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RPGs as therapy - and for learning

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

Recently, there's been an increased interest in how games can help people through emotional struggle. A recent article by Liz Krieger in National Geographic quotes Sam Horne of Alternative Games:

“When you’re playing a video game—even one in which you’re playing a role—you’re limited by the parameters of the game” ... on the other hand, games like D&D involve what Horne calls theater of the mind. “They are conjured in the imagination of the players, and ensue in a collaborative, cooperative atmosphere,” he says. “That has no limits.”

The article breaks down a laundry list of positive benefits: the chance for kids to safely explore identity, combatting depression through a social and creative activity, even building empathy. And, of course, the confidence boost possible when kids face challenge and feel the pride of overcoming it.

Evidence that the idea of using role-playing games to help people process and work through complex emotional struggles is everywhere in the industry - there's even a current project, Critical Core, designed to address these issues. I've spoken with a student who's been actively developing an approach for non-neuro-typical kids with help from a psychologist and also with a children's psychiatrist in the interest of learning more about the why behind the how of role-playing games.

What confuses me is why role-playing games haven't seen as much attention in education. After all, as any educator will tell you, effective learning requires much of the same conditions as effective therapy.



Educators spend a lot of time focused on the question of how to build classroom culture. Innumerable activities, professional developments, and university courses for teachers explore how to engineer the somewhat alchemical process of positive learning environment. The trick? Culture isn't something a teacher can project onto or force a group of students into. Rather, it's a collaborative process - the teacher, as a mentor and a coach, helps build opportunities for kids to develop a sense of shared values, goals, and ultimately, trust.

This is precisely what makes role-playing games so compelling and powerful as tools for educators. In a role-playing game, a group shares certain goals from the jump - they're trying to figure out why the world turtle is waking, or what the mysterious Skullbunny Incorporated is up to with their horribly adorable Cuddle Buddies. They face challenges and have opportunities to help one another - to prove they can rely on each other and that they're better together.

And those emotional experiences are not "just games." In fact, recent research has repeatedly shown that emotionally moving and engaging imaginary experiences can be powerful tools for helping us learn and develop. A recent New York Times article by David Brooks quotes Nadine Dijkstra, a neuroscience researcher who found:

... reality and imagination are completely intermixed in our brain which means that the separation between our inner world and the outside world is not as clear as we might like to think. If our imagination is vivid enough, we will think it is real and we use our imagination to create our perception of reality, which means, “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Her research showed, in other words, that imagination is a powerful element in understanding reality. This is backed up by many studies - in fact, I had the pleasure and privilege to talk with Nychelle, a designer who did her thesis on the neurological impact of imaginative play, just a few weeks back.

So while all kids of course should learn about the real world and practice their skills there, doing so through an imaginary one - one in which they can have full agency and are invited to actively own and create their learning - can give them a huge boost. Of course, real-world confirmation and practice after play is key to long-term mastery and success, but games allow an amazing chance to build strong foundations.

But while the effect of play-based learning is well documented for smaller children, it has been almost completely neglected for older students. Any educator can tell you the near obsessive drive of a high-school athlete to play, or the intense pride and confidence that's built by members of competitive robotics or debate teams.

What shocks me? That the rest of school IS a game - just a terribly designed one.



Grades are points. But in any good game, there's a sense of real agency is playing for points, and some kind of immediate reward for accruing them. In school - especially in ELA, but in nearly every subject - "points" can feel completely subjective, and rewards far-off and in no way guaranteed. One teacher might reward practice, others "correct" answers, others still behaviors. Subjectivity is nearly always involved - there may be a rubric, but the difference between a 4 and a 5 may come down to someone's understanding of an adjective like "clearly" versus "roughly." Rarely, if ever, are students asked to grade their own work. Activities are often not inherently engaging, and the stakes being played for (grades) not the ones that motivate - social attention, acclaim, a feeling of camaraderie (all colloquial terms for what young brains, finely tuned for learning, crave most: oxytocin and dopamine).

The best teachers are, therefore, often the best designers - both of curriculum (the "mechanics" or "system" that drive the game and the content it contains) and the experience at the table (facilitating a safe, supportive culture in which kids develop agency in choosing what they learn and ownership and pride in their skills). Tabletop role-playing games provide a brilliant model - and a woefully underused one! - for helping educators do exactly that.



It's what inspired me to start Luck of Legends to help kids learn to write, speak, create presentations, think critically, and collaborate enthusiastically. It's what inspired Starsworn, a game designed for parents and kids to play and learn at home. And it's what's pushing me to explore the potential of games - not Skinner-box point grabbers or video games, but mentor-led, tabletop role-playing games - in teaching. Several of my games focus on teaching the basics of ecology and evolution, and my Knights of the Microbiome setting is designed to teach physiology. I've even spoken with a developer who runs middle-school science classes using RPG design.

If kids learn through imaginative play, then why not design and run the best games possible?



Want to sign up for a class? Check for open spots or reach out to find your own time!

If you'd like to check out some of the tools I use with students, take a look at my games.

If you'd like to hear a bit more about my approach, here's a video where I explain a bit more!

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