The Future is Analog: Tabletop Roleplaying for Learning
Research shows that TTRP might hold significant value for youth social and emotional development. Here’s why.
By Tom Swanson
One could make the argument that all games are roleplaying games. In every game you play, you are taking on some kind of a role, whether it is as simple as being “it” in Tag, or playing as a mighty, emotionally complex barbarian in Dungeons and Dragons(D&D). However, the genre of roleplaying games (RPGs) tends to focus on playing as a character, taking on their personality traits, and molding them into the person you imagine. This common theme among games — imagination molded with identity — presents extremely interesting possibilities for education that we on the foundry10 Games and Learning team are excited to explore.
In 2021, our focus as a team is on RPGs, and in particular, tabletop RPGs (TTRPGs). This specific genre of game encompasses many titles and formats ranging from the classic D&D franchise to much more obscure games that operate on completely different mechanics like the heist-inspired intrigue of Blades in the Dark or the fanatical adherence to player choice of Dungeon World. In addition to mechanical differences, there are also entire universes to consider with TTRPGs, and many games allow players to become characters in their favorite franchises like Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, Call of Cthulhu, and Adventures in Middle Earth. Whatever the setting, TTRPGs are defined by the fact that they are just systems in which players can experience adventures with their peers, friends, and family through their fantastical identities.
The options are, quite literally, bound only by imagination.
We believe that such an open-ended and social experience might hold significant value for youth social and emotional development, and we aren’t the only ones. Here are a few studies exploring the topic of TTRPGs specifically:
- Psychology and Role-Playing Games
- Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world
- Needs Met Through Role-Playing Games: A Fantasy Theme Analysis of Dungeons & Dragons
- Imaginative Role-Playing as a Medium for Moral Development: Dungeons & Dragons Provides Moral Training
- Three Different Paths for Tabletop Gaming in School Libraries
Research on this topic is still developing, with many different viewpoints, and we encourage you to check it out for yourself.
For our own research into TTRPGs, we are taking on a few projects in the coming year. They include:
- Our partnership with the Seattle non-profit Game to Grow, which uses D&D (among other games) for therapeutic, educational, and community growth.
- A TTRPG we co-designed with the Marine Science team, ocean professionals, and the folks at Aspiring Youth, with the unofficial working title Penguins off the Port Bow that puts youth in the positions of marine scientists to build career and STEM interest.
Game to Grow
The collaboration between Game to Grow and foundry10 began in earnest towards the beginning of the pandemic. Their work using D&D as a platform to help youth who may have trouble socializing is inspiring to us as a use of games for good. The partnership was a natural fit, and we are excited to explore the role of TTRPGs in the lives of youth.
Potential benefits to the youth of participating in Game to Grow’s activities are quite wide-ranging, and may include improved problem-solving skills, improved frustration tolerance, reduced conflict with peers, increased self-esteem and confidence, improved forgiveness towards self and others, and increased empathy. As we continue our work in this area, we plan to examine these potential benefits and the impact TTRPG play has on young learners.
COVID-19 threw many of our initial plans into disarray, but presented a fascinating opportunity to look at how the program shifts and changes when remote. For many youth, it is possible that remote play may make gaming more accessible and allow youth to directly benefit from social-emotional learning opportunities offered through the program. On the other hand, it could be that remote play removes many of the social elements of the game, limiting its impact. We are very interested to find out more.
Please keep an eye on this work if you are at all interested in our findings, and feel free to sign up for our newsletter to stay posted.
Penguins off the Port Bow
Our second project in TTRPGs is a collaboration with Aspiring Youth, a local non-profit that provides a wide variety of RPG programming for neurodiverse youth. It began as a request to help design some science-related programming that could be done remotely, and wound up being the first ever game designed, in part, by foundry10 staff! For the time-being, we are calling it Penguins Off the Port Bow (POPB, for short). Fully remote-ready, we are excited to see how it performs with real youth in the coming months.
The vision is quite simple: provide a system that allows youth to roleplay as marine scientists in the field, react to realistic situations, and apply the skills of their characters and critical thinking to solve problems as a team. The game works as many other TTRPGs do, beginning with character creation. Youth will start by choosing a character class (called “fields of expertise” in POPB) which will define their initial skills. From there, they can customize and personalize their ocean pro with different skill sets and specialized equipment.
Some of the 8 available fields of expertise are:
Ocean Engineer: The Achiever
Skills: Mechanical aptitude, Vehicle and robot piloting, Fine motor skills
Marine Biologist: The Investigator
Skills: Taxonomy, Live specimen collection, Ecosystems knowledge
Science Communicator: The Peacemaker
Skills: Social Media influence, Writing, Persuasion
Navigator: The Loyalist
Skills: Weather forecasting, Marine chart reading, Orienteering
Each pathway comes with 3 predetermined skills and youth get to pick a few other skills to round out their character’s personality., Here are a some highlights:
Marine Archaeology Knowledge
Visions of Atlantis have inspired you since you were a child. As an experienced professional, you have helped to unearth great mysteries of sunken ships, downed airplanes, submarines, and various treasures that humanity has long forgotten. Your ability to combine seemingly abstract documents, historical records, and modern sea charts to pinpoint sites of interest to explore is uncanny.
You can talk a seagull off an open oyster. Your power of persuasion stems from your strong confidence in the mission and goals of your life’s work. Whether you are requesting support from shore, interpreting the interests of the scientists to authorities, or enlightening the public on the wonders and plight of the ocean, your voice is authoritative and compelling.
The images a SONAR produces are colorful and confusing to most people, but you can read them like a book. This allows you to easily interpret what the entire water column and structures on the seafloor look like beneath your ship, including large schools of fish, shipwrecks, rock structures, and bubble plumes; handy information to have before dive operations. This skill can be impacted by functions like how fast the ship is moving and weather conditions.
This project is still in its infancy, and we are currently in the play-testing phase Throughout the Winter and Spring we will be bringing our TTRPG to youth! After we pilot and refine our game design,we plan to make all of it freely available for anyone to use in their classrooms and communities. Sign up for our newsletter to stay posted on this and myriad other resources from foundry10!
We believe there may be immense value to this sort of roleplaying for youth, and we think this is a valuable direction for games research to go. D&D, in particular, is easy to pick up and play, and provides a wealth of flexibility and options for educators to adapt their content goals.
By their very nature, TTRPGs provide flexible environments wherein imaginative educators can bring their ideas to life and engage their learners in fun, exciting, and educational play. If you have any thoughts or ideas to add, or would like to connect with us about your ideas for implementing TTRPGs, we encourage you to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org!