Game to Grow is a non-profit that promotes the therapeutic, educational, and community growth benefits of gaming. With structured online sessions of Dungeons & Dragons and Minecraft, as well as their own tabletop game called Critical Core, Game to Grow teaches gamers of all ages and to become more confident, creative, and socially capable.
In this episode, Game to Grow executive director Adam Davis and director of education and training Dr. Elizabeth D. Kilmer join Ken to discuss the history of gaming therapy; what makes a game more conducive to therapeutic benefits; why Game to Grow is for everyone, not just those with diagnoses; what led Game to Grow to create Critical Core; how games such as Dark Souls and Celeste can encourage a growth mindset; and why de-escalation is a valuable skill, even (or especially) among collaborative players.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello and welcome to the Polygamer podcast, episode number 125, for Wednesday, May 18, 2022. I’m your host, Ken Gagne. Last year on the podcast, I spoke with Amanda Pegg-Wheat, a librarian who runs Dungeons & Dragons for her teen patrons at the library. Now Dungeons & Dragons and other analog games, have a lot of social benefits, not only for teens, but for a variety of other demographics, some of them in a more clinical context. And I thought it would be useful to examine games from that perspective.
So I’m honored to be joined today by two members of Game to Grow, a nonprofit. Please join me in welcoming Adam Davis, the co-founder and executive director, as well as Dr. Elizabeth Kilmer, director of education and training. Hello, Adam — hello, Elizabeth!
Adam Davis: Hello!
Dr. Elizabeth Kilmer: Hello!
Ken: It’s such a pleasure to have you here. Adam, this is our first time interacting. Elizabeth, we briefly spoke at PAX East, which was just last month. You were on nearly a half a dozen panels doing a wonderful job describing some of the benefits of the work that Game to Grow does. And your organization was also in, what was formally called the Diversity Lounge. Remind me what it’s called now?
Elizabeth: PAX Together Intersection.
Ken: Yes, that’s right. Thank you. For those who have not had the pleasure of being exposed to this information at PAX, a little synopsis, what is Game to Grow?
Elizabeth: So Game to Grow is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, located in the Greater Seattle area, but we have the opportunity to serve individuals worldwide, which is really exciting. Game to Grow believes in the use of games of all kinds to support individual educational and community growth. We use games in therapeutic context, are most well known for our therapeutic social skills groups that utilize Dungeons & Dragons, as well as groups that utilize Minecraft. We also have a training program as well as an individual counseling.
Ken: Amazing. And Game to Grow, I understand, is currently in its fifth year. It was founded back in 2017. Is that correct?
Ken: Wow. And what was it that led to the creation of Game to Grow?
Adam: So Game to Grow was actually founded off of a small for profit company. I founded Game to Grow with Adam Johns. Adam Johns and I, ran a small for profit company for a few years using tabletop role-playing games to help kids who had trouble making friends, kids who had trouble fitting in, making friends at school and joining in community. And so we ran that program for a few years. And what we realized was that, we saw the benefits that these youth were experiencing when we were running our program and we wanted to make it something bigger than just the two of us. And we knew that the potential for the use of games and the way we were doing it, there was so much potential there. So what we wanted to do was launch a non-profit organization.
So I got a foundational grant from Child’s Play, and we were able to then start hiring new facilitators. We were able to bring on Elizabeth, as a director of education and training. And then, our sights really were on the horizon. Our goal was not just to serve the 30 kids we have in Seattle, but to expand our services to include the whole lifespan, and outside of Seattle, not just to Washington, but to the entire world. What we’re most excited for right now is this training program that can bring this life enriching magic of games to other parts of the world.
Ken: You said that the way you were using games had a lot more potential. And that word to me implies something that had not been realized. Were there no other groups doing what you were doing?
Adam: So the funny thing about this is that there is so many people who have seen the benefits the games can provide people. There are therapists who have been using games for decades all around the world. And the funny thing is that everybody who was doing that kept to themselves. And so Game to Grow is not the first one to do this. We are, I think, one of the more vocal ones, we’re one of the ones who have had the benefit of having a very loud microphone. The potential of games is something that we’ve been really wanting to encourage other people to recognize as well.
Elizabeth: When we were thinking about the potential of using games, this is something that we see more and more commonly in the last decade or so, but people have been using games forever. If we think about, things like collaborative storytelling experiences have been used to help people feel more comfortable in social settings, help people learn and process and hand down information over time. We see plenty of benefits in terms of both video games and board games. There’s a whole category of games. I know that you spoke about, in another episode of your podcast, Ken, called Serious Games, which are games that are specifically designed to help impart knowledge of some kind. They’re using game mechanics to help with this learning process.
Ken: I have to ask: the name, “Game to Grow” — the word ‘game’, is that a noun, or a verb?
Adam: It’s both.
Adam: Game to Grow is built on this idea that games have the power to improve people’s lives. That power can be increased if we play the game with intention and that power can be maximized if it’s facilitated by a trained professional. So this idea of Game to Grow, is this idea that we don’t want people to just game more. We want people to game better and game with the idea, and the intention of using that game to enhance life.
Ken: Got you. And in the five years that you’ve been pursuing that goal, what are some of the accomplishments of Game to Grow that you’ve been most proud of in its first five years?
Adam: As I say a lot, I think that the original goal was just expanding and getting more facilitators and teaching the first new person, the Game to Grow method. And then what I’ve been most excited about recently is really the expansion of the training program. Because Game to Grow’s goal is not just to serve the Greater Seattle area. The goal of Game to Grow is to get a game in every school, and a game in every hospital, and a game in every clinic. And the way that we do that is by training other professionals, to be able to use the Game to Grow method in their own community. And we’ve had over a thousand people come through our training program and learn a way to use games in their own community. And we’ve seen the feedback from them and they’re sharing their journey into therapeutic gaming with us. And that’s been something that’s been so transformative, just to see how big this can get.
Ken: Tell me more about the Game to Grow method. So it sounds like you’re not just going to your friendly local comic bookshop and recruiting existing Dungeon Masters to run games for people.
