e — Motional Learning in Primary Schools: FearNot! An Anti‑bullying Intervention Based on Virtual Role‑play with Intelligent Synthetic Characters


  • Sibylle Enz
  • Carsten Zoll
  • Natalie Vannini
  • Wolfgang Schneider
  • Lynne Hall
  • Ana Paiva


virtual environment, social and emotional learning, synthetic characters, bullying


Addressing the problems of bullying in schools, this paper presents a novel and highly innovative pedagogical approach, building on the immersive power of virtual role‑play. Educational role‑play is widely accepted as a powerful instrument to change attitudes and behaviour, but faces some difficulties and disadvantages when applied to sensitive social issues in the classroom. This paper shows how the FearNot! software application, developed within the scope of the EU‑funded projects VICTEC (Virtual ICT with Empathic Characters) and eCIRCUS (Education through Characters with emotional‑Intelligence and Role‑playing Capabilities that Understand Social interaction) uses virtual role‑play and autonomous agents to provide children aged eight to eleven years of age with the opportunity to visit a virtual school environment populated by 3D animated synthetic characters that engage in bullying episodes. The characters' actions and the storyline are created as improvised dramas by use of emergent narrative, resulting in unscripted and highly believable interaction experiences for the learner. While the students are spectators to the bullying episodes that unfold among the FearNot! characters, the victimised character starts a conversation with the student in between the episodes, describing their experiences with bullying and how they feel as a result to it, and asking the student for advice. The aim of this approach and particularly of this interaction sequence in between the virtual bullying episodes is to sensitise primary school students to the potential problems that victims of persistent aggressive behaviour are facing: By triggering an empathic relationship between learners and characters, learners understand and vicariously feel into the plight of the victimised character. Empirical evidence from bullying research implies that bullies are regularly reinforced by bystanders that witness the bullying and turn their attention to it, but do not actively intervene to end it (Craig & Pepler 1996; Lean 1998; Salmivalli 1999; Hawkins et al. 2001). Hence, this intervention strategy targets these bystanders to stand up to the bully and help the victim, due to their heightened awareness and sensitivity to the grave consequences victims face. Preliminary evaluation results indicate that the children were willing to immerse themselves in the virtual drama and that they empathically engage with the characters, attributing a range of emotions to the characters depending on the events that happen within the respective scenario. An ongoing long‑term intervention in school in the UK and Germany covers several interactions with the software over a ten week period of time.



1 Apr 2008