Role-playing in Second Life

Dr Katharine Jewitt

Two students carrying out a roleplay under the guise of their digital avatar within a virtual world. Other students in avatars are observing. In the background, there are a group of avatars standing around a large screen which displays module material for discussion.

What is the idea?

Virtual worlds provide collaborative spaces for learners to meet without real life limitations. They lend themselves well as a place to role-play, because learners can engage anonymously through the adoption of an avatar (their virtual presence) and learn from their peers through observation and discussion (Ghanbarzadeh & Ghapanchi, 2016). Learners are best taught through actively doing, role-playing and reflecting (Jamaludin et al., 2009). Entering the virtual world, learners can adopt a role to practice their skills via role-play activities, before transferring their skills to real life. Virtual worlds have limitless possibilities in education (Jewitt, 2018).

Why this idea?

Use Second Life ® as a way for students to develop and practice skills. By taking on a role in a fictional situation, it’s a useful way to provide an experience to students and develop a more tacit understanding of course content (Bannister, 2018). Anonymity enables learners to build their confidence, make numerous attempts, develop and practise skills, take risks, fail and communicate more than they may in a real-life situation (Jewitt, 2017). There’s no fear of asking a stupid question or saying the wrong thing, instead students can grow and develop in a safe environment (Jewitt, 2018).

There are many virtual worlds in existence for all ages, from Walt Disney’s Club Penguin, Gaia Online for teens to popular virtual world video games like The Sims to Google Earth and Bing Maps. Second Life ® is a free multi-user, three-dimensional, graphical virtual world. It is used by around a million members around the world for many aspects of real-life including business, dating, art, entertainment and used as a platform for education by many institutions.

How could others implement this idea?

Get access to Second Life

Sign up for the free membership, create an appearance and a name for your avatar and download the Second Life ® application at

The first place you will arrive is Orientation Island where there is an option to work through a tutorial to teach you the basics.

It’s worth spending a little time to get to know the basics first and increase your confidence before facilitating activities with your students. There are lots of forums and blogs available on the Second Life website, which provides all the support and answers to questions that you will need. For a quick start guide, see this link:

Use the search functionality to find out anything you want to know. The best way is just to dive in and have a go.

Hold an orientation session

First you will need to hold an introductory session with your students, so they can learn how to control their avatar. During this session, ensure everyone knows how to sit, stand, touch, zoom and change their view. Use the orientation session to move around the virtual world by walking, flying and travelling instantaneously to different locations, known as teleporting to a new location. Ensure students know how to use the main map to find their way around Second Life ® and the mini map to explore their current location. Spending a little time at the start to explore and experiment will help everyone to build their confidence to work in Second Life ®.

Create scenarios

Provide your students with a set of structured, collaborative role-plays (Jewitt, 2018) to explore challenging and common situations they may face in real-life. Outline the purpose and learning objectives to the role play activity. Role-play can help address learning across cognitive, psychomotor and affective domains (Rao & Stupans, 2012). Assign roles and ask your students to visit a place to practice the skill. Medical students could meet in a hospital and take on the role of patient and doctor to build their confidence in conversations with patients. French language students could meet in the Louvre Museum and practice communication skills taking on the role of museum guide and tourist. You may provide Teacher Trainers with classroom scenarios they may face or business school students practice negotiation and interpersonal skills or Law students could perform a mock trial.

Second Life ® is an exciting and vast learning space. Students can go off and work in groups, supporting active learning theory in practice, fostering creativity, group discussion and development of interpersonal skills (Poort et al., 2020). Consider how much guidance you want to give to students.

Promote self-reflection

Schedule time for students to come together at the end to socialise and chat about challenges and new discoveries. Sims and Kamik’s (2021) research uses virtual reality to support the scaffolding of reflective tasks through mind mapping by supporting use of the 3D space which isn’t otherwise available through 2D mind mapping applications. Socialisation has been shown to develop trust, build teamwork skills and provide bridges between social, cultural and learning environments (Salmon, 2013).

Transferability to different contexts

Activity ideas

Explore islands as an icebreaker or carry out a scavenger hunt. Take your students anywhere in the world, art students could visit the Sistine Chapel or Science Students visit the Space Flight Museum. Research by Tudor et al. (2018) showed how using virtual reality to take students on a geography field trip led to a greater student awareness of large-scale development on the environment.

