A guest post from Raffael Boccamazzo, PsyD, of Take This, one of our official Gen Con 2021 charity partners.
Despite various iterations of moral panic over the decades lamenting the dangers of gaming, during the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve seen more people gaming than maybe ever. Parents are playing more video games with their kids. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) reported a 33% sales jump in 2020 from the 2019 sales year, with 2019 being a previous all-time sales record and fifth consecutive year of growth. Simply put, people are playing more games than ever before, and there’s a reason for it; games are important.
As a matter of crossover gaming/psychology trivia, science fiction author H.G. Wells influenced both the development of D&D and play therapy. He published a game called Little Wars in 1913 that — according to gaming scholar Jon Peterson in his book Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games — directly influenced various aspects of tabletop wargaming that contributed to the development of D&D. Additionally, Wells’ 1911 book Floor Games is said to have influenced the work of early play therapy theorist Margaret Lowenfeld.
Despite the fact that evolving forms of play are part of the developmental process, many of us forget that play and games offer us more than just fun. They offer connection and community — two things most of us desperately needed in 2020. But more than the games itself, a sense of connection and acceptance is one of the most valuable, protective factors we can have against a wide swath of psychological challenges (e.g., PTSD, depression, or anxiety), and a lack of those social connections is associated with increased physical health risks.
While the pandemic isn’t over (fewer than 60% of adults in the US are fully vaccinated as of July 12, 2021, and rates of infection are once again on the rise), we’re making a lot of headway. In-person events are cautiously becoming more plausible for some people in some areas. So many of us are craving getting to play games with our friends and create new moments, new connections, new memories.
If I mention memories of late nights rolling dice, I’m sure it conjured up nostalgic experiences for many of you. I’m no different. A friend introduced me — in my teens — to the old Star Wars tabletop roleplaying game. As he explained it to me, my face lit up and I gasped, “I can be… a Jedi?!” He later introduced me to D&D. Throughout my teen years, I consistently played charismatic, competent heroes whose social grace and strength were something I aspired to, as I often was so out-of-step with my peers (later discovering that was due to undiagnosed autism). Those late nights rolling dice left an indelible mark on me and created friendships that persist twenty-five years later.
Throughout the last year of physical isolation, that same friend often reached out to me to talk about our respective D&D games that we ran online for others. The two of us would frequently play online games with other friends on Friday nights. To me at least, those Friday gaming sessions weren’t really about the games. They were about connecting when we couldn’t physically leave our homes to see each other. They were about reminding each other we weren’t alone, despite how we might have felt at times. They were about creating moments of joy when the world scared the hell out of us. Those game sessions were about reminding ourselves of the good moments we once had together in person and to give us hope for when we can have them again.
I suspect I’m not alone in feeling like this.
Raffael Boccamazzo (more affectionately known as “Doctor B”) is a doctor of clinical psychology and the clinical director of Take This, the first mental health nonprofit dedicated to serving the game industry and game community. He has served in this role since 2015 overseeing many of Take This’ educational and public-facing programs, also applying his perspective as an autism self-advocate. Outside his work with Take This, Doctor B is an expert on the applied use of tabletop role playing games in clinical and learning settings, and is the co-creator of a pantheoretical model on their applied use. He is also one of the chapter authors of Video Games and Well-being: Press Start and co-authored Gardens of Fog – a best-selling, mental health-themed, charity, adventure module for Dungeons & Dragons.