RPP-310: Roleplaying Promotes Wellbeing

Attention: People at Play
Attention: People at Play

Roleplaying Philosophy Series:

Roleplaying games are good for your health.  No, really.  Studies show that play is the gateway to vitality.  And rolePLAYing may be one of the most rewarding forms of play.

Earlier this year, Tony Law posted a video on RPG Centric from the TED (Technology, Entertainment, & Design) Conference.  The video features Dr. Stuart Brown from the National Institute of Play discussing how the importance of play transcends childhood (as well as species!) and continues to be vital for adults.  I urge you to visit RPG Centric and watch the video before reading further.

Basically, scientific research has found evidence that supports the theory that play is as fundamental to human development and health as is sleep, exercise (which some play could be considered), or nutrition.  It is essential:

A life or a culture devoid of or deficient in play exists as a heightened major public health risk factor. The prevalence of depression, stress related diseases, interpersonal violence, the addictions, and other health and well being problems can be linked, like a deficiency disease, to the prolonged deprivation of play. – The National Institute of Play

Seven Patterns of Play

The Institute of Play has identified seven elemental forms, or patterns, of play.  Roleplaying games are unusual in the respect that they have the potential to incorporate all seven patterns of play, making this sometimes ridiculed activity a prime candidate for individuals seeking to balance their life with play.


Attunement play is often a wordless understanding, attunement, between people that can be marked by shared smiles and the sense that two or more people are connected at a subconscious level.  It is usually initiated by eye contact.  Perhaps the best example of attunement is when a mother and baby make eye contact and the baby smiles and makes a noise which then in turn prompts the mother to vocalize.  Studies using an EEG show that the right sides of the participants’ brains become attuned.

This base level of play is achieved during a roleplaying game through eye contact and laughter.  The sudden outbursts of excitement when a player makes a particularly good roll (or the moans & groans at a bad roll) is a form of attunement that enhances the shared experience of the play.

Body & Movement

Exploring how our bodies move is a way of knowing and learning about our environment and our selves.  A simple hop can convey the idea of gravity.  “Innovation, flexibility, adaptability, resilience have their roots in movement.” (National Institute of Play)

Live Action Role Play [LARP] obviously have this ground covered, especially if the gameplay includes physical simulation of combat.  However, even the exercise of exploring your vocal range to provide unique voices to characters and non-player characters constitutes body play.


Science has established a direct correlation between the manipulation of objects and adult problem solving.  The correlation is so strong that companies like Boeing practically require potential engineers to not only have an advanced degree but also experience with fixing/building things by hand such as cars and model airplanes.

Most roleplaying games require dice to simulate the element of chance or the unknown into play.  The throwing (and often just playing with) of dice is a form of object play.  Another common feature of roleplaying games is miniatures and terrain.  Manipulating miniatures around the artificial scenery definitely constitutes object play.  An argument could even be made that tweaking a character sheet could also be considered object play.


Humans are social creatures by nature and there is an instinctual desire to belong.  There are researchers who believe that further study into the science of social play and its influence on the sense of community could lead to breakthroughs on the prevention of violence.

This is an obvious component of roleplaying games, because you cannot have one (per my definition) without more than one person.  The social aspect of roleplaying games is without a doubt the primary motivation for many gamers who participate in the ritual.  In fact, there is a very strong sense of community among avid roleplayers that transcends national, racial, and cultural boundaries.


The ability of a person to pretend and create their own sense in their mind is key to innovation and creativity.  Studies have shown that this type of play is critical in the development of coping skills and trust.

The entire concept of roleplay hinges on imagination.  Players imagine the actions the scenes and actions of their characters.  The entire world the game takes place in is imaginary, even if it is a reflection of the real thing.


“Storytelling, the way most kids love to learn, is, when under the play microscope, identified as the unit of human intelligibility.” (National Institute of Play)  Storytelling is a vicarious method of learning, helping individuals to understand others and through them, ourselves.

A by-product, or in some instances, the goal of roleplaying games is a narrative of events that revolve around the actions of player characters.  It allows players to experience hypothetical events and explore possibilities that are either impossible, too dangerous, or taboo in reality.

