The way most parents view Dungeons and Dragons has changed since the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s. Gone are thoughts of demonic artwork tempting children to join evil cults, replaced by the kids from Stranger Things playing the game and saving their small town. But now Dungeons and Dragons is being used in education, and it’s helping kids develop social and emotional skills.
“Without a doubt, D&D has been one of the most successful classes we’ve offered at LiHigh School,” says teacher Kyle Callahan. LiHigh, located in Vermont, uses a therapeutic approach to learning to help students with serious behavioral challenges. “Students love it; staff love it; and it genuinely helps the students achieve their social-emotional goals.”
In D&D, players create fictional characters to represent themselves as adventurers. Another person, known as the Game Master or Dungeon Master, creates a story where players must use imagination, creativity, and problem-solving to complete the tasks. If they overcome their obstacles and win the challenge, there are handsome rewards. If they fail, it can result in their character’s injury or death.
“I think being in an alien fantasy setting brings about a shared sense of ‘band together or die’ pretty quickly,” Brand Bogard tells Parentology. He has been playing D&D since 1982, started attending gaming conventions in 1997, and runs campaigns at Comic-Con International in San Diego (San Diego Comic-Con). “I can still remember pretty clearly going through some of the advanced first edition modules. The isolation and thrill for more treasure and gold helps push any stalwart adventurer forward.”
But to score those treasures, players quickly realize that teamwork is the best weapon in their satchel. That teamwork can bring players closer together, helping them form bonds with the person who saved them from the jaws of a hungry monster.
“[Students] develop real relationships with the players at the table, and while they can still get annoyed or frustrated with one another to the point where their disorders will sometimes come out, more often than not, they connect with and support one another, sometimes with a kind word and other times with a perfectly placed fireball,” Callahan told KQED.
This isn’t the first time D&D has been viewed for its educational value. A 2017 study from the University of Northern Iowa posited that Dungeons and Dragons helps improve literacy. Study participants felt that playing the tabletop role-playing game (TRPG) “improved at least one literacy skill and that greater depth and breadth of TRPG experience helped some participants to surmount real or perceived difficulties with reading or speaking; TRPGs also helped participants improve listening skills.”
D&D can also help kids tap into aspects of themselves they may not have realized were there. For example, a naturally shy person might find confidence by playing a boisterous knight. Even if they don’t play as a character with a personality vastly different from their own, simply participating in a story can allow a young person to deal with thoughts and feelings they have trouble approaching in real life. Working through conflicts that often involve fear, death, pain, and loss – in the safe environment provided by a table with some dice and a couple of friends – can be good practice for the real world.
“Psychological studies are clear that play is the primary means by which humans (and all other mammals) acquire the life skills they need to succeed,” says Brian Foglia, founder of South Jersey Sudbury School. “Intrinsic motivation preserves and reinforces an ideal brain state for learning, processing, and retaining information. Children naturally want to play-practice those skills which are most valuable to human adults.”
While there are no definitive studies on the impact of roleplaying games on a young person’s social-emotional skills, educators and therapy groups remain optimistic. Like a ragtag group of adventurers, they take the wins from past experiences and push forward in the hope of helping more children in the future.