I remember when I was a kid, and some of my friends started playing Dungeons and Dragons. We played without a care in the world (except when that effing TSUNAMI of kobolds came flooding from an unwisely opened gate...We cared then. Oh yes, we cared. And we remembered...). Where was I? Oh yes. We played at my friend's house during the summer. Then we went back to school and we just had the game on our minds. We talked about it at lunch, and at recess we tried to do quick mini adventures or we would create new characters. The group of us were misfits to begin with, and this provided us with a framework to be social. It was great.
Then one day, another kid came over and asked us what we were doing. We told him, not thinking anything of it. It was a game. It was like telling stories, but better because you did it with friends. We taught him how to make a character, told him all about the game...and then the next day we got called to the principal's office. Turns out, that kid's mom had heard about this evil game called Dungeons and Dragons, and we were busted. No more satanic games on the playground, thank you very much. No matter how we tried to explain it, the answer was, "Nope."
So, we returned to our separate lives on the playground. Me reading alone and mumbling answers to teachers' questions. Another kid getting the crap beat out of him by bullies, and two others sneaking off to smoke under the bleaches. You know, nice, social, healthy activities instead of gaming.
There's been a news story making its way around social media about a certain prison that continually renews its ban on Dungeons and Dragons since 2004, when a certain inmate's materials were confiscated because of concerns that D&D would lead to increased gang behavior in the prison. Not satanism in this case, but some sense of danger, conspiracy, blood.
Now, there have been many articles talking about the case in particular, the whys and hows and whos. You can Google it if you want to know more (I could go on about the political side of this whole thing, but I won't). But I would like to make the case for Dungeons and Dragons being a rehabilitative tool (and yes, there are the arguments about our prison system being a punitive system versus a rehabilitative system, etc) not only in prisons, but in school, group home settings, group therapy, marriage counseling, alcoholics anonymous, and many other situations where people need healing.
1. It's social. You have to have a group to have a really fun game. You could potentially have a game with 3 people, but 5 is more fun. And when you have a group, interesting things happen. You see sides of people you didn't know existed. You discover sides to yourself you didn't know existed. I've known these supremely shy people who come out of their shells when they play. I know people who seem really anti-social who become team players. I know people who seemed kind of dim who actually proved themselves to be master strategists, all in a group setting. When people are in a group, they learn how to watch out for others, how to function as a group, and on a larger scale, how to function in society. It can be a fantastic tool, especially if a therapist is encouraged to either play or be game master (but NOT do the therapy stuff during the game--keep that for the couch) or observe. D&D brings things out of people, and makes it possible to identify both problems and strengths. I believe a program could be developed quite easily to successfully help people with a wide range of issues by creating a safe environment for them to interact with others in a role playing environment. After all--so much of psychotherapy involves role playing to begin with. This goes one step further, creating avatars for issues, and quite often because they are facing a dragon instead of a bully on the playground, or addiction, or abuse, people are more apt to open up about how they feel and are more likely to come up with coping mechanisms on their own or come to terms with things that happened in their past.
2. It raises self confidence and self esteem. How often in life do we get the opportunity to do something truly great? Not that often, and sometimes even when we get the chance, we freeze and don't know what to do with it. So often people think, oh, it doesn't matter anyway. Nothing I do makes a difference. In a role playing game, everything makes a difference. Killing dragons is HARD. Not only do you need enough experience, but you have to have the right combination of attributes and luck. You partners need to work together, and you all rely on each other. When my son killed his first giant spider after trying and dying and trying again, I was genuinely awed by his sense of accomplishment. He felt REALLY good about himself. And no, the game is not real. I don't know a single person who plays who thinks it's real. But that sense of accomplishment IS real. And it will spill over into other areas of life.
