The hidden third option: The use of tabletop gaming in social instruction

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Scott Allen, Psy.D., is Director of Psychological Services at College Living Experience (CLE) in Austin, which provides wrap-around supports for young adults with learning differences such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. His guest post explains the rationale behind using tabletop role-playing games to teach social skills in CLE Austin’s highly successful programs. An earlier version of this article appeared on the CLE website last year, and we are honored and excited to share it with Alt Ed Austin’s readers.


As a kid of the 80s, video games were a big part of my childhood. I was always interested in having the newest game system and trying out the hottest game. They were a refuge for me after a rough day at school, and a way for me to relieve the frustrations of everyday life. Anyone who has defeated a particularly difficult boss can attest to the senses of accomplishment and pride that accompany this amazing feat. At that point in my life, gaming was a relatively solitary activity that I used to help me cope with the stresses of each day.

There was another side of gaming that I knew about but did not explore in my youth. I had a small group of friends who would talk about playing D&D (Dungeons and Dragons). I thought I would somehow be considered uncool for playing D&D, so I dismissed offers to play the game. As a kid, I was a “closeted geek.” Boy, did I miss out!

Flash forward to my time at CLE. In our Austin center, I have placed great efforts on making our social programming interesting and fun for our students. My approach to teaching is mostly interest-based as I feel that students learn best when they are truly engaged and enjoying their activities. One of my colleagues introduced the idea of tabletop role-playing games (RPGs)—the broader category of games that include D&D and other games requiring participants to take on the roles of characters—as social-teaching tools. I overheard her leading some games in the lounge, witnessed the student engagement, and took note of what great social opportunities these games are.

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With my support, my colleague led several tabletop gaming groups. For anyone who hasn’t played, here’s a quick primer. Tabletop gaming has a few general facets:

  •  Players assume the roles of characters who are not themselves (though they may integrate aspects of themselves into their roles). Players stay “in character” during the game and interact with each other as their characters would.

  • Games are loosely structured, giving players quite a bit of leeway in making decisions in the game.

  • There is a Game Master, or GM (a Dungeon Master, or DM, in D&D), who leads the adventure. GMs can keep the game very structured, leading the group down a preset adventure, or can be very unstructured, with a more improv-based approach.

  • There is opportunity for adventuring parties to coordinate and discuss plans for the game. The best games have characters with varying skill sets, allowing the party to take advantage of each character’s strengths.

  • Despite all the planning the party may perform, there is still an element of chance in the game, usually in the form of a dice roll. When characters use their skills, they roll dice to determine success or failure (called a check in gaming terms).

  • There are usually elements of exploration, interaction with non-player characters (NPCs), and various forms of battle in tabletop RPGs.

In my experience as a social-skills instructor, it is hard to think of approaches that are more effective in teaching social interaction in a completely nonthreatening way. Our students love this approach, and we have seen evidence of the generalization of skills outside the gaming setting. Tabletop gaming is also a great way to work on executive functioning components, such as planning, prioritizing, flexibility, and emotional control. Below are a few of the many skill areas that can be addressed using tabletop gaming.

  • Perspective Taking: It’s hard to think of a time in the game when you do not have to take another person’s perspective, as you are acting out a character the entire time. Players also interact with NPCs, often requiring them to understand how to gear communication in order to reach an optimal outcome.

  • Flexibility: Anything can happen in tabletop games, and parties must adjust quickly to rapidly changing conditions in the game. One important concept in tabletop gaming is called the hidden third option. Often in the game (and in life), we encounter situations when we seemingly have a limited number of choices. In a tabletop game, you might run into a situation where you must fight or avoid a rat, for example. The hidden third option might be to use some cheese to lure the rat to distract a bigger enemy, allowing you to slip by.

  • Teamwork/Cooperation: The best tabletop adventures require a wide range of characters with different skill sets. When presented with a strength-based challenge, the team needs to have a fighter or a warrior in order to be most effective. However, a mental challenge might require a wizard or a cleric. In addition, parties might encounter puzzles or team-based challenges that require players to work as a group to solve them. When one player struggles, the team must step in to help that player, or the entire party might suffer a grim consequence, like a Beholder wiping the party off the face of the world.

  • Planning: Although much of the game is done on the fly, skilled parties often plan sequences of actions that depend on the success of prior actions. Sequencing and coordination of actions is very important in battle situations and puzzle solving during the game.

  • Communication: Non-player characters may respond differently to players’ characters, based not only on what they say but also on how they say it. For example, if a player demands an item in a rude way, the NPC might respond in kind, refusing to give the item, destroying it, or fighting the party. This allows players to have “real” opportunities to work on communication skills without having to deal with the consequences of an embarrassing interaction in real life.

My experiences playing these games at CLE led me to seek out others who enjoy tabletop games in my outside life. I have joined a group of tabletop gamers and have learned to embrace my inner geek in a way that I never had before.

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A couple of year ago, unfortunately, my colleague left CLE, and we were in need of new GMs. How did we handle that? First, I gave myself a crash course in how to run a tabletop gaming group. I have been able to run games with premade stories and alter the games based on the needs and goals of the participants. For example, one week I set up a situation where the party needed to utter the magic word help in order to move forward in the game. The reason I added this element to the story was that a student was struggling with asking for help in their everyday life. I am currently running a brand-new group with students playing as superheroes. This will be my first time generating and executing a completely original story.

