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|E-circus for schools
Involving children, collecting stories
When the VICTEC/e-CIRCUS team started thinking about what would happen in the dramatic episodes in the FearNot! demonstrator, it was clear that really credible scenarios were needed. Reading the scholarly literature turned out to be of little help here as this focused on generic issues like how much bullying there was and whether it involved particular types of personality. Accounts by people who had been bullied were sought – but these often generalised too, describing typical bullying behaviour rather than specific incidents.
In the end two sources of information gave the team the scenarios they were looking for. One was theatre, and the insight of scriptwriters into particular incidents, and the other was children themselves.
Bullying in drama
Early in the project some members of the team visited a Theatre-in-Education (TiE) performance given at a secondary school in the north-west of England by actors of a theatre company called Cragrats, one of the leading UK companies organising TiE performances on this topic. Then three actors played the roles of bully, bully-victim and victim in a drama for an audience of two hundred 14 year-olds, and team members filmed the performance. The actors followed this with six workshops with smaller groups.
A second dramatic source was found in the Drama department of the University of Hertfordshire. Students were briefed about the project and as part of their course wrote and performed a set of small dramas about bullying. Copies of these scripts were also made available to the project, and were later turned into radio plays by
It seemed particularly important to collect scenarios directly from the age group being targeted, and a teachers’ workshop organised by the project at the end of its first six months was used to make contact with primary schools, where children were asked to write short stories about bullying. Later in the year, the UK educational software company Immersive Education made their story-boarding software Kar2ouche available to the project. Children found this a very natural and intuitive way to produce story-boards for bullying scenarios, and these were very useful for the development of FearNot!
No easy answers
An important issue in education against bullying is that there is no definite strategy that will always work. Even the action urged in the generally-agreed educational message “tell someone you trust, don’t suffer in silence” is not guaranteed to succeed. “Hit the bully back” is an example of controversial advice: often offered by parents, it is opposed by teachers. In addition research shows that it only succeeds in a minority of direct bullying cases, but because of its dramatic effect, success may well be over-reported.
The scenarios collected by the team varied in whether they had happy endings or not: the CragRats TiE production had a very sad ending at one extreme, and scenarios generated by children sometimes had unrealistically happy endings – for example a headteacher seeing a pupil bullying out on the street and expelling them from school on the spot. However the aim of the project was not to offer advice as such, but to allow children to explore options in a safe and engaging environment, so that the team felt that a range of endings should be offered: some happy and some not.
An aim of the project was to create empathic characters, for which child users would really care. This required the team to understand what empathy is thought to be and to connect with psychological research into this topic.
Empathy was a concept originally developed as part of a theory of aesthetics to describe the emotional impact of works of art on the human perceiver. The word was originally a translation of the German term Einfühlung used by the researcher into aesthetics Lipps, in 1903. He described this as the act of projecting oneself into something one perceives, ‘feeling into’ a work of art. A modern definition suggests that empathy is:
“any process where the attended perception of the object’s state generates a state in the subject that is more applicable to the object’s state or situation than to the subject’s own prior state or situation” (Preston and de Waal, 2002).
In fact three distinct types of empathy are discussed by psychologists: cognitive empathy, affective empathy and ideomotoric empathy. In the first of these, perception of the ‘object’ (another person in this case) produces an understanding of their affective state: for example you see someone just miss a train and understand that they feel anger and frustration.
Types of empathy
In the case of affective empathy, a change in the affective state of the subject is produced, with congruent empathy where the resulting state is similar to that of the object, and contrast empathy where it is markedly different. So you see someone miss a train and yourself feel anger and frustration in the congruent case, or some other emotion in the contrast case. Affective empathy in its congruent variant was earlier known as sympathy, but this term has been more recently reserved for the emotional state called compassion.
Ideomotoric empathy is a more recent concept and relates to an empathic motor response. For example if ‘seeing someone dancing makes me want to dance too’, or watching a rockband concert makes you play ‘air guitar’ along with the lead.
Apart from different types of empathy, psychologists also distinguish different mediating mechanisms. Empathy may be mediated by the situation in which the object (person) is perceived to be, so that for example seeing someone have their handbag stolen may produce the cognitive empathy effect of understanding that they are sad and angry. It may more obviously be mediated by expression, where any element of the full range of expressive behaviour produces the empathic effect. Thus sadness is indicated by crying.
Both of these mediating mechanisms have been used in the FearNot! demonstrator. However, as in the real-world drama on which FearNot! is modelled, there is a sense in which situation is dominant and the expressive behaviour of the characters is subordinate to it. Thus work focused less on the accuracy of the expressive behaviour of the characters – as we will see this is not in tended to be naturalistic – and more on using expressive behaviour to emphasise the dramatic situations being presented.
Telling a story
As we have seen, drama and Theatre-in-Education performances were one inspiration for VICTEC/e-CIRCUS. In particular, Forum Theatre, created by the Brazilian dramatist Augusto Boal was seen as very relevant. Boal was interested in using theatre to stimulate political activism, and wanted to produce a greater degree of engagement in an audience than they got from just sitting and watching. He would divide the audience into groups and each would be responsible for a particular actor in the drama, who would meet with them ‘in role’.
They would then discuss what the character should do in the drama, and after the discussion the drama would resume with the characters acting under the influence of the advice they had been given. In this way the drama would respond to the involvement of the spect-actors as Boal called them, rather than being completely pre-scripted in the traditional way.
The concept of emergent narrative is that of stories created by interaction between characters, as when actors improvise, rather than depending on a pre-authored plot. It requires intelligent synthetic characters with a mechanism that allows them to select from a repertoire of actions the one that is required by their situation and emotional state. It is important to a much wider domain than the VICTEC and e-CIRCUS projects since they offer one possible solution to the general problem of allowing a user to participate in an electronic story in which their freedom of interaction clashes badly with the idea of a pre-authored plot.
However it is seen as a vital part of this project since the educational objectives depend on the child engaging with a character and feeling responsible for helping them. This means that the advice given by a child to a character must have some effect on what then happens, as it would in Forum Theatre, and this can only happen if the interaction between the characters is allowed to drive the story. It also means that the same characters and initial situation may result in different stories for different children if their advice is not identical, adding to the believability of the characters and their situation.
The role of story management
The team decided that the FearNot! demonstrator would have an episodic structure, with the child interacting with the victimised character in between episodes, as in Forum Theatre. The child is asked to act as an ‘invisible friend’ for the character – invisible because they do not themselves play a role in the story. The role of a story manager in this system is then to set up the initial conditions for each episode: which characters are involved, where the episode takes place, and what props are available. The synthetic characters then start their own processes of selecting which action to carry out and the story unfolds dynamically from the initial conditions.
There are many technical problems involved in making this work, and the unscripted version of FearNot! was produced at the end of the project. Since there were many things to evaluate before this point, an earlier scripted version was also produced, and it was this that was used in the large-scale evaluation discussed later on.
Created on 09/15/2006 02:06 PM by ecirweb
Updated on 09/15/2006 02:24 PM by ecirweb