If you’re a tween, spending time with imaginary characters from Dungeons & Dragons, My Little Pony and Scooby-Doo may sound like a fun way to spend an evening. But it also can be therapy.
That’s the message of the Bodhana Group, a York-based nonprofit that has been using tabletop role playing games (RPG) as therapy for more than a decade.
“I’m finding it works,” said Jack Berkenstock, Jr., founder and executive director. “I have seen firsthand kids who have gone from wallflower to debonair in six months. I’ve seen kids develop confidence to go on job interviews, start their own social engagement with other people, using the game language as a kind of passport to other friends.”
Berkenstock, a master level therapist, described tabletop RPGs as “playing pretend with rules.”
Not to be confused with computer RPGs, tabletop RPGs run solely on the imagination of the players. Each player takes on a role with certain characteristic and powers under the tutelage of the “game master.” The game master sets the stage—hunting the pillaging dragon, for instance—and the players begin describing the step-by-step means to do that.
And now the Bodhana Group is partnering with Harrisburg University to explore the safety, effectiveness and value of RPG therapy. Recently, HU Prof. Adams Greenwood-Ericksen received a $20,000 Presidential Research Grant to pursue research on RPG games in therapeutic settings.
Greenwood-Ericksen, the director of HU’s User Experience Center, said his research has two goals.
First, he wanted to support the Bodhana Group as they’re a local group “doing great stuff” in an interesting area. Also, he saw a unique and creative way to add to an important field of knowledge.
“This is an opportunity to find out stuff about an area that’s underrepresented and understudied, and that’s really important, and where we have a potential to make a real impact,” he said.
This type of therapy took root in the United States in the 1970s, but it never gained much traction locally, Berkenstock said. The Bodhana Group is one of only three organizations on the East Coast using RPG therapy, he said.
“It would be nice to be able to say to people, ‘We know it’s working, and this is his how it works, or why it works,’” Berkenstock said.
This research would be especially beneficial when using games to treat clients because people sometimes don’t believe that this is more than just a good time.
“Because of the topic area, because it relates to games…there’s a certain level of ‘side-eye’ that you get,” said Greenwood-Erickson.
But fun is what keeps young people interested.
“It isn’t good enough to be a good therapist. It also takes a person who’s skilled at running a good game,” Berkenstock said. “There’s a lot of intentionality between characters.”
A great deal of planning goes into each session. For example, if a client has trouble with anxiety, the game master will lead the game in a direction where the person can address that anxiety, always maintaining the ability to pull back if it becomes too much. At any time, a client can tap the “X” card, which means that a break is needed.
The therapy also fosters collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. If a group member falls into a pit—hypothetically, of course—others will work on a solution to get them out or maybe even join them. Players sometimes use dice to decide if an endeavor fails or succeeds, moving on from there, developing resilience.
HU wanted to participate in the study because, just like RPG itself, the university is all about problem-solving and experiential learning.
“We’re interested in giving students the opportunity to do real-world work and real projects when they are undergrads or graduate students,” said Greenwood-Ericksen. “So, when they go off into the world, they have real experience on their resumes.”
He said that he can’t say what the research will find and then quoted Albert Einstein, “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research.”
What’s known is that this research has the potential to benefit HU students and area youth, as mental health challenges often surface in the college or younger years, said Greenwood-Ericksen.
Harrisburg University has collaborated with the Bodhana Group in the past, offering training and sponsorship at its annual, three-day convention, Save Against Fear, which promotes therapeutic gaming and teaches therapists how to incorporate RPGs into their practices.
“The opportunity to get a study started, to study the efficacy of this and how useful it could be, is a dream come true,” Berkenstock said “It’s something not only that we can talk about with other professionals, but it’s also something that the field needs.”