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"Simming" a Mile in Others' Shoes

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Scott Magelssen has had more lives than an accident-prone cat.  He’s been a waiter in a logging camp. An anthrax victim. A Mexican migrant trying to cross into the U.S.  A slave seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad.  An observer during an attack on an Iraqi village.


An Underground Railroad simulation is presented by the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Indiana. Media credit: Shawn Spence, courtesy of Conner Prairie Interactive History Park

It’s all in a day’s work for Magelssen, associate professor of drama, who has participated in a variety of interactive simulations for his upcoming book,Simming. The book explores the impact of simulations and the potential of such immersive environments to promote social change.

Magelssen’s interest in simulations dates back to his teenage years in Wisconsin, where he worked as a lumberjack waiter at Historyland, a tourist venue that celebrated the glory days of Wisconsin logging.  Visitors could experience a turn-of-the-century logging camp, talk to former loggers, watch lumberjack competitions, and walk through an Indian encampment featuring local Chippewa. 

Years later, as a graduate student in theater, Magelssen wrote a paper about Historyland, interviewing local leaders about its concept and eventual demise due to bankruptcy. For his PhD dissertation he focused on other tourist venues, like Colonial Williamsburg, that use simulation to bring the past to life while providing G-rated, family-friendly entertainment. 


Role-players gather in the marketplace of a simulated Iraqi village located north of California's Death Valley. Media credit: Etric Smith, courtesy of the National Training Center and Fort Irwin

Aware of Magelssen’s fascination with simulations, his friends and colleagues began emailing him every time they learned of one. “I wound up having so many examples that I saw the potential for a book about the many ways that educators and industry and businesses and tourist attractions use simulations,” he says. “They employ similar strategies for very different purposes.”

To research the book, Magelssen participated in or observed more than a dozen simulations. There were simulations of aging for empathy training of health care workers; a large-scale simulation of an anthrax attack to prepare for disaster response; the simulated aftermath of a drunk-driving crash to discourage teenage drinking; and perhaps the most ambitious simulation of all, the recreation of an entire Iraqi province, staged just north of California’s Death Valley to prepare soldiers headed for the Middle East.

“There have been Army simulations for a long time, but they have mostly been tank-on-tank field battles, not people playing characters,” explains Magelssen. “Then General Petraeus changed counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq, with the idea of building relationships with Iraqi citizens and partnering with them. The soldiers weren’t trained in those kinds of operations.”  The simulations, which are ongoing, involve hundreds of Iraqi Americans posing as Iraqi civic leaders, police, schoolteachers, and other citizens.  The soldiers navigate complex scenarios, sometimes making mistakes that cause tensions to escalate or lead to full-blown counterattacks.

“The actors playing irate Iraqi or Afghan citizens can feel sorry for the soldiers, who are nervous and confused,” says Magelssen, “but the actors realize that if soldiers can get experience here that will save their lives and the lives of citizens over there, then it’s worth it.”  All simulations are videotaped and discussed with the participants in post-event debriefings.

On the one hand, it’s arrogant to assume that we can step into the shoes of someone who has suffered in the past.  On the other, what kind of people are we if we only stick to bodily experiencing our own localized history, our own ethnic and cultural identity?

Simulations staged for tourists are less elaborate but can feel equally authentic.  At a living history museum in Indiana, visitors can participate in a simulation of slaves escaping to freedom through the Underground Railroad.  Although they sign a liability waiver at the outset, the experience nevertheless rattles some.  One participant was so upset to watch his “slave” girlfriend separated from the group by an actor playing a bounty hunter that he physically attacked the actor. “The museum eventually cut scenes that were deemed too intense,” says Magelssen. “I went on that simulation during its first season, experiencing it as it was originally imagined, and then again after it had been changed.  It definitely lost some of its power.  If you are going to embody an experience of discomfort and then you cut out the uncomfortable parts, you‘re sort of left with a wishy-washy walking tour. That’s unfortunate.”


For a simulation aimed at helping health care workers empathize with elderly patients, Scott Magelssen wears gear that simulates aging, including goggles that blur vision and a neck brace that restricts movement. Media credit: Angelina T. Gennis

The most intense simulation Magelssen has personally experienced was in Mexico, three hours north of Mexico City.  Actors lead participants through a grueling simulation of an illegal border crossing from Mexico into the U.S. The event takes place at night, with participants running from (simulated) U.S. Border Patrol police, down steep hills into the muck of the riverbeds, losing shoes and dodging prickly cacti.  It is designed for Mexican tourists, both to generate revenue for the town that hosts it and to discourage Mexicans from attempting to cross the border.

Such a physically taxing simulation is not for everyone, but Magelssen found it particularly effective. “It’s a six-hour experience in the dark, and there is a real risk of injury,” he recalls. “If we are using our bodies to bear witness to the lives of illegal migrants who are braving the dangers of the border, then having an experience where we are really afraid and exhausted might in some ways be a better experience than the safer Underground Railroad simulation, both of which are considered tourist experiences.“

Magelssen is quick to acknowledge that simulations, particularly those that place privileged visitors in the role of society’s downtrodden, tread sensitive territory.  “What does it mean when the majority of people doing the Underground Railroad simulation are white, or when I play a Mexican migrant?  On the one hand, it’s arrogant to assume that we can step into the shoes of someone who has suffered in the past.  On the other, what kind of people are we if we only stick to bodily experiencing our own localized history, our own ethnic and cultural identity? Are we better citizens of the world if we are invited to step into each others’ experiences?”

Magelssen concludes that there’s a lot to gain from walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.  “It’s most interesting to see what kinds of issues come up when you have that bodily difference that complicates and adds nuance to one’s experience of history,” he says. “One goal of my book is to talk about the difficult issues that arise. By taking those questions head on, we can have a deeper and richer experience.”

Simming is scheduled for publication by University of Michigan Press in June 2014.