Second, we have had CLE students volunteer to run tabletop gaming groups with staff assistance. We currently have a student who has made his own tabletop gaming system based on a popular video game. It has been great to see this student lead the game, ask the group for feedback, and integrate the feedback into the game.

Learning how to socialize can be seen as boring or useless for many of our students, but the social skills they learn at CLE are among the most critical in terms of job success and building lifelong relationships. It’s sometimes difficult to talk about areas of life that are challenging, and socialization is often challenging for our student population. The use of interest-based techniques, such as tabletop gaming, helps to take the “edge” off social training, making it fun for both participants and instructors.


Scott Allen

Walk and talk with your family in the free Marathon Kids summer challenge!

Heidi Gollub is familiar to many Alt Ed Austin readers as the founder and former editor-in-chief of Free Fun in Austin, the award-winning family website. Now Heidi has joined the Marathon Kids team, and she stopped by the blog to let us know about a cool summer program for building both connection and physical fitness with your kids.
 

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Hey, summer is a great time to connect with your kids! The days are longer, shadows shorter, and all of you have a chance to decompress from school and take a break. It’s the perfect opportunity to be with your family in new environments and in unique ways that you haven’t explored during the school year.

One way to get your kids talking is through exercise, and this summer Marathon Kids is helping families facilitate that through their FREE summer Walk and Talk challenge.

In schools all over the country, teachers are using social-emotional learning (SEL) tools to help raise kinder, more empathetic, more positive kids with fewer instances of depression and stress. SEL can improve achievement, and it also increases positive behaviors such as kindness, sharing, and empathy and improves attitudes toward school.

Marathon Kids Walk and Talk program, which is partnering with the TODAY Parenting team to reach more families, was created with that SEL connection in mind. The program is absolutely FREE and will help keep your kids active and engaged with you all summer!
 

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When parents register online, they’ll receive a link to two resources:

  • a set of conversation topics created by family physician Dr. Deborah Gilboa (each topic—26 in all—matches up with a mile of walking or running)
  • a special mileage log to track your progress

After 26(.2) miles, parent and child will have completed the equivalent of a full marathon and will have gotten to know each other a little better in the process.

The topics cover a broad range, from health, education, and friendship up through knock-knock jokes and dreams of travel. Dr. Gilboa wrote starter questions for each topic, which are appropriate for the youngest child all the way into the college years.

All are welcome to register for free here: MarathonKids.org/WalkandTalk


Heidi Gollub

Finding the river within

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We are delighted to welcome Sensei Jonathan Hewitt to share some of his deep wisdom with Alt Ed Austin readers. He is the founder of Life Ki-do Martial Arts, one of Austin’s most beloved, effective, and elevating enrichment programs.


Go with the flow. A profound way to live, but sometimes that’s easier said than done—and what exactly does it mean anyway?! Growing up, I powered through life. My goal was to be the best, the fastest, and the most popular. I was in control, and I was going to make it all happen. But wait— was I really in control? And even when I won the gold medals and got the approval, why did I feel so empty inside?

I realized at a pretty young age that I needed to look inside rather than outside for peace, fulfillment, and happiness. I spent many years searching for answers studying martial arts, psychology, mindfulness, and meditation. What I’ve come to is a place I call the River.

One of the reasons I like this word is that I work with children, and it’s an easy concept for kids to understand and relate to. But it also describes perfectly a beautiful way to live: rivers are always flowing and always moving toward something greater. Inevitably there will be obstacles in its way, but the River moves around those obstacles and never gets stuck. To me, the River is about putting your heart into life and giving it your all.

What it doesn’t mean is being perfect. I call the River’s two opposites Ice and Puddle. Being like Ice is trying too hard, feeling pressured and stressed. Being like a Puddle is not trying enough, feeling lazy, bored, and disinterested. The thing is that we are all like Ice and Puddle sometimes. It’s part of being a human being. The important thing is to not get stuck in judging ourselves and instead keep returning to the River over and over. It’s a fluid state, remember? Not a fixed, end-all state of perfection.

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Finding the River has not only transformed my life but also transformed the way I teach martial arts. I grew up in and taught for many years a rigid, traditional type of martial arts. The techniques were based on a set of preset circumstances—he does this move, so you follow with that move.

But life never happens that way, right? So why not practice martial arts in a way that reflects how we want to live life: dealing with spontaneous situations in a fluid manner? We practice how to take an opposing force and use it to redirect the flow. In martial arts, this might be a physical force, but in life it can be any circumstance or even (and most commonly!) our own inner emotions and thoughts.

The amazing thing is that when you are in the River, your experience with a partner becomes about connection, care, and cooperation rather than about comparisons, competition, and control. These are deep foundations for how to be in relationships with others in the world. Instead of seeing another human being as someone to fight with, or compete with, or compare yourself to, being in the River allows you to feel empathy and compassion for that individual. In our dojo, everyone supports each other to be their very best. Being not like Ice or Puddle allows you to be present and sensitive to your partner’s needs while also communicating honestly and clearly your own needs.

While there are many tools to stay in the River, the most effective by far is the breath, and we practice it all the time. With the kids, we call it Ninja Breathing to imbue the breathing with a sense of empowerment. Harnessing the power of the breath allows us to be relaxed, focused, calm, and present. Ready to see challenges as opportunities to grow rather than as obstacles that are impossible to overcome. Ready to let it come, let it go, let it flow. Like a River.


Jonathan Hewitt