Use Second Life ® to hold office hours. You could also take advantage of the anonymity to gather course feedback, asking students to swap avatars. Working anonymously can help less experienced students to catch up with their peers and enable students to ask questions without the fear of thinking it is a stupid question (Johnson, 2010).

Hold social events for team building or assign tasks for students to practice interpersonal skills and develop their soft skills. Research by Dyer et al. (2018) used virtual reality to teach empathy in medical education. Host focus groups for students to discuss the course and share problems. Set designated times for virtual discussions.

Take advantage of activities already created by other institutions and assign students to visit islands, for example there are many simulations for medical students, such as exploring inside the human body (Pottle, 2019).

Handy tips

Make sure you have a clear place for students to travel to instantaneously, known as teleporting. In the search box, type in education and teleport to one of the islands.

During the initial orientation session, it is key that students know the basics, such as, how to sit down and how to read the map.

Facilitate activities and allow your students to engage and create their own learning culture. Enable students to find their own way of working in Second Life ®, for example, adopting specific roles and ways to communicate. Over time, students develop strategies to overcome some of the technological weaknesses, such as delay in communication or lack of body language. Encourage students to play and experiment in the virtual environment.

Many institutions have created their own virtual campus. You can go beyond the basics by building and scripting and designing whole courses (Irhamni et al., 2014); for example, Code College (2020) deliver classes inside Second Life. Alternatively, keep it simple and make use of the free islands available. I use the virtual world for simulations and role-playing and to enable students to reflect on what they have learned in virtual reality to transfer skills learned to the real world (Jewitt, 2017).


Bannister, N. P. (2018). Active Learning in Physics, Astronomy and Engineering with NASA’s General Mission Analysis Tool. Journal of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1(1).

Code College. (2020). Second Life – Beyond Minecraft. Code College.

Dyer, E., Swartzlander, B., & Gugilucci, M.vR. (2018) Using virtual reality in medical education to teach empathy. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 106(4), 498-500.

Ghanbarzadeh, R., & Ghapanchi, A. H. (2016) Investigating various application areas of three-dimensional virtual worlds for higher education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49(3), 370-384.

Irhamni, F., Siradjuddin, I. A., Kurniawati, A., & Wahyuningrum, R.T. (2014) Building Virtual Class in Second Life In 2014 Regional Conference on Computer and Information Engineering, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Jamaludin, A., Chee, Y. S., & Ho, C. M. L. (2009) Fostering argumentative knowledge construction through enactive role play in Second Life, Computers & Education, 53(2), 317-329.

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Jewitt, K. (2018) Using virtual reality to enhance informal learning in small and medium enterprises. PhD Thesis, University of Glasgow, UK.

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Poort, I., Jansen, E., & Hofman, A. (2020) Does the group matter? Effects of trust, cultural diversity, and group formation on engagement in group work in higher education, Higher Education Research & Development, 41(2), 511-526.

Pottle, J. (2019). Virtual reality and the transformation of medical education. Future Healthcare Journal6(3), 181–185.

Rao, D., & Stupans, I. (2012) Exploring the potential of role play in higher education: development of a typology and teacher guidelines, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 49(4), 427-436.

Salmon, G. (2013). E-tivities: The key to active online learning (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Sims, R., & Karnik, A. (2021). VERITAS: Mind-mapping in virtual reality. In 2021 7th International Conference of the Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN). IEEE.

Tudor, A. D., Minocha, S., Collins, M., & Tilling, S. (2018). Mobile virtual reality for environmental education. Journal of Virtual Studies, 9(2), 25–36.

Image Attribution

Screenshot of Second life by Katherine Jewitt is used under CC-BY 4.0 Licence

About the author

Dr Katharine Jewitt is a Learning Technologies Training and Support Manager, Lecturer and Researcher. Katharine’s research interests are in the fields of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL), online learning, technology enhanced learning (TEL), digital strategy and learning in three-dimensional and mobile environments. Her PhD research was in the use of virtual reality for work-based learning. She is a Fellow of the HEA and RSA.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Dr Katharine Jewitt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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