RPGs, imaginative play, and libraries

More good news for fans of fantasy role-playing games (or RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder!

An article by Merrill Miller posted last week on The Humanist presents the findings of a recent study published in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion that explores the link between imagination and irreligiosity.

There is a growing body of literature exploring the links between imaginative play and cognitive and creative development (I’ve included a sample below), on everything from teaching chemical formulas to middle schoolers to helping students learn diplomacy.

Organizations like The RPG Research Project are spearheading research on the positive effects of collaborative gaming on ethics, problem solving, empathy, racial and gender stereotype attitudes, and verbal and writing skills. There are also therapeutic applications, from treating PTSD, depression, bi-polar, and autism-spectrum disorders.

To my knowledge though, this is one of the first studies to examine the impact of role-playing and storytelling on current religious status. Miller reports in the article that “individuals who did not change their religious or nonreligious identification were less likely to have engaged in pretend play. Converts and switchers, however, were more likely to have played pretend, and apostates were the most likely to have often engaged in pretend play.”

As a librarian, I’m interested in the educational and creative applications of RPGs, especially for children and teens. However, as a secular American, I can’t help thinking of the words of Thomas Jefferson to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787: “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

I had a fantastic conversation at ALA in San Francisco with two guys at the Paizo Publishers booth. They were thrilled to hear that I’m a newcomer to role-playing and to Pathfinder, and that I’d just started building my first character—a half-elf bard named Casevar (for your who-cares notebooks). I also learned that Pathfinder has a growing presence in the teen sections of many libraries, and that some librarians even keep a copy of the core rulebook as a reference material for in-library groups to use.

This gets to the core of our mission as librarians: that providing access to tools and information will help inspire, invest in, and produce better informed, curious, and compassionate individuals who are engaged and critical thinkers. RGPs such as Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder can reinforce this work through conversations about ethics and morality, experiencing consequences of one’s own and others’ actions, and the priorities of different qualities (such as intelligence versus strength or charisma) in a character in the context of group dynamics. It’s a remarkably complex and philosophical exercise!

I’m also curious if there are similar benefits to virtual cooperative gaming, but from my personal experience with Pathfinder campaigning, being at the same table, in person, is quite different from interacting online.


Further reading:

Chen, M., Wong, Y., & Wang, L. (2014). Effects of type of exploratory strategy and prior knowledge on middle school students’ learning of chemical formulas from a 3D role-playing game. Educational Technology Research & Development, 62(2), 163-185. doi:10.1007/s11423-013-9324-3

Newman, M. (2001). The Academic Achievement Game: Designs of Undergraduates’ Efforts to Get Grades. Written Communication, 18(4), 470.

Schmitz, B., Schuffelen, P., Kreijns, K., Klemke, R., & Specht, M. (2015). Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes: The impact of a location-based, collaborative role-playing game on behaviour. Computers & Education, 85, 160-169. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2015.02.012

Schneider, E., & Hutchison, B. (2015). Referencing the imaginary: An analysis of library collection of role-playing game materials. Reference Librarian, 56(3), 174-188. doi:10.1080/02763877.2014.1002716

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