Kotaku: "Therapists are using D&D to get kids to open up"
Out of Ephrata, Pennsylvania, Jack Berkenstock runs the Bodhana Group, a nonprofit that uses role-playing games’ inherent social and educational value for therapy. He’s a Master’s level clinician who, for 23 years, counseled inner city kids. Later, for nine years, he provided mental health services to an all-male juvenile treatment facility that included sexual offenders. There, he got the bright idea to start running a D&D game. “How many times can you really watch Snow Dogs?” he laughed, referring to a laughably bad movie about sled dogs.
Immediately, Berkenstock said, the social benefits were clear. “We started to see kids who had issues from their families bringing that into the game,” Berkenstock told me. “It’s called ‘bleed’: how much does your personal identity impact the character you’re playing? And how much does your character impact you as a player?”
What makes running a therapeutic D&D group different from any old ramshackle D&D party is “intentionality.” Berkenstock is careful to design games where players’ actions have consequences, so, for example, he wouldn’t protect an over-impulsive player from running into a dragon’s lair. If their character is severely hurt, that’s the natural repercussion. When his players raid an orc village, he makes sure to show how that affects child orcs or their mothers. “I believe you can explore consequence in an environment where nobody gets hurt physically,” Berkenstock said.