A group of college honors students huddles over scribbled pieces of paper in a dorm room in the early morning hours, bleary-eyed and tired but unwilling to leave until they finish what they've started. These friends are not pulling an all-night study session. They are playing Dungeons and Dragons, and a new study suggests that their fun-and-games role playing may be helping them to manage anxiety and fears.
Education researchers Gregory E. Harrison and James P. Van Haneghan found that the highly intelligent adolescents in their study had more insomnia and fear of the unknown than other students. They also had higher levels of "intensified experiences" (also called overexcitabilities), especially intense imaginative, emotional, and intellectual experiences. The authors posit that having a more intense experience of the world may lead to certain anxieties, especially fear of the unknown. For example, having an overexcitable or intense imagination allows one "to imagine the worst possible outcomes of any situation," and it is easy to see how an overexcitable imagination combined with fear of the worst outcomes and an intense intellect could "produce anxiety about the deepest questions of life."
Even young adults with more serious forms of anxiety may benefit from therapeutic uses of fantasy games. In The American Journal of Psychotherapy, Dr. Wayne Blackman offers a case study of a 19-year-old young man with "an obsessional, schizoid personality" whose treatment included D&D as a way to tap into intense emotional experience:
[H]e had been able to experience the full range of feelings from hate to love in therapy, first displaced, then toward me, and that my tolerant, encouraging attitude allowed him to develop the sense that these emotions are permissible. This helped him to gain mastery of these feelings. It further led him to state that it gave him a sense of being "OK," and that much of this feeling of self-worth began with my first acceptance of his Dungeons and Dragons fantasies.
Blackmon explains how role playing games act as a kind of fairy tale substitute, allowing his patient to experience and learn to accept and manage dark emotions without feeling himself to be a "monster."
Parents may wonder, however, if time spent creating magical characters and rolling dice is worthwhile in today's highly competitive academic culture where after-school activities are chosen based on their usefulness on college applications. One important aspect of games such as D&D or Magic: The Gathering, especially in our hyper-connected world, is that they are, by their nature, communal, encouraging cooperation and face-to-face interaction.
Another consideration is how exercise of a naturally intense imagination constitutes a kind of practice that might eventually lead to a life's work. John Gravois interviewed several medieval scholars in a quest to discover what led them to their careers:
I had spoken to some youngish scholars who said they found their way to medieval studies via an adolescence spent playing D&D, the iconic role-playing game. I spoke to scholars at elite universities and scholars at sleepy institutions; to associate professors, adjuncts, and graduate students; to men and women. All of them had cast spells, slain goblins, and rolled the many-sided dice of Dungeons & Dragons.
D&D fan, author Sherman Alexie, who was born with hydrocephalus on the Spokane Indian Reservation, shares how the game influenced him in his formative years:
I was a little boy growing up in a dangerous world where nobody gave me a chance to make a saving roll. And yet, while playing Dungeons and Dragons, I pretended so often to have courage and strength that I learned how to display courage and strength in my real life. (Wizards of the Coast, 2004, as quoted in Harrison & Van Haneghan)
The powerful intensity of some adolescents' emotions, intellect, and imagination can be disconcerting if not frightening to parents and teachers. However, rather than shy from what they may not understand, adults can engage adolescents in conversations about game mechanics and storytelling. Harrison and Van Haneghan suggest that young people be encouraged to use rather than curb their strong imaginations as one way to build valuable emotional skills and resources for facing real life fears.
Blackmon, W. (1994). Dungeons and Dragons: The Use of a Fantasy Game in the Psychotherapeutic Treatment of a Young Adult. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 48(4), 624-632
Gravois, J. (2007). Knights of the Faculty Lounge. Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(44), A8
Harrison, G. E., & Van Haneghan, J. P. (2011). The Gifted and the Shadow of the Night: Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities and Their Correlation to Insomnia, Death Anxiety, and Fear of the Unknown. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 34(4), 669-697
Wizards of the Coast. (2004). Thirty years of adventure: A celebration of Dungeons and Dragons. Renton, WA: Author