No crashed spaceships or radioactive spiders were involved.
When someone finds out about Wheelhouse Workshop, after they ask us why we use tabletop games in our groups, we often get asked how we ended up here. We’ve been running Wheelhouse Workshop since 2013, but had actually been “therapeutic game masters” for a few years prior.
Adam Johns and I met in grad school at Antioch University Seattle, where I was studying drama therapy and Adam was studying couple and family therapy. In one of our classes we were discussing the communities we were involved in, and both Adam and I mentioned that we identify with the “geek” community. We had both been playing tabletop games most of our lives, were avid fans of superheroes and comic-related media, and considered ourselves enthusiasts of science and technology. We loved to get excited about the things we loved and wanted to share that excitement with others.
For the previous year I had been working for another social skills organization that had a tabletop role-playing group. The group started out as more of a social meetup group focused on kids having fun with similarly unique individuals. The tabletop role-playing games were just the backdrop, but I was training as a drama therapist at the time and started to incorporate drama therapy approaches to my work as a facilitator, making the group a more intentional skill-building group. When a position opened up there, I invited Adam Johns on board to become a game master, and for the next year we started brainstorming.
While Adam and I were working together, we began to notice the way that the format of the group — the tabletop role-playing games — was contributing to the development of our players’ social skills. It was at this point mostly because of the inherently beneficial nature of tabletop role-playing games, but the more we facilitated the groups, the more we realized we could use our ongoing graduate training to tweak the format and use the game intentionally to target real world areas of therapeutic growth.
We began designing in-game scenarios so the players would experience therapeutic benefits through their character. A player working on frustration tolerance and emotional regulation would be given challenges aligned to help him develop those specific skills. His character would get trapped in a room that is slowly filling up with lava, and he needs to figure out how to get to the grate in the ceiling. He gets to experience the frustration and success of his character, all while maintaining the safety of the game. A player is working on conflict resolution? His character needs to convince a two-headed cyclops to help him storm a castle, but the creature’s two heads keep arguing with each other and losing track of the conversation and the player must help the creature’s two heads see each others’ point of view before they can progress in the game. He gains skills in the game that he can then use at home and at school, but he’s learning them in a fun and engaging way.
We workshopped (pun intended) these theories for a while before deciding to branch out and start Wheelhouse Workshop in 2013. Since then we’ve seen the benefits of our theories as we’ve continued to expand and develop. We’re now offering three groups of therapeutic role-playing games per week, and even taught a masters level workshop at Antioch University Seattle to help clinicians use tabletop games in their own therapeutic work.
It is an amazing honor to be able to use these games that Adam and I both have loved and believed in for so many years as a therapeutic tool to help young people become more confident, creative, and socially capable—the way they helped us when we were the same age.
Do you or someone you know use games therapeutically? Please share with us, we love connecting with others out in the field!