Have you ever wanted to escape from the world? Ever found yourself fantasizing “what if”? Ever wondered what it’s like not to suppress certain characteristics or qualities? Table Top and Live Action Role Play are just some ways that we can achieve that.
So why am I talking about it on a website that is about therapy, mental health and wellbeing? I am an avid player of D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) and attend several LARP’s a year. Of course, it is a hobby that I enjoy, but the value I place on it is the benefits that it provides to my mental health, wellbeing and personal growth.
Live Action Role Play (LARP)
I have experienced a lot of difficulties over the years around things such as anxiety and problems with public speaking. When I met my partner, I was introduced to the world of LARP – and was convinced to try an event about 6 months later. I did not expect to feel comfortable, I did not expect to take part independently of my partner.
That first night I was terrified. I was camping for the first time ever and was surrounded by strangers. “Time In” was called and I stayed silent for the first couple of hours. Then, my partner disappeared. They were in a tent, spending time with friends. I had no idea where they were, and was too scared to leave the “tavern” location. It was the greatest blessing – because I was effectively adopted by a bunch of experienced players and within 12 hours was outside fighting with the rest of them!
Since then, I have been to LARP for several years. I have played 3 different characters (in 3 games) – somehow, I haven’t died yet. I’ve taken part in huge rituals in front of large numbers of people, been involved in incredibly emotional plot and role played a God.
- First Picture: Nila, Light Phoenix. An elf from a distant land. Ritualist who has been declared “dead” by her brethren resulting in her finding a new home.
- Second Picture: Deanna Harlinson, a fiery red-headed diplomat, later High Priestess of a clan.
- Third Picture: Hiromi Nariko, eldest cousin of the Hiromi cousins, therefor head Courtier and Diplomat
Dungeons and Dragons
I was later introduced to the world of table top roleplay games, such as D&D, by several of my new friends. This is similar to LARP in that you play a character, but instead of dressing up in a field, you sit around a table with a bunch of dice.
Since being introduced to D&D I have played a variety of characters. This has allowed me to try different characteristics that I haven’t usually explored. This has included being aloof and playful instead of responsible, cold and dark instead of warm and welcoming.
It has been incredibly liberating to experience different roles, responsibilities and characteristics. Whilst it is a form of escapism, it is also a place where I have learnt how to be ‘me’ in a more open and congruent way.
Working through my general difficulties in therapy, my therapist has learnt all about D&D and LARP with me. They have helped me, in the therapy room, to explore my feelings more. We came up with a phrase “be more like Strawberry” after a character I played that was more impulsive, playful and aloof. This has helped me to go with the flow and not let anxiety take over me. This was a major breakthrough for me, and something I refer to regularly, even now.
Further work has helped me to realise that many of the characteristics that I was exploring in role play was unconsciously parts of me that I wanted to access. Like I mentioned earlier, I was scared of public speaking and experienced great anxiety. This has made me scared of conflict, fearful of speaking up and wouldn’t harness my role as a leader. Working on this in therapy, I began to bring my different parts of self together. It has helped me to stand up for what I believe in and become more of a leader in my community.
What Does The Research Say?
In trying to find research on Role-Play Games and LARP, I noticed that there is a distinct lack of understanding of the impact on adults. There are several papers and organisations that specialise in offering D&D therapy as part of play and drama therapy to children and young people (mostly in the United States), finding that the outcomes were favourable for their wellbeing.
I did discover the RPG Research project in America that aimed to look at both tabletop role play and LARP. They have been bringing together research since the 1980s. I have found some examples where D&D have been used as a tool to help patients. For example Blackmon (1994) which found that D&D was able to help a 24 year old man with schizophrenia to “learn to acknowledge and express his inner self in a safe and guided way. The patient ultimately matured and developed healthier object relations and a better life.” However, research is incredibly limited.
Uri Koren, a dramatherapist, wrote about their understanding of the links between Drama Therapy and LARP, noting the value of the experiences and the similarities between LARP and therapy. Yet, much of the literature on using LARP and D&D as a therapeutic tool is entirely focussed on children. For example, Rubin and Enfield (2007) looked at a group of 11-13 year olds, and used a D&D style game – with the intervention leading to participants changing their behaviour at home and school.
Further examples of therapeutic uses of games include Adlerian Play Therapy (as well as art) to support people to express themselves better. Gutierrez (2017) found that characters can be a “buffer to help go through situations or process feelings [a client] may not entirely feel comfortable doing in real life yet“, effectively a safe form of exposure therapy. I’d definitely agree with this view, based on my own experiences.
In the mainstream, LARP is synonymous with fantasy clichés – orcs, elves and goblins. But there is another side to LARP. Nordic LARPs are known as changing the image of European LARP. Their games are closer to drama therapy, and these influences can be found in more recent LARPs in the UK – such as “The Quota” which looked at what it was like to be part of a refugee crisis (set in a post-Brexit Wales). It’s not without its controversies – is it privilege to ‘play’ a refugee? Or is it an immersive way to educate people on this humanitarian crisis? A topic for another post, I’m sure, but interesting nonetheless.
I hope I’ll be able to look more into this interesting topic as time goes on. I’ll also put together more of my own personal experiences and developments through RPG and LARP, as I think sometimes a way to teach on a topic is to use yourself as the guinea pig!
References and Further Reading
- Blackmon, W., (1994) “Dungeons and Dragons: the use of a fantasy game in the psychotherapeutic treatment of a young adult“, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 48 (4)
- Gutierrez, R., (2017) “Therapy & Dragons: A look into the Possible Applications of Table Top Role Playing Games in Therapy with Adolescents”, Electronic Theses, Projects and Dissertations
- Koren, Uri (2018) “Running Larps as a Drama Therapist”, In Nielson, Jacobsen Meland, Kot, & Pulertis (Eds.), The Larpwriter Summer School Collection
- Psychology Today, “Adlerian Therapy“
- Reith-Banks, T., (2018) “Beyond Dungeons and Dragons: Can Role Play Save the World?“, The Guardian
- Ruben, L. (Ed.) & Enfield, G., (2007) “Becoming the Hero: The use of role-playing game games in psychotherapy”, Using Superheroes in Counseling and Play Therapy