I’m a huge fan of Humans of New York. The pictures and accompanying stories of human experiences they share are rich and thought-provoking, and they’ve also raised millions of dollars for various charitable causes! Last week, they posted a man’s story about joining a role-playing community.
When I talk about role-playing in therapy, I’m usually referring to acting out real-life scenarios. For example, if a client is struggling with assertiveness, we might practice how to move and speak with more confidence. When a client has an opportunity to practice maintaining eye contact, sitting or standing up straight, and saying “no” in a calm but firm manner within the safety of a therapy session, they are more likely to replicate these actions when faced with difficult situations outside of therapy.
This blog post’s focus will be on a different type of role-playing that is often stigmatized. In role-playing games, or RPGs, participants assume the roles of characters in fictional settings. Dungeons & Dragons is a well-known tabletop RPG (meaning that it is played “in person”), and there are countless video game RPGs that have been developed over the years (including World of Warcraft, which is referred to as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG).
Why the stigma, you ask? Unfortunately, society is quick to “blame the game” when they hear about someone who died while playing video games for long stretches of time, or who committed a crime that was (supposedly) influenced by a video game. These stories, along with research studies, have led to the inclusion of gaming disorder in the International Classification of Diseases’ 11th revision, or ICD-11. Organized Messes’ Boonie Sripom discusses just five of the many reasons why gamers don’t open up about their interests… and who can blame them?
We all know that gaming can be problematic when taken to an extreme; however, we often overlook the social benefits of gaming in moderation. Aubrie Serena Adams, Ph.D., observed a role-playing community and published an article in Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal of Qualitative Communication Research. Adams discussed how “specific real-world needs were met through role-play communication” and analyzed four themes that emerged before, during, and after gameplay.
Democracy (defined here as “the practice or principles of social equality”) isn’t always easy to achieve in the “real world”… so why not practice implementing it in the fictional worlds of role-playing games? Oftentimes, players have to work together in order to achieve a goal. A dungeon master or guild leader may take charge of the group, but ultimately, everyone benefits when each group member has the opportunity to share their thoughts about embarking on a quest, raid, or other endeavor.
Let’s go back to my earlier example of a client who is struggling with assertiveness. They may need to practice being assertive within the safety of a therapy session before they can be assertive in the “real world.” Role-playing communities can also provide safe spaces to practice these skills. In fact, it may feel even more safe within your group of fellow “nerds,” vs. with a therapist that you’re just getting to know!
When I say “gamer,” what image comes to mind? Depending on who you ask, it may look something like this: a socially awkward teenage boy, sitting alone in a dark room, neglecting their friendships in favor of playing video games. The reality is that video games provide a venue for creating and maintaining friendships, so don’t be quick to assume that teenage boy is truly isolated! They may be using chat platforms to communicate with fellow gamers that they either know in the “real world” or have met through online communities.
Role-playing communities may focus on fictional characters, but it’s not uncommon for gamers to gradually share personal information as they become more comfortable with group members. Self-disclosure can create stronger bonds, to the point where some gamers from online communities decide to meet each other in the “real world”!
Who doesn’t fantasize about becoming someone (or something) else from time to time? Role-playing games allow group members to try on alternate identities through the creation of fictional characters. This experience can stretch the imagination, provide a temporary escape from life’s troubles, and lead to a greater appreciation for the diversity of characters.
Role-playing games can even lead to the development of empathy. Wired’s article on role-play and empathy provides examples of how video games can put players in the shoes of a person who experiences domestic violence, or an immigrant who struggles to make ends meet, or a government official who faces ethical dilemmas. It’s one thing to briefly imagine these difficult experiences. It’s another thing entirely to spend hours immersed in a game and face a constant barrage of challenges that must be overcome.
Most people want to believe that good will prevail over evil, the hero will defeat the villain, and morality will outweigh immorality. Many role-playing games have opposing teams that fight each other, oftentimes in order to protect someone or something from harm. Even when the objective of a fight is selfish in nature, there are certain rules most players are reluctant to break (such as backstabbing a teammate).
Some games require that at least one player take on the role of a villain. What are we to make of these individuals? Are they sociopaths for enjoying the in-game acts of violence? Should we worry about them becoming the next mass shooter in the “real world”? In almost every case, the answer is a resounding “NO!” Remember, role-playing is about trying on alternate identities in fictional worlds. Individuals who engage in role-playing games and commit “real world” crimes make up an extremely small percentage of all gamers, and they clearly have underlying issues that warrant further exploration (don’t “blame the game”!).