(Role)Play with Purpose

According to Jane McGonigal, who has plenty of research to back her claims, games are excellent learning tools, but the learning is enchanced, when you have an idea what you want to learn. What can we learn from games? Planning, problem-solving, resource management, most importantly self-efficacy and so-forth. Games can also train our memory, reaction times and many other skills.

This is something that’s being actively studied, but the problem is that these studies tend to focus on video games. This is understandable, because you don’t need to organize a game group to study these things and obviously, the market for them is much, much larger than other kinds of games (as evidenced recently by the success of Red Dead Redemption 2).

Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t find a purpose for playing roleplaying games. Or purposes.

I was actually inspired to write about this after a discussion in a Facebook group for Finnish roleplaying gamers. It was brought up whether depression is a valid topic for RPGs, which came about after there was an unpopular scenario in a Finnish contest at RopeCon. The basic idea was that the scenario might have been unpopular because of the subject matter. Which I’m pretty sure is true. It takes a certain kind of player to go for that. However, there is definitely an audience for these kinds of themes.

There’s a group called Game to Grow, who specifically use D&D help young people with various problems and they have identified these specific goals:

  • Learn to take the perspectives of others
  • Improve their frustration tolerance
  • Develop their creative problem-solving skills
  • Cultivate communication and collaboration skills

I think the development of problem-solving skills is highly overstated when talking about games that involve any kind of scripting or human element in control of the problem, because then you are not actually learning to solve a problem, but rather learning to understand how fiction or the mind of the GM works. Still, this is an element we can mention, even if the problem-solving elements aren’t actually that real in RPGs as they are in other games.

Learning to handle frustration is part of pretty much all games, because you fail in games, but still carry on. So, again, I wouldn’t credit RPGs for this. I bet many other games are much better at it, although the presence of a social context often helps with the frustration.

Communication and collaborative skills are another thing that does work, but again, there are other kinds of games that probably do this better. Any kind of collaborative game is excellent at this. I guess the guiding hand and safety net provided by the GM can help in the early stages, but eventually games like Pandemic seem much stronger in this regard.

Finally, there’s the perspective of others (which was actually the first one listed). I think this is the one we should be looking at in-depth.

Here’s the thing: McGonigal brings up a study in her book SuperBetter, in which young and old people from a culture, where there was a divide between them, were brought together to game. The control group would simply hang out and talk, or watch TV together. The difference was quite interesting. In the control groups, the two people would learn to like each other better, but the pairs with games went much deeper. They learned to like each other as well, but on top of that, they synchronized so well with their counterparts, that they began to understand their viewpoint better and where these people were coming from, which lead them to actually warm up to the other person’s group as well.

Humans are intrinsically social, so when we interact, our breathing, heartbeats and even brain activity synchonizes. With games, we are actively trying to understand the other players. We want to know what they are thinking and feeling. I don’t really know this works roleplaying games, but we are basically method acting, but on top of trying to just put ourselves into someone’s shoes, we are trying to think like them.

So, if players do well, we have a chance to learn about people we don’t have access to or don’t want to subject to certain situations. We might be encouraged to research this stuff and we are then able to relay what we’ve learned to other people in a very interesting way.

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