortably choose from (Sjøvold, 2007). In order for a team to reach its full potential, four functions – nurture, control, opposition and dependence – must all be in harmony. Every team member should ideally be able to exercise behaviour that supports each function (Sjøvold, 2014).
Educating officers who are capable of being role flexible, is however not a given. The natural tendency for members of newly formed groups is to fall back on roles they are comfortable and familiar with and staying there (Sjøvold, 2006). In this context, a role refers to Endre Sjøvold’s explanation of the word: “In an interaction, we have certain expectations regarding how others should behave. Such expectations of behaviour is called a role when they fulfil certain basic functions in a group” (Sjøvold, 2006). The pressure to succeed during training at the RNNA is great. This leads the cadets to fall back on behaviours and leadership styles with which they have previously had success, as opposed to trying new angles. This social pressure and the fear of failing hold the team members back from going outside their comfort zones, and thus hinders them from widening their behavioural spectrum. When this happens, a team’s success will consequently usually depend on one or a few strong team members who keep the team together (Sjøvold, 2006). I hypothesised that larps could be a solution to the challenge of developing role flexibility, as it offers a way to remove the barriers that hold team members back.
In a larp, the participants play out fictitious characters. The characters might inhabit traits that the participants want to practise or explore (Waade, 2006). By giving the cadets the alibi of a character within a fictitious context, the social pressures connected to the cadets’ personas can be removed. The responsibility for any failures within the larp falls on the characters. This can offer the cadets a safe arena to practise in, and adds a framework for direct feedback. When the social pressures that normally hold the cadets back were removed through larp, I hypothesised that they would dare to challenge themselves in roles with which they were uncomfortable. This in turn, could lead to them developing their role flexibility and make them robust members of their teams.
I worked with three hypotheses:
- The cadets will become more role flexible after completing five larp sessions.
- The cadets who are positively inclined towards the larp sessions and choose to play characters that challenge them will have the greatest development in their spectrum of behaviours.
- The cadets who are positively inclined towards the larp sessions will have the greatest development in their ability to observe situations and select an appropriate behaviour.
Due to the scope of the thesis, it was not possible to examine the long term effects of the larp sessions, which might differ from the short term results. Even though it is likely that the role plays had other effects than those on role flexibility, these are not examined here.
The research process began in December 2019. I designed many alternative larps scenarios with the goal of helping the cadets develop their ability to show role flexibility. Due to practical reasons, the sessions had to be run aboard the tall ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl while it crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The sessions were executed with the first year students in the class of 2019-2022, 64 students in total, 9 women and 55 men. They were divided according to their already existing teams of 7-8 members, which they remained part of for the duration of a year. Each team consisted of one woman and the rest men.
The framework for each session was as follows:
Goal: increase the participants’ role flexibility
Purpose: educate capable officers
Number of participants: 7-9
Target audience: military cadets with no prior experience with larp or theatre
Time: 70 minutes
Location: one room with a table and chairs
In the end, the strict time constraint led to a design that focused almost completely on role flexibility, cutting away any elements not contributing to this. On January 27th 2020 two of the scenarios I chose were playtested with 16 students at Metis High School in Bergen. Though the high school students were younger than the cadets and not organized in teams the same way, the playtest still gave a general feel for how a group with no prior experience with larp would react to them. Through a questionnaire filled out by the students and an in-depth interview with one of them, valuable feedback was acquired, and the sessions adjusted accordingly. One of the larp sessions was playtested a second time on February 1st 2020 at the Norwegian larp festival Spillerom. These participants were all experienced larpers. Feedback was also received from this group, and some final adjustments were made.
The results of all the planning were three scenarios that were played over five larp sessions with each team. Every larp session consisted of a workshop, a larp and a debrief. During the larps half of the team played characters, while the other half trained observation skills. The participants who trained observation skills received an observation form written for one character they were going to pay special attention to, and took notes during the larp. The workshop and debrief were the same for the whole team. I personally ran all of the sessions. I played the role of “supervisor” in the larps, assigning the characters a task at the beginning of the larp and requesting a solution at the end. Sometimes a superior officer would sit in and provide additional feedback during the debrief.
