How role-playing games can give your kid a mental health boost

RPGs are making a comeback—and helping children deal with the pandemic.

Once a week for an hour at a time, 12-year-old Elijah Zachary transforms from a regular sixth-grade student into a Dungeon Master. Together with two other friends from school, he navigates a complex world of medieval-inspired heroes and monsters in an exciting game of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).

Before the pandemic, Elijah and his D&D group met at the library or in the park— but over the past year, the action unfolds virtually over Zoom. “My son has been really isolated from other kids, and there had been so little going on in their locked-down lives,” says his mother, Alissa. “He and his friends didn’t have much to talk about—until they had the game.”

Elijah is part of a growing group of kids and adults who have discovered the world of role-playing games (RPGs). Once considered the province of the uber-nerdy, RPGs are going mainstream. Hasbro’s Wizards of the Coast—which owns popular games like D&D and Magic, The Gathering—raked in $816 million in 2020, a 24 percent increase from 2019, according to The Wall Street Journal. Plus, D&D revenue was up 33 percent in 2020 alone

It turns out RPGs aren’t just popular because they’re a ton of fun—they also have unique characteristics that benefit kids’ mental health and social skills, something especially important during the pandemic. Here’s what makes RPGs special and how to get your kid in on the game. 

What sets RPGs apart from video games

True RPGs like D&D differ from popular app and console-based games, like Adopt Me and Minecraft, which have also captured kids’ time and attention during the pandemic.

“When you’re playing a video game—even one in which you’re playing a role—you’re limited by the parameters of the game,” says Sam “Shammo” Horne, the chief creative officer at Maryland-based Alternative Games, a group of game masters who facilitate storytelling games like D&D in-person and online.

On the other hand, games like D&D involve what Horne calls theater of the mind. “They are conjured in the imagination of the players, and ensue in a collaborative, cooperative atmosphere,” he says. “That has no limits.”

And although each player assumes a specific role or character, RPGs are typically played in-person as opposed to behind a digital avatar or anonymously. During the pandemic, parents and players even set up outdoor, physically distanced games to maintain connections.

“That face-to-face connection makes a difference,” Horne says. “People like seeing expressions, and many depend on them for unspoken social cues,”

A safe space to develop new communication and social skills

What makes these games so different is that they’re a way to reinforce social connections without actually scripting how kids interact, says Adam D. Davis, executive director of Game to Grow in Kirkland, Washington. The nonprofit, which uses games to facilitate community growth as well as for therapeutic and educational purposes, has seen its numbers double since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We are not telling kids how to make a friend,” Davis says. “We are not teaching kids to camouflage and fit in. They can engage on their own terms.”

For instance, 16-year-old Lily Lejeune says RPGs have had a positive impact on her friendships because she feels like she can communicate with others over shared interests. “[RPGs] opened up a whole new realm of possibilities in more ways than one,” she says. “Along with creative expression, it also helped me make more friends and bond with those I had.”

Play of all kinds, of course, has a lot of benefits, says Katie Lear, a child therapist in Davidson, North Carolina, who specializes in play therapy and the therapeutic use of RPGs. “Play helps us assimilate information we’ve learned, test new ways of behaving before using them in real life, hone our social skills, and boost our creative problem-solving abilities.”

Plus, games like D&D give players unlimited creative freedom. “RPGs give children a chance to feel strong and all-powerful in a world that often leaves them feeling powerless,” says Lear, especially during the pandemic restrictions. “They can practice being leaders, safely vent aggression, or speak up for themselves assertively while in character. Because the game is ‘pretend’ it can feel less threatening to try out new skills.”

Mental health benefits and identity exploration

One of the most significant benefits of RPGs that Lear has observed in her practice is a reduction in depressive symptoms.

“As the pandemic wears on, I'm seeing more kids than ever before who are struggling with depression,” she says. “The lack of positively reinforcing activities can lead to decreased motivation and low mood over time.”

Social and creative activities can be a powerful antidote to depression. “RPGs fit this bill perfectly: Each session is unpredictable and will require creative problem-solving with friends in order to navigate through the game,” Lear says. “It feels great to become good at something new and gives kids’ self-esteem a boost.”

Role-playing games also foster identity exploration. “The actions players take in a game still incur consequences, but onto the character and not the person,” Horne says. “In this way, players can attempt numerous social approaches and see which work.”

That includes exploring gender identity, says Dee Harris, an activities coordinator with Alternative Games. “Using D&D characters as a form of exploration can help a person feel prepared for the real thing,” Harris says. “They can try on pronouns and presentations with their characters to figure out what they want to use for real.”

In addition to facilitating self-reflection, RPGs can be a powerful empathy-building tool. The role-playing aspect of D&D makes it particularly powerful, Lear says. Kids started to take other players' thoughts, feelings, and strengths into consideration. “Playing as a character who’s different from you allows yourself to see the world through someone else’s eyes.” 

If you're looking for an RPG experience for your child, Lear recommends joining or organizing a group of children close to your child's age. “An 11th grader is going to play the game very differently from a sixth grader,” she explains.

If you're considering in-person gameplay, consider asking your child’s friends, parents, and teachers to gauge their interest in starting a group. You may also be able to find existing groups in your area by contacting your local game store, library, or community center, Lear adds.

Whether the kids are playing online or in person, Horne recommends that games are moderated by at least one adult to make sure the conversation stays respectful and that nobody is being bullied. “You can't rely on an auto moderator to keep kids safe like you might in a video game,” he says. “Whatever platform you choose to play on, pay attention to who is facilitating and their credentials.”

Adult moderators can also step into the game master role until one of the kids is experienced enough to step into the position. “If your game master is not experienced, you run the risk of the game feeling monotonous or tedious, and kids may leave feeling frustrated or discouraged,” Lear says. “Keep the pace moving and highlight your child's strengths, which keeps the game fun.”

And having fun is more important than ever as kids continue to deal with the effects of the pandemic. As 11-year-old Ada told her mom, Debbie Bernstein, sometimes bad luck can happen in D&D, and you just have to work through it.

“I think the game can help kids build up perseverance and resilience,” Bernstein says. Adds Ada: “It kind of takes me away from everything that’s going on here.”

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