5 Science-Backed Benefits of Playing Tabletop RPGs During (and After) COVID-19

(image: Getty Images)

Whenever the need is great, we call upon the power of the Magic Sword. —Magic Sword, “Herald” 1

As weeks of stay-at-home orders turn into months, and months will likely stretch out into at least a year or more of some degree of social distancing, the importance of long-term, sustainable, and healthy ways to cope becomes ever more crucial. Any activity that helps us do this without putting others at risk is valuable at a time like this. But any activity that not only helps us cope and, in certain ways, also helps train and prepare us for the many personal and collective trials that lie ahead is worth a king’s ransom.

Playing tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs or TTRPGs) is one activity that can do this, and some of the ways in which it does so are empirically supported in the scientific literature. TTRPG culture has been surging in recent years to begin with, largely thanks to Dungeons & Dragons (and, by extension, shows like Stranger Things) and coinciding with the growing popularity of board games. But the COVID-19 crisis has given this surge a turbo boost. Online play via platforms like Roll20 is the only way for existing players to engage with their beloved hobby, but thanks to the ease of it new players are now discovering the joys and relief of escaping the current reality and joining their friends on magical flights of wonder and awe. This will inevitably lead to more interest from academic researchers, which is good because the research that’s currently available out there, while promising, is admittedly still sparse.

Nevertheless, evidence is evidence even if it’s limited. So I’d like to discuss five specific, interconnected and overlapping ways that playing tabletop RPGs—be it D&D, Trail of Cthulhu, or one of the many fine but lesser known TRPGs out there—can not only help people effectively cope during this protracted period of crisis but can also help prepare them for the difficult road ahead. And while this isn’t an academic paper, I’ll be citing research that directly examines the effects of playing TRPGs, that has related findings on other types of games, or is about general psychological topics that I’ll use to make certain connections.

Next, I’ll discuss how to translate the benefits experienced while playing TRPGs into real-life situations. Here (and throughout this whole article, in fact) I’ll be borrowing heavily from futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, whose work has inspired me greatly.

And finally, I’ll try to present all this in a way that’s fun, accessible, and won’t put you to sleep. (If this were Call of Cthulhu, I’d be making simultaneous skill checks right now for Anthropology, Psychology, and Language!)      

1. Tabletop RPGs enable social connection and belonging while social distancing

(image: roll20.net)

I won’t use up space reviewing the research about how important social connection is to our well-being because I trust that most people intuitively understand, consciously or not, that it is. Of course, this is one of the ways that COVID-19 has brought our society to its knees, by depriving us of this basic need.  

Jane McGonigal, mentioned in my intro, has spent many years researching and advocating for the social benefits of games—all kinds of games but particularly video games— and has written about these benefits in books like Reality is Broken and SuperBetter. 2 While there is a wealth of research on video games, maybe partially due to their nearly ubiquitous popularity, there has not yet been as much similarly-themed research on tabletop RPGs specifically. But it doesn’t take a huge logical leap to see how many of the same video game benefits that McGonigal has written about would also be true for TTRPGs and/or board games. After all, all types of games at their core share four traits, according to McGonigal: a goal (e.g. “overthrow the tyrant”), rules (e.g. Pathfinder 2e), a feedback system (e.g. Levels, Attributes, and Hit Points), and voluntary participation. Obviously, all TTRPGs have all four traits. 

In Reality is Broken, McGonigal makes a point about social media games (like FarmVille) that also apply to TTRPGs. “Simply put,” she writes, “social network games make it both easier and more fun to maintain strong, active connections with people we care about but who we don’t see or speak to enough in our daily lives.” 3  

TTRPGs do this too. In various studies, subjects report that tabletop role-playing games have helped them maintain friendships and strong relationships. 4 As McGonigal has pointed out about social media games like FarmVille, much of this has to do with the fact that by playing together, people are simply spending more time interacting in some way, not because the purpose of strengthening relationships is necessarily designed into the games themselves. 3 But while online games like FarmVille or Words With Friends don’t necessarily involve talking or texting, one way that TTRPGs potentially strengthen friendships is through the actual verbal communication that occurs between players via both in-character and out-of-character communication. 5    

