Social Skills in Games


I wanted to take the time to focus on what Timothy Grant and myself will speak about at Metatopia 2019. In this post, I’ll touch on some terms associated with social skills, and why I believe they are so important. We will be focusing primarily on social functioning and emotional wellness. I am trying to keep this post relatively short I will not go into great lengths regarding types of play. Instead, I’ll focus on the benefits and skills gained through play. I will list some of the skills we are looking to build in the office. As well as the differences between communication, emotional, and social relationships. Also how all that changes based on the approach and game design. I will provide a summary and list the day and time we will be at Metatopia for this panel.

Social and Emotional Skills

When we talk about social functioning within the context of developing social skills. There are several ways you can approach the topic. As a therapist who is focusing on social-emotional learning, I look for games that directly touch on emotional wellness. At very least create a situation where we can discuss the person’s emotions afterward. Additionally, we can talk about social functioning as it relates to communication, social relationships, or behavioral change. There are other ways we can break this down further. For the sake of time, let us go based on this for now. I will save further breakdowns for future posts.


In a lot of ways, I want to simplify the process of what we are talking about. Try to boil it down to its core ideas and let the game designers run with it. So, when I talk about games that facilitate communication there are four major areas I am looking at.

Access to the Unconscious

The first of which is, does it provide access to the unconscious. This is kind of hard to nail down even for a therapist because of how abstract the concept is. A good example of games that do this is Dixit, Codenames Pictures, Mysterium. Through play, these games can help get at what a person is thinking of under the surface. Similarly, any game that includes drawing may do the same. For example, the cartography qualities of The Quiet Year, where your drawing parts of a story on a map. In our session’s we have seen that become a safe way for people to put on paper what they are dealing with in their daily lives even if they do not have the words for it.


Additionally, any games that give room for self-expression and ownership of self-representation would also fit under communication. So games like Sculptapaloza and Pictionary. Even creating a character with a backstory in a roleplaying game would fit. The tricky part in all this is how are we teaching them these communication skills. Are we using direct or indirect teaching? The way you sell this component could greatly affect what type of therapist or group setting this will work for. The more directive and concrete the game the more directive forms of therapy it would work for. Types of therapy like child-centered and child-directed will only use a game if their kids bring it up. Where other types of therapy will not use board gaming or roleplaying games at all.

Let’s talk about the more indirect types of therapy. It is possible to sell writing prompts or similar forms of interaction to a therapist who practices an indirect approach. If they lead to self-expression and access to the unconscious in a nondirective way. An example of this is stripping Once Upon a Time, Dixit, or Rory’s Story Cubes of its game mechanics. Then let the client draw a couple of cards, and tell you what those cards mean to them. I cannot tell you how many cards or dice we own in the office. Just to tell stories or draw meaning from them.

Social Relationships

Social skills needed to strengthen social relationships

Within the social relationship category, we look at five overall skills to enhance. Those include attachment, empathy, protection of others, social competence, and the therapeutic relationship. The therapeutic relationship, that is really on the clinician, if there are instances to grow or work together, most games will fit that bill no problem. Now when it comes to attachment, that is more about building a deep relationship. We are not always going to strike that note within a client or family, but we can give examples of that in various roleplaying games. A good example of this would be creating sibling bonds in a game like Kids on Bikes and playing out what that means during the session.


Empathy is a completely different story. Helping players identify emotions in others and rewarding them for it in your game would be beneficial to therapists. That is part of the reason therapists inject emotional vocabulary into games like Jenga.

I believe the best way to describe social competency is the combination of how effectively one interacts socially. I would look at the type of social skills you are building:

  • What are there goals of those skills
  • How effective is the person at using them

Remember your designing it. Now, it is up to the therapist to use it efficiently, just let them know that it is there.

