RPG Evolution: Meet the Bodhana Group

When I interviewed Fenway Jones of Jasper's Game Day, another group was mentioned that is doing great work to bring role-playing games to the community: The Bodhana Group. I caught up with Jack Berkenstock Jr., MHS - Co-Founder and Executive Director, to learn more.

When I interviewed Fenway Jones of Jasper's Game Day, another group was mentioned that is doing great work to bring role-playing games to the community: The Bodhana Group. I caught up with Jack Berkenstock Jr., MHS - Co-Founder and Executive Director, to learn more.
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The Bodhana Group is Born​

Jack has been an avid player of role-playing games since the age of 12. He's played countless systems including D&D, Shadowrun, Marvel TSR, Call of Cthulhu, Kids on Bikes, Savage Worlds. "My first true system where I fully understood the rules and ran it was Ghostbusters from West End Games," said Jack, "a system I still play until this day at cons and for intake purposes."

The Bodhana Group was born out of necessity. The founders all worked together for years at a residential treatment facility for boys aged 10 - 21, who were there for committing sexual and/or habitual offenses (assault, stealing, drug dealing, weapons, etc.). In 2009, their parent company decided to close all of their facilities in PA. "We suddenly found ourselves laid off, with diminishing options."

One month later, a program director, three therapists, two supervisors and two direct care staff began putting together their ideas for The Bodhana Group. They began with the goal of providing training and program consultation specifically in the area of juvenile sexual offenders. That was the crux of their experience and services were slow to catch up to treating kids with these kinds of problems.

The Bodhana Group was officially incorporated as a 501c3 non-profit organization on May 4th, 2009 as a non-profit corporation in the state of Pennsylvania. They are overseen by a Board of Directors composed of experienced Human Services professionals and members of the community who champion the vision of their organization. The Bodhana Group advocates and utilizes tabletop gaming as a directed therapeutic and clinical practice that can benefit personal growth as well as enhance social and educational services to individuals and families.

But in those early days, the Group had a tough time fundraising. Start-up grants were hard to find and personal donations even harder, considering the economy at the time. Everyone was penny pinching. Human service organizations were doing more in-house training, due to budget cuts. The newly formed group was struggling.

Then they had an idea for a fundraiser: A role playing game convention. "We were all gamers, we knew people who would pay for a game marathon, it seemed within reach," said Jack. And thus Save Against Fear (SAFe) was born.


Playing it SAFe​

SAFe is the Bodhana Group's flagship annual fundraiser. It is a three-day game convention typically run during the second weekend of October in Harrisburg, PA. "We have run SAFe as we call it for the last 10 years," said Jack.

It began at a local game store called Six Feet Under Games in New Holland, PA and since then has grown from an audience of 35 people to a yearly event with over 500 attendees. "It is not just a place where we get together and game, but that is its heart," said Jack.

SAFe has grown to include professional trainings and workshops. SAFe acts not only as the Bodhana Group's primary funding event, but it also a platform where everyone can join together and share in how gaming has helped others. Last year due to the pandemic, the group ran SAFe virtually, which greatly expanded their ability to connect with people around the world. This continues to be an event that is organized and run by The Bodhana Group. Big dreams with a small-town con feel.

"We enjoy the attendance and involvement of many game industry companies and designers who attend and run sessions of their creations," said Jack. "Originally the event was named because we wanted people to Save Against their Fear to open up about sexual abuse, whether seeking help or in reporting. As our organization grew and changed, we kept this name." Information about SAFe can be found on their web site.

"At that first Save Against Fear convention, with 35 people, we started hearing stories," said Jack. Stories about how gaming had helped people. How role-playing books inspired their interest to read as a child. How the character they created in the game had traits of the character they strive to be in life. How their game group had become the most important social group they had in their life. It was inspiring. So the Bodhana Group switched gears. They had found their path: Therapeutic Tabletop Gaming.

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Therapeutic Tabletop Gaming​

"One of the biggest things that we had learned was that people were gaining therapeutic benefits and increased self-understanding through active engagement with their own struggles and issues within the game," said Jack. "We started examining our own interest in the hobby and the intentional nature of our own play, whether it was getting through our parent's divorce, the death of family, or social isolation and self-esteem. We thought: how wonderful it would be and how much more powerful could this be if we intentionally, through the guidance and oversight of a trained therapist, built therapeutics and clinical goals into the process?"

