Good Neighbors: The Bodhana Group

Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” – Fred Rodgers

Save Against Fear initially started as a fundraiser gaming event for The Bodhana Group. Not only was it a great way to shore up the budget of the therapeutic services non-profit, but the common thread everyone shared that weekend inspired their current focus: stories about how gaming had helped people. How game manuals and rule books encouraged reading. How gaming groups eventually became their friend circle. How living through role play taught social skills and traits they were striving for in their every day lives.

From their webpage: Basically, we believe that the inherent benefit one gets from playing games can be focused and utilized to make one better. Better at math or reading. Better at socializing or emotional expression. Better at coping skills. Better at life.

What was the catalyst the brought about The Bodhana Group?

Bodhana was initially formed in 2009 following the closing of a facility we all worked at in Ephrata, PA.  We had worked on the juvenile problematic behaviors unit and the facility had started to make the shift like the state towards community based treatments.  We started Bodhana initially as a training and consultation company to help instruct professionals and lay professionals about working with persons with problematic behaviors.  We also trained on how to deal with compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. 

After a few years of training budgets not being what we had hoped, we began running Save Against Fear, an annual game convention fund raiser.  Our reasons for calling it Save Against Fear was to combine our love of gaming and make the event a platform for speaking about about sexual abuse and trauma.  SO we were inviting people to make their saving throw against the fear of speaking up, getting help, reporting abuse. 

We met with Rich Thomas of Onyx Path Publishing, formally of White Wolf and he had shared that many gamers throughout the years had written him letters about how playing in the shadows of the Worlds of Darkness had helped them work through some of their trauma.  We had used role playing before when we worked on the unit.  We initially used them as a way to fill a long Saturday shift.  At the time we saw it mostly as the kids were having fun and that was that.  But now, about five years or so after the facility, we were now Therapists and we started to examine the hobby through the lens of a professional. 

We began with a cursory glance at what we remembered from the facility, but then started to turn the lens onto ourselves and we examined what benefits we felt gaming gave us.  We then started working through how some of the aspects of role playing games are very analogous to modalities of treatment.  Since that year Save, now in its 9th year has provided us with a community and inspiration in the way that people have come and shared their stories of how gaming has been so instrumental in their lives.  We talked to people who used board games to maintain their sanity during a heart transplant journey lasting years, educators, therapists, community leaders.  All manner of people using gaming have come and shared their successes and dreams,  which has done everything to spread the reach of gaming.  We made the formal jump to gaming as our agency focus about five years ago and have never looked back.

Whats your mission?

Our mission is the use of tabletop gaming for educational, skill building and therapeutic purposes.  This is anything from board games and RPG to work with clinical diagnoses, skill deficits and goals that can be transferred over to real world applications.,  So the game acts as exploration, rehearsal and practice.  We also advocate and train professionals, parents and agencies in use of games and often get contracted to run therapeutic sessions for other companies.  So we are part education, part practice and part advocacy.  Our overall goal is to provide services for people in need through community funding so they can get help for free.  We want to open a center for the community that offers afterschool programs, emotional management groups, summer programs, and all manner of game oriented programming.

How does The Bodhana Group use games for therapy?

Board games are one avenue we use.  We select games based on type of game, skills it helps practice and build, age range and needs of the group, then we come and run them.  Our model is always a “Pull back” model.  We sit and play and teach, then pull back and let the group develop their own agency.  So for example, there is a local organization that offers services to families experiencing Autism.  We provide smaller easy to learn and quicker to play games and use them for the players to practice goals like communicating strategy to practice reciprocal communication, or creative play for expression and emoting. 

The game is always primary and the skill building in our goal is happening through the game.  We prefer not to have to interrupt every stage of the game with the “moral of the day” kind of facilitation.  There are obviously general group rules and goals that everyone knows, but maybe one player’s goal is to introduce a game they like to a new player, so they get to practice the act of asking others to play, or teaching the game, or it might be the converse, where a player is challenged with trying a game with a new person.  The game is the teaching tool that is used to instruct using natural play.  So it drives skill acquisition through just the use and then we might choose to bring cooperative games, so we add another layer via the mechanics of the game.  Shared experience encourages group learning.

Use of RPG is a little more nuanced.  We essentially create storylines that emulate and replicate skill challenges for the players and their goals.  We pick genre, system and set up the story in keeping with what the person wants to focus on.  So, if someone is working on social skills improvement, we can build that into the framework of the character, their backstory, the adventure, or the challenges of the quest.  We then take in their progress on those challenges and the skills from their playing and use all of this to further develop the story to continue to meet the needs.  We also make sure to run our sessions from public locations like game stores to be able to help the players build natural supports through the gaming hobby.  This normalizes the therapeutic approach and then introduces a natural support system to then engage with a skill they have developed and a knowledge base.  We have used groups for persons with Autism, anxiety, social skills issues, as well as use with children and teens suffering from grief and loss.  

How have people been receptive to the idea?

For the most part have been very receptive.  The hardest “sell” if you will, is when we explain the benefits and people have asked, ‘so explain how I am not just paying you to play D and D with my kid?’  We normally answer with using short one shot adventures to actually take the parents through a game with their child.  This shows them the way the group works and we point out therapeutic injection from that session so the person can not just understand it, but experience it to fully understand it.  Other than that, most people are very receptive.  Occasionally we get a person nervous about the whole demons thing, but honestly, this is why we like using multiple systems that span genres so for some, maybe superheroes are better.  Less jarring and not everyone likes fantasy.  This also helps immersion from another standpoint or gaining buy in.

Whats you next event?  

We do a lot of events and come with games, info and obviously fund raising.  We use them to interface with people and talk about the mission and practice of what we do.  We have spoken at PAX Unplugged, MAGFest, and have been at conventions like Awesome Con.  We also are doing gaming at an Autism Walk  and a convention run by a local library.
 
As far as promotion, we will be opening up ticket sales on April 15th for this year’s Save Against Fear – to be held on the weekend of October 11-13th, 2019 at the Harrisburg Mall.  Last year we grew from the previous year’s total of 213 to 406 and are anticipating more growth!  Information about the con can be found on our website – www.thebodhanagroup.org.

We also have been heavily promoting our first published release, called Wizards Warriors and Wellness, the Therapeutic Application of Role Playing Games.  Currently we have 449 downloads and are already writing the next is a long planned series of guides for diagnoses and different skill areas.  

We have also partnered with iThrivegames.org and are helping with the development of the Critical Strengths Engine, a game system that is based on social emotional learning theory. 

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