The Therapeutic Nature of Role-Playing Games
By: Christian Baginski, Masters Level Intern
This month I decided to talk about something that I love, tabletop role playing games. To the uninformed, these are games where you assume the role of a different character in a different world. They often involve fantasy or sci-fi settings, but they can take place anywhere decided by the game master. A game master is the person who narrates the story and sets the scene for the players by creating non player characters, places, and the narrative. The players then interact with the world created by the game master in whatever way they see fit. This obviously involves a lot of social interaction between the party of people playing while they solve puzzles and navigate the game. I always felt like there was something about role playing that could be applied therapeutically and after some research I found that I was right. Researchers, Rønning and Bjørkly (2019) report that, “Role-play
in clinical practice is reported to be associated with higher levels of reflection, empathy, insights about the client, and peer learning.” It seems kind of obvious that role playing games would be good for a variety of social reasons, but I was surprised how deep the well was. While far from traditional therapy role playing can and has been used to get people motivated to build social skills. Especially in a post pandemic world there are many children who spent key years in isolation. Aside from the social aspect
there are ways to build in learning opportunities as well as self-exploration into these scenarios. Many players I have played with experiment with drastically different personalities in their characters rather than using their normal ones. Sometimes they are heavily committed to their character’s mentality, sometimes their normal personality seeps through. Character moments of note can be broken down and examined therapeutically. What might it say if I always play a character who needs to be the center of
attention? How many people have options to interact with a world as anyone other than themselves and have people play along? This is a key piece of role playing that I believe can make it empowering. Another possible use of this kind of therapy is to play with roles. If a client views themselves as powerless maybe, we can make him the party leader with high charisma. The party leader often makes important decisions and has some sway over the group of other people. This can provide direct experience for the client with virtually no stakes. These are just a few examples that provide some ideas about how role-playing games might have a place in legitimate treatment. On top of all the possible therapeutic reasons for using role playing games, these are games that many people find fun. It can be a hard sell to get people to come to therapy, especially children, but what if you told them they got to fight a dragon? We may not yet have the full picture about this kind of therapy but there is nothing stopping us from a little experimentation.
Baker IS, Turner IJ, Kotera Y. (2022). Role-play games (rpgs) for mental health (why not?): Roll
for Initiative. Int Journal of Mental Health and Addictions. doi: 10.1007/s11469-022-00832-y
Rønning SB, Bjørkly S. (2019) The use of clinical role-play and reflection in learning therapeutic
communication skills in mental health education: An integrative review. Advances in Medical Education
and Practice. doi: 10.2147/AMEP.S202115.