Hey Hawke. We’re glad to have you here with us. Please tell us a bit about your background and what you do.
Hawke Robinson: I’m a recreational therapist typically introduced by peers at professional conferences and conventions as the “grandfather of therapeutic gaming.” Because, as far as we know, I’ve been tracking and involved in the therapeutic and educational applications of role-playing games for longer than anyone else.
My first foray into the industry was in 1977, when I was introduced to role-playing games. Then by 1979, I began studying how to optimize the enjoyment and immersion of role-playing games in tabletop, live-action, and electronic formats. In 1983, I started learning about their potential benefits and uses in educational and therapeutic settings. Later on, in 1985, I expanded my application and research to include the pedagogical use of role-playing games in actual classrooms. In 1989, I discovered their potential use for conflict resolution with incarcerated populations. And since 2004, I’ve been broadening the research and evidence-in-practice for the therapeutic use of role-playing games to meet the needs of a wide range of populations.
I’m also a founder and CEO of RPG Research, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit research and human services organization dedicated to determining the impacts of all role-playing game formats for their potential to help improve lives around the world. We have over 200 regular volunteers across six continents and many others that have helped us from many different countries. We have had more than 35 PhDs around the world directly involved with our programs. Our research and community programs are continuing to help us better understand multicultural uses, influences, and benefits of different role-playing formats, including tabletop, live-action, electronic, and various hybrids and mixtures thereof. We also have the world’s largest free and open research repository on the effects of role-playing games, as well as an RPG Museum and RPG Community Center.
What an incredible feat, Hawke! We’d love to know how you got started in your profession and how RPG Research got started.
Hawke Robinson: As I stated previously, I began participating in role-playing games around 1977. My quest began when a cousin introduced me to them. I enjoyed the cooperative social interactions and challenges so much that by 1979, I began experimenting with methods to maximize immersion and enjoyment. Later I learned that this work was directly related to maximizing the potential for individual and group “Flow State” experiences related to the extensive research by the Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.
By 1983, I was earning income as a professional game master, running several paying groups each weekend. By 1985, I was running role-playing games five days a week as an educational in-school last-period course at Realms of Inquiry, a school for gifted and talented children in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was also around this time that I began organizing and running role-playing game conventions independently and for the Role-Playing Game Association, aka RPGA.
Later on, around 1989, I led role-playing games with incarcerated populations, including rival gangs and different ethnic groups, at the same game table. I discovered the inherent nature of role-playing games and their rules structure were highly effective even with these “high risk” populations. “The game rules, and style of cooperative problem-solving inherent to role-playing games,, encouraged” them to put their differences aside and work together to overcome challenges. They also significantly helped improve frustration tolerance and anger management, as well as built resilience through delayed gratification.
I have also served as Chief Technology Officer for multiple companies, including a Silicon Valley-based online digital publishing company that was ultimately acquired by Barnes & Noble. I have always had a strong acumen and passion for tech and how technologies provide the potential to multiply human endeavors, for good or ill. My overarching goal in life has been to do as much as I can to improve the overall human condition during my brief existence. So, I found myself increasingly looking ahead at the next stage of my life, which included considering music and recreational therapy. That’s when I began to formalize the concepts that would eventually become RPG Research.
I didn’t originally go into recreational therapy with the intention of using role-playing games as an intervention paradigm. Instead, it was the use of diverse recreational activities. I already had a very diverse background in music, sports, martial arts, a wide range of recreational and crafting skills, as well as a variety of other outdoor and non-gaming-related hobbies. However, the literature consistently convinced me of the fact that there was a dearth of intrinsically motivating cooperative activities that people would engage in without having to compete. It was already clear to me that cooperative RPGs were strongly self-motivating for the participants and seemed to have great untapped potential for addressing the need for more effective tools to develop social skills, empathy, cognitive function, resilience, frustration tolerance, anger management, conflict resolution, reading, math skills, and much more.
As I was raising my three sons as a full-time single parent, in 2004, I established the RPGResearch.com website as the RPG Research Project. The site compiled all available studies on the impacts of role-playing games, as well as my own research and evidence-in-practice.
What’s noteworthy is that there were just 50 or so research studies at that time. In contrast, now, our research repository has more than 10,000 content items between books, research studies, videos, audio, essays, published peer-reviewed papers, and more. We have content in our archives that is not available anywhere else in the world. For example, we recently received a donation of the entire Paul Cardwell collection, which documents the media’s treatment of role-playing games and gamers, as well as the history of hobby games from 1970 to 2020, including original letters from the USA Centers for Disease Control and many others. Our volunteers are cataloging, indexing, and uploading to the website as fast as we can. With such massive archives, we always need more volunteer archivists to help spread the work around.