Elizabeth: Yeah. So that’s something I can speak a little bit about. So Adam and Adam developed this process of using D & D specifically, by tabletop role-playing games in these therapeutic social skills groups. And Jared and I, so Jared Kilmer, is our director of counseling services, and is also a clinical psychologist, and happens to be my husband. We heard about this. Jared actually saw Adam and Adam speak at APAC South, a couple of years ago. And we were both in grad school at the time. And this really fit in, this idea of using tabletop RPGs, in groups, fit in amazingly well with a lot of the training we were doing at school, in acceptance and commitment therapy. Jared and I, both have a history of working with individuals with trauma as well as substance use. And we were able to speak a little bit with Adam and Adam, and then pull in our knowledge of ACT, of CBT, as well as our knowledge of tabletop role-playing games and get groups started across the areas that we were in.
We moved up to this area with the intention of getting to work with Game to Grow, and together the four of us, as well as Virginia Spielmann, who is a huge part of Critical Core, which I’m sure we’ll touch on a little bit later, we’re able to figure out how to squish all of our experience and all of our methodology with different populations. Again, Jared and I had worked with adolescents as well as adults, and Adam and Adam’s work was primarily focused around adolescents. And kind of squish this into a cohesive model that was going to be the most applicable across wider settings, so including therapeutic community and educational settings.
Going back to your question around just recruiting people out of the local game store, we absolutely work with community members who are wanting to run safer, more accessible, more engaging games. And we work with educators who want to use tabletop RPGs in their classroom, or in afterschool settings to work on SEL skills. And we also work with therapists who are wanting to use this in that therapeutic social skills space, as well as a psychotherapy space. So that kind of traditional Therapy space as well.
Ken: It’s so exciting to hear that you want to bring games into schools and Dungeons & Dragons into schools, because I went to a private Catholic school in the eighties, and I tried bringing Dungeons & Dragons there as a student, and it was not well received. What a turnaround the last 40 years have been.
Elizabeth: Yeah, it’s been really exciting to see some of those shifts.
Adam: Elizabeth and I are both from Texas. And I will tell you that concern about Dungeons & Dragons definitely lasted well into the nineties.
Elizabeth: And even this idea of bringing games in. So several of the places that Jared and I were running groups, were VA. So veteran hospitals that were run by the federal government, which the federal government isn’t necessarily known for wanting to include games in spaces. And so having the opportunity to pitch that to our supervisors and really watch supervisors or other stakeholders, who don’t have a history of gaming or an experience with games, get to see that the change that happens in participants has been pretty incredible.
Ken: It sounds like that you are working with specific demographics. In the eighties, for example, I was just the class nerd who got picked on, and didn’t have a lot of friends, but it sounds like you have more specific audiences in mind, given that you’re approaching this from a therapeutic and clinical setting. Is that right?
Elizabeth: Yeah. So we work, as I mentioned, Jared and I, both have a history of working with individuals who came to us for substance use disorders, or have a history of trauma. A lot of the work that we do with Game to Grow, is with individuals who are neuro divergent. You aren’t required to have a diagnosis to engage in Game to Grow settings. I think getting a diagnosis in this country is a whole other podcast or a series of podcasts. And so we don’t have a criterion that would arbitrarily limit people’s ability to engage in groups, if they would find it helpful. But most of the people who are coming to our groups are individuals who are struggling to authentically connect with other people, whether that is through friendships, whether that is in school, or at the workplace.
Ken: I can appreciate that. Not wanting to put up barriers by requiring a diagnosis, but what is to stop somebody who’s just looking for a group to play with online, from joining your group, and perhaps taking a spot from somebody else.
Elizabeth: Well, I think if someone is looking to join a group and they join one of our groups, there is an expectation that this is intentional play and you are working on building relationships. And there is an expectation that you show up and you’re working in these groups. You’re playing, but I think if you just wanted to join a group, there are easier groups to just join. Does that make sense? So if you’re showing up to a group and you’re going through the intake process, and you are participating in a group and you’re signing up for a quarter, I haven’t run into anybody, who necessarily was like, ah, I just wanted a group. And I didn’t want to have to think about things, or I didn’t want to actually have to build meaningful relationships with other people. It has not been something that we have largely run into.
Ken: So what kind of work are people putting in when they are playing your games? How does a game session with Game to Grow differ from a game you might play at your friendly local comic bookshop?
Elizabeth: That’s a great question. A lot of it might not look super different, especially on the surface. The feedback that we’ve gotten, there’s a great quote from a veteran who’s in one of our groups that said one of the great things about these groups is they don’t feel like therapy, but you’re able to reflect back and see how much you’ve learned, or have grown.
So for example, in a veteran group that we’ve run, we had a participant who showed up to a group one day and said, “Man, it’s a really big deal that I’m here today. And it’s a really big deal because I currently have roofers working on my house and I have some major trust issues. And a year ago, if you had told me that I was going to go to a therapy group instead of stay and watch the roofers at my house, I would have laughed at you. But this group has been really important. And I know that my presence here is meaningful and necessary. Like y’all are not going to do well without your cleric. It’s not going to end well for y’all. And so I wanted to make sure to make the effort to show up here.”
And so we get this kind of balance that the game is really fun. We want people to come back. People are absolutely going to want to come back. We are playing in our groups. This is not like a structured, here’s your script for this session, or here are your behavioral checklist you have to do. It is a fully engaging and immersive process, but we might be engaging with particular themes. We talk a lot in our training program about how to set up specific encounters or responses to players, that are going to support their therapeutic goals, whether that is a goal related to, for example, perspective taking, or a goal related to planning, or a goal related to emotional regulation.
Ken: So what is it about Dungeons & Dragons, that made you choose that to focus on, instead of say, Call of Cthulhu or Settlers of Catan?
Elizabeth: Yeah. So I would argue that Call of Cthulhu is probably not going to be super appropriate with a lot of adolescents. Our method itself is system agnostic, meaning that as long as it falls under that tabletop RPG kind of umbrella, and it’s appropriate for your setting, appropriate for your population, there’s nothing that is inherently more magical about D & D over, for example, Pathfinder.
D & D has worked really well for us. It’s a system that a lot of our facilitators are really familiar with, but we are not sitting here and saying, it’s the only system that is appropriate for use in TTRPGs. What makes tabletop RPGs a really good fit, are a couple of pieces. So the first one is, it is a game that you’re playing with other people. You’re not doing it by yourself. But it’s also a game, which means if you make a mistake in that game setting, the likelihood of major consequences are pretty low. If your barbarian is not paying attention and just demolishes a building that y’all are supposed to be repairing, that’s not going to get that player of that barbarian fired from their real job. Does that make sense?
