Roleplaying games are far more than just a social hobby. They are a form of collaborative storytelling, whose roots extend far deeper than the creation of Dungeons & Dragons nearly 50 years ago. Their heritage permeates the very roots of our culture.
“Roleplaying games are similar to the ancient tradition of telling stories around the campfire,” explains Adam Davis of the roleplaying-based therapy group Game to Grow. “While playing RPGs seems like a new phenomenon, it's actually ancestral. Learning and growing through stories is in our DNA.”
The lockdown did not create a problem, but emphasised an existing one, namely isolation.
When the lockdowns and social distancing came into effect last spring in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, people were no longer able to meet in person and play games. It would be fair to say that the isolation was hard for almost everybody. People were separated from their friends and family, holidays were cancelled and celebrations were missed. We were locked inside, for the first time in our lives, in the midst of a pandemic; trying to cope with the associated stress without the usual support network around us.
“The lockdown did not create a problem, but emphasised an existing one, namely the isolation,” says Davis. “Not just isolation, but the epidemic of loneliness that we already experienced long before COVID-19.”
With players being unable to meet in person, they turned to virtual tabletops. These are online platforms that allow people to play roleplaying games over the internet, usually in conjunction with video conferencing tools.
People were seeking ways to tackle the isolation, and it seemed tabletop RPGs might be an answer. It was not only existing players who were playing online, but new ones too, intrigued by the social interaction that the hobby offered.
One of the things that we saw immediately was an increased interest in D&D.
Interest in tabletop roleplaying had been building over the previous few years, but it started peaking from the end of March 2020, at the height of the first lockdown.
“One of the things that we saw immediately was an increased interest in D&D,” says Dan Barrett, the EU brand manager for Dungeons & Dragons at Wizards of the Coast. “We were at an all-time high in the UK.”
This increased demand was shared by virtual tabletop providers. “We saw a spike in new users of roughly 15 times our normal rate,” says Doug Davison, developer of virtual tabletop platform Fantasy Grounds.
One person who roleplayed for the first time during lockdown was emergency line operator Chase Day. “As a 44-year-old woman who works shifts, it's hard for me to find people who want to roleplay with me,” says Day. “Initially we were really awkward, but then I forgot the people weren't in the room with me.”
Being able to draw upon shared positive experiences - regardless of whether they actually happened or not - becomes a tool for positive reinforcement. “Events in roleplaying games are stored in our memory as things we have directly experienced, thereby creating positive memories for players to look back on,” explains Davis.
We know these memories are pure fantasy, but because there are in-game consequences for our actions, they act as memories. This is echoed by Day, who describes how she felt after roleplaying: “I felt really pumped and went to bed going over the game, thinking about developing my character.”
Having something positive to look back upon, particularly actions that ultimately benefited the group they are playing with, demonstrates how a player and their character can make a positive contribution to the overall success of a group, both in and out of the game.
The four main reasons we use tabletop RPGs in our social skills groups: learning the perspectives of others, improving frustration tolerance, developing problem-solving skills, and cultivating communication and collaboration skills.
Roleplaying games are a tool for enabling conversation, allowing people to connect with friends. Often, only half the time during a session is actually spent roleplaying, as the other half is usually spent chatting. Unlike hanging out with friends in Zoom parties or on apps such as House Party, tabletop RPGs provide a basis for conversation. It is for this reason that roleplaying games are being used in therapy to help people become more confident and socially capable.
“While we were brainstorming for a presentation at PAX South in 2016, we filled an entire whiteboard with reasons why tabletop roleplaying games are inherently beneficial, says Davis. “We narrowed down the four main reasons we use tabletop roleplaying games in our social skills groups: learning the perspectives of others, improving frustration tolerance, developing problem-solving skills, and cultivating communication and collaboration skills.”
Roleplaying games have often been dismissed as an escapist fantasy by those outside the hobby, but this is the very reason why they are ideal to play in lockdown. It is understandable that people would, for a few hours each week, want to indulge in such escapism where they have control over the world around them.
“It feels very much like we don't have agency over how the country is being run, or over the pandemic,” says game designer Chloe Mashiter of Roll/Flip/Draw, who has first-hand experience of tabletop RPGs' contribution to mental health. “A really big thing, in terms of how it can help your mental health, is having an arena where you feel like you have some control over the stories that are told.”
Furthermore, roleplaying allows us to experiment with the different personas that we inhabit. We all present alternative facets of our personality to different people. The relationship you have with your parents is different from that with your children or your partner, for example.
D&D is a saviour for people's mental health and social lives right now.
During lockdown we typically exhibited only one persona, locking ourselves into a single archetype. Roleplaying allows us to access these other archetypes within ourselves and explore them within multiple settings. Barrett has heard people express that playing things on Zoom, such as pop quizzes, are like a photocopy of a former life. “People say D&D isn't like that," he says. "It's a saviour for both their mental health and social lives right now."
RPGs may not have developed a COVID-19 vaccine or created an exit strategy for the looming economic fallout. However, they do provide moments of wonder, allowing people to escape the confines of their homes. Tabletop roleplaying provides psychological and emotional support for those who need it, as well as being a lot of fun at a time when there is very little.
Edit: Dan Barrett's comments regarding Zoom have been clarified.