This leads me to a perplexing conundrum I’ve experienced since all this COVID-19 stuff started. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found, weirdly, that even as it’s become more vital to connect with friends and loved ones, in some ways it’s become more awkward and difficult. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy recently vocalized this on Twitter and nailed it:6

For me, this has partly been due to the fact that I’ve just been busier. And though I’ve been fortunate to have enough work to get by, that doesn’t mean I’m not stressed and exhausted. So in my sparse free time the thought of doing more emotional labor by talking about real-life problems can sometimes be draining. I think this might partly be one of the less-discussed reasons that many people have been experiencing “Zoom fatigue.” I don’t have much free time so when I do, even if just briefly, I want to do something fun. What TTRPGs have allowed me to do is to have some fun and stay socially connected at the same time. It’s like having the best of both worlds because I can see my friends’ faces and talk to them, but in a way that doesn’t feel like more emotional labor because we’re talking about our imaginary characters’ problems, not our own.     

Structured, cooperative game play like TTRPGs, and other activities like sports where there is an element of teamwork, also helps fill the basic human need to belong to a group or community and increases achievement motivation through the pursuit of shared goals to which the players are mutually committed. 7 

Certainly, there are many activities that can help individuals to cope and/or allow friends to be social (some of them may even share some of the same benefits discussed in this article). But not all activities can achieve all of those things at the same time and can be done digitally without detriment to the experience. For instance, I’ve been playing the solo mode of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order on Xbox. It’s engaging and is one of numerous ways I’ve been coping, but it definitely isn’t social. Or take a social activity like partner dancing which, while extremely social, by its very nature simply can’t be done right now. So many good coping activities are either not social or are social but can’t be done while social distancing. Playing tabletop RPGs has the auspicious advantage of being very social and easy-to-do while social distancing. And it doesn’t require more emotional labor, hence no Zoom fatigue.

In a time like now, that’s a powerful combination.  

2. They can be good for mental health (and we’re in a mental health crisis)

The boys from ‘Stranger Things’ celebrate a moment of victory. (image: Netflix)

Aside from our current medical and economic woes, a number of articles have commented on the current (and future) mental health crisis which had been brewing anyway but has now been given an injection of steroids. In terms of the ripple effects it will have on society, I think this mental health “pandemic” will nearly be on a par with COVID-19 itself.

The question of how to address this mental health crisis is too big a topic to even begin approaching in this article. Unfortunately, therapy, despite its importance, is not nearly as accessible to as many people as it should be. Given this sad reality, I humbly suggest that TTRPGs can be one among many small ways to help alleviate people’s emotional suffering, especially those for whom therapy is not a feasible option right now.

A small body of research has looked at the therapeutic applications of TTRPGs over the years with some promising results. Based on their findings, these are some of the ways that TTRPGs can be of therapeutic value: 8

  • They provide a safe space for emotional and cathartic release.
  • They let players give outer form to inner fears and anxieties in a shared, mutually experienced context.
  • They allow players to experiment with different, sometimes socially forbidden facets of identity. 

This isn’t to say that everybody should start playing TTRPGs, but those who are interested can trust there are some legitimate mental health benefits of doing so.

I’m also not suggesting in any way that playing TTRPGs is a sufficient replacement for actual therapy. And the studies mentioned above used these games (mostly D&D, for various reasons) in clinical contexts, which is obviously different from a group of friends playing casually on Zoom. But things like emotional catharsis and giving outward form to feelings are just as helpful in everyday, non-clinical contexts as they are in clinical ones. Plus, at a time when therapy should be available to everyone but isn’t, many of us will quite simply take what we can get. 

3. They boost the self-efficacy we need (and will keep needing) more than ever 

‘Trail of Cthulhu’ RPG (image: Pelgrane Press)

In psychology, the trait of self-efficacy is defined as faith in one’s “capability to master new or challenging tasks, to perform a given behavior, or to exercise control over events.” 9 

It’s pretty obvious why a trait like this would be so important at a time like this when people are feeling powerless. Unless you’re a medical worker or essential worker, staying at home might be the right thing to do but it sure doesn’t feel like much, and it also limits the range of ways we’d normally be inclined to help out. To make matters worse, many are struggling with reduced or zero income and/or being overwhelmed by juggling various life responsibilities. How do you even survive emotionally at a time like this, let alone go beyond survival and do things to help? To believe that this is possible, that we are capable of doing it, requires self-efficacy.