Ken: It does. I believe so. It’s been a long time since I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons unfortunately. I found that the investment in time was significant in order to get much of a return on the investment. You could spend three or four hours just setting up your characters and going through a shop to get all your starting equipment.
Elizabeth: I’m so glad you mentioned that, because you’re right. That absolutely historically has been a pretty big barrier for engaging in tabletop RPGs. And there are a lot of tools that have made that much easier, Critical Core is this kind of box set of as much information as we could provide, of how to run tabletop games with intention, in a space where you don’t have massive amounts of setup. It’s built off of the five year rule set, thanks to the open gaming license. So it’s an amazing starter kit for therapeutically applied RPGs. And part of the important piece with TTRPGs is, your clients or your participants shouldn’t have to do a whole bunch of work before they show up at the game. So with TTRPGs typically, there’s always exceptions, but you’re typically not going to spend three or six or five hours on character creation.
You might have a pre-made character that you get to alter or adjust as appropriate for you. Similarly, you aren’t expected to have watched a bunch of YouTube videos or live plays, or read any pages of the player’s handbook to be able to join a group. Your facilitator should be confident enough with the rules that they’re planning on using at their table, that they’re able to support new players, even if those players have no experience with Tabletop RPGs to begin with. So one of the ways in which TTRPGs can differ from some social games, is the lower barrier to entry in terms of expertise with play.
Ken: So Critical Core, which Game to Grow developed, is it mostly about streamlining the experience or is it also about focusing on the therapeutic benefits or both?
Adam: Actually both. The origin story of Critical Core really is the same origin story of our training program. There’s the idea that we wanted to get our method and our model out there, as far as possible. So one of the stories I like to tell about the origin of Critical Core is, when Game to Grow were the keynote presenters at the Washington Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. And we were talking about the use of tabletop role-playing games for clients’ inside growth and change. We had an auditorium full of therapists who were excited about using tabletop role playing games. And this is before we had the training program.
So people came up to us afterwards and they said, oh my gosh, I want to do this. How do I get started using tabletop role playing games to help my clients? I’ve never played tabletop role playing games before. And at the time, the answer was, well, go to the game store. And I guess, buy a book, read the book, play with your friends, or play with somebody at the game store, and then learn to be a game master, and then learn to be a good game master, and then learn to be a good game master with sensitive populations, and then to be a good game master with sensitive populations to achieve outcomes.
So there was five steps before any of them could actually leverage any of the things we had talked about in that presentation. So the goal for Critical Core was to cut out the middleman, not just for helping neuro divergent participants learn how to play the game quickly, but also to help new game masters, be they therapists or teachers or parents, be able to use the magic of tabletop role playing games to help their constituents.
So inside the Critical Core box kit is a simplified rule set from the OGL, like Elizabeth was saying, and we really did that to take out a lot of the things from 5E that we don’t really focus on in our games. A lot of that is character creation because brand new players don’t need to know all of the things until the things make sense to them. So once you have played Critical Core for a while, you can transition into any other game because the asymmetric nature of a tabletop role playing game will make sense, by that time.
In addition to that rule set, we have our facilitators guy that talks about the way we structure our sessions. It talks about what we call the core capacities, the inherent benefits that come from playing a game like Critical Core, and how to focus on those things as well as notes on session structures.
And then one of the things that I’m most excited about in Critical Core is the narrative design we’ve built into our modules. It’s called the Dots system of narrative construction. We go deeply into it, into the training program as well, but we use that to show how every in-game encounter can be targeted towards a real world area of social growth. So, if participants are wanting to focus on struggling with perhaps collaboration, we can have an in-game scenario targeted towards helping them collaborate, helping them understand logical sequencing, helping them understand that the frustration tolerance that might be an important skill for them to work on.
Ken: Do you have a bullet list you can recite, of those benefits that the Critical Core focuses on?
Adam: Yeah, the core capacities we talk about are really through line through so much of both Critical Core and the training program regulation is the first core capacity. The one that we focus on primarily, as it is important, because if you are dysregulated, you’re not going to be able to incorporate many of the other core capacities we’re going to talk about. There’s not much you can do if you’re dysregulated, besides become regulated. So we focus on that primarily, and that’s really a fantastic skill to be built through tabletop role-playing games, of course, because if it’s a D20 style game, then you’ve got a 5% chance of rolling a critical failure, which can be very exciting. Sometimes exciting in a good way, and sometimes exciting in a bad way. And we hope that we can help our players look at that failure as an opportunity and not something that is too disruptive. We talk about collaboration, which is a capacity for building on other people’s ideas. We talk about the planning capacity. We talk about the pretend play capacity, and Elizabeth, I’m forgetting the fifth capacity.
Elizabeth: The five core capacities that we focus on in Critical Core are regulation, collaboration, planning, perspective, and pretend play.
Ken: And you mentioned a couple of times, what’s in the box, when talking about Critical Core. When I go to your website, it looks like it’s just a digital kit. So is this a digital box you’re referring to?
Adam: The Kickstarter, that was the launchpad for Critical Core, included a digital kit and a physical product. So that physical product, because the world has been a complicated place for the last few years, is finally now on a ship heading towards North America and to Europe. So we’ll be distributing those soon. So the digital kits are available now, and the physical kits will be for sale very soon.
Ken: Oh, that’s exciting. I assumed I had it backwards. And that you had sold out.
Adam: Well, we almost have sold out, so we’re going to be probably having to launch a second printing of it fairly soon. So if you are listening to this and you want to get a copy of Critical Core, make sure you go to criticalcore.org because I believe we will probably sell out pretty quickly.
Ken: Fantastic. And there will be a link to that in the show notes at polygamer.net. We’ve been talking mostly about Critical Core and Dungeons & Dragons, but there are some other games that you currently, and historically, have used, including Magic: The Gathering and Minecraft. Can you talk a little bit about those and how they fit into your vision?
