In my recent article, Your PCs Are Murderous Cretins, I talk about the ethics of violence in RPGs and how most PCs we see are not acting in any way we would consider moral in the real world. I made a side point that ended up generating most of the controversy, which is that how we roleplay can shape our view of the world. Not so, I am told – it’s completely separate, or cathartic, or whatever.
I find that interesting, especially since when we are talking about positive skills and attitudes, people are happy to explain the benefits that RPGs have provided them. I think many people would say that RPGs have honed their ability to navigate and exploit complex real-world rules, or GMing has made them better at public speaking or management, or they read a lot and learned a lot of history, or whatever. Many nodded in agreement and not mockery when the X-Files character said “I didn’t spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons without learning anything about courage.” Many books have been written by people talking about the character attributes that playing sports, or playing some other game like chess, imparted to them.
Of course, as soon as you bring up the possibility of imparting something negative, you get a lot of fear reactions. People don’t understand or want to deny the cognitive training aspect of RPGs. But role-playing existed long before RPGs, and what it is specifically used for is teaching new skills and behaviors! Both in formal educational and business settings and in psychotherapy settings.
There’s a huge amount of non-gaming-related literature on role-playing and how it educates both didactically (you set out specifically to teach a certain thing) and developmental (more freeform roleplay which teaches by discovery). Here, try out this Google book from the Instructional Design Library series that explains role-playing as a technique both to teach skills and attitudes.
If you for some reason cling to the unjustified belief that RPGs are different in nature than discovery-oriented roleplay (except in that people who aren’t paying attention don’t have a clearly focused end goal), try out the latest issue of the International Journal of Roleplaying that talk about this, especially “Immersion as a Prerequisite of the Didactical Potential of Role-Playing” and the part on “drift” in “Stereotypes and Individual Differences in Role-playing Games.” There are a lot of good references there which can point you to other sources that discuss this effect.
Anyway, what you have to understand is that the claim that roleplaying does not cognitively train you is plain false, and not supported by any actual research. It does.
But that’s not a bad thing! Like I said, RPGs can teach plenty of good things, skill and character trait both. We should just understand that teaching is a two-edged sword, and we might want to keep an eye on mindsets we might not want to be teaching people. The real world has a lot of other things trying to teach people that “groups that disagree with you are evil” and “don’t worry about the moral consequences of your actions” and a near infinite litany of other negative traits – consider whether you’re helping or hindering that process in your game.