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Engagement through Role-Playing Games

Guest Post by Emily Nguyen-Hoai

A member of the Advisory Council for the Game Academy

Tabletop and live-action role-playing games are an effective form of experiential learning that can be practiced from the comfort of your own home.

There are quite a few reasons to consider incorporating tabletop and live-action role-play gaming into your teaching methods.

1. Tabletop and live-action role-play gaming helps with social-emotional development.

Storytelling role-play games help put children in an environment that they imagine,

but one in which they aren’t actually physically present. This personal abstraction from environments and situations that may be dangerous (either physically, emotionally, or both) is a strong benefit for engagement and learning. As the student/player creates a character that they will inhabit and control for the duration of the collaborative storytelling sessions, their shared imaginary world provides social parameters for exploring identity and interaction.

Roleplaying creates a magic circle of trust within the group, with a mutual understanding

that everyone is participating in a game. All actions taken by characters in the

game are valid and safe. Because each participant creates their own character from whose perspective they interact, but who is distinct from the player controlling the character, the participant is practicing thoughts and actions in an explicitly declared safe space for experimentation.

A student who may be at odds with awkward or uncomfortable traits they may find in

themselves, has an opportunity to situate those same traits in a character. From that

vantage point, they may play out a version of themselves who is distinct from, but related

to their inner sense of who they may (or may not) want to be. They can, for a time that is

marked with boundaries of safety and trust, inhabit a form of themselves without fear of

being judged or rejected.

As the participants play the game, they are engaged in a world with social parameters that parallel, but are distinct from the player’s "real" life. This parallel, but distinct environment allows the participant to explore through their thoughts and actions. This protected mode of being and doing aids the participants in learning

about failure and consequences in ways that don't endanger the student.

Instead, the participant is kept safe physically and emotionally. When a player makes a mistake, instead of it being an issue of anxiety and shame, it serves to provide a launching point for finding new opportunities and making new decisions.

Naturally, within the context of a role-playing game, there are situations that result in

conflict – either physical, emotional, or both. These conflicts that occur within the game

are an opportunity for children to explore problem-solving and conflict resolution. The

game master instructor is given a contextualized opportunity to provide hands-on

demonstrations about communicating clearly and the importance of working together.

This interaction provides a context for each player to think on a metacognitive level

and navigate the tricky business of separating themselves as players from their

identities as their characters.

2. Playing role-playing games helps students familiarize themselves with systems thinking.

Real life has a lot of invisible systems, whether or not we realize it. We practice things like societal convention: how we act in front of teachers, bosses, and strangers is not the same way we would act around friends. Similarly, the rules of a game determine what actions are possible, and the way the game is structured dictates what someone can and cannot do.

By playing games that have rules which simulate reality, the rules become more apparent. The nature of playing tabletop and live-action RPGs provides time to stop and discuss these systems. We can ask questions like “Is this a good system? Is it a fair system? How can we make things better?” These questions spark discussions and bring the systems into a tangible range, and empower children to see how they can change the rules in game and in real life to better suit everyone’s needs.

3. Playing tabletop and live-action RPGs lends itself to divergent problem solving and thinking.

In a standard education environment, success is dictated by anticipating what the correct answer is, and often, there is only one correct answer.

With divergent thinking, depending on who is speaking, any answer can be correct.

If they aren’t correct, there’s still an opportunity to find a correct answer through discussion. For example, students may come across a rickety bridge they need to cross. One student may suggest using a spell, another might say they can fix the bridge, and another might say

that they can cross one at a time. Not only could all these answers be correct, but the

students have now opened up a dialogue and the game has helped them create a

collaborative approach. This is very similar to real life, where the conditions can change

and the people who are handling the problem can differ. New ideas come from this

divergent thinking. It encourages thinking outside the standard norm, which takes a lot of

practice! With tabletop gaming, students are able to experiment and bounce ideas off each

other in a safe environment where there are no wrong answers. The more practice they get,

the better their ideas become.

Playing tabletop and live-action RPGs with your students can be a very viable asset for

developing social-emotional skills. From exploring their sense of self, to conflict

resolution, children will thrive in a space where they feel safe and accepted among their

peers. Games can also teach about the different systems and boundaries in place while empowering them to challenge the norm and, since roleplaying games have endless possibilities, children can practice their divergent problem solving skills.

Give roleplaying games a try. I promise you won’t regret it!


Emily Nguyen-Hoai is a member of the Advisory Council for the Game Academy where they create and support game-based education that empowers life-long learners to achieve academic, social, emotional and personal success. They engage imaginations with interactive games wherein communication, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking are the keys to unlocking adventures in learning. The curriculum is designed to help players make enduring connections between what they know, what they are learning, and what is possible. Check out for more information!


The Game Academy is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization committed to the social, emotional and academic success of learners of all ages through the use of tabletop role-playing games and live-action role play.

They provide collaborative storytelling experiences that encourage academic and social/emotional skills in youth ages 8-18 through our innovative afterschool classes, summer camps and custom made curricula for educators. They currently offer afterschool or homeschool enrichment classes in four Bay Area locations: San Rafael, San Francisco, Concord and Berkeley.

Aaron Vanek, the Vice-chair of The Game Academy teaches at

Los Angeles.

Hobby Game Design-Grades 3-5

Students will play board, card, role-playing games and other noteworthy games while applying a critical eye to the structural mechanics of rules and content. Each student will develop and produce their own hobby game as a final project.

Role Play Game Design-Grades 6-12

Students will learn about the history of pen-and-paper role-playing games, play a few, and, finally, design their own pen and paper scenario or game system.

Lessons include world building, narrative design, character design, game mechanics and randomization, research and inspiration, plus business skills such as copyright, publishing and marketing.


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