The problem is that many of us struggle with self-efficacy to some degree even during the best of times. COVID-19 therefore has effectively obliterated our sense of self-efficacy. That’s why we need to engage in manageable activities that slowly, if imperfectly, begin to repair it. 

McGonigal, once again, has written extensively about how games in general boost self-efficacy. Let’s look at the research that has specifically examined TTRPgs in relation to this trait. Here too the literature is sparse, but there is some of it and it does show connections between TTRPGs and self-efficacy. 10 

Some of these studies are within the context of educational uses of RPGs and/or working with children. 11 But just as with the therapeutic benefits covered in section #2 above, the ways in which RPGs boosted self-efficacy in the contexts of these studies—such as letting players exercise the power of choice and giving them an internal locus of control—also apply in situations where adults are playing recreationally.

In one of the earliest papers about the psychological benefits of tabletop role-playing games, researcher John Hughes (no, not that John Hughes) suggests one way RPGs can potentially increase players’ self-efficacy is by having them identify with their highly-skilled and powerful characters. 12 D&D and superhero RPGs like Mutants & Masterminds are examples of games that empower players, but even in games that don’t seek to empower them, like Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu, there is a satisfying sense of self-efficacy that comes with wanting to do something, sometimes something very difficult, and being able to succeed at it. This is because in Trail of Cthulhu success often depends on the judicious spending of skill points, which every player has, as opposed to leaving it to chance via random rolls of the dice. 13

And even with bad rolls of the dice or harsh punishments from the GM/DM that seemingly take agency away from the player, such situations can be reminders that in games, just as in life, s**t happens and plans don’t always work out. It’s up to us to make the best of any given situation and that’s where the agency comes in.

This is a surreal time when many have lost income, entire jobs, and perhaps even our health  seemingly out-of-nowhere. People have been robbed of agency, personal power, and control. Recovering a sense of self-efficacy is therefore vital for not just getting through this but to face the challenges that yet lie ahead. You might say that self-efficacy is therefore the foundation for action because it is the belief that our actions are even worth taking. And right now, more than ever, we need people to believe that they are. 

4. They help improve the interpersonal skills we also need more than ever  

“A Typical Meeting of the Storm Lords” by James Zhang (source: ‘Eberron: City of Stormreach’)

“What we’re fighting against is these long-term trends in which being selfish, being tribal, being divided, and seeing others as an enemy — that has become a stronger impulse in American life.” 14

That’s from a recent statement made by former president Barack Obama. Putting aside all opinions of past and present presidents, I’m quoting this because it’s a pithy encapsulation of the divisiveness and antagonism we have been seeing lately. While it’s true that COVID-19 has brought some of us closer together, it has also shoved others farther apart from each other. And I would argue that what largely determines who becomes closer and who gets farther apart are ideological factors which, in turn, are often determined by lines of race, class, gender, etc.

There is one thing I feel certain about and it is this: we are in a critical juncture of our journey together as not just a society but as an entire species. Things were already urgent enough with the crisis of climate change alone. Now we have this pandemic and its innumerable ripple effects on top of that. Will we now be able to balance the needs of our economy, not to mention our clashing ideologies, with the equally urgent needs of our planet? The answer will depend on how well we can listen to each other, communicate, and put aside our habitual biases and emotional responses, and to cooperate on a level that’s on par with, perhaps even superior to, that of collective wartime efforts.

