Jessica Pappagianopoulos stands in a courtyard, smiling at the camera

Q&A: Can Role-Play Games Help Improve Autistic Teens’ Social Skills?

A UVA doctoral student found a role-playing game similar to Dungeons and Dragons may provide unexpected ways to communicate and teach.

Audrey Breen

With the help of a storyteller instead of a dungeon master, the dice, characters and quests of a tabletop role-playing game provide autistic teens with a fun way to learn life lessons.

Jessica Pappagianopoulos, a doctoral student in the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development, is studying the use of a game akin to Dungeons and Dragons to help autistic teens learn about social interaction.

Before coming to UVA, where she pursues her doctorate in clinical and school psychology, Pappagianopoulos worked with autistic teens near Boston. There, she saw how games could be a powerful tool in supporting teens’ social and emotional skill development.

As a student, she knew she wanted to focus her research on autistic teens and adults.

“There has been much more research on, and services available for, autistic children, and historically a lack of research on both autistic adolescents and adults,” she said. “Thankfully, there has been more research and examination (on autistic adolescents and adults) recently, but more still needs to be done to make sure that teens and adults are supported throughout life, since autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition.”

One of Pappagianopoulos’ first projects was to officially evaluate a role-playing game developed and used with teens in Massachusetts.

We reached out to Pappagianopoulos to find out more about the game and supporting skill development in autistic teens.

Q. How can games be a helpful teaching tool for teens with autism?

Games are a great way to bring people together, especially when they’re connected to someone’s specific interests. When there is that intrinsic motivation, the learning can sometimes almost be hidden behind doing something really fun.

I learned a lot through my work with the Massachusetts General Hospital Aspire program. We paired authentic, enjoyable experiences such as baking, creative writing and games with social coaching. Pairing play with concrete, in-the-moment coaching is especially effective. Then in real time, teens can integrate the feedback into their practice and play while having fun with friends and new peers.

Working collaboratively toward a shared goal opens the door to new ways to practice different social-emotional skills. The teens can take the feedback and try again in the moment. And they’re intrinsically motivated because they want to keep playing the game.

Q. Why is role-playing important for individuals with autism?
An illustration of six people together with the words Guild Chronicles across the bottom
Jessica Pappagianopoulos is studying Guild Chronicles, a role-playing game created by Andrew Harris.

My (Boston) colleague Andrew Harris created the tabletop role-playing game Guild Chronicles, which is similar to Dungeons and Dragons, but is especially designed to target the development of social-emotional skills. He has continued to develop it over the years with input from autistic individuals.

In a role-playing game like this one, the storyteller creates the arc of the story to match the needs and goals of players. Each participant creates their own character, and they all work together in this fantasy world to fight monsters, complete quests and overcome different challenges, all while collaborating to get to the next step in the game.

They were building peer connections and learning how to manage frustration in the moment. As they played, they were able to collaborate with one another, vote on different things, make decisions and practice flexibility.

Q. When you began your doctoral studies in clinical psychology at UVA, did you want to study the game’s effectiveness?

Yes. I pitched the idea to professor Micah Mazurek, and she was excited about it. So, with her support, I applied for grant funding from The Organization for Autism Research, and we got it. In my second year, I collaborated with Andrew to conduct the study. As the developer of the game, he was the lead facilitator of the groups and I was on the research side. We ran two groups of nine participants in total for eight weeks. Each session, we played Guild Chronicles for 90 minutes.

Q. During the pandemic, this game transitioned from in-person to virtual. What was different about the online environment? 

Doing it virtually, of course, came with some drawbacks. There were some glitches, and the technology didn’t always work for us. But there were also many pros. It was a great way to  bring people together who may live in more rural areas.

We used the platform Discord and, in some ways, it made coaching a bit easier. If something was going on, we might send a message privately to a participant, giving them some social feedback in the moment.

That was great because in person, you can try to go up to someone and whisper, “Let’s take a five-minute break, and we’re going to talk through that social interaction.” But everyone sees that happening, and we never want it to be embarrassing. So being able to send a private message, being able to give that social coaching almost in an invisible way, was just so helpful.

Q. What were the results of your study?

We saw improvements in social skills like working together, advocating for oneself and getting involved. We also found that loneliness decreased from the beginning of the intervention to the end, which we hypothesized because it was also a place for people to come together with others who have shared interests.

And like we thought, the learning happened almost indirectly. In the interviews we conducted, many participants said they were having so much fun they didn’t realize until afterward they were also learning skills. I was so excited about that.

They also shared how they felt much better at social skills now. And at school, they could go up and ask people for their contact information or work on group projects, and it’s not that scary because Guild taught them how to do these things. So, overall, a lot of good things came from it.

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Audrey Breen

Research Center or Department

  • Supporting Transformative Autism Research