The characters were written with one of the four base functions – nurture, control, opposition or dependence – at its core. The character sheets were one-pagers containing a character name; a “title” describing the type (for example the grandparent, the analytic, the inspirator, etc); a base function (nurture, control, opposition, etc); three keywords (business-like, effective, conforming, etc); two personal goals (keeping things the way they have always been, become the new boss of the company, etc); relations to the other characters; and finally a list of suggested actions (mimic others, ask how they are feeling, give praise, help and comfort, give a hug, etc).Typical traits from each function were exaggerated.
The scenarios were set in civilian settings, and were themselves designed to not take too much focus; the main focus was on practising the behaviours connected to the function each character represented. During the workshop, I gave a short presentation of each character. The cadets could then choose which character they wanted to play, and were encouraged to pick characters they thought would challenge them. They also made suggestions for what roles their teammates should practice based on their areas with potential for improvement. However, there were a limited number of characters for each larp, so everyone didn’t get the character they wanted the most every time.
The debriefs were an important part of the sessions, as a lot of learning happens when we reflect on past experiences (Lindholm, 2006). In this part, the cadets shared reflections from the scenarios and got feedback from the observers on points where they had succeeded in portraying their character. I also shared my own observations, and encouraged discussion around certain situations and topics. We tried to relate what happened in the larp to situations in real life where similar issues could arise, and how these could be handled.
In order to determine the effects of the larp sessions, I used a pre-test post- test comparison-group design. I compared the development of two classes. The class of 2019-2022 participated in the five larp sessions. The class of 2018-2021 was used as a non-equivalent control group. The two classes included 124 cadets in total, and 116 of the students consented to their data being used in the research (including all the cadets from the class of 2019-2022).
Before the larp sessions, a Systematizing Person- Group Relation (SPGR) test was performed. The SPGR method is an operationalization of the spin theory and can be applied as a tool to illustrate the dynamics in a group. The spin theory perceives group dynamics as a balance phenomenon. It states that there is no one group dynamic that is ideal; the context is what determines which dynamic is useful in any given situation. In order for a team to reach its full potential, four functions – nurture, control, opposition and dependence – must all be in harmony (Sjøvold, 2014). SPGR tests have been used for several years at the RNNA to map the group dynamics within the teams and as a starting point for discussions around the topic. The test itself consists of a form where the team members rate how often they have observed certain behaviours in each other since the last test. Based on these ratings, each team member receives a score. This score can be represented in a coordinate system with an x, y and z-axis. A high z-score is considered desirable, as it signifies influence within the team and an ability to balance the four different functions within the group – nurturing, dependence, control and opposition. Sjøvold describes a high z-score as an indicator of robustness and role flexibility within a group (Sjøvold, 2006). The z-value was used as a measurement for role flexibility in the research.
The cadets filled in a questionnaire after the larp sessions. This consisted of 23 questions, and was designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the training in addition to getting feedback on how to improve the sessions in the future. Some days after the last larp session, a second SPGR-test was performed.
Results and Discussion
This part presents the most central results from the research, and a short discussion on each hypothesis. If the reader wishes more details, please refer to the bachelor’s thesis this article is based on (Jensen, 2020).
“The cadets will become more role flexible after completing five larp sessions.”
To determine if there had been any significant development in the ability to show role flexibility in the class of 2019-2022 – the class which took part in the larp sessions – as a whole, a paired samples t-test was carried out. The mean score on the z-axis was higher on the second SPGR-test (M= 0,88, SD = 3,124) than the first SPGR-test(M=0,27, SD=3,497). The difference was statistically significant***, with a mean increase of 0,609 of the z-score, CI[0,263, 0,956], t(63)=3,514, p<0,001, d=0,44. This means that a statistically significant development in the ability to show role flexibility had taken place in the class of 2019-2022 as a whole.
To examine if this development was statistically greater than in the class of the previous year, 2018-2021, an independent samples t-test was performed. This test did not yield any significant difference in the development of the z-score in the class of 2019-2022 (Mean score=0,61) compared to that of 2018-2021 (Mean score=0,73), showing a mean difference of 0,12. This could indicate that the larp sessions had little or no influence on the class as a whole, and that hypothesis number 1 should be rejected.