Given the current political and cultural climate, that is a tall order to say the least. Again, I don’t claim that tabletop role-playing games in themselves will make a huge dent in this sense, but it can have a small part to play in the grand scheme of holistic solutions. Here are some of the ways in which they can help:

  • They can increase cooperative and communication skills. 15 
  • They can boost empathy via players identifying with characters very different from themselves. 16 This may, however, be related to how imaginative and fantasy-prone the players are, and their ability to deeply “inhabit” the invented minds of their characters. 17
  • They can improve group problem-solving skills. 18   

Granted, I think it helps to have harmonious dynamics within a group of players. But I’ve found that even when I find myself part of an inter-group conflict, I can choose to communicate with the persons involved in non-threatening, empathetic ways, thereby exercising and strengthening my communication and conflict-resolution muscles. It’s not easy. It’s very hard. But it’s the kind of communication we’ll need to do to pull ourselves out of this.   

 5. TRPGs can provide some of the same benefits to well-being as religion

“Blessing the Troops” by Kyle Anderson (via fantasygallery.net/anderson/)

I’ve been wanting to devote a full-length article about this one topic alone. For now, I’ll keep it concise and focus on just a couple of ways, though there are many, that TTRPGs can provide some of the same evidence-backed benefits to well-being as religiousness and spirituality. For our purposes here, the type of benefit I’m most interested in is how religion and spirituality can boost  resilience and stress-related growth during times of crisis. Resilience is being able to return to a previous level of functioning after a period of intense stress. 19 Stress-related growth is when you manage to go beyond that and function even better in certain ways. 20

Studies have found that both formal religions, when practiced healthily, and general spirituality can boost resilience as well as stress-related growth. 21

But while these are nice findings, what about the considerable (and growing) number of people who identify as secular? Are these benefits unavailable to them? After all, just because people identify as secular doesn’t mean they don’t have yearnings that could be described as “spiritual” in certain ways.

Just as with Section #2 and therapy, I’m not suggesting that TTRPGs are equal in every way to historical religions with centuries of tradition behind them. But there are some benefits that overlap and can therefore complement your religious practice, if you have one (no more Satanic Panic!), or perhaps even serve as an alternative form of “spirituality.”   

The first benefit is that TRPGs can be a source of feelings of awe. In positive psychology, awe is one of the so-called positive emotions. Frequent experiences of these positive emotions have many benefits such as making it more likely that people will experience resilience and/or stress-related growth in the face of adversity. 22 And awe, specifically, has been named as one of the positive emotions most likely to induce such growth. 23 

At a time when people are stuck at home, it can be increasingly difficult to find reasons to feel awe. True, some people are feeling greater appreciation for the smaller, quieter moments, like the blooming of a single flower. But this is a skill that not everyone is naturally adept at. Fortunately, tabletop RPGs provide plenty of opportunities to experience awe through “extraordinary experiences” 5. Activities that normally invoke awe for people, such as travel, are now limited or restricted but thanks to RPGs we can travel to and throughout limitless worlds to our hearts’ content. 

For example, there’s a game called Hypertellurians that I’ve recently been playing (thanks, Andrew Hooks, for getting me into it) where there’s a mechanic for experiencing awe, both for your characters and your real self, built into the rules themselves. As you travel through the Ultracosm, every time you witness something awe-inspiring you get Wonder Points which can then be used to accomplish awesome feats (hey, there’s that self-efficacy again). 24 This encourages the GM to write and describe awe-inspiring sights and events, and it also encourages players to seek those experiences out. That’s good. Because awe is good. 

Next, TRPGs can provide a framework of meaning and moral order.

At a time when things don’t make sense, and where things seem to happen without order or meaning, individuals generally have two options, crudely speaking. The first is to believe that life is without inherent meaning, in which case they can choose to simply live with that belief or to piece together a subjective patchwork of meaning derived from various sources (e.g. values like love, honor, etc.). The second is to believe that life is inherently meaningful and adopt a belief system that provides a framework of meaning, such as a religion or philosophy, or, again, to piece together a patchwork of meaning. Or some combination thereof.

Having sources of meaning and order are important for everyone, both in general and especially at this time, because the act of meaning construction plays a determining role in whether people are able to effectively recover from traumatic experiences or not. 25

One reason why religions are so powerful is they are comprehensive systems that contain two of the biggest generators of meaning and order: narrative and ritual. Just as with awe, religion isn’t the only way to tap into the power of narrative and ritual, and tabletop RPGs can tap into elements of both—certainly of narrative and potentially, depending on how you approach it, of ritual.

