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Do RPGs make us friendlier, better people?

Hello again dear readers,

As some of you might be able to tell, my enthusiasm for my two projects has maintained longer than ever before. I have not yet gotten in front of any community students to play my community program, but I find myself eager to write the story for others that they might grow their community in a similar way. To this end, I keep finding myself looking at research that supports role-playing games as a powerful force for good. Today, I'd like to talk about one such article I found that analyzed the actual chat log of a real world d&d game and identified in what ways that game fostered community and mental health!

The title of the article was Needs Met Through Role-Playing Games by Aubrie S. Adams, and the article introduces us to an interesting term I hadn't heard before, fantasy theme analysis. When I Googled fantasy theme analysis, what I found was a lot of links and directions to another term symbolic convergence theory. If I understand the description in this article and on Wikipedia correctly, fantasy theme analysis refers to how we can decipher meaning and value in a community based on the symbology and language they use. Symbolic convergence, in this context, is similar to an inside joke where an image or particular description possesses a certain value to the group in which it is used. In this article, they used fantasy theme analysis to decipher on what subjects the d&d party converged symbolically and, therefore, for what purposes they valued the gameplay.

As is usually the case when I'm reacting to these articles, the actual scientific literature has a lot more to say than I'm going to describe here, and that is certainly the case here. That said, I did find it striking that they actually analyzed not an experimental study but an organic real-world chat log of a game played over two years. Ultimately, this chat log revealed that what the players valued most were four things, Democratic ideology, friendship maintenance, extraordinary experiences, and good versus evil.

While all four of those themes are interesting enough to explore further, I was struck by how they use the game for friendship maintenance and good versus evil. In their description of friendship maintenance, the article's author proposed that, in addition to playing the game for the sake of the story, they were also playing the game for the sake of camaraderie. This was evident by the way the players expressed high levels of warmth and affinity towards one another. There are a couple of quotes in this article from the game's chat logs, where this affectionate language was used both in-game where characters were, for example, apologizing to each other, and outside of the game where players were expressing gratitude and excitement.

This alone obviously lends itself to The notion that gameplay facilitates greater degrees of mental health by facilitating friendship. It's interesting that this is something that the community seems to know intuitively, that is also supported empirically. What I didn't expect, as I read on, was that the author would propose the game also fostered moral health. What I mean is that in addition to fostering friendship, the game seemed to also foster and build on the player's sense of what is good and just and what is bad and evil.

In their section regarding good and evil, the author suggests that role playing fulfills a need to participate in moral involvement. That alone struck me as something I had never even considered. Without things like the role-playing games we all enjoy, how often do we really engage with moral involvement? I know for myself, I'm often engaged with narratives of moral judgments, like when I watch the news, but I'm never actually engaged with acting morally. Obviously, I try to live my life well but I don't find myself faced with too many moral dilemmas. I wake up and I'm nice to the people in my life, I go to work, I'm polite there, then I come home. I rarely have my morals questioned or tested. In this way, similar to the value I've proposed the game has for mental health in that it allows players to exercise prosocial and self-care skills, it seems that, at least in this game, dungeons & dragons also allows us to practice morally good skills and allows us to explore moral questions we wouldn't otherwise be asked in our day-to-day life.

For me, the most profound takeaway after reading this article was not how the game fostered health and community, but what aspects of health and community the players were using the game for. In this example, they were clearly using it to foster friendship but also to practice moral action. In the author's conclusion, I get the impression that playing d&d serves this group like a treadmill serves an athlete. The players clearly wanted to develop their friendships and act morally, otherwise their symbology wouldn't have converged on those two themes through their dialogue and conversations.

For me, this is very hopeful for the value of such games in community programs and in mental health spaces. People want to connect with others and people want to be moral, and those are the same people who play this game. This insight gives me hope that a d&d group designed to serve the community is not just something we're doing for fun but is also helping the generation that plays it to grow up and be morally good friends!

What do you think? Does the fact that there are people who play evil characters disprove what this article is suggesting? Does plain and evil character just serve as more symbology that you can use to connect with your friends? Does it serve as a juxtaposition between what is morally right and what your character did in game?

Certainly there's more to read and learn, and as I do both, I wish for you to be well, and keep writing your own story!

Matthieu A.F. Fortier

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