The research has not only disproved the negative claims about role-playing games and gamers, it has actually been proven that RPGs are highly beneficial to the general public, and can be especially powerful intervention modalities for specific populations and a long list of measurable goals. We provide a long list of these factors in our public research archives, but just a few show reduction in risk of suicide, violent, and antisocial behaviors. We also found strong indicators that RPGs significantly improve empathy, resilience, communication, social, and cognitive function.
In addition to the research repository, we also significantly increased the number of original research and community projects focused on. cooperative music and role-playing games. We created these project-based programs in partnership with other organizations.
As we implemented various tabletop, live-action, electronic, and hybrid role-playing game programs at colleges, community centers, libraries, parks, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, long-term care centers, retreats, camps, and other partnerships with other organizations and nonprofits, the data increasingly indicated that RPGs actually helped in remarkable ways. Furthermore we increasingly found they provided more dramatic beneficial impact than originally suspected. Several of these initiatives brought amazing results, some in as little as a few hours, which was quite exciting. We freely and openly share these results, and any caveats we discover, on our website.
However, there was a problem with this project-driven approach. We had to keep training new people and organizations. We also would have to start over with each project, gathering donations for equipment and finances and other resources for the projects. Then once the research or community project was complete, the resources and people were not retained. So at the next project, I would once again have to train a new batch of people from scratch, gather new finances, equipment, facilities, other resources, etc. We needed the means to carry over the resources across projects so we could move forward more efficiently.
After decades of collaborating with many different agencies on individual projects around the world, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, various universities, community centers, elementary and high schools, rehabilitation, and many other institutions, we decided to find a more efficient approach become more formally
organized as a non-profit company.
In 2017, we formally incorporated RPG Research as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, volunteer-run, open, charitable, research, and human services organization. We did this to reduce the duplication of effort of the previous project-by-project approach and accelerate moving the body of knowledge forward,
Our organization consists entirely of unpaid volunteers, relying heavily on the generosity of our members and contributors. As with many small nonprofits, we certainly need some help in the donations area, but we’re growing every day thanks to such wonderful supporters.
Running a nonprofit is not easy. What obstacles are you currently dealing with and what gives you the motivation to keep going?
Hawke Robinson: RPG Research is a nonprofit but RPG.LLC — RPG Therapeutics — is a for-profit company. It began as a private practice for me as a Recreational Therapist and has expanded to include a growing number of employees. So, in addition to thousands of other supporters who have been contributing throughout the years, RPG Therapeutics donates 20% of its income to help support RPG Research.
Every dollar we raise through our initiatives benefits at least three people directly and much more indirectly. To date, we’ve been able to help tens of thousands of individuals throughout the world improve their lives via the power and potential of role-playing games, as well as our continuous public research, our community programs, and many outreach initiatives. For years, the capacity of RPG Research to help others has been directly proportional to the number of donations we receive. The number of people we can serve fluctuates considerably from project to project because we use other organizations’ facilities.
This year, we have taken a huge leap by acquiring actual real estate property to grow and stabilize the nonprofit’s ability to serve the community. During this challenging transition of this massive growth phase, I, alongside other volunteers, are temporarily loaning much of our own personal property for use by the nonprofit, including furniture, thousands of RPG-related books, accessories, computers, etc., to help fill the gaps for RPG Research to use while it steadily grows and acquires its own assets from financial and physical contributions of our donors. We hope that within the year, it will once again be able to fully stand on its own, thanks to these generous donors.
RPG Research needs a minimum of $3,500 per month just to cover rent, utilities, and insurance to reach this new “break-even” level. We are taking a big leap in relying on our generous donors more than ever before.
As a Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, in my years of work experience at various brain injury, spinal cord injury, and other rehabilitation centers, I realized an urgent need for the creation of mobile wheelchair-accessible facilities in order to provide cooperative music and role-playing games programs to the people who would benefit the most. Thus, I took out personal loans for nearly $100,000 to create this small fleet of “RPG Mobiles” that provide accessible, environmentally-controlled, safe, comfortable, mobile therapeutic and gaming facilities. These are basically living rooms on wheels, with comfortable sofa-like seating, bathroom, kitchenette, etc.
Over the years, I have been freely loaning the use of the “RPG Mobile”, pronounced “moh-beel”, like the “Book Mobile. This is a small fleet consisting of wheelchair-accessible RPG Bus and RPG Trailers. We don’t transport people, though; that’s extremely complicated due to licensing, insurance, etc. I drive these mobile facilities around the country to raise awareness about accessibility in gaming and to provide services to those in under-served and unserved rural and remote locations. I freely loan their use to RPG Research to help further the nonprofit research and community programs. When I finish paying off the loans, and someday when I pass away, I will bequeath them directly to RPG Research. Until then, I use them for my for-profit RPG Therapeutics to better serve clients and meanwhile loan them to the nonprofit as much as possible.
