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Beyond Simulation - Into Dissimulation

I recently conducted my games workshop in Olds, Alberta. Donna Baker, one of the participants from Calgary, shared this dramatic news item with us:

During the morning assembly, the principal of a Calgary high school announced the sad news that six students were killed in a drunk-driving accident. Everyone was shocked. The classmates of the missing students were grief-stricken. Friends of these students were emotionally upset.

Later in the day, the principal announced over the school's public address system that his report was not true. He made it up to force the students to think seriously about the consequences of drunk driving. The missing students turned up to attend their classes, dressed in black to remind their classmates that with drunk driving, death is just around the corner.

The principal's action caused a major uproar among the students and their parents. Several people praised the principal for his dramatic lesson. An equal number of people blamed him for lying and playing with the students' emotions. There was a major uproar about whether or not the principal's actions were justifiable.

In the meantime, the students were jolted out of their apathy and learned an unforgettable lesson.

The principal's approach goes beyond simulation into dissimulation. The key element of dissimulation is that the participants are not aware that they are participating in a simulation or a roleplay. This type of activity has a powerful impact and effectively transfers to the real world. It fits Steve Yelon's definition of artful instruction.

But dissimulation raises some nagging questions. Are the students ever likely to trust the principal? Did the principal model a honest and authentic mode of communication?

For more details about these questions, read page 283 of Roger Schwartz's The Skilled Facilitator: Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups. Basically, Schwartz thinks that it is inappropriate to use an exercise when it withholds information or relies on deception. For an in-depth discussion of the ethical implications of this approach (especially in sociological research), read Sisela Bok's Lying. For a gut-wrenching fictional treatment of this issue, read Orson Scott Card's Hugo- and Nebula-award winning SF novel, Ender's Game.

Dissimulation is widely practiced in corporate training and measurement activities. For example, mystery shoppers measure the levels of customer service provided by employees. These employees don't know who is a genuine customer and who is a specially-trained evaluator, pretending to be a customer.

Police sting operations and infiltration take this strategy to elaborate heights. Many of these activities are questionable and some (labeled entrapment) are illegal.

My advice to facilitators is to examine aspects of dissimulation in their training exercises, carefully consider their pro's and con's, seek the advice of objective others about their justification, and then make an informed decision.

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