Elizabeth: I’d love to talk a little bit about Minecraft, specifically. Minecraft is another space in which there is a lot of freedom and opportunity to engage in collaborative storytelling, as well as just collaborative creativity. So Minecraft is a video game and it has this open worldly sandbox feel. Obviously there are ways in which you can play Minecraft, where you have a series of goals, or there are modifications to worlds that people have made in Minecraft, where you can play games. A really common one is like Bed Wars, for example. And so when we’re using Minecraft in a therapeutic context, we’re pulling a lot of the same things that we’re using with tabletop RPGs. We’re focusing on some of the same core capacities, but we’re able to engage in this video game space.
One of the reasons this can be really valuable is so many people already play Minecraft. We have the ability to leverage something that is already a really common hobby, where individuals may feel pretty comfortable in that space. When we’re thinking about increasing social confidence, increasing social competence, we don’t want to change too many things so fast. If I am an individual who is an adolescent, say, I’m in middle school and I play a lot of video games by myself, but I really struggle in social context at school, maybe I experience some bullying or pure victimization, being able to try out engaging with other people and collaborating with other people within a context where I already feel pretty knowledgeable and safe can be amazing. Even if I don’t play a lot of Minecraft, I may feel comfortable in other video game contexts. And Minecraft is another window through which to experience some of those spaces.
Additionally, Minecraft creates a lot of opportunities for collaborative building. So an example of an activity that was done in some of our Minecraft groups around Halloween in the fall, is we had multiple groups that each created a haunted maze. So within Minecraft, they were in create mode and they created a haunted maze, and it had traps, and it had prizes, and it had monsters and it had so many pop culture references, so many. And after creating the maze, the groups switched mazes. So these were two groups that had had minimal interaction, and they had the opportunity to try out each other’s maze in that survival mode, as opposed to that create mode. So they weren’t able to undo the traps.
And it created these amazing opportunities to really leverage both that collaboration, but also perspective taking. So players were encouraged by facilitators, as they were making some of these traps, or as they were making some of these pop culture references, to reflect back and think about how the players who are just stepping into this map, because they haven’t created this maze, this is the one they’re trying out, what is likely to be their experience? Is the intended impact, the intent that these creators are making in the maze, when they’re thinking, oh, this is going to be a funny trap. Is that likely to be perceived as a funny trap by the other players, who may not have some of the context and experience?
And it was this really awesome opportunity for perspective taking. And this is just one example of what has been done in the Minecraft groups that really allows us to work on these challenging skills. Perspective taking is hard, especially if I am expecting that the thing that I’ve done might have made someone else feel bad. That’s not something I want to sit in. But we’re able to pull it in through Minecraft. We’re getting to practice a little bit of game design here as well.
And the players got really, really engaged. And some of these are players who struggle to make friends or really struggle to understand some of the perspectives of other people. They find challenge getting some clarity there. And so this was a really awesome opportunity to practice these things in a really engaging and play based space, where there was a lot of safety. If the other players had gone through this haunted maze and they had started to become really scared or dysregulated, the facilitators still have full control over the server, and they can do things to pause or slow down or create added safety and distance within that space.
Ken: I’m not as familiar with Minecraft as I am with Dungeons & Dragons, but from the way you describe it, it sounds like it has some of the similar asymmetrical and collaborative benefits that D & D has.
Ken: Minecraft, and the way that you play Dungeons & Dragons are both online. Is that because of the pandemic or because you want to reach a global audience or are there benefits to the online format over in-person?
Elizabeth: It’s kind of both. So most of all of our services were in-person, prior to the pandemic. And we were lucky to be able to shift really quickly to a fully virtual space. I was someone, who prior to the pandemic, would not have said I would’ve been excited to switch to a virtual space. And I will say that D & D and Minecraft both, have really translated online incredibly well.
So having the ability to have players in their own homes absolutely has some of its own set of challenges. When I have my players in the same room as me, they can’t open up tabs to YouTube in another window, if they get bored, which is something they can do in their own homes, but this has allowed us to create more diverse groups in terms of where they are physically located. It has allowed us to serve individuals from other countries. It has been amazingly impactful for the training program and for the direct group services. It’s also made some of our groups more accessible in some ways.
So for example, participants who might have mobility challenges, or they may not always have access to a ride to group, are able to continue to participate because they can participate from home. Participants who may need medical supports or have other stressors going on in their lives, that may mean that coming up, again, showing up to a physical location may not be a good option, have the ability to participate online. This can be great for participants who might feel less comfortable speaking up in a group because they can have the option to utilize the chat. The chat has also been a great space to be able to redirect some communication that can become overwhelming when you have four or five people talking all at once on Zoom.
So being able to translate some of those pieces can be helpful. And when we’re thinking about developing skills that are useful in the real world, this online communication meeting and Zoom or Google meet, none of that is going away. So having experience and comfort of how to engage in those settings can be an added benefit. That was not something that we had originally anticipated when we were planning on going online.
Ken: It does still come with some limitations, though. I understand that you used to host Magic: The Gathering events, which is hard to translate to an online format.
Elizabeth: Yeah. So Magic: The Gathering, obviously there are some online simulators, but that is something that we have put on hold as we are not offering in-person groups at this time.
Ken: What about other video games, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, those both have analog counterparts. Minecraft is strictly digital and there are a lot of other purely digital experiences like World of Warcraft, for example, has a lot of collaborative opportunities. Action based games like Left 4 Dead, which has asymmetrical play. Where do, strictly digital games fit into the vision for Game to Grow?
Elizabeth: That is a great question. I will say that part of the reason that we haven’t expanded further is because we’re a small nonprofit, like things start up. We have so many exciting opportunities and things on the horizon and a limited number of hours in the day or the week to get things done. Especially since we are trying to practice a little bit, what we preach, in terms of treating ourselves like actual human beings who have needs outside of work. I would expect, and Adam, you can speak a little bit more to this as well. We have plans that are related to other digital games. And in addition to the groups we run, we also still provide opportunities as well as training, on utilizing other games. So in addition to running groups, I’m also an individual therapist and we have several others. We have a counseling program.
So I use games like Roblox. I’ve used games like Celeste, I’ve used games like Animal Crossing. I’ve used Animal Crossing to help a client with needle phobia, which has been something that I’ve been working with a lot more, since the vaccines have come out around the pandemic, which has been really exciting. So there are plenty of other opportunities for growth through video games. Minecraft is definitely not the only one. And some of it depends on, if we’re talking about for individual use versus for use within a group.