3. It provides an escape. This one gets frowned upon a lot, but seriously? Escape is important. Why do many alcoholics drink? Why do bullies feel the need to fight kids on the playground? Because they have to let these feelings they have out in some way OR drown them so they can forget about them to survive. As any addict knows, addiction feeds a person. It fills the emptiness inside. When you game, either online or in person, it's fulfilling in that when you're an elf paladin, it doesn't matter if your boss yelled at you today or you had toilet paper trailing from your pants. You can escape being in foster care or in an abusive home for a couple hours. I'm not saying escape in a totally unhealthy way and lose grip on reality. I'm saying SURVIVE. People often forget or just don't realize how damned hard it can be to be a teenager, especially a troubled one. In a group home or after school program, gaming can provide an escape while at the same time bringing out the best in someone. Escape into a game to remind you that you are a good, worthwhile person. In prison, thoughts of escape aren't encouraged, but if the prisoners don't feel they have anything to live for, THAT'S when violence breaks out. Because why the hell not? What do they have to lose? But in a monitored setting, escaping to a world where you are vital to the society there can give a prisoner a sense of purpose. And yes, I have worked with prisoners before, and if you think they don't create other, less healthy means of escape, you are much mistaken. At least this, again, is social and could be therapeutic if handled properly.
4. It empowers those who feel weak. Why do bullies beat people up? Why do people tear others down? Why is social media full of judging and trolls and mansplaining? Because those people feel weak. They need some way to make themselves feel powerful. When you are playing an RPG, however, you discover the best of yourself. We can't bargain with a goblin king in real life, but we can in the game. And sometimes, our brain draws conclusions. "Oh...me trying to persuade the Goblin King to part with the magic key is sort of like me trying to get my boss to give me a raise. Maybe I CAN do this..." What if teachers ran a D&D campaign during detention instead of making the kids just stare at walls or draw on the desks? Give the kids something to focus on. Yes, they should be focused on their schoolwork, but there is more to life than school. By running a game, not only does the teacher provide them with an outlet for their aggression and feelings, but he or she can establish trust with those kids and be someone the kids can turn to when things go bad. When someone accomplishes a quest, they feel good about themselves, empowered. This encourages them to do more things in their real lives. They feel like they can make a difference, and even better that they can make a difference with other people instead of against them.
5. It encourages innovation, problem solving, team building, and thinking outside the box. In business, people are encouraged to think outside the box, to become good strategists, and work as a team. Role playing games can provide excellent practice for this. Sometimes you can't face a dragon head on. You might not have the strength or experience. But you can cooperate with a team, using the entire team's set of strengths to defeat the monster. Kids can learn how to deal with obstacles. Adults can learn to look at problems differently and from different points of view. Prisoners can learn to get along with each other, and can also build skills for when they get out of prison, for those who are able.
6. It helps to create feelings of empathy. When you role play, you have to step into someone else's shoes. You have to see the world as they see it. I have worked with my autistic son in this way, and have made progress with him as far as empathy. "YOU wouldn't do that thing, but what would a chaotic evil elf mage do? What would a lawful good paladin do?" Again, this can be a great method for therapy for kids and adults. Inmates are often deemed unfit for society. Why not let them practice being in a society when they don't have to be their stigmatized self? They could choose to be a lawful good person and save the day. Or, they could choose to be evil and face punishments within the game because of choices they made, and because it's a different context, they can see it differently, and their minds can process it differently.
Games are fun, but they can also be incredibly effective tools if looked at with an open mind. Instead of being judgemental about them, do some research and learn what the games are about. Look at the progress some people have made, by themselves, just by playing games. People have beaten addiction, overcome crippling social anxiety, and have rescued their marriages, all through gaming. Of course, like with anything, it can be used in the wrong way, and while I don't know any cases personally, I'm sure someone somewhere can point something out. But I will argue that for most cases, it is not an escape from reality--it's a method of giving people the tools to face it.
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy and science fiction stories where heroes don’t always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her work has been published in several magazines, and she was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. Melanie is also a freelance author publicist and publicity/marketing coordinator for both Ragnarok Publications and Mechanical Muse, an independent gaming company. She blogs regularly for GeekMom and The Once and Future Podcast. Her short story “A Whole-Hearted Halfling” is in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis, available now on Amazon. Follow Melanie on Facebook and on Twitter as @MelanieRMeadors.