Role-playing Gaming for Incarcerated Populations - Personal Experience From the "Grandfather of Therapeutic [Role-playing] Gaming"

by Hawke Robinson published 2022/11/12 09:45:15 GMT-7, last modified 2022-11-12T09:45:16-07:00
With the recent kickstarter for the documentary "Let's Play: D&D Behind Bars" by producer Elisabeth de Kleer launching, our efforts related to researching the effects of RPGs in Prison have once again come to light. RPG Research's founder, W.A. Hawkes-Robinson (aka Hawke Robinson), called by professional peers the "grandfather of therapeutic gaming", is directly involved with this documentary as a behind-the-scenes consultant and on-camera "Advisor" for the film. Mr. Robinson's personal involvement with this topic spans decades...

If you missed the news, there is an exceptional Kickstarter, "Let's Play: Dungeons & Dragons Behind Bars" currently running to help fund the final stages of a documentary on the battle to allow role-playing games in USA prisons. Created by veteran documentary producer Elisabeth de Kleer.

It includes very specific examples in California, with specific individuals, spanning years of legal battles, innovative approaches to gaming while incarcerated, illustrating the long-term outcomes from prisoners allowed to participate in this recreational activity with the potential to greatly reduce in-facility violence, improve social & communication skills, develop empathy and behavior self-management skills, overcome many dangerous segregation barriers, and reduce recidivism up to 80%!.

Other creative programs relevant to role-playing games are already repeatedly proven to increase in-facility security and greatly reduce recidivism 20-60%, with some reporting reductions up to 80%! Which improves the safety & security of prison workers and inmates, increases safety for the general public, and reduces the overall burden to taxpayers. See the "References" section at the end of this document for examples from government and other sources supporting these statements.

You can track the growing body of research on this topic in the dedicated RPGs in Prison section of the non-profit RPG Research website here:

You can learn more about the producer's background and development of this film through the excellent interview by Michael Tresca, from EN World and the Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Game Advocacy (CAR-PGA), on EN World here:

During Hawke Robinson's 2018 "RPG Tour" raising awareness about accessibility & inclusiveness in games & music across 8 western states in the USA using the wheelchair accessible RPG Bus & RPG Trailer, he was contacted by Elisabeth de Kleer, the producer of this documentary, and spent some hours on the phone and Skype answering extensive questions, and now an official adviser for the film.

Robinson's involvement with role-playing games (RPGs) goes back to almost the dawn of RPGs in the mid 1970s, including beginning research on the effects of RPGs in 1983, being a paid game master since around the same time, running games in educational settings since 1985, and in therapeutic settings since 2004. And among many other populations, he also has been involved working with at-risk and incarcerated populations since 1989.

But Robinson has a very personal connection to this topic, which he has been hesitant to elaborate on publicly for obvious personal and professional reasons, which helps further inform his expertise on this topic. With the development of this documentary, while not a secret to friends, family, and coworkers, he is opening up more about his personal experiences related to this topic.

In the late 1980s, he was all to intimately part of this subject of study. Now in his late 40s, he is the father of 3 adult children, a successful businessman, and heavily engaged with helping improve the lives of others through extensive volunteering and other efforts. But it was a long and tumultuous road to turning his life around.

Definitely qualifying by today's standards as "at-risk youth". Growing up initially with an extremely physically abusive father until his parents divorced in the mid-70s. In the late 70s he was diagnosed with ADHD (later also PTSD, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia). In part because of the abuse he witnessed by his gather to his mother (and himslf), he early on developed a "white knight complex" backed by extensive martial arts training, his exceptional height (peaking at just over 6'8"), was repeatedly involved "defensively" in hundreds of physical fights from 1st grade until his late teens, intervening against bullies that were picking on others and as an individual fighting against gangs, or attacks by others many years older than he. 

Robinson struggled academically and was repeatedly in trouble with the authorities, even though most of his teachers and others still repeatedly said he was "really bright" and "a good boy" who "meant well but keeps getting into trouble".

Robinson states that role-playing gamingoften  helped considerably to keep him out of trouble, he found the "better" peer group found in most gamers he played with, and cooperative nature of the activity was very helpful in the short run to divert his high energy "hyperactivity" into productive and non-destructive activities including tabletop, live-action, computer-based, solo adventures, miniatures painting, adventure module writing, drawing, software development, historical and scientific research, and many other endeavors triggered directly because of RPGs. He stated "it was during long periods away from gaming that things would get worse."

