The pandemic high alert is nearly over, but many kids are still feeling the effects of the isolation and disconnect highlighted by that crisis, during which adolescent depression and disconnect soared. Research shows that those two things – isolation and depression – can take a toll on the development of kids’ critical social, emotional, problem-solving, and relationship skills.
Gaming for friends
What helps put a child back on the friend-making, social skill-building track? Seattle-based nonprofit Game to Grow has one proven answer: facilitated role-playing games.
Think Minecraft. And, yes, that good ol’ relic of 1970s geekdom and now Hollywood blockbuster, Dungeons & Dragons.
It turns out there’s a lot more to these fantastical character-creation games than meets the eye.
Game to Grow
Game to Grow collaborated with the nonprofit education research group Foundry10 to study the impact of imagination-centered role-playing games on critical skills development in youth, particularly in the areas of conflict resolution, emotional self-regulation, assertiveness and social interaction. The report was published in 2023.
Says Jennifer Rubin, a Foundry 10 senior researcher, “I would like all parents to understand the place that role-playing games have in terms of allowing young people to learn how to handle conflict and other challenges, and to take the perspectives of others while asserting their own ideas.
“When facilitated, these types of games offer a ‘creative sandbox,’ a safe place for young players to practice these skills without undue consequences,” Rubin says.
During the study, Rubin and her colleagues observed and supported a group of 6th- and 7th graders as they navigated the challenges of a role-playing game.
“Investigators were able to see and hear the changes participants went through while playing — how their communication and collaboration skills improved over time,’’ says Rubin.
Parents were also asked to weigh in about changes they saw in their kids during the study. Among other things, the study found that:
- the guidance and support of game facilitators was critical for youth skill development;
- interpersonal conflict during play can be productive in skill development; and
- with guidance, young players demonstrate introspection and reflect on teamwork and individual strengths and weaknesses.
It’s about communication and more
Game to Grow’s mission reflects that evidence. The organization exists to connect kids with opportunities to learn and grow through role-playing games.
“It’s not about buying the game and turning kids loose,” Game to Grow co-founder Adam Davis stresses. “It’s about designing games that encourage role-playing and communication and then facilitating the play to optimize learning.”
Facilitated play is key
Games have the power to improve players’ lives, Davis says, and that power is increased when they take an informed approach to the game and receive feedback from a trained facilitator.
Along with Minecraft, Game to Grow facilitates Critical Core, a role-playing game designed as an alternative to traditional social skills training programs. The game invites kids to enter a fantasy world where they build confidence, develop resilience and connect with family and friends – all while having fun.
Game to Grow is working to expand young players’ access to facilitated play. Facilitators encourage players to stretch themselves in choosing a character, invite them to try on different “ways of being,” and support players in being the best people they can be. Success in these things, says Davis, can have lifelong effects. Research indicates that the strengths developed while playing a role will often be carried over into the “real lives” of young people.
Game to Grow started as a for-profit business but always offered a sliding scale to make it easier for kids of all income levels to play in a facilitated setting. Grants now allow the organization to offer sessions particularly designed for marginalized youth, including LGBTQ+ and kids in the foster care system.
“We want to provide access for those youth who have no champion,” Davis says, “and we don’t refuse service as long as we have capacity.”
Facilitation not therapy
While the organization facilitates growth through play, it does not provide clinical therapy to players. If serious issues arise, facilitators refer youth elsewhere for assessment.
Davis hopes to see role-playing games in local schools and eventually as part of the broader educational system. Social and emotional learning through role-playing can be of benefit to all kids during critical developmental stages, he stresses, not just kids who feel isolated.
The bottom line, proponents of role-play gaming as a health tool say, is this: Making role-playing games, and the skills they engender, available to a wider swath of youth can only have a positive effect on families and communities. For more information, visit gametogrow.org