In my days as an English teacher I never really felt comfortable with role plays. In the days when computers were rather large machines run by nice young men in clean white coats, role plays were the only way of giving students some kind of vaguely meaningful language practice. The trouble was that it was so contrived and artificial that it often fell seriously flat. One slightly embarrassed student pretended to be a tourist asking the way to the nearest post office and the other tried gallantly to be the friendly native with impeccable local knowledge. They both had to include all the "useful" phrases I had tried to teach them and the whole performance was often rather awkward for all concerned.I'm not sure anyone really learnt much from it all.
I enjoyed therefore reading Clive Shepherd's post Why does everyone hate role plays? I found myself nodding in agreement all the way and wonder why I persisted in inflicting this practice on my students for so long. It just seemed to be the right thing to do at the time. Today technology enables us to offer convincing and realistic ways of practicing language and those uncomfortable role plays in front of the whole class are but a memory. Computer simulations can let you practice the same role play as often as you want without your coleagues watching and let you review your performance in privacy..
Virtual worlds like Second Life let you role play "for real" to the extent that you can safely practice situations behind the mask of you avatar. A colleague who teaches regularly in Second Life says that students feel more comfortable speaking English as an avatar than in web meetings where you actually see your colleagues. I've read several articles about convincing and immersive role plays taking place in Second Life in fields like psychology, history and medicine. Indeed the ability to engage in more anonymous but still realistic role play is one of the strongest arguments for using virtual worlds in education. Sometimes the virtual world is more realistic.