Adam: When we actually started our Minecraft program, it was an in-person Minecraft program. We got a grant from Child’s Play to buy computers. And we had all of our Minecraft participants, on laptops, in the same room. And a lot of the interpersonal communication was in real time, turn parent share with your neighbor, kind of activities. So that was an interesting thing to go from virtual in-person to virtual virtual. And the goal, originally, when we handled those computers, doing all of our in-person work was to expand an entire in-person video game program. I actually wrote a curriculum, a 10 week curriculum utilizing video games, all kinds of video games, to teach dialectical behavioral therapy skills. And we helped players, participants in those groups, self advocate while playing communication games like Overcooked. We used Overcooked to help players be clear about their intentions and their requests.
So there was a big plan for that. That has been on a long term hiatus until we’re ready to do in-person games again. Because a lot of those games don’t translate as well to the online space, as much as the couch co-op sort of space.
So there is a whole lot of untapped potential in video games. Our focus on the analog space is really just the… In fact, that’s where we started. Like Elizabeth was saying, we do function like a startup. We have a lot of passion for the work that we do, and a lot of ideas, and the main thing we need for that is time and money.
Ken: Oh. And even if you had infinite of time and money, as Elizabeth said, self-care is very important. I think you’re wise to do a few things well, because if you try to be everything to everyone, you end up doing nothing well, really. So I think that’s a smart scope that you’ve chosen. Elizabeth also mentioned two other things that I wanted to ask you about. One was growth mindset, which you did a PAX panel about. And one was Celeste, which is an amazing video game, that I played a couple of years ago, and which I spoke with last month’s guest about. Cyndi Wiley and I were talking about how Celeste, which is difficult, can be made more accessible using its own difficulty settings. Before I get to the meat of my question, for those who weren’t able to attend your growth mindset panel, Elizabeth, what is a growth mindset?
Elizabeth: Yeah. So growth mindset is this idea that our abilities and skills can change, provided we have the appropriate practice, and we have the appropriate feedback. As opposed to a fixed mindset, which is this idea that our skills are inherent, like gifts or challenges that we have at birth and keep forever. And so engaging in too much of a fixed mindset, even if my fixed mindset is, man, I am amazing at math, can be really challenging because if I run into things that really challenge that idea, that I am the best at math, or I’m really great at math, or something changes in my life that means I don’t have access to those skills and abilities in the same way anymore. It can be particularly damaging. So this idea that we can grow and change over time, especially if we have the right feedback and practice can be really instrumental.
Ken: So how does that play into games like Celeste, which are very difficult, by default?
Elizabeth: Yeah. So I could talk all day about this, but I will keep it reasonably short. So games are often, whether or not they’re intended to support a growth mindset, do a great job. A lot of the things that are aligned with growth mindset are also really aligned with good game design. So when someone is developing a game, they want you to play the game. Ideally they want you to play the whole game. And so there’s often going to be a tutorial or there’s going to be this space that is really creating your understanding of what the game is, helping you set expectations, but also helping you understand how you or your character can grow or change over time. Games are also going to have pretty low consequences for failure. Not all games have low consequences for failure, but Celeste is a great example.
So Celeste is a challenging platformer, but if you fail, the rooms are typically pretty short. And if you die, because you fall into lava or those creepy tentacle things, then you just go back to the beginning of that room. And you have the opportunity to try that room over and over and over. And not only that, the game also gives you explicit messaging that trying and failing and trying again is a normal part of the learning and growing process. But Celeste tracks the number of times you’ve died, it’s called your death count. And there’s a postcard, which is part of the way that you get communication through the game, that literally says, be proud of your death count. Every time you die, it means you’re learning something.
Ken: So for players who get frustrated with that experience, does that mean that they are approaching it from a fixed mindset and they need to transition to a growth mindset?
Elizabeth: Not necessarily. So I will say I am actually playing through Celeste for the first time. Well, really playing through it for the first time now. When it came out, I don’t play a lot of platformers in my life. I don’t have a history of engaging in platformers. It came out and I immediately went, man, this is really cool. And it is too hard for me. And I said, I played for about 20 minutes and I set it aside, and I could have tried and turned on some of the accessibility, or shifting the levels a little bit. But I didn’t at that time. I didn’t walk away and say, oh man, I’m terrible platformers and I’m always going to be bad at platforms. I’m just bad at video games. And I’m not saying I’ve never had that thought before, but that was not necessarily the thing that came up.
And it’s not the thing that’s coming up now as I am still struggling to get through the Celeste, but it’s moving a little bit faster. So some of this is around, why am I disengaging from the game? And do I have this expectation that things can get better? Me going, oh man, I can’t do that right now, doesn’t inherently mean that I’m exhibiting a fixed mindset.
So for example, think about running. I’m currently training for a half marathon. I shouldn’t go out and run 13 miles today. I would probably end up with an overuse injury before I got to those 13 miles. But I’m also confident that when the time of my race comes, provided I continue to increase my mileage over time, and I don’t get injured, that I’m absolutely capable of running 13 miles. Does that difference make sense?
Ken: I think so, but what does it mean for games like Celeste, which can be made easier?
Elizabeth: There’s nothing inherently wrong with making games easier. In some ways, it makes them more available to more people. Not everyone… For example, my partner has had access to video games most of his life. A lot of my access to video games, when I was a kid, were behind a one hour a day screen time rule. And also most of the video games I had access to were my brothers, which meant when I wasn’t on good terms with my brother, which was a lot of my adolescence, I didn’t have access to video games. So now I’m coming at games like Celeste or other games, with a little bit of a disadvantage in comparison to my partner, who’s had more time and experience and expertise. And so having an easier mode to Celeste, or other games like Hades.
Also, Hades is another phenomenal game. It’s a roguelike and it has a great story. And it also has a God mode that can make things significantly easier. If where you are at in that game, either because of where you’re at in your life, in terms of how hard you want things to be, or in terms of your skill of playing games, if that easier mode allows you to get in the game, but it’s still challenging for you, and your goal is a challenging game, that’s absolutely still going to support a growth mindset.
