I started seeing a therapist a little over a year ago to help figure out better ways of dealing with a lot of anxiety I was experiencing. A lifetime of social awkwardness, trauma from a past abusive marriage, half a decade of freelancing, living for weeks in a hospital while my wife Sara endured and recovered from a series of brain surgeries… it was (and still is) a lot. After speaking with a clinic, I was paired with a therapist who specializes in ACT — Acceptance and Commitment Therapy — and got to work.
There’s a lot to ACT that I’m just scratching the surface of, but essentially, it focuses on recognizing thoughts and feelings as they occur, accepting that they exist, and then addressing them in a way that aligns with your personal values. In other words, ACT works to strengthen cognitive flexibility, which is essentially the readiness to change one’s behavior when dealing with a changing environment. ACT won’t change the fact that you may live in chronic pain, are financially insecure, have suffered significant personal loss, or are otherwise dealing with events beyond your control, but it will seek to help with the suffering we put ourselves through while managing those things.
So what’s all that have to do with gaming? A lot more than I thought it would. Over the last 15 years or so, several papers have been written regarding the efficacy of RPGs as a therapeutic tool. RPGs have been shown to reduce general and social anxiety, improve satisfaction and communication skills for autistic children, increase empathy amongst players, and a whole host of other demonstrable benefits. With this in mind, I’ve been working on coupling my role-playing experiences with ACT exercises to improve my cognitive flexibility.
For example, one of the core principles of ACT is Self as Context: the idea that the core of a person is different than the thoughts, emotions, and events they experience. That the core of a person is an observer to these things, and that this separateness can be used to create a calm center while thoughts, feelings, and stimuli go in and out of your awareness.
It’s a difficult thing to do, but it’s a lot easier to practice when you’ve got a character sheet in front of you. Here, the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences of your character are all separated by the understanding that your character is a piece of fiction, and that while you may emote or act through your character, your character is not you. You aren’t a level 10 Barbarian Dwarf (probably); you play a level 10 Barbarian Dwarf. In the same way, you aren’t whatever your real-life job is; you’re a person working that job. This separation gives you stable footing when those things outside of you change. In terms of your core self, playing a different character isn’t any different than getting a different job (or being out of a job) — you are still you, unchanged by the lack of that external relationship. Being able to move into and out of those relationships without significant internal disruption is ultimately an exercise in cognitive flexibility.
Here’s another example: ACT is big on Acceptance. It’s not about trying to get rid of pain, it’s about letting yourself off the hook for it. Over the years, I’ve tended to lean heavily into more narrative games — games where players have a lot of agency over the impact of dice rolls more than most simulationist games allow. In games Powered by the Apocalypse, when characters take action, there is very rarely a binary ‘success versus failure’. Instead, the impact of successes and failures are guided by the shared fiction of the game.
When I’m running games like this, it’s essential that I understand that the game will rarely go the way I’m expecting it to, and in order to keep things moving I’ll need to quickly toss plans aside to make sense of the actions and dice rolls in front of me. I can’t control the dice, but I can control how I react to their result, inline with the collaborative story that’s being told at the table, without judgment. In much the same way, I can’t control feelings of anxiety, depression, or self-loathing; but I can acknowledge that these emotions exist, and figure out a way to act in accordance with both them and my personal values.
Lastly, ACT is about committing to action. Later this month, I’ll be starting a 9-week course designed by practicing therapists on how to run RPGs that are safer and more inclusive. I asked that my therapist vet the program for me, and as it turns out, he liked it so much that he has now recommended the course to his practice based on its legitimacy. I’m in no way a therapist, and this course isn’t going to take the place of years of education and practice, but I am capable of being a better and more empathetic game master. I’m capable of committing to practicing these skills in myself, and recognizing when they can be applied to stories and character situations in ways that can be valuable to my players. I value community, kindness, advocacy, and curiosity; educating myself in this direction is in accordance with all of those values. I don’t know how this course will affect how I run games, but if I can help more people through gaming, I’m eager to do it.
If any of this interests you, I’m happy to talk! Hop onto the TAG discord server, send me an email, or better yet, pop into my monthly GM Workshop (where we’ve always considered game mastering a form of communal therapy, anyway). Take care, folks!
You can learn more about RPG research by visiting rpgresearch.com — and these folks are located just north of us, in Spokane!
Written by Brendan Quinn, President of Tri-City Area Gaming. We’re out in the world again! Come play games with us at any of our regular monthly events.
All the links for Tri-City Area Gaming: tcag.carrd.co