Psychology of role-playing games
Interaction in In-Person RPGs
Tabletop and Live Action RPGS are most likely to have an intragroup interaction pattern. Intragroup activities consist of two or more people cooperating to achieve mutual goals. Communication is both verbal and nonverbal, and mostly positive.
Both the table (the group of players) and the party (the group of characters controlled by those players) form a team to accomplish the goals of the story. According to Bruce Tuckman's theories on small groups, two ways teams differ from other small groups are that members work together by taking on complementary roles, and have accountability for their choices and their performance. Over time both the table-team and the party-team will develop a group culture with ethical standards and a social contract. Leadership and storytelling choices by the game master, as well as the behavioral guidance encoded into some gaming systems, can help steer this development.
It is common for RPG players to experience what is known as a peak experience, flow state, or being in the zone. This is a state of complete immersion where distractions aren't noticed, the sense of time is suspended, and the moment is intensely enjoyed. It can happen when a person is willingly partaking in an activity they enjoy for its own sake—not solely because of any possible rewards—and find both absorbing and satisfying with an ideal balance of skill and challenge. People in this state often focus more intensely than usual, perform better than their average in the moment, have learning experiences, and come away with good memories whether or not goals were achieved.
Generalization is taking a concept or experience from a specific situation and applying the lessons learned to other scenarios, whether similar or different. Although people may generalize on their own, lessons learned during games or other activities can be cemented and broadly expanded through the use of post-session processing. Session processing is a period of discussion where each participant may take between thirty seconds and five minutes to share their takeaways and make personal connections to events, feelings, and ideas that came up during the game. Session processing typically takes place immediately following a game, but it is also helpful to revisit past sessions at the start of a meeting as players may have had new thoughts or come to new understandings between sessions.
Processing discussions are powerful tools for enhancing the learning achieved during experiential activities. Processing before and after each session enhances and accelerates the learning process so players may act more mindfully and strategically in future game and life situations. Processing sessions can help groups to break out of ruts and have better game sessions in the future. For an example of a frustrated table breaking out of a rut and learning to work together adaptively, RPG Research recommends this publically available video by Zombie Orpheus Entertainment.
Character Death and Resilience
The fact that events in an RPG are unlikely to have major consequences for players in their everyday lives makes RPG play low-stakes. Therefore, when developmentally appropriate for players, it is generally emotionally safe for terrible things to happen in-game, including the death of individual characters or even the whole party. Even, in some cases, the entire in-game world!
It is actually not merely safe but beneficial for a player to see their character undergo such catastrophes early in their experience with RPGs—preferably early enough in a given adventure that their attachment to a lost character is minimal. This shows them that there are actual (though not real-life) risks and consequences to their choices, raising the stakes enough to give them an engaged attitude and an immersive experience that will be more fulfilling than play with lower stakes.
When players encounter in-game disasters early, they learn that failure is possible but also survivable (for them, if not their characters) and that when they roll up a new character sheet and get right back on that horse (or mastiff, or dragon) they'll be having a good time again in no time. This is a lesson which can help players learn to bounce back from frustrating and disappointing experiences and is, like other lessons learned while playing RPGs, highly generalizable.
Neuroscience and Maximizing Learning
One of the reasons RPGs are increasingly popular in classroom settings is that they excel at certain principles for maximizing learning, such as the use of narrative, memory encoding and cues, chunking, self-referencing and building on prior knowledge, testing, and elaboration and distinctiveness. Read more here.