Neuroscience of Learning and RPG (excerpts)

by Hawke Robinson published 2019/05/13 12:56:00 GMT-7, last modified 2022-10-26T02:25:46-07:00
These are brief excerpts from some of my papers on the neuroscience of learning and relevance to role-playing games. Complete versions are available to Patreon supporters, research staff and RPG.Education students.

Introductory Snippets From Cognitive Neuropsychology Perspective on Learning, & Relevance to Role-Playing Games

by W.A. Hawkes-Robinson, RPG Research.Revision: 20171129c Rev 20190512d
The approaches discussed in this document can be applied to all RPG Formats in various ways, with different strengths and weaknesses presenting in each format (as per the RPG Model):
  • Tabletop (RPG / TRPG / TTRPG)
  • Live-Action (LRPG & Larp)
  • Electronic (ERPG) (including audio, computer-based solo, multiplayer, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality
    (VR), etc.)
  • Hybrids (HRGP) (including solo adventure books/modules.
Ideally a mix of all 4 formats would likely have the most powerful effects. This document focuses primarily on the tabletop format of role-
playing games, though not exclusively.

A number of well researched techniques that can be used to increase the likelihood of participants better encoding information into their memory, include the following considerations:
  • Avoid [[divided attention]] situations, keeping distractions from the topic being studied to a minimum, to reduce the risk of various interference factors.
  • [[Deep level processing]] (172), including using “why questions” to improve [[elaboration]] & [[distinctiveness]] (173).
  • To further the elaboration, focus on the specific meaning of the concept, and try to relate it to prior knowledge reinforcing the interconnections to concepts that you have already learned (172).
    [[Differential learning]] and [[distributed practice]]. Spread learning & retrieval/rehearsal trials out over time, rather than “[[mass learning]]” aka cramming.
  • Address limitations of the processing of new information from Short Term Memory (STM) into Long Term Memory (LTM) process, considering [[chunking]] and other relevant issues, by having the study time broken up into shorter segments, with breaks in between, or topic shifts alternating, for a more distributed learning approach over time, rather than trying to cram (mass learning) in a very short time.
  • Over-confidence, or [[inaccurate self-assessment]] of competency areas. Use techniques and/or technologies that provide more objective feedback on areas you are struggling with, and help direct more time in the areas needing more work, and less time in the areas actually already mastered.
  • It is also critical to once again emphasize getting enough sleep, as well as sufficient exercise. All of the above is significantly inhibited by lack of sufficient sleep and exercise strongly promotes cognitive processes.
  • Also take into account various medications and other substances that can drastically alter cognitive functioning for many hours, days, weeks, or more.

Many students, especially older learners with families and careers, will very much relate to the challenges, when using learning techniques that are known to be less effective or actually ineffective such as:
plain rehearsal (memorize by rote), plain mnemonics (without deeper level processing techniques applied), cramming, etc., versus what we know works much better, with a strong body of research supporting better techniques, but just “too little time” or energy to “do it right”.

From a cognitive-neuroscience perspective, if considering learning role-playing games, and also interestingly using role-playing games as a potential intervention modality to improve the learning process, the following might be the ideal approach for maximal effect:
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I could keep elaborating much more, but you get the idea.
Using this modality addresses achieving a much better [[deep processing]] approach, with [[rich mental imagery]] (though there are concerns about people with [[Aphantasia]] in this context, so using other senses besides sight is recommended), abundant [[distinctive cues]] for [[encoding]] and [[retrieval]], and pulls upon [[existing knowledge]], and [[learning in layers].
The quest/goals/story-driven approach better enhances the likelihood that the information will be [[motivating]] and interesting, and it uses the [[narrative technique]] (182) to further enhance [[associative knowledge]] for a complex series of information components.
The use of a character that that the learner can relate to, even just slightly, enhances the probability of the [[self-reference effect]] furthering the [[deep-level processing]].
The challenges to overcome within the game create [[desirable difficulties]], and simulate aspects of the [[testing effect]]. (177)

In my previous presentations papers I have elaborated upon how [[exploration of opportunities]], according to Professor John Dattillo of Pennsylvania State, is an extremely powerful tool for enhancing the learning experience.
...<additional available in full version>...
The unusual imagery combinations provide some [[distinctiveness]], while the narrative, story/game-driven approach allows significant opportunities for [[elaboration]], [[variety of cues]], etc.

Especially tying it in with a character that somehow resonates for the learner personally, can greatly enhance the benefits shown from [[self-reference effects]] (173).
... <additional available in full version>...
...may help with the inconsistent environmental effects of the [[encoding-specificity-principle]] (174), by providing, in the learner's imagination at least, a more consistent environment for them to encode and recall the information, regardless of the actual physical environmental differences between studying at home and taking the test in the classroom.
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This would (verbally, in the case of tabletop RPG) include [[rich multi-sensory descriptions]] and some interesting cognitive puzzles or riddles as games-within-the-game. This approach greatly increases the variety of cues (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory, etc.) available for each person to personally connect with, and also addresses anyone with "Aphantasia" that might not benefit as much from purely “mental image” approaches.
...<additional available in full version>...
...All of the above is something I have often done in teaching thousands of others over the decades in multiple industries and settings, and it has been amazingly effective for those participants.


  • Dattilo, J. Positive Psychology and Leisure Education. A Balanced and Systematic Service Delivery Model. (2015). Vol XLIX, No. 2. pp. 148-165. Therapeutic Recreation Journal.
  • Matlin, M. W. Cognition. 8 th Edition. (2013). Wiley & Sons. Hoboken, NJ.
  • RPG Research. Viewed November 29 th , 2017.

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