Game Therapy UK is a new and innovative charity set up to promote Therapeutic Gaming and Game Therapy for the public benefit. We got a chance to talk to Gary Colman about how games can improve your mental health.
Q When did you first encounter games being used as a therapeutic device? Had you any experience with RPG’s before seeing them in a therapeutic setting?
I work one day a week as a GP providing GP Outreach and End Of Life Care to people experiencing homelessness in Camden, London. For some time, I had been aware of evidence of Game Therapy being used in the USA for people with psychological trauma. I wondered if playing RPGs would be helpful for this population and so set up a small project with a couple of friends and colleagues for people experiencing homelessness. And from there Game Therapy UK grew.
I started playing RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons, back in 1978 when I was just 11 years old. I can still remember this kid, who I barely knew, brought into a music lesson the ‘Blue cover Basic Dungeons & Dragons’ book with its picture of a wizard and archer battling an evil dragon sat on a hoard of gold. I’d just finished reading the Hobbit and I totally was hooked.
I was ‘volunteered’ by my new pals to be the GM, got myself a copy of the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide for Christmas and that was it… we were off.
We were 4 boys, all probably all a bit nerdy and didn’t quite ‘fit in’ at school and to escape into D&D (and our collective imaginations) became a huge and positive part of my teenage years.
At the time I wouldn’t have thought of the experience as therapeutic, but looking back it clearly was.
Then about 8 years ago, (I was now playing 3.5 Edition D&D) and my young boys wanted to learn. So, I GMed for them and their friend’s old 1st edition games that I hadn’t played for over 45 years. My boys loved it, especially my eldest son, who had just been diagnosed with autism. I loved it when, a couple of years later, he taught me 5e.
Q what are the biggest strengths of game therapy? What kinds of issues can it be to help with?
Like many mammals, playing games is fundamental to how we learn new things, pick up skills and develop our brains. Humans are a little unusual, compared to other brainy animals, in that we continue to play games as adults.
Cooperative games, like RPGS, have an advantage in that they allow players to act out scenarios which facilitates creativity, imagination, learning, insight, and growth. They also allow cooperation, and social interaction. All of these things are important to learning, or re-learning, skills and behaviours.
Games also have the benefit of being fun and are therefore self-motivating… we keep learning with games because it’s enjoyable.
We currently have two projects developed. One is a bunch of fortnightly online 5e D&D games for serving military personnel and veterans to help with social isolation, common mental health disorders, PTSD and addiction. The second project are weekly face-to-face games for people experiencing homelessness in Camden London. This includes groups who are in addiction recovery and survivors of modern-day slavery.
We are currently developing projects for young people and adults with neurodivergence, which we hope to role out later this year.
Q What games do you use in the treatment?
At Game Therapy UK we are pretty much ‘games agnostic’ in that we don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘therapeutic game’ per se. Any game can be played in a therapeutic or toxic way.
What is more important is the ‘thoughtfulness’ of the process that goes into the way the game is played between the GM and the players. Therefore, we are currently developing in-house training for our volunteers designed by Clinical Psychologists, recovery workers and gamers.
All of our projects are designed thoughtfully with input from clinicians, psychologists, gamers and of course our clients.
At the moment we are using modified 5e D&D rules with our veteran groups- this was because after discussion with the veterans it became clear that 5e was the most accessible. We have made the rules a bit more lethal (like old school D&D) and also the themes darker and more Cthulhu-esqyue. This was in part because this is what the veterans asked for, but also because the psychologists felt it would be helpful if the game could stress the veterans albeit in a safe, controlled and thoughtful way.
For our project for people experiencing homelessness we use either a simplified 5e D&D rules or a homebrewed, very simple 6-sided ‘exploding’ dice system. The rules are simpler to make them more accessible to clients who may not have English as their first language or have literacy or numeracy skills.
The game for our future neurodivergence projects are still being co-created with our potential clients.
In future we are happy to look at any game, or rules system and this could include video RPGs.
Q what projects do you have planned to facilitate using games as therapy?
This year we plan to expand the homelessness projects across the UK. We also plan to expand the online military veterans’ games into the US and Australia.
We are currently developing projects for people experiencing neurodivergence, which we hope to start across the UK soon.
We have also been asked to develop projects for people experiencing early dementia, depression and anxiety and to support teachers using RPGs in the classroom. The beauty of using RPGs is that they are infinitely adaptable- which can design a project for any group.
Q Even though there is a long history of using games in a therapeutic setting it is not used very much in the UK, why is that? What do you think needs to be done increase its use?
I agree, and this is why we started the charity. After a conversation between various professionals (occupational therapists, educationalists, psychologists) in the UK it was clear that an umbrella Game therapy charity to support the various projects would so helpful. The various professionals had run promising small-scale trails in Therapeutic Gaming but then they all found it impossible to get further support or funding. Supporting research is on the main aims of the charity and all of our projects gather data for research.
Q} if people want more info about you or the charity where should they go?
If people want more information, then visit our website, sign up for our newsletter and join the conversation on our socials. We can always be contacted direct via our website, and its always great to hear from people interested in our work.
Final four questions –we ask everybody
Q) When the zombies take over the world where will you be?
Running. But with my luck I’ll probably end being a zombie pretty quick. Recently I was an actor in a short zombie movie, and I didn’t last very long before I was zombie food. My only hope is my small brain might not be that appetising.
Q ) What is your favorite Fandom
Definitely D&D. 45 years and I’m still as passionate about this crazy game as when I was aged 11.
Q) What piece of art, be it in the form of music, a book, a film or picture, do you think people must experience before they die?
None. Oh, my word I sound miserable, but I don’t think people should idolise ‘art’. I think it more important that you learn to appreciate your own creativity. Draw something, paint something, make something, write something, and appreciate its uniqueness and importance. Experience being the artist before you die. Being chased by a zombie.
Q) Give one fact that most people would not believe about you?
There are loads. I hardly believe half the stuff I’ve done. I once accidently came 8th in the British Snowboarding Championships (veterans’ category). Zombies on snowboards- eat my powder.