[⚔Swords & Stationery✐] Building self-esteem through games

In today’s post, I discuss how games can help our learners build self-esteem. The basic idea is that children can be empowered when they view their characters (and their accomplishments) as extensions of themselves.

Last week, I finally had the luxury of participating in an RPG… as a player! Sitting on the other side of the table, I now know what it feels like to be scared, to be given the freedom to make game-altering decisions. More importantly, I could finally relate to the thoughts that had run through my students’ minds and why they had really enjoyed our RPG sessions.

Playing and GMing have different feels

As a Game Master (GM), I have to control multiple Non-Player Characters (NPCs); when it comes to moving from one scene to the next, I have to wing it when players make unusual or unpredictable decisions. The GM’s duty is to adhere (insofar as possible) to the main plot devices while facilitating player agency. It’s tough.


Why do I GM? There’s a variety of reasons, but chief among them is to ensure that the players have fun. I laugh with them when the going’s good. I’m satisfied when everyone leaves the table excitedly reminiscing the memorable encounters. Essentially it’s less about what each player does, and more how the game flows.

As a player, however, my goal was to stay alive while seeing the story to the end. And when these objectives were met, I felt the greatest sense of achievement. It wasn’t about how the game went; it was about the mighty deeds my character did. I can still vividly visualise all the major scenes that occurred, and the surges of emotions as we went through them, including the “AWWW YEAH!” moment as I finished off the big bad.

In essence, I felt empowered.

Empowering through player agency

I don’t doubt most of my students had this feeling too, which may partially explain why they find RPGs fun. In an RPG, the choices feel real enough, even if the game is entirely played out in the mind. Being able to make choices that matter is what creates that sense of empowerment, in my opinion and from my brief experience.

Let’s look at how we can enhance our learners’ education with the aspect of empowerment, using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

At the top, we have “esteem” and “self-actualisation”. The issue with a lot of learners, especially those not doing too well in school, is that they lack these two areas. When the paradigm of meritocracy is really centred around academics, as is the case in Singapore, students don’t see beyond their immediate environments that are school and home.

What I love about one-player character role-playing games (both pen-and-paper and computer) is that they can take place in just about any setting, from the mundane to the fantastical, and they usually provide a genuine feeling of satisfaction when players accomplish tasks in spectacular, unpredictable ways. Take Fallout for instance. Back when the game was first released in 1997, who knew you could actually complete it by talking and sneaking your way through? But it was possible with that kind of character build, and it genuinely felt like what you did mattered e.g. Junktown. It gets even better in pen-n-paper RPGs – the choices are so much more open-ended. The biggest cheers around the table happen when players perform actions in epic ways – for instance raiding and escaping an armoury without raising alarms, or an entire team combining efforts to buff the warrior before said warrior finishes off an ogre in one massive swipe. All these are made possible when players are given the freedom to come up with their own solutions, but it’s when they succeed so well that players really feel good about themselves.

I strongly believe that allowing young people to create and actualise agencies (i.e. making and acting out choices) can lead to empowerment. This brings us back to Maslow’s hierarchy – games do seem like a very viable option to help youths and kids work on “self-actualisation” and “esteem”. The former comes from actually thinking, “We did it!” and the latter from the stylistic outcomes that follow.

Blurring the line between real and illusory worlds

Arguably, games are an illusion, a projection of faux reality. Yes we mustn’t forget that game worlds are not real, that the players’ characters are fictitious archetypes; we must acknowledge that the sensations we experience are temporary before we are thrust back into the real world.

However, the satisfaction of completing difficult in-game tasks is real. By the end of a good game session, the majority of players should become emotionally and mentally elevated to believe that they have the capacity to overcome adversities devised by the GM, to realise that they can still achieve an optimal outcome despite badly-stacked odds. The gratification, the acknowledgement of competence – all these are genuine sensations that materialise for players, especially for those who are often in the spotlight during the game. Therein be the source of self-esteem I refer to.

For what are games, if not abstracted extensions of reality?



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