I guess, the only caveat to that where I’d say it might not be helpful, would again be on the individual basis. I think it’s really important for games to have varying difficulty levels because it allows more people to have greater engagement with things that are awesome. Also, often really cool. If an individual has this idea that they are the best at games and games are never going to be too hard for them, and then they engage in a game and they’re playing it on the easy level, and it’s again, not hard for them, that may continue to reinforce that fixed mindset. But honestly, that’s a pretty weak argument for why it might be a problem.
Ken: Have either of you ever encountered a game that was so hard that you walked away and never went back?
Elizabeth: Well, I walked away from Celeste for two years.
Ken: But you went back.
Elizabeth: I did go back. I think that if it hadn’t been so great, in terms of a lot of mental health messaging and implications, I might not have gone back. I don’t know. I’m currently, I’m slowly working my way through the remastered Demon Souls, which is my first Souls game, which is going to take me forever to get through, because it’s hard and I’m only willing to put some amount of time into it before I take a break.
Adam: I’ve never walked away from a game that was a single player game because it was too hard. I have walked away from multiplayer games because I didn’t have the skillset to play and still have fun. I walked away from Overwatch. My friends got into Overwatch and they were talking about it all the time. And I wanted that experience of being able to talk to them about it too. But I played with them and they had already been playing for a long time and were highly ranked and I was not. And I got whooped and that was not fun for me at all. The closest experience I’ve ever had, to really walking away from a single player game in frustration was Dark Souls.
Dark Souls was one of those games where a friend of mine brought it over the disc to my house Xbox, and he showed it to me and I was ready to throw my controller through the screen. It was so hard. I was so frustrated and I had all this pent up energy around my capacity for failure in that game. And I couldn’t imagine ever playing that game again. And then there was a moment of truth and a moment of clarity that I had, where I said, this is more than Dark Souls. This is about my tolerance for failure and my willingness to persevere through hard things.
So then a week later, I bought myself a copy of Dark Souls and then played through it. I never threw my controller and eventually I did beat it. And then I got Dark Souls II and III, and played my way through those two. But I really do think of my life in a, before Dark Souls and an after Dark Souls, because of how transformative that lesson was, from my awareness of my tolerance for struggle.
Ken: Wow. I haven’t heard people have that experience with Dark Souls. Usually it’s a love it or hate it. It’s not usually a transition from one to the other. There are games like Dark Souls and Celeste, which are very challenging. And at the other end of the spectrum, we have games like the one that Nintendo makes, where if you fail enough times, it’ll say, would you like us to do this for you? So would you say that games, in general, are getting easier or harder, or is that too broad a question, to be fair?
Elizabeth: I think that’s way too broad a question. I think that there are, because I don’t think that games adding more levels of difficulty, is games inherently getting easier. Because a Souls game adding easier levels doesn’t mean that the hard mode is easier. For example, Destiny 2, which is a game, I play a lot of. Their recent campaign that they released, they have their normal mode, and then they also added a, do you want to make this harder on yourself mode?
And you can also make both of those modes easier by, for example, having more people help you out with them. So I think that’s too broad of a question and I worry, with people misinterpreting that idea of, if we’re adding easier levels or easier modes, that doesn’t mean that the game itself should be categorized as easier. Does that make sense?
Ken: It does. And I think one of the reasons, the question is unfair is because people compare their accomplishments to other peoples. And if they say they beat the game on one difficulty and somebody else beat it on easier difficulty, then they like to engage in gatekeeping and say, oh, well, then you didn’t really beat it. And that’s not a fair response.
Ken: Adam, you brought up a great point about Overwatch and how I was just talking about people comparing themselves to each other. In the case of Overwatch, it wasn’t the game that was hard. It was your performance in relation to other players of that same game. Does that happen with Dungeons & Dragons in Critical Core, where some people are just really good at D & D and other people get frustrated because they might be having fun in some context with other players, but with these players, they just don’t think they’re good enough.
Adam: The funny thing is I think it’s impossible to be good at D & D because we all get out of it, what we want to put into it. And for some people being good at a tabletop role-playing game is rolling high on your dice roles, which is outside of anybody’s control. Or maybe it’s choosing the right character aspects for whatever encounters are going to come up. Those kinds of things could be interpreted as being good at D & D, but for some people, being good at a role playing game means talking in a silly voice and making other people at the table laugh. So there’s not really such thing as being good at a tabletop role-playing game in a singular context. And so what we want is for people to feel successful in whatever that success looks like to them.
I think that’s one of the main differences about a program like ours, and a lot of other traditional, social skills programs, is that our program doesn’t necessarily encourage someone to do what sort of is externally expected. But our program is really, it’s structured, but it’s unstructured. So people can participate in the way that they want to participate. To be social in the amount and to the extent that they want to be social. And so some of our players will be excited about showing up and knowing the exact, min/maxed character to play against. Whatever environment is there, they’ll identify the weaknesses of the monster and let everybody at the table know. And some other players just want to show up and have a good time, make some fellow players laugh. It’s really open ended, which is one of the nice things about tabletop role-playing games.
Ken: So when you have players who are coming at this game, either with different skill levels or with different expectations about what they want to get out of it, sometimes tensions can run high. Even in a collaborative game, even when people are on the same team with a shared goal. There was a panel that Elizabeth was on at PAX, about deescalation. Elizabeth had to step away from the podcast to deal something offline. But I’m wondering what in your experience does cause tensions to run high in these games? Do people, despite those shared goals, nonetheless butt heads?
Adam: Oh, absolutely. That’s one of the fantastic things about games like Dungeons & Dragons or Critical Core, is that the players care about the outcome. That is the double edged sword sometimes. Because the players care so much, they want the outcome that they want so badly. Sometimes they think that their idea is the best idea to get to that collective goal or that collective outcome. So a lot of times the agreements that players have to make is a collaborative agreement. Sometimes that agreement is, players building on each other’s ideas, and agreeing to accomplish the goal in a shared way. And sometimes that comes with, what looks more like compromise, and that is a valuable but challenging skill to build as well. So when, two characters are both trying to decide how they want to infiltrate the evil King’s castle, they might have to bring their ideas to the table, and talk about their ideas and defend their ideas if there is a disagreement about whether an idea is the right idea or not.
