Rolling Dice and Rediscovering Joy: Imagination and Connection in Role Playing Games
When social isolation was announced during the pandemic last year, there was a point when all I wanted to do was talk to people but I didn't know how to. When there was an opportunity to converse, I found myself at a loss for words. Perhaps it was the “Zoom fatigue” that everyone talked about or it was just a lack of things to say. The days were beginning to meld together. I hardly knew if it was a Sunday and it barely made a difference. It seemed like I had forgotten how to communicate socially but all I needed was a social connection, a place to breathe, laugh, and more importantly -- to share with people.
Somehow I found my way into an online stream of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) and ached to find something similar of my own. After many months of talking myself out of it, I started playing D&D with a few strangers online.
TTRPGs and safe social havens
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is one of the most famous TableTop Role Playing Games (TTRPGs) out there. TTRPGs are a form of Role-Playing Games that involve collaborative storytelling where a narrative is created through dialogue and improv. The players make up and then describe their character’s actions. Depending on the system, there are certain rules that determine whether this action fails or succeeds and what the consequences are. D&D requires a Dungeon Master who sets up the story and Players who live in and interact with the world they create. The players can come up with a way they want to approach any problem and situation and the Dungeon Master defines the chance of success. Finally, we roll a dice to see whether we succeed or not.
Usually, these Role Playing games are played with a group of people so clearly at the time when social interaction was so minimal, it allowed me to meet new people. None of us knew each other’s names. Occasionally, we’d pass along precious details about each other’s life, the countries we lived in, and what food was like but more importantly, the weekly game became a haven. It allowed me to actually mark the passage of time because now Wednesdays mattered. They were a brief respite from the dread and a small repository of shared collective joy where I could roll dice, pretend to be a thief who really wanted to start a coffee chain, and could defeat huge monsters.
Socio-dramatic play, the fantastic imagination, and exercises in empathy
It was akin to rediscovering the make-believe play in childhood where we constructed worlds in our head with people and they felt real. This form of play is also known as socio-dramatic play where children create imaginary worlds, situations, storylines, and characters where they take on roles and follow a set of rules determined by the roles. They use this form of play to practice language, taking on future roles and social skills like taking turns or negotiating with each other. Overall, various researchers have found it beneficial for children as it helps foster symbolic capabilities, cognitive skills, communication skills, knowledge acquisition, and self-regulation skills.
However, as we grow up, this kind of play lessens. For me, the desire to be a superhero or act like a spy began to feel embarrassing and I was afraid to look stupid as I was growing older. Now as an actual adult, when I sat down for the first Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) game I ever played, I was again paralyzed by the same fear of looking silly. I was afraid of trying to talk in a bad British accent or make monster noises because I was watching myself from an outsider’s perspective and constantly judging myself. Over time, as I kept sitting down with people for games, I realized I was free to be silly and this freedom was liberating.
TTRPGs are a place to practice imagination and creativity. It provides space to construct fantastical worlds and explore ideas. Researchers have found that people who play TTRPGs tend to perform higher in tests of creativity than Non-TTRPG players. These games are also generally cooperative in nature where players come together to solve problems. It requires teamwork and communication on the part of the players. Since the outcomes of the solutions are reliant on dice or chance, that means the players also have to learn to quickly adapt.
The players often take on the perspective of their own character, behaving how their character would and negotiating with others. While the games take place in an imaginative world, they still follow the rules of society. According to Daniau, this means that the players have to deal with these societal rules, adapt to changes in the environment, learn to manage priorities and deal with the consequences of their actions. Hence, The game provides a practice space similar to sociodramatic play, where you can practice social skills.
Taking on the perspective of characters from varied backgrounds can also help improve empathy. Research has found that TTRPGs lead to strengthening team building, creative collaboration, empathy, perspective-taking, self-confidence, citizenship, social inclusion, and social connectedness. While I may never have experienced what it's like to be on the battlefield, I can play a character who struggles with cowardice but must learn to be brave or I can play a character who loves animals but doesn't quite know how to communicate with the people around them. Through the game, we come together with a team of other flawed individuals and these characters grow in complexity. We see dimensions as we uncover their strengths and frailties. Even if I may never live these lives, it allows me to attempt to empathize. Every game is an exercise in empathy.
It also allows people to explore themes that are personally relevant or difficult to deal with. In a safe and supervised space, the players can process complex issues like grief, identity, and moral crises from the character's perspective. By building characters, people can also get the opportunity to explore different aspects of their identity or portray a more authentic version of themselves in a safe atmosphere.
Not just a game: therapeutic applications of TTRPGs
The game feels cathartic in many ways. It was deeply, emotionally resonant for me. While there is certainly therapeutic potential to Play, TTRPGs are not a replacement for therapy. However, they have been used in a therapeutic setting for children and adults with Autism Spectrum disorder to create a source of community and acquire or improve social communication skills. It has been used as a form of intervention for gifted children and adolescents to improve intrapersonal and interpersonal skills. It has also been found to be useful as a therapeutic intervention for individuals with social anxiety particularly in increasing confidence with boundaries or making mistakes. Some participants in a study by Abbott, Strauss and Burnett mentioned how they “were frozen in fear of making mistakes, particularly in social situations” and struggled with rumination on decisions or errors. Through the game, they were able to let go in this game that required spontaneity when the decisions didn’t go as planned since the chance or rolling the dice was a huge factor in the outcomes. They also recognized through playing a character that they don’t have to be perfect.
Recently, its therapeutic application with adolescents, in a group therapy context and as a drama therapy informed intervention has also been explored. Ruff found it to be a fun and effective method of social and emotional learning in a school.
Outside of its application in varied settings, I have found it to be a brilliant form of leisure, escapism, exploration, and connection. Most importantly, I have found it to be a tool that has helped me become braver by allowing me to indulge in my juvenile side with abandon, without the fear of embarrassment. As adults, nostalgia is a powerful emotion because we wish to return to the wonder of our childhood. While that may not be possible, I don't see why we cannot continue to bring that wonder and joy with us by making space for our imagination. After all, just as Dumbledore said "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
Vijayalaxmi Samal (She/Her) is currently a student of MA Applied Psychology and a Mental Health Advocate at Nolmë Labs. She loves stories, small joys like warm coffee and occasionally pretending to be a small goblin wizard with a pet chicken.