• Dr. Brian Quinones LPC

“Help Wanted! Desperately Seeking Games to Promote Social Skills!”

Updated: 7 hours ago

Therapeutic By Design

By Dr. Brian Carl Quinones, Ed.D, LPC


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 clients 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.

“Help Wanted! Desperately Seeking Games to Promote Social Skills!”


Today’s format is going to be a little different. I wanted to take the time to focus a bit about what myself and Timothy Grant will be talking about at Metatopia 2019. In this post I wanted to 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. Being that I am trying to keep this post relatively short I will not go into great lengths regarding types of play, and instead 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, and how that changes based on approach and game design. At the end 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, or at very least creates a situation where we can discuss the person’s emotions afterwards. Additionally, we can talk about social functioning as it relates to communication, to social relationships or behavioral change. There are other ways we can break this down further but for the interest of time, let us go based off this for now.


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. 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 are 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 session 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 how they get to represent themselves would also fit under communication. So games like Sculptapaloza , Pictionary, even building your own character, their backstory, and design in a roleplaying game would also 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. So certain forms of therapy like child centered, child directed and will only use a game if their kids bring it up, whereas other types will not use board gaming or roleplaying games at all. Now for the more indirect types of therapy, it is possible to sell writing prompts or other forms of interactions that leads to self-expression and access to the unconscious in a nondirective way. The best example I could think of is stripping Once Upon a Time, Dixit, Mysterium, or Rory’s Story Cubes of its game mechanics, letting the client draw a couple of cards, then 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.

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 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 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 therapist inject emotional vocabulary into games like Jenga. In regards to social competency I believe the best way to describe it is the combination of how effectively one interacts socially. So, look at the type of social skills you are building, what are the goals of those skills and how effective is the person at using them. Remember your designing it, 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 that include listening, convincing others, problem solving and showing compassion when another player is in trouble.

Emotional Wellness

In general, I am not sure how many of us think of tabletop board gaming as a key component towards emotional wellness. It is much easier to make an argument for abreaction, catharsis, counter conditioning fear, stress inoculation, and stress management with LARPs, RPGs and storytelling games, than overall board games. But as I told a therapist last month, 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 tends to come up in conversation within LARPs and RPGs, 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, and open-ended RPGs could possible help clients get there, but I am concerned that the client will experience repressed emotions before they or the therapist are ready for it. 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 deep cathartic moment; it could just as easily provide a moment where the person is managing their own stress and learning how to get use to it. Perhaps that is why games like Call of Cthulu intrigue us. It provides us an opportunity to face our fears, and come out stronger for it. Back to stress management and inoculation, I believe many cooperative board games help us with that, it creates a situation in which we feel things spinning out of control and must work together to stop it from doing so. Games that create the most amount of anxiety help us deal with that emotion in a safe way. 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, and if we focus on the social emotional components learned in play we will hear more about their use.


As I stated, I wanted to keep this relatively brief and just talk about tabletop games, their design, and some of the skills and benefits associated with 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, in fact one or two strong ones are enough. It is more about talking to therapist, 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 what you would create 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. 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. Join us as we talk about using tabletop roleplaying games, storytelling and map making games to teach kids how relate to one another better. Saturday, 12:00PM - 1:00PM; 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? Join therapists, spiritual directors, and game designers as we talk about games we use, hack, and design to mentor, teach, and help people increase hope. Saturday, 10:00PM - 11:00PM; Serious, All Ages.