Breakthroughs: HU investigates role of role-playing therapy

Mental illness affects one in five adults in the U.S., and 18-25-year-olds are the most likely to suffer from the disease, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Medication, talk, and group therapies are common treatments that can be effective for some. But there is an ongoing need for different approaches.

The Bodhana Group, a York-based mental health treatment nonprofit, advocates for the use of tabletop Role Playing Games (RPGs) as an effective means of therapy. Although they are often used for entertainment, role playing has a long history of therapeutic applications, and the organization believes that, when properly adapted, RPGs can benefit personal growth as well as enhance social and educational services to individuals and families.

The use of RPGs has been used to help treat mental illness since the late 1970s. Still, only a limited number of studies have been performed to gauge the safety and effectiveness of such treatments, and those have produced mixed results. More importantly, practitioners lack detailed information on the best ways to use these tools to maximize the benefit to patients.

This lack of understanding of the true results of RPG therapy is what brought Harrisburg University and the Bodhana Group together in a new research initiative. Led by Dr. Adams Greenwood-Ericksen, Associate Professor of Game Studies and User Experience, Dr. Tamara Peyton, Social Computing and HCI Professor, and Anthony Ortega, Production Coordinator for HU’s Center for Advanced Entertainment and Learning Technologies, and corporate faculty for their Interactive Media Program, the project is titled “Investigating the use of tabletop role playing games as a potential therapeutic intervention for at-risk youth.”

Pictured left to right are Professors Anthony Ortega, Dr. Tamara Peyton, and Dr. Adams Greenwood-Ericksen

The project was conceived by Professor Ortega, who met members of The Bodhana Group while attending their annual “Save Against Fear” Expo with members of his board game design class. During conversations with Jack Berkenstock, Jr., one of the co-founders of The Bodhana Group, he recognized the potential for a collaboration between Harrisburg University and Bodhana to explore the use of tabletop games for therapeutic purposes, which led to the current research project.

Working with two students from HU’s undergraduate program in Interactive Media, alongside key therapy specialists at the Bodhana Group, the research team is exploring how existing RPG therapies are applied to different populations of at-risk individuals. The investigators plan to measure the effectiveness of such intervention for each group, as well as how the use of the game-based therapies could be improved for their target youth population.

The group is particularly interested in whether there are specific groups who might benefit more from these interventions, and why.

“A better understanding of how tabletop RPGs can be used in therapeutic settings could open up new approaches to benefit individuals of all ages who suffer from mental illness, but as a university, we are of course particularly interested in the benefit this work might have for the young adults who are the focus of our community at HU, Greenwood-Ericksen said.

The project was recently awarded a Harrisburg University Presidential Research Grant to support the study, which will enlist the expertise of Harrisburg University’s faculty and students to observe and explore how the experienced therapists of the Bodhana group do their work. They hope to build on the group’s existing practices and methods to help Bodhana identify ways to learn and grow in their mission to help those suffering from mental illness.

The initial study is expected to take six months to complete, but Dr. Greenwood-Ericksen said he hopes to be able to extend their collaboration.

“There are so many interesting questions to explore around this topic. We’re hopeful that this study will lead to future work with our partners at Bodhanna,” he said. “Additionally, not only will the project provide research opportunities for HU students and faculty but will hopefully also lead to publications which will enhance the profile of the university and the community of learners here at HU.”

About Harrisburg University

Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Harrisburg University is a private non-profit university offering bachelor and graduate degree programs in science, technology, and math fields to a diverse student body. For more information on the University’s affordable demand-driven undergraduate and graduate programs, call 717.901.5146 or email, Connect@HarrisburgU.edu.