The Bodhana Group takes the massive library of games available and focuses on how to play these games with the intent of building skills, while keeping the fun factor. Traditionally, "therapeutic" games are often a bit too on point, focusing more on function over fun in their design. "The kids we worked with in residential and outpatient treatment settings were often unresponsive and didn't want to play these games," said Jack. "We began playing mainstream board games with them to help during homework help groups. They were able to pick up concepts that they had been struggling with, such as applied math and resource management, and see them applied in a game. When we tried role playing games, we had kids who had refused to speak to each other and were even violent at times, now working together to keep their story going."

That bonding continued into "real" life. They helped each other stay out of trouble so that one of them wouldn't miss out on the next game session, their friendship growing. The Bodhana Group built upon these lessons learned early in their formation by adopting the principle of starting with a firm foundation rooted in a therapeutic modality, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and then adapting the game to highlight these techniques in game design. Thus the world, the characters, the challenges and the storyline all act as vehicles for clinical intervention.

The Bodhana Group has also recently partnered with Geek Therapy to host a specialized event called TAGGS - Therapeutic and Applied Geek and Gaming Summit. This three-day event will occur over the weekend of April 9-11th, 2021. It is a professional conference style event where educators, mental health professionals and game industry people can interface and share in panels, workshops and presentations designed to showcase and discuss the various applications of not only tabletop gaming, but also, video gaming and the use of geek culture in therapy and education.

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How You Can Help​

As a non-profit, the Bodhana Group’s has two primary fundraising goals: provide services to people who need it, and seek capital funding to open a community center.

On the first goal, the Bodhana Group seeks support so they can offer groups at low- to no-cost to the participants. This has been accomplished to some degree through direct funding and grants. A business can support a group for one year for six participants for less than 6,000 dollars. The Group supports many organizations that champion gaming and mental health, mostly through mutual support and awareness. A lot of the programs they offer locally are offered pro-bono. “For example,” said Jack, “our board game social groups are run pro-bono for a local organization called The Tommy Foundation, which supports children and families who experience Autism Spectrum Disorders.”

The secondary goal seeks to open a community center where they can offer afterschool and summer programs in addition to the standard groups. The Group has an active board game library through donation of over 2,000 titles that they currently take out to various programs.

To achieve those goals, the Bodhana Group provides direct services for individuals and organizations with programs and groups utilizing tabletop board games and role-playing games. Some of these groups are private pay and some are funded through grants and community support. These sessions can focus on behavioral challenges, mental health diagnoses, or developmental concerns.

The Bodhana Group also provides professional training and consultations for individual practitioners and agencies who wish to implement game-oriented programs in their practice. These trainings are developed for Master's and higher level professionals. The training series is a three-part offering that takes participants through first the theory and basic application of the narrative games as used in therapy. They then are taken through an intense session that focuses on how to create and implement content targeted towards clinical and behavioral goals. The three-part series concludes with a workshop style format where participants design and run their own therapeutic one-shot adventurer as well as play as clients for sessions that other professionals. This allows for the professionals not only to understand how to design as practitioners but they also gain the perspective of a client to see the elements of therapy in the adventure as recipient. These sessions are currently online, but they hope to get back to in person facilitation post-pandemic.

There is also paid webinar content that focuses on added techniques, systems and advice for use of narrative role playing in their sessions as well as free webinar content for the community on the use of tabletop board games for skill building and development. These webinars feature interviews with professionals in the gaming industry as well as other professionals using games.

Finally, the Bodhana Group offers gaming programs and events to the local community such as board game social skill groups where they simply play games together with people while at the same time using these games and the experience of play to help work on social skills. "This also helps us use the Friendly Local Game Store as a resource for natural supports," said Jack. "We also have used gaming in senior facilities, youth groups and at local fundraising events."

There are opportunities for volunteering and various levels of support. One of the best ways to support a non-profit is through financial donation which helps the Group provide services and cover basic costs. This could be individual donations or a company or business can sponsor a group for one year.

We launched our Tiltify platform account so people who believe in our mission and want to help can sign on and start their own team to raise funds just by doing what we all love - gaming!” said Jack. “We accept donations of gaming materials that help us add to our growing library of resources to use in groups and our programming. Spreading the word about the work we do is also a tremendous help.”

Information about Bodhana and what they do can be found at their web site. “You can also find more information about us on their Facebook page. This page also includes images of the local events that we have run as well as updates and the occasional Bodhanaverse shoutout, where we tell you all about happenings in the world of Bodhana,” said Jack.” They are also @TheBodhanaGroup on Twitter.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

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