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Tabletop roleplaying games may reduce anxiety and improve social skills

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By Cassidy Ward
Tabletop gaming supplies

Tabletop games have existed as a genre of entertainment in one form or another for thousands of years. Cultures all over the world have developed their unique games, often involving some combination of a game board, tokens, and dice. Many of those games have fallen out of favor or been forgotten over the millennia, but some have shown incredible staying power. Checkers, one of the first tabletop games many of us ever learn to play, dates back thousands of years and shows no signs of stopping.

In the 20th century, tabletop gaming went through something of a renaissance. A new stable of classic games emerged to join checkers and chess. Popular titles like Monopoly, Sorry!, Candy Land, and Risk filled the closets of millions of homes and still inspire some of the earliest sibling rivalries.

Then, in the latter half of the 20th century, a gaming subculture emerged thanks to the invention of Dungeons & Dragons. Tabletop roleplaying games owe something to historical strategy games and war games, but succeeded among kids of the 1970s and ‘80s largely because they incorporated a fantasy aesthetic, recently popularized by the likes of Tolkien and his contemporaries. Those games would continue to evolve with the rise of computers, resulting in ridiculously popular titles like Blizzard’s Warcraft (now a major motion picture streaming on Peacock!) and the slate of massively multiplayer online games that followed.

Along the way, roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons garnered no small amount of controversy. Viewers of the latest season of Stranger Things will be somewhat familiar with the moral panic surrounding the game, and the people who played it, during the 1980s. Some of that panic never really went away and persists even still. All of the claims which encompassed the so-called Satanic Panic ultimately amounted to nothing, of course, but the reputation of tabletop games as being the domain of weirdos and outcasts lingers. Now, according to recent research published in the journal Social Work with Groups, tabletop roleplaying games might finally receive the vindication they so rightly deserve.

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Tabletop games have been used in the past to help patients improve social skill and mental well-being, but most of the data was anecdotal. People who play tabletop games know they’re a great way to reduce stress and form social bonds, but researchers from the Bodhana Group and the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology were the first to carry out a quantitative study on the mental impact of tabletop roleplaying games.

Their study involved 25 adult participants who were split up into five groups of five. Each group met virtually once a week for 12 weeks between May of 2020 and February of 2021. During their sessions, each group would play a roleplaying game and researchers assessed them at baseline and throughout the study, looking for signs of anxiety and other social behavioral cues. Data was assessed using the social phobia inventory, generalized anxiety disorder assessment, social skills inventory, and group satisfaction scale, as well as debriefs with individual participants.

Across the board — no pun intended — groups showed an average decrease in self-reported anxiety and an increase in social skill scores. Although some groups showed improvement in specific types of anxiety, like social anxiety, while others did not. Perhaps most importantly, participants reported satisfaction with the overall group experience, suggesting that the overall experience was pleasant, at the very least. And that’s more or less what we’re looking for when we play games with peers.

Researchers acknowledge that the sample size of their study is small and may not be representative of the wider population. They hope that other researchers will roll up their own studies to further investigate the question. This one study, small as the adventuring party may be, supports what most fans of tabletop RPGs already know: Time spent questing with friends is a great way to refill your spell slots and alleviate the stress of the real world.