Nevertheless, this cannot be concluded with certainty. There are several examples of previous classes at the RNNA where development has differed greatly between classes, in spite of seemingly similar frameworks (Nissestad, 2007). Furthermore, 40,6 percent of the cadets reported that their spectrum of behaviours had been broadened as a result of their participation in the larp sessions. 65,6 percent of the cadets reported that their ability to observe other cadets had improved as a result of their participation in the larp sessions. These numbers indicate that the development the cadets experienced not exclusively could be attributed to other factors on board.
Based on this, it was concluded that hypothesis number 1 should be partially accepted.
“The cadets who are positively inclined towards the larp sessions and choose to play characters that challenge them will have the greatest development in their spectrum of behaviours”
Those who are motivated in a learning situation are prone to learn more, and so I hypothesised that the cadets that felt positively inclined towards the larp sessions would learn more than those who felt negatively inclined (Volet & Järvelä, 2001). Furthermore, a prerequisite for broadening the behavioural spectrum is stepping outside one’s comfort zone (Sjøvold, 2007). Due to this, I also included that the cadets who felt challenged by the characters they played would develop the most.
The second hypothesis was examined using both results from the questionnaire and the SPGR-tests. I worked with four groups of cadets, those who were:
- Negatively inclined towards the sessions and played roles that were not challenging (N=16)
- Negatively inclined towards the sessions and played roles that were challenging (N=6)
- Positively inclined towards the sessions and played roles that were not challenging (N=10)
- Positively inclined towards the sessions and played roles that were challenging (N=28)
A Kruskal-Wallis H test was conducted to determine if there were differences in self-reported broadening of the behavioural spectrum between four groups of cadets (Figure 3, 1=completely disagree, 5=completely agree). This data was acquired from the questionnaire. The test revealed a statistically significantly difference between group a) the cadets who were negatively inclined towards the sessions and played roles that were not challenging (Median = 2,50), and group d) the participants who were positively inclined towards the sessions and played roles that they found challenging (Median=4,00), p<0,0005.
A mixed two-way ANOVA examining the development of the ability to show role flexibility among various groups using the z-score as the measurement showed similar results. This data originated from the SPGR-tests. The results are illustrated in the figure below.
Figure 7 shows us that the groups who felt most challenged by the characters they played also had the lowest z-scores to begin with. This might indicate that the larp sessions in their current form are most beneficial to those with the least developed ability to show role flexibility to begin with. A general linear model procedure for the simple main effects of time showed that group d) the positively inclined and challenged cadets, saw a statistically significant*** effect of time on the z-score, F(1, 27)=18,481, p<0,0005, partial η2=0,406. This means that group d) was the only group which had a statistically significant development from the first measurement to the second.
This data shows us that a statistically significantly greater development happened in the cadets who were positively inclined towards the larp sessions and who played characters that challenged them compared to the negatively inclined cadets who played characters they found unchallenging.
This leads us to the conclusion that hypothesis number 2 should be accepted.
“The cadets who are positively inclined towards the larp sessions will have the greatest development in their ability to observe situations and select an appropriate behaviour.”
Like in hypothesis number 2, it was predicted that the participants who felt motivated would learn more during the sessions. A Mann-Whitney U test showed statistically significantly** higher self-reported observation development scores in the positively inclined cadets (Mdn= 4,00) compared to the negatively inclined cadets (Mdn=3,50). The numbers are from figure 4, “My ability to observe the other cadets aboard has improved as a consequence of my participation in the larp sessions” (1= completely disagree, 5 = completely agree).
These results are based on the cadets’ self-reported development, and a weakness is that they could be influenced by personal biases. However, the results seem plausible based on learning theory and logical deduction.
Based on this, it was concluded that hypothesis number 3 should be accepted.
Benefits other than those concerning role flexibility
As stated in the limitations, the scope of the article does not leave much room to examine the other possible benefits of the larp sessions other than those concerning role flexibility. It should however be mentioned that 78,1 percent of the cadets probably or definitely would recommend the larp sessions to another cadet if asked. As this number is much higher than those who reported to have had benefits concerning broadening of the behavioural spectrum and the ability to observe, it suggests that other benefits were experienced. Indeed, gaining a better understanding of the spin theory, acquiring new perspectives and achieving a greater understanding of group dynamics were reported in the questionnaire by several cadets when asked what they learned from the sessions.