With my usual caveat that there’s not (yet) a lot of research in this area, there are some studies that do support the idea that RPGs can be legitimate ways to explore schemas of meaning and moral order and to experience less meaninglessness. 26

Making real-life ability checks (or: Bringing it from theory to practice) 

(image: Shutterstock)

There’s one last point I want to make about these potential benefits of playing TRPGs. 

Throughout the life of this Hero Wisdom column, I’ve expressed my belief that the mere consumption of heroic narratives (comics, movies, games, etc.), no matter how inspiring, does not necessarily lead to the deep internalizing of lessons and insights necessary for changes in thought and behavior patterns to occur. 

How, then, do we make this happen? I believe there’s a number of ways and that it also depends on a number of things. In the context of TRPGs, let’s look at two ways of transferring the traits and skills we practice during our game sessions to real-life.

To cite Jane McGonigal one more time, there’s an exercise you can do at anytime which she calls “playing with purpose.” It’s an easy, 3-step process that we can borrow and apply specifically to TTRPGs: 27

  1. Choose a tabletop RPG. D&D, Shadowrun, Call/Trail of Cthulhu, etc.
  2. Choose a benefit. Think of any benefit or skill that you get from playing that game, whether it’s one of the benefits reviewed here or one that you intuitively feel you get (even if it hasn’t been studied academically).
  3. Connect it to a purpose. Think of a real-life purpose or goal that the benefit from Step #2 would help you with. 

Another way is what, in the scientific literature, is called debriefing which is usually a guided, formalized process of introspection and reflection after the experience in question, or in this case post-gaming. Studies in different fields ranging from education to business show that debriefing processes can help with internalizing skills learned and transferring those skills to different contexts. 28 This includes a study of video game simulations and the act of role-playing in general. 29 And also a few studies specific to TRPGs. 30

Rather than go into the details of how debriefing was done in these studies and needlessly complicate things, there’s a super-simple thing we can do that, in my belief, can achieve some of the same objectives as debriefing:

Simply put, after a TRPG gaming session just do the “playing with purpose” technique described above.   

However, this time, after doing Steps 1 to 3 I’d humbly suggest adding a Step 4:

4. Practice the skill. Do something small but concrete for the goal or purpose you identified in Step 3, but do so while consciously holding the thought that you have the ability and skills (e.g. the self-efficacy, the interpersonal skills, the problem-solving skills) that you need for it. Imagine you just exercised those “muscles” while RP-ing so they’re pumped up.  

Further, as you return to reality, consciously try to notice moments in which you are presented with choices both big and small. If you know how to look, you start to see how they are happening virtually at all times (another topic for another day). And know that even when your choices don’t lead to the results you want (maybe you rolled a Nat 1?), you have the ability to make new choices in response and make the best of it. It might not feel like it at first but, trust me, this is true power. This is true control. The only kind we ever really have.

There are benefits to be had from playing TRPGs even if we approach them as nothing more than a way to have fun and escape reality. And that’s valid too. But if we wish, we can multiply and magnify those benefits by infusing our play with intentionality and making an unconscious process more conscious. We do that by frequently reflecting on the benefits that have been observed in studies of tabletop role-playing (of which there will be more in the future), and then purposefully practicing the skills we use in TRPGs in our real lives.  

If you’re skeptical, I understand. But it works for me. Here’s one time (before COVID) I rolled a Nat 20:

Obviously, things like this are impossible right now. And this is NOT one of those “use this time to be productive” articles (ugh, don’t you hate those). But if your basic needs are being met, and you want a little escape, I am saying that TRPGs can be a way to escape reality that, at the same time, make us better equipped to address said reality. And I think that’s a pretty good deal, don’t you?

See you at the gaming table.

References

(Scroll past reference list for endnotes) 

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Endnotes

  1. Magic Sword. (2019). “Herald.” On Awakening [MP3]. Joyful Noise Records.[]
  2. McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Penguin Press; McGonigal, J. (2015). SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully. Penguin Books.[]
  3. McGonigal, 2011[][]
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The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.