Role-play training makes Gen Z cringe – time to move with the times

Role-play is a well-established exercise in all forms of learning, from children developing their foreign language skills in school to adults being trained in the workplace.

Despite having a lot of potential for developing skills, the ‘cringe’ factor of role-play means it isn’t winning any popularity contests, especially when it comes to Gen Z. It’s time for organizations to modernize their approaches to active learning with flexible and interactive game-based training.

A thought experiment

Picture the scene. You’re sat in a circle of uncomfortable plastic chairs with your colleagues, some of whom you know and like, some you’ve only just met, and some you’d rather be frozen in carbonite than ever have to talk to more than absolutely necessary. You’re listening to a supervisor talking about customer conflict; how to recognize the signs and how to de-escalate potential issues.

You shift in your chair, and just as you begin to zone out, a phrase cuts through the hum like a slap in the face. ‘Role-play’.

Your head snaps around to stare at your supervisor as beads of sweat form on your forehead. Anything but role-play. Your eyes dart around the room, seeing similar looks of horror and nausea on the faces gaping back at you. Your supervisor grins. ‘Who wants to go first?’ they ask, with the air of someone offering up a brightly wrapped present rather than the opportunity to humiliate yourself in front of a room of people. ‘Come to the front so everyone else can see and give feedback.’ Thanks all the same, but it’s a no from me.

The problem with role-play

Many of us associate role-playing exercises with feelings of embarrassment and awkwardness. From my conversations with businesses, it seems this sentiment is most common amongst Gen Z workers who couldn’t imagine anything worse than potentially making fools of themselves at the front of a room full of their colleagues and peers.  Yet role-playing remains a popular tool in learning and development.

Here I’m going to explore why role-play is such a turn-off for the Gen Z workforce, and how we can harness AI to give the benefits of role-play without the ‘cringe’ factor.

Why is role-play used in L&D?

Role-playing is a well-established method used in learning and development. It provides the opportunity for learners to practice reacting to scenarios they’re not familiar with by actively participating in their learning.

On the whole, role-play is an effective teaching method1. It requires learners to apply their theoretical knowledge to solve problems ‘on the spot’, developing their decision-making skills and improving how well they retain information.

Why is Gen Z so against role-play?

Despite the effectiveness of role-play as a means of practicing new skills, for many people, it’s the cause of abject horror and embarrassment. While this feeling is not reserved only for Gen Z, it does seem to be more common in younger generations.

There are lots of reasons this could be the case. Maybe it’s the fact that this generation has been raised in the world of social media, where everyone can observe and be observed at all times. Gone are the days when you could be a cringe-worthy tween in the privacy of your own home – the digital age means that anyone can get the receipts for our most embarrassing selfies and Facebook statuses. Has this knowledge that they’re always being watched increased self-consciousness in Gen Z?

Does Gen Z need to ‘just get over it’?

Whatever the reason Gen Z feels such acute embarrassment around role-playing, it’s definitely not enough for organizations to tell them to suck it up and do it anyway. Firstly, heightened stress can cause difficulty concentrating and make it harder to process and retain information2. So putting learners into situations that make them stressed or anxious just isn’t going to have the desired outcome in terms of learning and development.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that Gen Z is, broadly speaking, a values-driven generation3. They want to work for organizations that align with their personal values, listen to them, and provide flexibility. If businesses want to attract and retain a younger, more switched-on workforce, they need to make sure that their practices align with what Gen Z is looking for. In many cases, that’s going to mean ditching role-playing exercises and finding a solution that all employees can get on board with.

A virtual solution

What Learning & Development Managers need is a training solution that offers all the benefits of role-playing exercises – such as active participation and on-the-spot decision-making – without the pressure and stress. This is where simulation-based, gamified training can make a real difference. We can create virtual scenarios and interactive avatars that learners can have live conversations with, to practice their interpersonal skills in a realistic but relaxed environment.

Artificial intelligence, real impact

Attensi’s AI-driven avatars can give learners an interactive experience that’s completely free and unscripted. Their dialogue and responses feel real, so that staff become fully immersed in their training. This level of engagement and active participation is a key part of our model of behavioral change.

A safe place to fail

Gamified training offers true-to-life, risk-free scenarios where users can build new skills without the embarrassment of failure that you might expect in face-to-face role-playing. This psychological safety4 empowers learners to grow their confidence before trying out their skills in the real world. You can see how offering a safe place to fail works in practice by reading about our work with Hiscox.

Instant feedback

Harnessing AI in simulated role-playing also allows for instant, personalized feedback so not only can learners fail safely, they can learn from their mistakes and try again. Game-based training offers the opportunity for an amount of repetition that isn’t feasible with traditional, face-to-face roleplaying, giving learners the space to practice their skills to mastery.

Limitless possibilities

Not only does game-based training allow learners to try exercises again and again, it also gives organizations the flexibility to scale their solutions as far as they need to. Use Attensi CREATOR to build as many virtual scenarios as you need to train staff at all levels, from onboarding new recruits to developing upper management.

Every generation has its own trends, quirks and preferences. Instead of ignoring these and hoping they go away, organizations need to adapt to their workforce’s needs. Advances in game-based training mean that Learning & Development Teams can provide all of the best parts of role-play learning with added benefits, helping everyone to feel comfortable and learn more effectively.

I’m looking forward to seeing more businesses listening to their employees and offering learning and development that’s engaging, motivating, and effective.

Are you ready to level up your training?

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    1. ROLE PLAY,

    2. Córdova et al. (2023). Influence of stress and emotions in the learning process: The example of COVID-19 on university students: A narrative review. Healthcare, 11(12), 1787, doi:
    3. 6 Ways To Engage Gen Z And Millennials On Your Team,

    4. Psychological Safety: How Employees Can Learn (and Fail) Without Risk to Personal Brand,