In 2022, RPG Research needs help to cover the rent, utilities, and insurance costs for the non-profit’s brand new facilities at the RPG Center for the RPG Community Center and RPG Museum, until it is receiving enough donations to fully stand on its own. I’m doing what I can to help cover the costs, but we need to become self-sustaining through donations as soon as possible.
We have found that almost every time we interact with participants through any of our programs, including those ranging in age from two years old non-verbal to senior adults struggling with functional decline, and everyone in-between, they improve their functioning and overall quality of life in observable and measurable ways! We see their minds and hearts open up, and they show significant cognitive improvements. In other words, their brains function better. We observe significant improvements in their social skills and empathy, as well as safe spaces for them to take on different roles and simulated risks that enable them to overcome challenges they never imagined they could. This imparts an incredible impact on so many lives, including our own. We feel empowered to keep going, thriving, and serving humanity.
Finally, we’re really struggling to get insurance for RPG Research. RPG Therapeutics doesn’t have this problem as a for-profit recreational therapy professional services company, but we have discovered that insurance for nonprofit community organizations is very different and much more difficult to acquire for RPG Research. Since we are project-based, we have always relied on being covered by the insurance of the other organizations with whom we were partners. For example, our live-action role-playing game programs for non-verbal Autism Spectrum, ASD, and PDD toddlers from ages two years old through five years old, were through Eastern Washington University and another organization I am under perpetual NDA about and it was their insurance that covered our programs. When we ran the summer camp tabletop and live-action role-playing games for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, we were covered by their property and liability insurance, etc.
As I mentioned, over forty-plus years, RPG Research grew very organically as a 100% volunteer-run non-profit. We also keep our administrative overhead costs to a minimum, using as much as possible directly to benefit the participants. I have always been very careful with our research and community programs, so we have well-developed world-class programs globally, supported by our high-quality research and evidence-in-practice combined with extensive decades-long experience. Because of this rigorous approach, with more than forty years of running our public programs, we have never had an incident requiring an insurance claim, even with the at-risk and high-risk populations.
However, now that we have acquired our own property, we are finding it nearly impossible to get property and liability insurance. As of April 2022, after months of reaching out to scores of agents and companies, filling out more than one hundred pages of application forms, we still haven’t been able to get even a minimal quote that will cover the property or our liability so that we can open the RPG Community Center.
According to the insurance companies, because they don’t have a column listing the “risk rating” for role-playing games, they default it to a higher risk activity. Besides this, as we are a nonprofit 100% volunteer-run organization, we offer online resources and work with so many different disabilities, ages, and populations, they keep giving us automatic “declinations,” declining to even provide a quote.
As of late April 2022, we have been forced to temporarily suspend almost everything we do in order to get basic insurance coverage for the property and liability coverage to cover very minimal services. We are hoping this temporary reset to providing only the most basic services will allow the insurance companies to give us a quote, so we can budget to purchase the insurance we must have in order to open up the Community Center.
Once we get very basic insurance coverage in place, we will apply for additional riders, or expansions, to add to the policy so that we can incrementally bring back the wonderful things we have been providing, without incident, to the public for over 40 years.
Despite all the obstacles, including financial, logistical, and negative public perception exacerbated by the media lingering from the 1980s and 1990s, as well as general outright hatred by a disturbingly large number of the public, we carry on, inspired by all the positive impact we see these programs having for so many people worldwide.
In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently?
Hawke Robinson: I also have a background in information security, but initially, I was reluctant to be the face of RPG Research. For many years, almost no one knew who was working behind the scenes. It was me facilitating many other volunteers and organizations, but I always preferred to serve as a facilitator in the background, not the foreground. Like some other information security specialists and even some recreational therapists, I was averse to being in the spotlight. I wanted the work to speak for itself and the people involved in my research and programs who benefited from the skills and experiences to go forth as the proof and message carriers.
That was especially true online from 2004 to 2012; I was much more involved in the background. People increasingly commented and searched, trying to figure out who was behind the scenes. They were inquiring about the legitimacy of RPG Research and why there was no information available about who was conducting so many programs and research projects around the world.
My attempts at anonymity, unfortunately, exacerbated a deeply inculcated skepticism. As a result, there was a dire need for me to go out in front of the camera as the spokesperson for RPG Research. Though I continued to be uncomfortable with that role, it significantly helped the overall domain of role-playing game studies, accelerating awareness and adoption. From 2012 to 2016, it grew exponentially through media coverage, word-of-mouth, and the addition of new people and organizations taking on the research.
We endeavor to keep freely arming the public with the ability to get out there and spread the word in person, letting naysayers know that this is a real thing, with real people and supporting data behind it, furthering this research and these community programs. Doing so earlier might have helped by leaps and bounds.
In hindsight, I wish I had started out by being out there publicly earlier. We might have been much further along the way in terms of adoption and expansion of the tools developed over the years to communicate what research increasingly indicates. It might have also resulted in more interesting dialogue and earlier acceptance.