So the different skill set there in D & D, that might show up the way that I was speaking about this earlier, one player who knows a lot of the standard way that the game runs. How a lot of game masters will build certain in-game challenges, they might say, oh, I know how we’re going to get into this castle because I’ve played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, and then the other player might say, but it would be more fun to do it this other way.
And what’s really nice about this experience in a tabletop role-playing game context, in the Game to Grow context, is that the game master can shift and change the world itself to meet those players’ needs, in terms of their compromising. So if it would really serve one player to make sure that their idea isn’t going to be successful without the help of another player, then the game master can scaffold and increase that challenge appropriately to make sure that they are building that collaboration capacity.
Ken: I love your word choice, scaffold. The word I was thinking of was rig.
Adam: Well, the concept of scaffolding, it’s an idea. My background is in drama therapy and education. And the idea of scaffolding comes from this idea that we can all accomplish so much on our own, but we can accomplish a certain amount more with the proper guidance and support from either a mentor or a peer. And so that’s what’s so nice about a group context like tabletop role-playing games have, is that the players can witness each other, watch each other and learn from each other, and in doing so, they’re not relying on an adult to tell them what to do or to tell them the best way to do things. They can trial and error and do that in a community.
And another great thing about games like Dungeons & Dragons or Critical Core, is that they’re a fellowship game. So no character can be good at everything. There’s always going to be a situation in which that character might need to rely on someone else. Maybe there’s a lock in the dungeon that the rogue needs to be there for, or there is a stone that’s heavy and blocks the path, that the strength based character, the barbarian, needs to push out of the way. Maybe there’s a rune that’s only in one particular language, and only that dwarf can read that rune.
So because of that, it is a game that fundamentally supports people listening to each other and relying on each other, which minimizes to a certain extent, some of that table conflict. Sometimes it exacerbates it because people who aren’t comfortable or don’t have a history of relying on other people, are now put into a context where they have to. Where they have to share their ideas and work with other people, because it cannot be accomplished alone.
Ken: So the DM can scaffold a situation to encourage the players to collaborate. And certainly the players will get more benefits, and be more likely to realize their goals, if they do so. But in real life there isn’t always going to be that facilitator that helps them down that path. So does Critical Core or Game to Grow, encourage players to deescalate and resolve situations amongst themselves?
Adam: Yes, it really depends on the context. So there’s a certain amount of conflict that is really beneficial because then it introduces a need for a skill to be built. So if the game master is there mediating the conflict for the players then the players aren’t necessarily learning the skills to interact with each other in a safe and supportive way. I’ve actually loved having my groups at the Game to Grow table experience some conflict, because then they’re prompting a need for them to build the skills to mediate that conflict.
As an example, I had a group who, a lot of my groups, they tend to want to start small businesses in my Dungeons & Dragons game. Very often my Dungeons & Dragons game, look very little like Dungeons & Dragons after all. I have a player group, they needed to charter a ship to go from one island to another island in our fantasy setting. And they decided that instead of renting a ship, they wanted to buy the ship. And then it launched a cruise line company. And then they bought an island, to have as their home base, for their cruise line company.
Anyway, this storyline has unfolded in such a way that they’ve had to negotiate how they want to run their cruise line company. And we have had full days where it was argument about what the goals were, where they wanted to go, how they wanted to navigate this new territory that they were encountering. And when I let them struggle, then we have a process of reflection at the end of every session. And they said, well, nobody was listening to my ideas. I don’t think, I was upset because we talked over each other the whole session. And then I can, as the game master, say, oh, it looks like we’re all frustrated because we talked over each other. We weren’t really listening to each other. Do you want some help maybe next week? And I can help you figure out how to navigate this more effectively.
And they all said, yes, please. Help us navigate this more effectively. So then the next week I can respond to that struggle. The fact that they wanted that help, with some ideas. And I can introduce sentence frames. I can introduce nonviolent communication or dialectical behavioral therapy skills, which are sentence frames that say, I am feeling because I want this. Would you be willing to? And then they can then use those and they can practice that skill right away.
And then immediately see the benefits from having that skill. That’s what’s so unique and special about this modality, is that I’m not starting the session by saying, today, class, we’re going to talk about deescalation. I’m letting the tensions rise because they care so much about this story that we’re building together. Then when they have that desire to participate, but the obstacle is there for them to struggle through. I can provide a little bit of support scaffolding if you will, to help them overcome that challenge. And then I’ve seen my groups that I’ve introduced this skill with, use it later on. I will see them remember to use that sentence frame, or I can use the chat feature in our virtual game and say, remember how we talked about that last week. Here’s a suggestion.
Ken: It’s great that, as you described, they want that help. They want to move forward. Because I can just as easily imagine some individuals such as myself, when I was younger, just flumping down into a chair in the corner with their arms crossed, saying, if we’re not doing it my way, then I don’t want to play. So how do you draw people out of that shell?
Adam: I think the trick here is we always want to make sure we respect the autonomy of the individual. So the idea of drawing someone out of there, it is really about redirection and an invitation. So never would we say, it’s time for you to be in your game seat. The part of the magic of the game is the internal desire to continue playing. There are some days where players will take their ball and go home, so to speak. And then it’s an important conversation to have with them. Oftentimes that isn’t actually getting them what they want, which is, getting the game to go the way that they want it to go. If they want to disappear from the game, then they’re not getting their needs met.
So oftentimes that’ll turn into a small conversation about what their needs are, doing a little bit of functional analysis with them, around what they want and how they think they’re aiming to get what they want, and then helping them find alternate ways to get what they want, which is oftentimes, once again, like an introduction of a skill that they can build.
If you leave the game and go sit in the chair and say, I’m not going to play anymore, that sounds sad because I know you love this game. What is your hope for that? Well, it sounds like there’s not a lot of hope. Okay. Well, let’s find a way to incorporate your ideas into the game and we can then show the value of collaboration. It’s one of those things, it’s collaboration. Positive relationships is something that’s really hard to explain to somebody. And a lot of the participants in Game to Grow groups, especially some of the younger adolescents haven’t really had a positive or supportive social network. So a lot of teachers or a lot of therapists or a lot of parents have told them all of the reasons why they should have positive pro-social behaviors. But if they’ve never really had a friend group or never really had a community, it doesn’t mean anything.