The following was concluded in regard to the hypotheses:
- The cadets will become more role flexible after completing five larp sessions
=> Partially accepted
- The cadets who are positively inclined towards the larp sessions will have the greatest development in their ability to observe situations and select an appropriate behaviour
- The cadets who are positively inclined towards the larp sessions and choose to play characters that challenge them will have the greatest development in their spectrum of behaviours
Based on this and the fact that almost four out of five cadets would recommend the larp sessions to another cadet if asked, the answer to the research question is:
Yes, the use of larp can be beneficial in the leadership training at the RNNA.
Considering the conclusion, my recommendation was to keep the larp sessions in the training of future cadets at the RNNA. Based on the feedback from the cadets, I also recommended some changes to the sessions. These changes included creating five unique scenarios instead of replaying two of them. By replaying the scenarios with different players, I had hoped that recognizability and repetition would promote learning. However, as the cadets pointed out, this effect was achieved by having recognizable characters. Furthermore, the cadets desired more characters to choose from in each scenario, so everyone could practise the traits they wanted. I think this would be very interesting to try, though I have some reservations as this would make for some very unpredictable dynamics within the larps. The only way to know if it could work is to try! Finally, I recommended exploring the possibility of including more subject matter learning into the scenarios. I think this could help motivate a greater part of the cadet mass to participate, though I would only advise adding more to the scenarios if more time is allowed. My main concern with including more subject matter or making the scenarios more like a military mission is the challenge regarding staying in character with so little time to prepare. Keep in mind that each session only lasted 70 minutes in total. I worry that scenarios that are too personally engaging might lead the players to “play themselves” instead of the characters provided, thus missing out on the role flexibility training. However, I think more complex and relevant scenarios are a great idea with enough time to get properly into character!
Musings from the Author
I would like to round off this text with some personal thoughts on the subject of using larps for training personal development. I think most larpers can agree that larps can be great arenas to go outside the limits we set for ourselves in our everyday lives and to try new or challenging things. Having the alibi of a character, and thus this character to blame for our mistakes while within the setting of a larp, can feel very liberating. It can allow us to try things we would most likely never do as “ourselves”. Having experienced personal growth from many larps that were never designed for this purpose specifically made me wonder what would be possible to achieve when actually designing for personal growth!
The edu-larp scene has of course already explored this to some degree. It has previously been argued that a well-designed edu-larp can train several skills at once: both subject matter skills and social skills. I very much agree! However, it is my impression that subject matter often gets priority in edu-larps, as these results are considerably easier to measure. To promote the incorporation of personal growth into larps, I would like to share these two reflections that I made after writing my bachelor’s thesis.
Developing social skills can be very daunting, and so we as designers need to help the players get the hang of it! To help the players in my larp sessions, I made lists in the character sheets containing concrete actions that their characters could take during the larps. In my experience, experienced larpers don’t use their character sheets for support as much as new larpers. This was clearly illustrated during the playtests. One of the most distinct differences between these two groups was that the experienced larpers almost didn’t look at their character sheets with suggested actions after the workshop was finished. The unexperienced larpers, one the other hand, had the character sheets in front of them the whole time. An effect of this was that the unexperienced larpers used many more of the suggested actions. In doing so, they got a lot more actual practice than the experienced larpers. When designing for personal development, I think we should encourage tools that can help the players get the hang of it, not only in the workshop, but also during the larp itself! These could for example be lists to be carry around, meta-techniques, breaks during play to discuss, reminders on the bathroom door, and more. This could be included in any larp you design!
You can design your own character for personal growth in almost any kind of larp you play! This one might seem obvious, but doing this project made me realise how true this statement really is. One way to do this, is to first choose a character to play with traits you want to explore. Next, do a little research online; find inspiration in characters from books or movies who are talented at the traits you choose; think of people you know, etc and write down a list of concrete (this is important) actions they do. Finally, bring the list to the larp, read the actions regularly, and then do the actions as your character. Asking coplayers for feedback after or during the larp will help you see your progress more clearly. Even if the larp designers did not design for personal development, you can add it if you want to!
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Cover photo: Image
This article is published in the companion book Book of Magic: Vibrant Fragments of Larp Practices and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:
Kolseth Jensen, Maria. “Larp in Leadership Development.” In Book of Magic: Vibrant Fragments of Larp Practices, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021.