Using RPGs to correct misbehaviour

by Shaun Low — published 2018/03/28 19:40:00 GMT-7, last modified 2022-11-12T09:26:07-07:00
I've had a lot of students over the years, many of whom would display acts of misbehaviour in and outside of class. Today, I would like to discuss my experiences with using RPGs to correct such traits. I also have a short anecdote that would hopefully inspire parents and educators out there.

It is human to err; ergo, it would also be unrealistic to expect children and adolescents to never act up, and to never cross certain behavioural lines. Of course, when I say "misbehaviour", it includes a wide range of acts, from something as mild as kicking up a fuss, to being unnecessarily snarky, to huge meltdowns. Let's not forget that misbehaviour can take place anywhere, be it in school or at home.

As an educational therapist who teaches kids with dyslexia and ADHD, I've found RPGs to be an invaluable teaching tool, as far as behaviour is concerned. I've used it on multiple occasions, and have seen long-lasting effects on my students. Here are the following ways in which I've used them, and how they've actually helped my students.

1) RPGs help build meta-cognition

When I first started out my career as an educational therapist, one of the biggest buzzwords I kept hearing was "meta-cognition". To be meta-cognitive is to take a step back and view oneself through introspective and retrospective lenses, and to think about your own thought process.

Meta-cognition is extremely relevant to kids with ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder, because oftentimes they're prone to acting on impulse. In my experience, many cases in which students had reported misbehaviour were done not out of malice, but impulsivity. In such cases, they didn't fully rationalise the consequences of their actions until afterwards, in a calmer environment.

However, when you're playing an RPG, you're doing the exact opposite most of the time. You're playing a game that constantly has you analysing your own actions, critically thinking about choices and consequences. In a way, your character is an extension of your identity, whether running counter to or in alignment with it.

We can therefore use RPGs to help our kids question their own thought processes from a broader angle. After all, the narrative doesn't just go away like that, particularly if the session was memorable. Let them ponder over their choices, and discuss how they could have done better. Through the derived answers, they can be more self-reflective over time, not just in-game, but also in real life.

2) RPGs have affective fail states that reflect the consequences of misbehaviour

Sometimes, you have to fall down to learn how not to. Thankfully, while life doesn't always give us that opportunity at a second shot, RPGs do. When you fail in an RPG, your character may not simply be eliminated. Instead, you could lose a loved one, or make those around you lose their trust in you.

Most players won't want to fail in a game, but fail states are inevitable, especially when characters persistently refuse to follow established regulations. In such a situation, when the fail state hits, it's easy to look back to see what had caused it, and rectify the problem there and then. Many times, players would be more than happy to change their behaviours. This is because the fail state often affects them on a more emotional level; additionally, peer pressure in a larger group setting can help to reinforce positive beliefs while suppressing negative ones.

3) RPGs encourage lateral thinking

In any RPG, players will want to reap the biggest gains while minimising losses. This means surviving, conserving resources and getting as much reward/loot as possible. Many times, discretion is the better part of valor. and an outright confrontation may not be the best choice. How does this translate to correcting misbehaviour? If you recall what I'd said about misbehaviour earlier, a lot of times, it happens because of impulsivity. Through RPGs, we can demonstrate how confrontation does not always have to be at the forefront of one's mind. Instead, we can work around it, whether to circumvent the issue entirely or to weave it into a different direction entirely.

While we're on this sub-topic, I have an interesting anecdote to share: I had a student whom I had taught for about 4 years. He was a very sweet lad in class, but got into a fair bit of trouble outside.

Anyway, we used to play the Leverage RPG. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, there are 5 Roles to pick from: Mastermind, Grifter, Thief, Hacker and Hitter. This student chose Hitter as his Primary role. Throughout our 4 sessions, he would beat up anything and anyone that stood in his path. The crew's rep spiralled downwards, as both the police and mafia began to take notice of it. Every issue was solved with violence, and things eventually got muddied with the players losing sight of the bigger picture.

What I did was, at the end of the fourth session, I went through an After-Action Review with the class. I told the kid who played as the Hitter, "Look, why do you think things happened the way they did?"

He gave the answer I was expecting: "I tried to fight everyone without thinking about the consequences."

The lesson was learned that day. He knew that violence was not the best solution to the problem. We spent the rest of the class talking about solutions at length.

Now here's where things get even more interesting: a few months later, he came to class and told me that he had gotten into trouble outside. Apparently, some youths from another gang had confronted him to 'settle' a problem. Naturally, I asked him what he did. His reply?

"I remembered you telling me that violence wasn't the best solution to a problem, so I just smiled at them and asked them to sit down and get a drink while we slowly talked."

Amazing, isn't it?

4) RPGs can be modelled after almost any situation

One of the best things about RPGs is that they can simulate almost any kind of situation. Many times, players who misbehave in real life would exhibit similar traits in-game. This makes it ripe for the GM to throw a spanner in the works. For example, if I need to correct a student's constant talkativeness, I will put them in a situation where they literally have to be quiet in real life to reflect the level of stealth in-game. (I've done that before; good times.) Similarly, when teaching anger management, I would model the in-game environment to give off plenty of tension. By creating a simulation and getting students to see the parallels between the game and real life, I've managed to successfully get the point across very effectively. Yes, misbehaviour would still occur from time to time, but the kids would just need a few gentle reminders.


I find RPGs to be a very effective tool when it comes to rectifying misbehaviours. The strongest argument for it is the meta-cognitive element. Because of the way RPGs work (i.e. being games), they separate the player's actual identity from the character's. However, as the in-game character is typically a projection of the player's own persona (at least for first-timers), it presents a medium with which kids get to see their own mistakes being played out. It's certainly not perfect -- there had been a few occasions where it just didn't work (though that's for another article) -- but I've found it to be an effective complement to counselling, and this is what I've been told by my students too. When things are more settled down on Swords & Stationery's end, I definitely hope to engage in further research (with substantiating stats) to show how well RPGs can complement traditional means of correcting misbehaviour.

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