In the long-run so many critical skills were developed over time that eventually lead to directly helping turn life around, taking on leadership roles. Robinson states that "being at board meetings with Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Microsoft, and others, was so similar to when GMing, it was amazing how helpful those skills were in direct application to these meetings".

In his teens, as a mechanic at the time involved with "souping up" muscle cars & racing, and impulsively making many "bad choices", dropped out of school in 11th grade (getting GED), not sleeping for increasingly longer periods spanning days (even up to 3.5 weeks!), ended up getting into repeated run-ins over a 2-year long fight with some local "lumpers gang", and trouble with law enforcement which lead to his ending up "in the system" for several years.

Losing his drivers license for 6 years, in and out of jail half a dozen times, performing hundreds of hours of court-ordered community service, paying nearly $50,000 USD in fines & restitution (nearly $100k in today's money), and years of probation. Due to employers understandable resistance to hiring someone with such a record, this also lead to his being completely homeless several times, barely surviving starvation and exposure, making it increasingly difficult to work to pay the fines to stay out of prison.

During these rocky times he had the opportunity to introduce role-playing games to inmates in the Salt Lake City/County jail. The facilities were over twice their capacity (the facilities later received significant legal notice by organizations for many violations), and a powder keg that was already exploding.

To help calm the situation in a "quarantine cell" meant for only 16 inmates but holding 30+, with half the inmates having to sleep on the stone floors, in a metal & stone cell with only a few dim bulbs for light, with the phones & tv shutoff, and other privileges suspended for all inmates.

To try to calm down this very dangerous situation, he implemented, with nothing but pencils and notepaper (the few allowed items during this "lock down" period), a light version of the Middle-earth Role-Playing game system by Iron Crown Enterprises.

Not only were the inmates directly involved with the game helped by this (crossing gang, racial, and other boundaries to work together), but the rest of the inmates watching/listening found even the observation of the sessions very helpful, especially those going through extreme drug withdrawal (nobody during this 10 day lock-down period was allowed phone calls, access to medication, etc.), found the narrative discussion helped them "hang on to themselves", and kept the cell from "blowing up".

It should be noted, nobody else in that facility had prior RPG experience (worth noting!).

Indeed research shows that role-playing gamers are generally have much higher levels of empathy are far less likely to be involved in violent or criminal behavior than their non-gaming peers. Role-playing gamers are shown to have much higher levels of meaning in their lives than their peers (lower levels of meaningless), and lower levels of "psychoticism".

Every component of "The System" repeatedly said to Mr. Robinson over the years, "you'll never get out of the [revolving door] system", "once a criminal always a criminal", from law enforcement, judges, probation officers, lawyers, counselors, to employers, & general public. And unfortunately for most people this is all too true.

Most of the people that Robinson knew from that time period are either still in the system or dead. He was one of the few to survive, get out of the system, and eventually thrive and once again, eventually,  becoming a powerfully contributing member of society.

It was years of getting into troublesome situations before adulthood and his first time in jail that lead him to finally re-question his own inexplicable behavior that was so "opposite the person I thought I was".

Finally reaching out seeking help, eventually receiving a formal diagnosis of manic-depressive (now the term is bipolar type II), and receiving treatment and medication that helped him start the long road toward putting his life back together,  with the long-term goal of once again being an employed, healthy, contributing member of society.

W.A. Hawkes-Robinson (publishing name) known by most as "Hawke Robinson" is founder and creator of many organizations including:

Hawke Robinson was interviewed by Michael Tresca years ago in a 3-part series of articles.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

Mr. Robinson is a Washington State Department of Health Registered Recreational Therapist with an incredibly diverse background in recreation & music therapy, computer science, cognitive neuropsychology, & research psychology. He has been called by professional peers the "grandfather of therapeutic gaming".

Over the decades, Hawke Robinson has personally introduced thousands of people to the joy of role-playing gaming. He states that very few existing gamers he has known well had a criminal history, "by far the majority did not", but he has introduced many "at risk" or actually in the criminal system to role-playing games and seen great results.

Robinson states he had repeatedly seen the power of role-playing games (RPGs) over the years to greatly improve quality of life for many populations, as supported in Kohei Kato's recent research. Robinson has researched their effects, and used them in educational settings. The example with incarcerated populations is yet another example of the potential power for this unique cooperative activity to help greatly improve participants functioning and overall life outcome.

Robinson is founder & president of the non-profit 501(c)3 research & human services organization RPG Research, beginning as the RPG Research Project in 2004. The organization now consists of scores of volunteers spanning 5 continents. He is also the president of the for-profit RPG Therapeutics LLC which includes professional paid game masters providing a wide range of programs.


Document Actions