So one of the nice things about using tabletop role-playing games in this way is that there is that continuation desire and the game works so much better when players are working together and listening to each other, that it has a feedback loop. It has a pretty immediate feedback loop. Especially if the game master is attuned to help catalyze some of that insight.
Ken: You’ve described so many wonderful benefits from these games, collaboration, listening, frustration, tolerance, et cetera. When I had Dr. Lindsey Migliore on the show last year, AKA GamerDoc, she was talking about eSports medicine and how, when she gave a talk at a medical conference about it, half the audience was enraptured about this new opportunity to expand their skillset. And the other half was laughing at the very idea of eSports medicine, which they just found ridiculous. Does Game to Grow experience similar resistance to the concept of using games, as a mental health and educational tool?
Adam: We don’t. And part of that, I think, is because people seek us out because they believe in our mission. The other thing that’s really nice is that we have had some pretty positive exposure for our program through avenues that might otherwise look the wrong way. For example, we were keynote speakers at the Washington Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. We presented at play therapy conferences and drama therapy conferences. We’ve been active in the field of more traditional approaches. So we’ve crossed the threshold in that way.
I think the only time I really had anybody be very verbally dismissive of our program was a satanic panic concern. And it was a woman, we were at a homeschool conference. And this woman came up to us and said, I knew somebody in the eighties and their child was brought into the dark arts because of tabletop role-playing games. That’s the only time that I’ve ever had anybody overtly say that. I was there at the conference with Adam Johns. And so Adam Davis and Adam Johns were there at the table, and she said, “And I don’t know you from Adam.” And we both just pointed at our name tags. We’re like, well, we are both Adam.
But I really do think that the world is changing. There was certainly a time when Dungeons & Dragons or tabletop role-playing games, similar games, were something that everyone assumed was for socially reclusive people. And that was true for me. When I was playing as a young person, I played in basements. It was not a cool thing to be playing tabletop role-playing games. And then what’s so cool now, is that those of us that used to play in the basements are now thought leaders. Those of us that used to play in basements are now running businesses. And, Stephen Colbert is a big D & D player. We’ve seen so many prominent people be open about their love for collaborative storytelling, that it’s no longer something that people are ashamed of. And I think the more of us that can be open and talk about our love for this kind of activity, the less stigma there will be because it’ll be more normal for people to be engaging in it.
Ken: I certainly think that it is a very different time to be a geek from when we were kids, especially with all the Marvel movies and with the popularity of stuff like Game of Thrones. It’s a good time to be a geek.
Adam: I think so.
Ken: So Adam, I’ve kept you for over an hour. We started by looking at the history of Game to Grow and what you’ve accomplished in the first five years. Where do you see Game to Grow going in the next five years?
Adam: So we are on a fantastic trajectory. The goal of Game to Grow really is a game in every school, a game in every hospital, and a game in every clinic. And we’re doing that right now so transformatively with the training program that Elizabeth is running and with Critical Core coming out with the physical kit very soon. I’m very, very excited about that.
We have a couple of brand new programs at Game to Grow that I’m really excited about blossoming into bigger parts of it. One of those is, we just started running virtual programs for youth in hospital care. So we’ve been using teleconferencing services to go to the San Antonio Methodist Children’s Hospital and play Critical Core. And for a lot of the youth we’re playing with, some of them are in long term care. Some of them are in short term care, but because of COVID, depending on health concerns in the hospital, there’s no access to social spaces.
So a lot of these young people are stuck in their hotel room and visitation has been reduced. So they’re really needing some positive outlet and there are great opportunities for them to play video games, but that’s kind of solo. So what we’re doing is, with the hospital, we have a good friend who runs that program there, that he puts a iPad down in front of a kid and we can teleconference in with WebEx and we can play a 90 minute game of Critical Core. And we’ve seen some amazing responses.
We get feedback from all the families that we play with. And some of the youth will say, I never realized how much a smile could brighten my day and lift my spirits. Or a kid say something like I got a chance to connect with some other kids. And now I feel less alone. That is the thing that I’m really hoping we can expand because we play a game a week right now. It’s still in its pilot phase. We’re going to be expanding that to have other of our Game to Grow staff run it. We want to expand into a volunteer run program with adequate training and supervision. So that’s one of the things I’m most excited about moving forward with.
Ken: That’s wonderful! And that ties into the grant you got from Child’s Play, which for those who don’t know, is a nonprofit that provides game hardware and software to kids in hospitals. They provide the hardware and software. It sounds like Game to Grow provides the context and the structure in which to enjoy those games.
Adam: That’s right.
Ken: Wonderful. What a great compliment. So for those listeners of this podcast, how can they help Game to Grow, grow?
Adam: So Game to Grow’s mission can be helped by just telling someone about us. Our core principle is the games have the power to improve lives, even more so, if played with intention. So if you play a game, you love a game, tell someone else about how they can play that game and what you have benefited from playing that game. So right there you serve our mission. If you’d like to support our mission directly, financially, you can go to gametogrow.org/support. We have direct cash donations. We can take Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency donations. You can run fundraising streams for us. There’re great ways. A lot of the programs that we run are paid for with scholarships that are donor based. So if you care about the hospital program, you want to make sure we continue to serve kids in foster care and have scholarships for teachers to attend our trainings. You can support us myriad of ways, even Amazon Smile and Humble Bundle.
Ken: Fantastic. And I see, your donations can be one time, monthly, quarterly, or yearly. I was going to ask if you had a Patreon, but with so many diverse options for supporting you, you don’t really need a Patreon. This is wonderful.
Adam: Thank you so much.
Ken: As a reminder, one more time for those who want to follow you online or find you online, where can they do that?
Adam: We’re on Twitter at Game to Grow, gametogrow. We’re on Facebook. We’re on Instagram, we’re on LinkedIn. You can find us on all of those spots. We also have a newsletter @gametogrow.org/newsletter. Probably about once a month, we have a community newsletter about the various things going on, but that’s the first place you’ll also hear about Critical Core being released, new updates for that, as well as new expansions of our training program and other cool stuff going on in the Game to Grow universe.
Ken: Fantastic. I have signed up for your email newsletter list. Again, the place to do that is gametogrow.org. Adam, thank you so much for your time. And Elizabeth, who is offline, thank you also for joining us. It’s been wonderful chatting with you.
Adam: Thanks so much, Ken.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at polygamer.net.