Written by: Jennie Fincher, Ph.D.
You might be asking yourself, “How can playing a game, like Dungeons & Dragons, be helpful?”
As someone who had never played D&D, when I first heard about it as a therapeutic tool, I only had the name to make assumptions of what it was…I guess there will be something about dungeons and there will be dragons. As I have played D&D and learned more about the game, I have come to understand how misleading the title can be. It is so much more. D&D is a collaborative storytelling game with a flexible rule structure. Players work together to solve problems, discover treasure, and defeat foes in a fictional environment. Players create a character who is their persona as they play in the game.
Therapeutic role playing games (TRPG) foster creativity by giving the players (a.k.a. group members) the freedom to move the story forward and understand the cause and effect of events. Storytelling is a powerful way to activate the brain. Players are able to interact through their characters to feel less vulnerable, to gain confidence and agency, and to try out different interpersonal skills. TRPGs are designed to be cooperative where there are no winners or losers. Players can use their character’s specific skillsets to fill a collaborative role on a diverse team.
TRPGs are filled with layers of problem-solving. This might be solving a riddle, while deciding the best way to take out a group of villains, while solving a mystery, all while preventing an evil-doer from taking over the kingdom. Critical thinking helps us approach problems in the future in the right mindset. In this kind of game play we can learn to see problems from multiple perspectives.
TRPGs provide a safe space for emotional release. The group members are able to express inner fears or desires in the context of playing their character. Additionally, this kind of role-playing game allows group members to experiment with different elements of identity. Group members are provided an opportunity to boost self-efficacy by mastering new or challenging tasks. Likewise, the power of choice is main component in TRPGs, giving players an internal locus of control.
Group members can also increase cooperative and communication skills. Players are able to identify with characters very different from themselves thereby boosting empathy. Resilience and stress-related growth are also components of TRPGs. This kind of game play also provides a framework of meaning and moral order. Through their shared adventure they are able to understand that life is inherently meaningful and their choices are meaningful as well.