Transformative-Integrative & Creative

“We can access fantasy-play to transcend the reality of our ordinary lives, and in the process germinate new ideas, and shape and re-shape them. Given enriched circumstances, and access to novelty, our play drive takes us into these realms spontaneously. Whether like Einstein imaginatively riding pleasurably on a sunbeam at the speed of light, or a light-hearted group of IDEO corporation designers wildly imagining a new product, each is using their playfulness to innovate and create.” (National Institute of Play)  This form of play allows us to use the things we have learned through other patterns of play to create.

Through roleplaying games, participants create a shared experience.  Their characters become living, breathing alter egos that evolve and grow over the course of several games.  Roleplaying games often compel their participants to write stories, develop homebrew mechanics and worlds, and dabble in the arts.  Skills developed at the table can truly transcend their purpose in the game.

Future Revelations

Scientific study that researches the benefits of play is good for everyone, not just children or gamers.  Hopefully it will result in discoveries that can improve life and further our knowledge of how people develop and the impact it has on behavior and health.

Legitimate Academic Subject

Hard scientific evidence in the field of play will help legitimize the subject in academia.  Even with the giant strides made in research today, I believe that play is not taken as serious as it should be.  It is vital to our health and the faster it becomes accepted as a valid subject the better its chances are at obtaining the necessary grant money to continue its research.

Fearless Roleplaying

If it can ever be imprinted on the minds of people that play is important, then perhaps it will help remove the stigma that is still present in the area of roleplaying.  No doubt there will always remain the contingent of closed minded individuals and groups that will forever condemn the activity, but hopefully it will shrink so far as to no longer have an impact on gamers.

Selected References

Below is a list of selected reference for further research and reading.

Allen, Bekoff, M. (1994). Intentionality, Social Play, and Definition.

Bekoff, M. (1978). Social Play, Structure, Function and the evolution of a cooperative social behavior. In: the development of behavior: Comparative and evolutionary aspects.

Forencich, Frank. (2001). Play as if Your Life Depended Upon It.

Gross, J.J., Mauss, I.B., Levenson, R.W., Wilhelm, F. H. (2005). The Tie That Binds? Coherence among Emotion, Experience, Behavior and Physiology. Emotion Vol. 2, 175-90

Leslie, A.M. (1987). Pretense and representation: The origins of theory of mind.  Psychological Review, 94, 412-426.

Schore, A.N. (2000). The self-organization of the right brain and the neurobiology of emotional development.  Emotion, Development, and Self-Organization, (pp. 155-185).

Sheets- Johnstone, Maxine. (1999). The Primacy of Movement. Johns-Benjamin Vol. 14, Advances in Consciousness Research.

Singer, Jerome L. (1973). Child’s World of Make-Believe: Experimental Studies of Imaginative Play.

Singer, J. L., Switzer, E. (1980). Mind Play: The Creative Uses of Fantasy.

Stevens, V. (2006). Transparency to Transformation.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. (1997). The Ambiguity of Play.

Wilson, Frank. (1999). The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture.

Winnicott, D. W. (1999). Playing and Reality.

Listening to: Corrosion of Conformity – Wiseblood – Drowning in a Daydream

6 thoughts on “RPP-310: Roleplaying Promotes Wellbeing

  1. Huizinga, in the book called Homo ludens or some translation thereof, argues that (almost) all culture springs from competitive play, and also argues that play and holy rituals, justice, and several other activities are closely related. Worth reading, even if I find myself disagreeing with the man in several places.

  2. @Jonathan: It’s part of my ten year plan: 1) Get my Masters, 2) Get a PhD, 3) implement rigorous coursework in play at the elementary, secondary and collegiate levels. Oh the importance of recess (it’s not a break, it’s another form of learning!).

    @Tommi: Thanks for the reading suggestion! I have heard other theory that discusses the idea of competitive sports being a ritual to assuage the cultural drive for war. I wonder if that book touches on that subject.

  3. I’ve read roughly 2/3 of the book, so take that into account.

    Huizinga argues that in the good old ancient times people had ritualised behaviours that were engaged in to avoid war, and further ritualistic forms of warfare to further reduce it (like champions fighting and solving the issue in that way). He argues that total war is far from play.

  4. @Questing GM: Glad you liked it! This makes me think that perhaps the Church of the Radiant Polyhedron needs a monastic arm focused on teaching…

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