For example, one could make the argument that a game like Pandemic is building up social skills like:

  • listening
  • convincing others
  • problem-solving
  • showing compassion when another player is in trouble

Emotional Wellness is an important part of Social skills

Emotional Expressions

I am not sure how many of us think of tabletop board gaming as a key component toward emotional wellness. It is much easier to make an argument for:

  • Abreaction
  • Catharsis
  • Counter-conditioning fears
  • Stress inoculation
  • Stress management

When in the context of LARPs, RPGs, and storytelling games, then overall board games. I meet a therapist last month who was designing a game and told her. “Your game design could live and die on the vine based on the strength of a game master”. Your game must not only be accessible to the client but the therapist as well. In this situation, it is important to know the difference between abreaction and catharsis.

Catharsis and Abreaction

Catharsis tends to come up in conversation within LARPs and RPGs a lot. It helps people to feel strong or repressed emotions in a way that releases them and provides relief. Abreaction will focus on the release of repressed emotions; the person relives the experience through hypnosis or suggestion. I personally, and professionally do not think that should be a goal for game design therapeutically. There may be a place for that in the field. Open-ended RPGs could help clients get there, but I am concerned. Experiencing repressed emotions before they or the therapist are ready for it could be dangerous. Or worse yet, if the emotion is associated with a traumatic memory. The memory could resurface before they have the tools to reprocess it appropriately.

Game designs do not always have to illicit a deeply cathartic moment. It could just as easily provide a moment where the person is learning to manage their stress. Perhaps that is why games like Call of Cthulu intrigue us. They provide us an opportunity to face our fears and come out stronger for it.

Stress Management and Inoculation

Back to stress management and inoculation. I believe many cooperative board games help us with that. They create situations in which we feel things spinning out of control. Together the players must work to stop it from doing so. Games that create the most amount of anxiety help us safely deal with that emotion. For example, Escape, Space Cadets Dice Duels, and Space Team, real-time cooperative board games where everyone wins or loses together. I believe there is room for more games like this to hit the table in my office. If we focus on the social-emotional components learned in play, then I’ll write more about their use.

So how do we create more games with social skills in mind?

As I stated, I wanted to keep this brief and talk about tabletop games. Mostly their design, and some of the skills and benefits of playing them. I do believe that this is just the beginning regarding how to describe game design needs for therapy. Furthermore, I want to emphasize that every game needs to have all these elements. One or two strong ones are enough.

It is more about talking to therapists, teachers, and other educators about how your game does these things. Additionally, do not forget that although the field of therapy can use more games, not every therapist is a gamer. This means that your rules and execution will have to be more intuitive than for the average Eurogame. Lastly, I suggest talking to as many different therapists, teachers, residential counselors as you can. Find out what they say they need, and how they would use it. Every mode and model will have different ways to use your games, find who fits how you think. I hope to playtest more games in the field soon, good luck.

Metatopia 2019 panel list

D052: “Help Wanted! Desperately Seeking Games to Promote Social Skills” presented by Timothy Grant, Dr. Brian Quinones, Shawn Roske, Doug Levandowski. Social skills can be a very broad term. Let us clarify what that means and how to sell your product to educators and therapists. we will talk about using tabletop roleplaying games, storytelling, and map-making games to teach kids how to relate to one another better. Saturday, 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM; Serious, All Ages.

D078: “Using Games For Change” presented by Heather O’Neill, Timothy Grant, Dr. Brian Quinones, Menachem Cohen, Shawn Roske. What gives you hope? What stories do you tell to feel better? How can games like “The Quiet Year”, “No Thank You Evil!”, “For the Queen”, and even “Dungeons & Dragons” be used for therapeutic, educational, and spiritual change. Therapists, spiritual directors, and game designers talk about the games we use, hack, and design. When mentoring, teaching, and helping people increase hope. Saturday, 10:00 PM – 11:00 PM; Serious, All Ages.

Full disclaimer – I do own copies of many of the games that I will be talking about, but I do not own any stock in their companies, did not create, or help create any of these games for profit. I will mention whenever I mod a game or change it from its original intent to fit my client’s needs. It is important to note that yes I am a therapist, but this blog is not intended to be therapy. I will offer advice, tips, and other guidance on my blog with the intent to illustrate important life skills, provide entertainment, inform, and at times empower the reader. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental illness or are facing any kind of crisis seek local professional help, and/or contact authorities or emergency professionals for assistance.

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