Also, I wish I would have published more books more frequen We have constantly receiving requests from professors, universities, and other organizations to release our works in published physical book format. We were waiting until we felt the data and research was solid enough. In hindsight, it would have been prudent to have published more frequently. Nevertheless, better late than never, we’re releasing a collection of our works, Including the latest aggregate of research, assessment tools, model diagrams, etc., this year to help address many of these requests. The collection will be available in both print and Kindle formats very soon. While all of it is already freely available on the RPG Research website in electronic form, the paper books meet a very specific need from academia.
Additionally, in hindsight, I wish we could have afforded to get the property and liability insurance we now need much earlier in our evolution, so we wouldn’t have to undergo the massive program “reset.” This is temporary but very painful for all of us, and we need donations more than ever right now to help us get through these growing pains.
Are there any accomplishments you’re particularly proud of?
Hawke Robinson: I have a fairly substantial list of accomplishments I am proud of over the decades, but the real-world benefits we see each day to the lives of those participating in our programs, have turned out to be some of the most rewarding. Each day that we can afford the time and money on our part to run these community programs and see people’s lives improve, grow in their joy, resilience, and empathy, and create meaningful relationships and friendships, we incidentally benefit from our happiness soaring. It was not our intent or motivation, but it does help me and fellow volunteers get through the more challenging times.
We’ve done some amazing and fun programs with the Muscular Dystrophy Association and other camp programs with live-action role-playing and tabletop games that were by far the favorite of all campers, counselors, and supporters.
We have reached many milestones over the decades and happily share them on our websites, email lists, social media, video streams, and documents. We have had some really remarkable successes with a variety of program initiatives through multiple schools, universities, care centers, and other organizations. We have often been surprised by the degree of the difference our efforts have been able to make in people’s lives.
As the decades of data acquisition, analysis, and dissemination continue to aggregate, helping us iterate through improving our programs, we have been able to develop, arguably, the world’s most effective and measurably impactful professional training, research, and community programs using role-playing games as intervention modalities in recreation, education, and therapeutic domains.
In 2020, when COVID-19 caused the cancellation of all RPG-related conventions, as well as threatening the cancellation of the New Zealand WorldCon and the Gen Con Film Festivals, we expanded an interactive community platform we had built for The Fantasy. Network’s founder, Ben Dobyns, merged our learning platform with it to create a platform that assisted us in advancing our network to support more than 20,000 people at once in online activities, panels, presentations, discussions, and tabletop role-playing games, simultaneously in New Zealand and in Indianapolis. Over that year, with only about 50 volunteers back then, we received donations of about $18,000, with all of our annual costs being about $10,000. I remember that year we were able to help at least 30,000 people directly and exponentially many more indirectly.
We have also been growing a small fleet of wheelchair-accessible, environmentally controlled, mobile facilities, including the RPG Bus and RPG Trailers. We drive these around the country, raising awareness about accessibility in gaming and discussing many of the topics we have touched upon in this interview.
Another endeavor I’m very excited about is a pet project of mine, the Brain-Computer Interface Role-Playing Game, BCI RPG. When I was a nurse’s aide and LPN trainee at Doxie Hatch Medical Center back in the early 1990s, in addition to many terminal patients, I also had patients with Locked-In Syndrome (LIS), and Complete Locked in State (CLIS). These are people with severe injuries or degenerative disorders, like Stephen Hawking. They have full mental awareness but no control over their bodies. Some are completely trapped inside their own skulls, unable to communicate at all. This always haunted me. So, I initiated a program for them that eventually became the BCI RPG project in the mid-1990s and evolved in the early 2000s.
The BCI RPG project is now an open-source endeavor on GitHub.com. We are creating an online, multiplayer, turn-based role-playing game where you can interact with other players with just your brain using electroencephalogram (EEG) brain-computer interface technologies, combined with Artificial Intelligence, and later to include Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), and even robotics interfaces. We have a wonderful team of software developers now several years into this project, and we are excited that the initial alpha version might be playable by late 2022. People can learn more about this endeavor at www.bcirpg.com.
Also, in 2022, we are now opening up the RPG Community Center and the historical RPG Museum as further steps to improve our ability to share the benefits of role-playing games, research, and our applied RPG programs. By all working as unpaid volunteers, we keep our administrative and overhead costs to a minimum, and by providing so many free programs, these facilities, utilities, insurance, licensing, and equipment all add up to significant costs. This means, more than ever, the number of people we can provide the benefits of role-playing games to is directly related to the number of trained volunteers who join us and the donations from the public. The more donations we receive, the more people we can help! Thank you very much for helping me spread the word about these endeavors.
You’re welcome, Hawke! We appreciate you taking the time to share your incredible endeavors with us and wish you a fantastic future ahead!