Roll to Save: The Growing Field of Therapeutic Gaming

I hesitated to start this article out of fear. I was held by a miasma of nameless anxiety and vague reluctance too many people are familiar with. And while I have never been silent that I am one of 43.8 million Americans who suffer from mental health issues, it does not make being open and vulnerable any easier. There is always a call to arms, a mustering of courage and a deep breath before the plunge that puts the skittish butterflies in my stomach into a flurry.

When I was 12 years old, I discovered that my father was HIV positive and was going to die. Not by his own mouth did I make this discovery mind you but by rummaging through his closet looking for a pair of binoculars. Instead I discovered doctor’s notes and pamphlets on living with AIDS. The next decade would not go well. My father slipped into depression and drug abuse, and even further down the path of mental and emotional abuse of his loved ones. He did not die with grace or dignity but with fear and desperation. And for my own 12-year-old self, perched before the swirling pools of adolescence, my father’s despair might as well have been a cattle brand, for in some ways I have worn his scar my entire life.

Today nearly 60% of all mental health issues go untreated in the United States, so in 1991, when I needed that escape, I had even less hope of therapeutic assistance.  Reality was too harsh, and I needed a way out. I could have turned to drugs. I could have turned to rebellious and dangerous activities. But instead, being the nerd that I was (and still am), I turned to fantasy. I turned to Dungeons & Dragons.

Back in the Gold and Silver Ages of D&D, both mental health and fantasy roleplaying games carried an unhealthy reputation. We are all painfully aware of the tale of James Dallas Egbert III and the Satanic scare to follow. Some of us can clearly recall the days of social stigma and ostracizing that came with being open about your D&D games. We were the basement trolls, talking in goofy elven voices and hardy dwarven brogues, casting made up spells at invisible monsters. We were easy pickings for the jocks and preps and other straights of the world, and our fantasies were quick to be labeled as the sad practices of the socially inept.

But that was then. And now, the game has changed.

With the coming of the second Renaissance of tabletop gaming those nerds of old have grown up, and have taken their beloved pastime into the real world. The games of yore are now being played in the open, by younger, hipper crowds right alongside us old masters. And what we are realizing is nothing short of fantastical. We are learning now that this tool that saved many of us from the brutal nature of society and the poisons of our own mental demons, may in fact have more power and therapeutic quality than we had ever imagined.

It turns out that we might have been healing more than our characters.

I recently spoke with Jack Berkenstock, MHS, and executive director of the Bodhana Group, a therapeutic community that integrates tabletop gaming and mental health clinical practices. Berkenstock and his college have been working in the field of clinic support for nearly two decades, and over the past eight plus years have been cultivating ways to implement tabletop gaming with unique forms of group and roleplay therapy. While the practices are still in theoretical stages at this time, the results have been astounding.  By crafting unique experiences and games for each group, the Bodhana Group has been treating a wide variety of psychological disorders and issues from social skill development, sexual abuse, drug abuse, and death counselling.

“Many of our normal gaming habits are naturally therapeutic,” Berkenstock states, “So we try to use the inherent tropes within the gaming genres to represent issues that our clients are struggling with.” By allowing the games to reflect real world issues, role-play gaming allows for controlled, safe environments for the patients to confront their own demons. Through guided emotional expression, social skills, and gained confidence, the Bodhana group is seeing results.

“I recall one instance where a 10 year old boy, who had recently lost his father, was asked to confront his fear of the dark in a game.” Berkenstock recollects, with a bit of awe in his voice as he begins. “But instead he says his character is not afraid of anything. We prodded him, trying to get him to face his fear in game, but instead he told me the most remarkable thing. He wasn’t roleplaying himself, he was roleplaying his father, and his father wasn’t afraid of anything. Years as a therapist and this kid was putting on a Master’s class in roleplay therapy. He was channeling his father as a means of dealing with the grief. And he was gaining courage from the experience.”

Now, with their hard gained momentum, Bodhana Group is moving from its humble beginnings as a charity gaming marathon to a full fledge outreach program, complete with educational applications, Therapeutic Storyteller training, and a full-fledge Convention called Save Against Fear in Harrisburg, PA (Dates October 12-14th) which we will be reviewing here at D10AGAIN in the coming weeks. As the word spreads, more groups are joining the push, such as Wheelhouse Workshop in Washington or RPG Therapeutics. And as treatments for autism have gained mainstream media momentum, it would seem that this field is truly on the rise.

Perhaps the aspect of gaming and mental health coming together that has the most impact has been the ability of those who suffer from mental health issues to be able to reach out and tell their stories. From blogs to Facebook gaming groups, many such as myself have found gaming to be a place of comfort and safety. “The game is the language used to express the person” Berkenstock reflects, “and imagine what we can learn of someone from the fantasies they choose to express.” Many of us know just how true this is, and how much wisdom we’ve gained from the safety of Dungeons & Dragons, allowing us to peer into ourselves.

Come Join Bodhana Group at Save Against Fear Oct 12, 10:00 AM – Oct 14, 6:00 PM Harrisburg Mall 3501 Paxton St, Harrisburg, PA 17111